Preposterous Universe

Tuesday, April 13, 2004
Secrets revealed

Will Baude, when he isn't blogging full speed over at Crescat Sententia, fills his free time by writing occasional columns for the Chicago Maroon. (He is also a University of Chicago undergraduate, but apparently that doesn't take much time out of your week.) His recent column deals with some interesting issues about privacy in an academic setting. But the really interesting question is asked right at the beginning: How much do professors talk about their students?

The inverse question is also interesting: How much do students talk about their professors? My best answer would be, more than they (the professors) suspect, but less than they would like. You would think that professors would know the answer perfectly well, since they were presumably students themselves at one point. But anyone who has ever actually taken a class can attest that professors tend to completely forget what it's like to be a student.

So what about the professors talking about students? It's probably the same answer: more than they suspect, less than they would like. Professors talk about students all the time, to be honest. Very often it's quite abstract: the new incoming class looks pretty good, kids today don't work as hard as we did, etc. But individuals certainly do get talked about. (Hope I don't get kicked out of the union for revealing this. If we had a union.) And here's another secret revealed: some students are more interesting than others, and they get talked about more. The anti-titillating news is that the talk is almost exclusively drily academic: that student is struggling, this one is amazing, the other one really should switch to another field. Except, of course, for the tremendous amount of griping that goes on about students who are somehow difficult (usually because they are complaining about grades). But very little, in my experience, about students' personal lives, unless some disaster is causing them trouble in school. Most professors have enough trouble managing their own personal lives (low-key though they may be) that there's little thought of delving into those of the students. Unless I'm just excluded from those conversations.

As an advisor of both graduate and undergraduate students, I suspect that they don't always appreciate how much their advisors worry about giving them proper guidance. Or, conversely, how much pride they take when the students do well. (I know that my own students read this, but I think I can tell the truth without getting in trouble here.) This pride is largely undeserved; if a really talented student chooses to work with me and I don't completely screw them up, they will do well just as if they had had some other advisor. But that won't stop me from feeling somehow responsible for their success.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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