#599: It’s awkward when I run into my former students. How can I get better at these interactions?

Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall with text "Professor McBadass"

There is more to teaching and life than having a good small-talk game.

Dear Captain Awkward,

This question is not so much about a single major situation or a crisis as it is about a recurring, if minor, situation that I encounter again and again. I am a graduate student at a medium-sized research university where graduate students do a lot of teaching. As a result, I encounter former students on campus on a very regular basis. I hope very much to keep teaching college students long-term, though who knows what my future holds.

The problem I have is this. My classes are often fairly popular with students, in part because my teaching persona is very warm and approachable, and in the classroom, I am good at not taking myself too seriously and putting other people (i.e. students) at ease. In real life I am none of those things: I am awkward, introverted, and ill-at-ease with social acquaintances, and I overread Every. Damn. Detail. of routine social interactions. I often feel that students who run into me in public social settings (at coffee shops, libraries, etc.) are surprised by what they perceive as a change in my affect, and that–put bluntly–I make them feel uncomfortable when they greet me after our class is over. I hate that. I feel I talk too long, or not long enough, or that I greet them when they’d rather avoid me, or that I avoid them when they’d rather greet me.

I should say that, while many college instructors resist or resent outside encounters with students, I don’t feel that way at all. I enjoy keeping up with former students. Even more importantly, I think that students at my large, cold, competitive institution need as many one-on-one adult contacts as they can get, and that it’s important for them to feel like they are part of a supportive social network made up of people of many different ages. I think that having good, positive, low-key, supportive encounters–not with every single student, but with students who actually want to say “hi” or catch up briefly in passing–is an important part of my job. But I’m not good at it.

I’m asking you because I know you are a college professor, and I imagine that–like me–you have a lot of students who would like to keep in touch, or who check in when you pass them in the hallway. Any advice on how to make these encounters productive, or at least comfortable?

Wants to Be That Supportive Former Teacher

Giles and Buffy from the Band Candy episode. He's smoking and dressed ridiculously.

Librarian by day, dorkus malorkus by night.

Thanks for this letter. You’re describing a situation that comes up in my life a lot, and it’s also something I deal with without necessarily thinking about it. Metacognition time!

In and around class, there is a structure and a hierarchy that governs interactions between students and instructors. One aspect of it is that the instructor will have an open door policy (literally, with office hours), and the instructors will often set explicit rules around how and when communication should happen (email only, texts are fine until 9pm but not on weekends, etc.) This is important to keep in mind: Different institutions and different disciplines will have different cultures and vastly different expectations about how “friendly” and/or accessible professors are supposed to be and how much they are expected to interact with students. At a certain kind of small school the expectation might be that students have your home number and that you’ll take calls anytime. In another place “come to office hours or make an appointment, otherwise, work it out yourself” might be the expectation. I’m sure it would not surprise you that expectations are heavily skewed by gender, race, and age and that double-standards prevail in deciding who is “a gruff but beloved eccentric” or “focused and professional” vs. “Unavailable and uncaring.”

After the class is over, a lot of the bones of the professor-student relationship structure stay in place. For instance, former students will sometimes drop by current office hours or run into me on campus and want to catch up, or speed-pitch an idea, or ask a question about navigating the institution, and that’s mostly great. I like knowing about what films they are making now and bragging on their successes, I don’t mind writing recommendation letters at all, and I like feeling part of a friendly community that goes on after the class is over. Since filmmaking is collaborative, I often see former students again and again as my fellow crew members on shoots.  I’ve had to set boundaries about not reading screenplays not written in my class because if I said yes I would literally never do anything else, and that’s been met with disappointment but understanding. The culture of my institution is very informal. Students call us by first names, everyone dresses very casually, and aside from some obvious age differences, a stranger coming into a classroom could be forgiven for not knowing which person is the instructor. At another institution, as a young female instructor I might take pains to dress more formally and behave more formally while I learned the lay of the land, but for now it’s not even a noticeable leap to code switch from instructor role to regular person role.

Outside of on-campus interactions, social media is where I have the most interactions with former students. Lots of schools have policies about how this is supposed to work, mine doesn’t have one that covers part-time instructors, so this is my own policy: I don’t friend-request former students, period. I only accept requests from students after graduation or in some cases after they’ve completed the portion of the curriculum I teach in, so we know for sure that I won’t be their teacher again. I do it with the caveat that Facebook, etc. is my personal space for my personal interactions, views, politics, etc.; I’m not representing the school, and we’re all just humans here. And, where it gets a little weird, I only accept requests from students that I personally like* and want to be in touch with after the class. It has to be mutually voluntary, or else it’s a no-go. Over time, we find a flow that feels right. Depending on how the algorithm is feeling today, we might never actually interact there. Or, if we do, I might comment on their latest films and film-related stuff they share, congratulate them on big life events, and send internship and job postings or interesting film-related links the way I would with anyone I know from a professional context, but I leave their day-to-day social stuff mostly alone. I completely ignore posts about religion, politics, sex, drugs, drinking, etc. or anything where a comment from me might get contentious or sound parental, and I try to watch my snark factor. We’re in this age where online identities are hybrid and we’re using a single platform like Facebook or Twitter to interact with people we know from many contexts, and I think it’s a good idea sometimes to ask whether you are the intended audience for a given post before diving in.

As for the rest of it, remember when you were a kid and you ran into your teachers in a context outside of school and it was the weirdest thing? Teachers don’t….sleep at the school? They go to concerts and buy groceries? Two of my high school teachers fell in love and got married while I was a student there, and now I try to imagine them dating in our tiny town and my heart goes out to them for all the times they must have run into students when out together but before their relationship was public.”Please open your books to page 150” (THEY KNOW) “And let’s do the first 5 problems as a speed-quiz right now. You have 15 minutes.” (THEY DEFINITELY KNOW)

When your students run into you outside of class, one reason it might feel awkward is they are very likely doing a swift mental recalculation, trying to place you in context, and you are doing the same to them. “Whoa, who is that? That’s…okay…um, hi! I see you also…eat…breakfast?” You’re neither of you in the modes you usually wear to communicate with one another, and it takes a second for brain and mouth to sync up. I think that might generate a lot of the anxiety and awkwardness you feel, but I think it’s happening just as much to the student in those interactions.

Awkward Story Time: Once I was all dressed up to go to a friend’s drag show, wearing lot of makeup and a halter top that a friend had screen-printed for me that said “Classy Earl’s House of Class and Tits” (you could also see a bit more of the actual tits than would normally be on display), in the company of several drag performers who were also dressed to the nines. On the same train was one of my former students, his parents, and his grandparents, in town for Parent’s Weekend. He spotted me and his face lit up and he started moving toward me to introduce me to his folks. It turns out that it is hard to shake someone’s hand while crossing your arms over your chest, but it can be done.

Awkward Story Time: Once I was on the eL at 2 am and I ran into a former student. After exchanging hellos we had one of the most awkward and stilted conversations in recorded history, because once we acknowledged each other it’s like we had sealed our fate and had to talk but didn’t really have anything to talk about. After a few minutes I said “It’s really nice to see you, but I’m tired and having a hard time thinking of stuff to say” and he laughed and said “Meeeeee toooooo” and then we sat in silence and I pulled out a book and he did too and this is why you should always carry a book.

Awkward Story Time: Once right after I got done teaching a class I went to lunch at a place next door and basically the whole class had gone to lunch together at that place, too, and it was like, “do I leave oh no they’ve spotted me now we have to talk” and they were like “Hi Jennifer!” and I said “Hello!” and then I think I paused a bit too long before automatically leaving so one of them said “Well, this is awkward” and I said “Yes, for me too” and then I remembered an urgent errand that I had to run at the Trader Joe’s across the street. I’m sure they laughed as soon as I was out of earshot, but I also laughed all the way to the grocery store. What was that, even?

Awkward Story Time: In production classes, once we’re well into shooting, I sometimes give out my cell phone number so that students can text me from location if they run into an emergency on set. Once a student sent me a 2 a.m. text offering to do some things. Private things. Described with a level of detail one would expect from a talented writer and visual artist. I wrote back “Hi (studentname), thanks but no. Maybe recheck the # you were sending to?” 10 horrible minutes later I got a text that said “wrong jennifer” and another one that said “sorry” (which I imagine happening in the smallest and most pitiful possible voice) and when I saw him in class the following week he wore his hoodie basically like this:

A still image from the show Arrow, where the character is shooting an arrow and has a hood pulled to hide his face.

I obviously did not mention it and by the end of the semester his hoodie was more like this:

Arrow in a slightly less covered-up hood

See? It can always get awkwarder. So let’s talk about the interactions you are having and most likely to have, and see if we can’t generate some scripts.

If you’re in the library working, or in a cafe, and you spot former students, let them be the ones to approach you. If they do not, but they do see you, it’s more than okay to just smile/nod/wave/acknowledge them somehow and then go back to your work or your meal or whatever. The most likely scenario is that they respect and understand that you’re busy and just want to get on with their own stuff. If you feel like it, swing by their table for a brief hello if you get up for a bathroom break or on your way out. This can literally be “Hi, nice to see you” as you walk by. If they do approach you, have a short conversation. You can ask them how they are doing. If you like, you can tell them briefly what you’re working on and how you are doing. It’s good sometimes to reset the expectations a bit, like, when we were in class we focused 100% on your work, but I also have my own work that is important to me the way yours is important to you.

At some point, you should take steps to end the conversation. I think this is one of the sources of awkwardness that is present. You still have an aura of authority about you left over from being their teacher, so some students will want some sort of permission from you to disengage, because they are worried about being rude to you and they don’t know how to end the conversation either. Other students will treat all interactions with you like extended Office Hours, where the Starbucks line or the library or the subway ride is a chance for them to ask you questions and discuss their work and their lives, without recognition that you might have your own reasons for being there and your own stuff to do. In both cases, you saying “Well, it’s nice catching up with you, but I do have to get back to my stuff. Good luck with (whatever)!” before YOU start feeling awkward and uncomfortable is a kindness, to them and to yourself. Undergraduate students are also learning how to adult at the same time they are learning about everything else, so cut them and yourself some slack. They might do awkward stuff, you might have to actively model a constructive way of interacting. You do actually know how to do this, because you do it when you’re in professor mode, so don’t let the idea that you are “naturally” geeky or introverted stop you.

If you get the vibe that a former student really had more to say or needed some more TLC than you could afford during whatever random sighting you had, you can always follow up by email: “Hello, I was very glad to run into you in the library the other day. If you’d like to continue our conversation, my office hours this semester are (schedule). Please stop by whenever you like, or make an appointment, I’d like to hear more about/ tackle your questions about/take a look at your thesis/walk you through the next slate of classes in the program when I can give you my full attention.” That’s an actually supportive and caring way to respond, and probably more useful in the end than trying to do serious listening or advising when you’re distracted with your life, but it also has some professional boundaries around it. If they never stop by, then it probably wasn’t that urgent, but they’ll still appreciate that you cared.

Moral of all the Awkward Stories: Students are people. Teachers are people. People are awkward. You and your students can survive momentary passing awkwardness when you meet in public. You can be your introverted self, with a slightly more professional filter than you might use with peers or friends, and let go of the mantle of being the most supportive and inspiring and friendly teacher ever. If you make the interactions as comfortable as possible for you, these other humans will mostly get it and it will work out just fine, and if it doesn’t, one awkward encounter hopefully won’t undo all your good work. The class is over. The evals are in. Mostly your former students probably don’t think about you that much, and if they do you’ll probably never know about it. To be a teacher is to sow a lot of crops and never really know how or if they grew or what pieces of the class they retained.

Tom Cruise in sunglasses giving double finger-guns

Bonus Awkward Story Time: A friend of a friend did tech support in a fancy hotel with a lot of celebrity guests, and when at that job he had to help Tom Cruise connect to the internet, print some stuff off – a few minor things from time to time. Tom Cruise, as you may have guessed, is pretty intense. He makes deep eye contact and holds it and gives a firm handshake and uses your name a lot. The tech support guy was quick to say that he’s really nice, but that the niceness was so aggressive that it was a bit creepy, like you’re attending a one-man Tom Cruise show and you are the only audience member and you can’t leave because the Wi-Fi isn’t connecting and Tom Cruise is holding you prisoner in the tractor-beam of his gaze because he wants to make this moment PERFECT and MEMORABLE and everyone is feeling the strain of that. I’ve met Cruise, once long ago at a premiere in Prague (they were shooting Mission Impossible near my dorms when Interview With A Vampire came out, so he came to the premiere), and this bears out. He was really friendly to this awkward expat college student, but I think my hand is still a little mangled from the handshake and my soul still has a few spots missing from where his eyes scraped it when they looked into mine.

That is to say, Letter Writer, when you run into your former students you have a heightened sense of being visible and wanting very much to live up to a role. So does Tom Cruise. People will notice what he does, and they will talk about it amongst themselves (like we are doing now), so it’s not wrong or weird at all that he would be conscious of how he comes across or that he tries hard to be nice. But he should probably relax, like, a lot, because he will weird people out if he turns basic interactions into a show. He’s thinking way too much about himself and trying to hit his marks, to the point that he’s ignoring other people’s and probably his own comfort level in an attempt to give them what he thinks they want. This is a recipe for awkwardness anywhere; see also “the person who is trying to be the perfect date.” So, learn from this cautionary tale. It’s a good idea to be conscious of professional behavior when you run into students in other contexts, but It is okay and in fact preferable if you do not put on a “professor show” when you do. Look after your own comfort level in interactions. If you are a supportive teacher, they already know. If something misfires, it’s a big school, and there are other people who can also answer their questions and guide them through their education. Teachers don’t sleep at the school, and the students have to learn that sometime.

________________

*This is mostly a non-issue, but not everyone is destined to be friends. Every now and then there is a student who follows me into the bathroom on class breaks to ask questions, and when I say “Can we talk about this later? I am busy right now” says “I don’t mind!” and keeps going, and when I say “Ok but I mind” and they say “Sorry” but keep talking anyway, graaaaaaaaaah! And then afterward I say gently “I want to answer your questions, but not in the bathroom” but then a few weeks later they do it AGAIN. It’s not even about not liking them necessarily, it’s just, hey, our interaction styles are really incompatible in a way that makes it a bad idea to have an ongoing, personal relationship.

104 comments
  1. sara said:

    I feel ya. Especially awkward when I don’t remember the name (or even where I know the person from!)…I have a terrible memory for faces/names, and have had literally hundreds of students over the years of being a grad student, so…unless you were someone who really stood out (for good or bad reasons), I’m probably going to suck at remembering you without a few clues!

    Once I get past that hurdle, I have a few questions sort of pre-prepared so I’m not searching for what to say. Neutral stuff like: What classes are you taking this semester? When do you graduate? How was your summer/break and/or what are you planning for this summer/break (depending on the time of year)? That basically fills up all the amount of time you need fill, and then you can move on. 🙂

    I don’t approach students unless it’s someone I know I had a good connection with and I feel pretty confident they will want to chat. Otherwise, I let the student choose to approach or not.

    • JenniferP said:

      We remember the really friendly ones, the amazingly talented ones, the nice ones, the ones who struggled a lot, and the ones who chased us to different floors of the building so that we could poop in silence. As time passes, the rest fade behind a smoky haze of vague benign feelings. “Hello…you”

      • ZerKo said:

        How do you feel about talking again to those who struggled a lot? I kinda… shame-hide from my teachers even if they thought I was smart, cuz I tend to flatline towards the end.

        signed,
        the one who struggles a lot

        • JenniferP said:

          I am usually happy to run into them and pretty aware that they might feel awkward about seeing me. Struggling in a college course or two is pretty normal and not shameful to me, and people are not their grades. Sometimes people who fail the class with me take it again with me because I’m the devil they know, and that can be a little weird, or they can fail the class with me and then ask me for a recommendation letter and I have to say I’m not the best person for that. I honestly don’t remember people’s grades 2 weeks after I submit the final ones, so the “remembering the struggling students” is more “Hey, you, I hope you are doing better now!”

          • Emma said:

            I once had a tutor who taught two courses; the first one was in my first year, my class were complete arses to him, and I also failed the course. Then I was put in his class again, for a different course, in second year. I had massively improved my study skills by then and wasn’t worried about failing, but…

            First day of the new course. “Hi, I’m Emma”
            “Huh, I recognise you. Have I taught you before?”
            “Yeah… legal history, last year.”
            “Oh yeah. How did you do?”
            “Um, I failed. But I retook it this year and got 90%!”
            “Oh, well done. But did I teach you this year as well?”
            “…”

            The dots are because I had a different tutor second time round, not because I’d have been upset if he had taught me again and then forgotten me. I have to admit, out of that situation, the *tutor* feeling awkward was the last thing I expected. My failing wasn’t his fault in the slightest…

      • Pam Adams said:

        Sometimes, when I hear a name at Commencement, a whole chain of ‘oh, yeah, THAT one starts in my head.

    • Marvel said:

      I think not approaching students unless you know you had a good rapport with them is a good idea, honestly. I had one art professor who really, REALLY liked me, but I just did not feel the same way–she was really smart and I learned a lot from her, but her class was often organized (or, more accurately… not organized) in a way I found very stressful and anxiety-inducing, and she did things like specifically ask for student feedback and then argue with them about every single point or tell them their feedback wasn’t specific enough (even when it was phrased as “I think if you organized page X in way Y there would be a lot less confusion”–how much more specific can you get?). She also told me one of my paintings was “awful,” even when I specified that it was barely started and I was really just trying to get the palette down, which tore into my confidence for weeks. Gee, thanks for the constructive feedback there, Professor. I will try to make it less awful.

      Luckily, her class was only 8 weeks, but I can’t walk past her in a hallway now without her stopping me for a conversation I don’t want to have. During the course of which she usually asks me why I haven’t signed up for any more of her classes. I keep being tempted to answer, “Because you keep asking me that question!”

      So, yes. That was only tangentially related to what you said but I feel like leaving former students alone is a good idea in a lot of cases.

      • JenniferP said:

        Sometimes the end of the semester is a relief to all parties, and it’s okay to let it be that thing.

        • Marvel said:

          Very true. Also, eek, I just realized I went off into a tangent about bad professors in a thread that’s supposed to be about supporting professors who feel awkward. Apologies, LW! You sound like an awesome professor.

          • JenniferP said:

            No, your comment was very valuable as info to the Letter Writer and me! Because for some former students, I am probably that person, and that’s just a fact of life. You can be the best teacher you can be and still not connect deeply or meaningfully with every student, and it’s not a good idea to create that as a standard for yourself or be personally offended if someone doesn’t strongly dig you. I go in with the attitude that I will probably like every student, but I don’t have to like every student for them to learn and they don’t have to like me in order to learn. Sometimes I find out that people I thought hated the class loved the class, or I read very critical comments on teacher evals and wonder “Who? Who are you, mysterious hater? You hid so well!”

          • Marvel said:

            That’s a good point. Also, for what it’s worth, the professor I disliked is very well known and well regarded among art students and professors alike. I’m not the only person who got rubbed the wrong way, but I’m not the majority, either!

          • Elizabeth said:

            “Who? Who are you, mysterious hater? You hid so well!”

            Or sometimes, they actually liked you just fine, but think that the purpose of evaluations is to tell you how the class could be better. So they tell you, and it hurts. But once you’ve had some time to process that hurt, it’s worth thinking about whether you actually want to change anything in response to the comment.

          • JenniferP said:

            This is very true! Though when referring to “hater” I meant actually mean personal comments that aren’t about the teaching or content of the class at all. It’s madness to take student evaluations personally, but that doesn’t mean comments on your hair or clothes or body or speaking voice don’t sting and aren’t super weird to read.

          • Painted_lady said:

            My best friend is a college professor, and she has two modes of communication: snark and sarcasm. It’s why I love her, but she is definitely one of those people who occasionally has to clarify when she means something in earnest. Her first semester of evals came in, and she had several requests for her to tone down the snark (to clarify, she rarely aims it at people; she is incredibly kind). She, being a recent hire, freaked out because she was sure she was going to be fired. Her department chair, fortunately, calmed her down by saying not everyone would appreciate her humor, and that was 100% okay! because she would never have been hired if the committee had thought sarcasm was a dealbreaker.

    • so … unless you were someone who really stood out (for good or bad reasons), I’m probably going to suck at remembering you without a few clues!

      I’m not great with names and terrible with faces. It makes for awkward interactions when the person recognizes me and I’m stuck. But it’s also made me less awkward when I recognize a person who might not recognize me. Words: “Hi, you might not remember me, but I’m cinderkeys and we met at X.” Demeanor: Cheerful, I don’t think there’s something wrong with you if you don’t remember me, I’m not offended or taking a self-esteem hit if you don’t remember me.

      Unless you dated this person for six months or something, they’re the one being awkward by making it awkward. 🙂

      • daffodil said:

        I use this strategy too, but for the opposite reason. I have an unusually good memory for people and events, and I regularly remember small interactions years ago that I do not expect the other party to remember. It’s getting less pronounced as I age for the usual reasons, so now I find myself also doing a fair bit of “We met a while ago at (event) but I can’t recall your name. I’m daffodil.”

  2. Marvel said:

    Your stories here are comedy gold, Captain.

    Also, it’s nice to know that professors feel just as awkward about randomly running into students as we do in the opposite situation, honestly! I normally feel very comfortable around professors, but something about randomly seeing them out and about living, like, REAL LIFE is momentarily mind-breaking.

  3. it can even get more awkward when the students in question are former high school students who you run into randomly at a bar because they were in high school YEARS ago. it can be awkward for both parties involved.

    • Drew said:

      Several years after I quit teaching, I was coming back from a work trip and ran into several former students at the airport where they were going to college and I was working my new job. I was getting ready to hail a taxi, so they offered me a ride home. Awkwardiest ride ever. They were (and, I’m sure, are) nice people, all of them, but we realized about a mile into the five-mile ride that whatever we had in common had evaporated once they graduated and I moved on.

      Don’t know what I would done if they’d suggested grabbing a beer on the way home.

    • Shivani said:

      Or while the students are still at high school. I still feel guiltily amused by the memory of a group of my (mostly but not entirely) underaged friends accidentally crashing the teachers’ Christmas party at a local bar. They were sports about it but that had to have been awkward.

      • Laughing Giraffe said:

        I once walked into a bar and spotted a student I knew to be underage flirting with a bartender. I mentally rifled through my options and went with “go to a different bar”. The prospective awkwardness of saying, “Aren’t you seventeen?” if she decided to come over and say hi was not worth dealing with, and she didn’t look dangerously drunk, so I peaced.

    • Blue Meeple said:

      I once ran into a former student teacher (er, he was a student teacher when I was a high school student) at THE DOCTOR’S OFFICE. Talk about awkward, I mean, there is no “nod and keep walking” in the waiting room. He recognized me, but I am one of those people who everybody remembers (seriously, teachers I never took classes from know who I am, people I haven’t seen since elementary school recognize me, folk singers remember me from concerts I went to 20 years ago, wtf, it’s ridiculous). I didn’t recognize him until he told me who he was. Then I had to sit there and talk to this man who I’d had a huge crush on in 10th grade.

      • This sounds like one of those stories that ends up with you getting married. 😀 Awkward!

        • Blue Meeple said:

          Unfortunately for me, he was already married 😛

      • Most of my family are teachers. I am not, so I get to hear many stories when they talk shop. Most awkward one: Male Relative went to a specialist for a Condition. Treatment consisted of an injection in the derriere. The nurse came in with the syringe on a little tray and asked him to drop trou and lean across the examination table. She proceeded to jab him but the amount of liquid in the syringe was on the largish side, so he kind of grunted a little. She said, “I had you for [unpopular class], you know.”

  4. Outragesaur said:

    LW, as always, the Captain’s advice is golden. And also you are not alone with this recurring snafu, if that helps at all.

    Also: how do I gif upon this? And I know this feel so well.

    It took me a long time to get used to the weird transitions, but this is one of the most comforting things I have ever read in terms of my own (SURPRISE!) awkwardness in this and many other now frequent situations. This iceberg has always brought me a great deal of comfort*:
    http://adultingblog.com/post/45731153496

    *there is a pun waiting here. I am avoiding it.

    • JenniferP said:

      I love Adulting and the Iceberg of You!

      • Outragesaur said:

        Not gonna lie, many a time the Iceberg of You has enabled me to carry on functioning with only minor under breath comments to self while walking away from intensely awkward interactions. I show it to people. It explains so much in life. I feel like after seeing it I moved from caring with my whole being what impression I gave off to giving less than (approximately) 2 shits, which seems a healthier amount of concern. It’s still a poo, but at the end of the day, it is much less poo. Combined with great advice that other people just don’t care as much as I do and have already forgotten about interactions 2 minutes later… well, I’m just damn near invincible now. Give it ten years and I’ll be Stella Gibson.

        TL;DR Iceberg of You is *everything*.

    • Outragesaur said:

      p.s. I often fall back on the smile and wave from more than 15ft away so we both acknowledge each other and don’t need to talk unless someone really wants to say hi. It’s just enough “I remember you!” for both parties to feel good not having a conversation (key part is a laughing smile with the wave). It satisfies the requirements that interaction would fulfill, imo.

  5. WRONG JENNIFER. OH MY GOD.

    • It’s ALWAYS the wrong Jennifer.

      • JenniferP said:

        Actually, I’m sure the right Jennifer was very happy to have a dude who was into her that much and willing to show it. 🙂

  6. ona555 said:

    Oh god the text guy *dies a little*

    I once sent my nekkid pregnancy pictures to every. single. person. in my address book. Probably do not internet at other people when sleepy, drunk, or otherwise incapacitated is the life lesson here, but if you must internet, internet very, very carefully.

    • JenniferP said:

      Oh buddy! I am dying to know what kind of responses you got.

      • ona555 said:

        Mostly radio silence, actually, which was sort of a relief. My SIL, when Spouse called her at my behest to say “accidental send, please delete!” laughed her face off and said she’d already opened the attachments and thought they were a little forward but also lovely. Which, I’d only met her once in person at that point, so hello my ginormous boobs are glad to make your acquaintance was pretty mortifying. My super modesty oriented, conservative and religious mom was all, “Well I don’t think I’ll be printing one of these for Grandma but she’d love to see your belly so maybe can you send another with clothes on?”

        Thank freaking dearly departed Maude it was a new account, so mostly the people in my contacts were either family or friends I’d known forever.

    • AnonymousForThis said:

      Ohh I can relate. I once accidentally showed naked pictures of a partner to a class I was teaching (thanks, Windows, for automatically opening up the last folder viewed when you click “Open File” in Office!). They were only up for a split-second before I caught it, but long enough the class started tittering (pun intended). I nearly died, it was all I could do to keep from running out of the room and never returning. But somehow I managed to pull myself together, teach the rest of the class, and maintain some semblance of dignity. It was my first semester as a TA and I was terrified the students would go to the department or grad school, or mention it on my evals, but not a word was said and I actually got really good evals that year. Whew!

    • Cactus said:

      My fiancé was an early-adopter of gmail, so his address is just his first name (which is more commonly a last name). He often gets e-mails from strangers that were intended for someone else. Yesterday it was three naked photos of a woman who we…don’t know, at all. She is probably feeling embarrassed now.

  7. Mary said:

    When I was doing my masters, my best friend was lodging with the lecturer who was also convening my masters course and running both of the seminars I took each week. So we’d see each other in the seminar twice a week, and then I’d also turn up in his kitchen talking to his wife and daughters and cooking with my friend. I felt like he probably hated me!

  8. Nettle said:

    I volunteer with a couple of different groups, including a student disciplinary group where I see 5-10 new people each week, and another where I interact with THE PUBLIC as a whole.

    I tend to let people who recognize me say hi first, since I often can’t place where I know them from, and the disciplinary one is confidential.

    I also have the kind of face/demeanor/something that makes strangers ask me for directions or to take their pictures, and generally I like being approachable. It does make for some awkward conversations, since I work on campus sometimes students I’ve seen will approach me and say, “Hey! Where do I know you from?” I don’t want to respond, “Remember when you did the thing that you are totally ashamed of and got caught at it?”, especially if they’re with other people. Luckily, I’ve found ways around it!

  9. Jane said:

    Just. . . general commiseration on how awkward navigating this stuff can be, LW.

    Examples. . . I have never been totally clear on my relationship to my adviser. She is, yes, my adviser. But also when I first moved to my current location (different country), she asked me to babysit her kids a couple times, and she set me up on a friend date with her au pair.(because we are. . . both English-speaking and lonely, I guess?) And also she is a professor and a dean and I sent her a Christmas card one year but then not the next two years because I was sort of exhausted and in a personal crisis, and since she got the deanship she’s been very busy so I haven’t emailed her because I didn’t want to bother her but I think also this comes off as standoffish and rude —

    — and really I feel very awkward about everything ever, is what I’m saying.

    Of course in my situation there is the added “OH GOD WHAT DO I EVEN DO ABOUT THAT”-ness of her sort of coordinating my short period of medical leave last year after a breakdown, and then every time after that me feeling like I need to say “YES I AM FINE AND VERY FUNCTIONAL, THANK YOU” and not really feeling like I can interact with her on any kind of equal level now because of that. (And also I am still friends with her au pair and I have no idea what she knows about my personal life???)

    LW, maybe this isn’t a problem you’ve run across, but I can definitely imagine a situation where it may be useful to acknowledge to former students that you know that the world of higher education is a weird, stressful, artificial pressure cooker, and that it does not always bring out the best in all of us. Something to the effect of, “Yeah, university/college can be a weird time socially and emotionally, so I try to look at each semester as a fresh start/each old semester as a finished chapter” might help some students who were afloat in the miseries of failing Physics I or their first breakup or whatever is relevant at your university to feel less like you still have all their fuckups written down in your gradebook.

    Personally, I am a big fan of the brief nod, hello, and oh look I have to be in Vladivostok at three-twenty so sorry I can’t stop to chat. Sadly there are very few, if any, of my professors who I do not feel a profound sense of guilt/anxiety toward, and chatting with most of them at this point just reminds me of the specific way I fucked up in their course (I messed up the calculations for my final project! I asked for an extension even though I shouldn’t have needed one! I emailed my final presentation in thirty minutes late! I didn’t finish all the required reading!)

    I’m not saying you can’t be friends with your former students, of course! Just. . . don’t be too worried about the ones who you don’t connect with afterward, because there are a whole bunch of knotty, painful, personal reasons why a student might not feel able to face a former instructor that have nothing to do with how approachable or kindly or skillful that instructor is, either professionally or personally.

  10. DameB said:

    When I was in college I had a professor, Dr. M., who was *really important to me*. We never had a deeper personal relationship outside of class, but a lot of what I learned about how to learn I learned from him. I have a minor in Chinese History because I took ALL his classes, even though I didn’t particularly care about Chinese History. And as a parting thing at the end of every class, he would instruct us that, about the time we “figure out what a good education meant to us” that we should write to him.

    I hit 40 last summer and that kept coming up in my mind so I wrote him a note. (Had to stalk him for two weeks on the internet to FIND him but i did). It wasn’t sappy but I did try to convey how much I valued what he’d taught me. He wrote back a lovely letter about how he did in fact remember me and what he’s doing and he’s glad to hear I am well and all that….

    And then I was like, “Do I write him back? Would that oblige him to write me back? And then do I write back to that?” It was the email equivalent of when to stop having a conversation at a coffeeshop. I decided to just let it be a one-time thing, but still wonder if he wishes I’d written back to him.

    • Gloria said:

      UGH. YES. I contacted one of my profs after five years and invited him to lunch, saying I wanted to thank him for talking to me outside of class about my future, etc. He was a rad prof and I liked him a lot.

      He thought I was asking him to recommend me for grad school, and I had to like, explain what was supposed to be a nice gesture. Oh man, so awkward. (I did buy him a beer, which, relief … I already felt like I was imposing on him!)

      He ended up spending an hour advising me about how to navigate this weird grey time when I’m trying to figure out my life and what I really want … this went into stuff like finding a partner and whether to have babies, etc.

      He told me I should follow up and let him know how it’s going. That was in November and I still haven’t followed up because WHAT DO I SAY?

      • JenniferP said:

        Send a postcard (limited text space) with “I know it’s been a while, but I wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed our lunch.” + a brief update on one thing you talked about. More here. Professors are busy as fuck, and he’s not thinking about it.

        • Gloria said:

          Oh, thanks! I know you all are pretty busy, which makes me hesitate. I’ll give this a go. I appreciate you answering 🙂

  11. “Wrong Jennifer.”

    Oh dear Maude, I am so glad I didn’t have any of my professors’ cell phone numbers in college!

  12. This makes me glad that at my elite medical school, the med students perceive us faculty as the hired help. So when we see them outside class, there is no awkwardness.

  13. roramich said:

    Professor here, and I can SO relate to the situation! I teach at a medium size university in a small town and lots of the students have jobs around town… at the limited number of eating establishments that exist in a small town… when your cosmo is being served by the student who just failed, well… that’s pretty awkward. actually, it’s awkward even if they earned an A, especially since I also have trouble remembering names, even from quarter to quarter because there ARE.SO.MANY! And the final awkwardness? The university gym. In fact, the locker room and shower. Yes, I have had the distinct awkwardness of showering with a former student. We both avoided eye contact and got the hell out of there as fast as possible, but I suspect that was super duper awkward for them. So, I try to scope out the shower before heading on in, and do what I can to minimize my exposure, but it’s just bound to happen eventually. I do many of the things the captain mentioned–it’s similar to how I handle it when I see my therapist in public (did I mention small town?)–smile, wave, keep moving.
    Hang in there LW! You sound like a person who really cares about making things better for students and yourself, and I think that makes you awesome.

    • Ahh, the small town. I did grad school in one of those.
      I was out one summer evening getting my drink on with fellow grad students at probably the diviest establishment in town. As I walked up to the sidewalk after last call, I heard “PROFESSOR NEUROTURTLE!!!” and felt a *thunk* as this kid basically hug-bombed me. (I was feeling really awkward about being tipsy until I saw how unlikely he was to remember this evening.) His friends left him and we had to take him home.

      The next day was great, though, because I was teaching Drugs and Behavior and that lesson was on alcohol metabolism and hangovers. And he was there! In sunglasses and a hoodie, but he was there.

      I guess the tl;dr for the LW would be… Yes, many students feel awkward too. The fact that you are trying at all to keep up with students in this large faceless institution is laudable. They will remember that you cared much more than they will remember a too-long pause in conversation.

    • miss_chevious said:

      Oh GOD, the horror of the shared faculty-student locker room. It took exactly ONE naked conversation about the Rule Against Perpetuities with my law school Property prof for me to switch to another gym. (Not another class, though — she was an awesome teacher. When she was wearing clothes!)

      • Blue Meeple said:

        I never had that happen, but I did have kind of…the opposite thing happen? I have a degree in art, which means I took figure drawing, which involves nude models. And I ran into one of our nude models at the grocery. It was very, very strange and I very quickly went the other way.

  14. Valvopus said:

    I coach children with special needs trampolining and while I will absolutely 100% spend 8 hours straight doing that while talking to their parents about sleeping habits and how toileting is going when I change out of my uniform and leave that building I don’t know them. I may smile and nod if they go for eye contact but I need time away to be me and not have to deal with all the horrible stories that I hear though my job and have my normal non-smiley voice. A few of them have tried for conversations (especially some of our clients with high functioning autism/aspergers) and I just say that I’m running late to get to [place] but I will see them at work. This gets hard when I’m working a split shift and don’t have time to get home so sit about in the office with my earphones in. It get doubly hard when I through depression and social anxiety into the mix but so far it’s working. The few I do know outside of coaching (friends’ children etc) I’m nice to but I am a completely different person and they get that. There’s Coach Valvopus and Person Valvopus and never the two shall merge into one giant ball of screaming chaos.

  15. MissWhich said:

    My favorite awkward student encounter happened at a karaoke bar when I was throwing my best friend a birthday party. One of my current (as in I’d seen her in class that afternoon) students literally plastered herself against the wall with a look of unholy terror on her face, beer sloshing all dramatically against the plaster. At which point, I smiled graciously, told her I’d see her on Monday, and spent the rest of the evening singing my heart out on the *opposite* side of the bar 🙂

  16. stellanor said:

    “and when I say “Can we talk about this later? I am busy right now” says “I don’t mind!” and keeps going, and when I say “Ok but I mind” and they say “Sorry” but keep talking anyway, graaaaaaaaaah!”

    AUGH I HAD ONE OF THOSE SO MUCH GRAAAAAAAAAAH. He’d follow me all over campus and interrupt other things I was doing to ask me “one quick question” and refused to come to my office hours or make an appointment no matter how often I told him I would not discuss it with him outside of my office hours.

    Also his question was always “I got number 12 on the test wrong by massively overthinking it, can I please argue with you for 30 minutes or more about why my answer is in some hypothetical bizarro universe more right than the actual right answer that was covered explicitly in lecture, session, the powerpoint, AND the textbook?” so basically every time we conversed I was hoping a wall would fall on him.

    • roramich said:

      Oh Maude… THIS. This type of encounter is SO AWFUL. I hear you!

      • EdelC said:

        Another professor here. I am intrigued (and appalled) that at some small schools the professors would be expected to take calls at home and at all times. I teach in Ireland. I never ever give students my cell number, never friend them on any social networks and I don’t socialise with them, my private life is private!

        I am friendly and easy going in class and I am liked by my students. On campus they, and I, will say ‘Hi.’ with a friendly smile, as we pass by one another. I would never stop to chat unless they stopped me first.

        Generally the things that they need to talk to me about can be answered in a couple of moments and then I will say goodbye and indicate that I have to be somewhere else. As The Captain said, it is up to me to end the interaction generally.

        I tend to encourage all questions to be asked either in class or in email, the former so that other students can benefit from the answers and the latter so that I have a record of questions being asked and answers given.

        No matter how friendly and open you are in class, ultimately this is a professional relationship and keep in mind that you have more of the ‘power’ in these interactions so you can keep them brief, friendly and polite..then end and walk away…

        I am also AWFUL at remembering names, so in conversation, I tend to avoid all usage of names (I generally have to) so I say things like ‘ How are you getting on?’ ‘What’s keeping you busy these days?’ and other generic questions to get a clue!

        • stellanor said:

          Where I was a TA we also did not give out cell phone numbers. There is literally no legitimate reason you would need to get your TA on the phone when they are at home. Email is fine, and most of us had very generous email policies involving same-day responses to any emails received before 8 or 9pm.

          A colleague of mine who is a really wonderful TA and will be a wonderful professor someday soon had a student who, given no info except her school email and full name, hunted down her personal cell phone number and started texting her questions about class. She FREAKED OUT because that is both inappropriate and kind of creepy.

  17. Pam Adams said:

    , trying to place you in context, and you are doing the same to them.

    I’m an academic advisor, with (at any given moment) about 4500 students who know me. It’s common for me to blank entirely on names, majors, etc., while they know there’s only one me, and expect me to remember what we discussed. Usually, whether the discussion was last week, last quarter, or yesterday, I don’t remember. (That’s what my note-taking software is for!) Outside the office, it’s usually a quick question, so I don’t often have problems interacting, but if it’s away from campus, it makes my family crazy. My sister still tells about the time that the student seating us on a ride at Disneyland asked what my office hours were.

    • Laughing Giraffe said:

      Personally I “love” the students who think teachers have memories like computers, or else have nothing else on their minds but small details about their students. I once had to gently tell a young teenager that yes, I may have already asked him what kind of music he liked once, three weeks ago, but I have thirty classroom students and ten tutoring students and it’s hard enough to remember their names sometimes, so maybe don’t sigh and snap, “You already asked me that before!” (If he hadn’t been a young teenager, I wouldn’t have been gentle.)

      • Blue Meeple said:

        Good lord, I have trouble remembering things like that about my friends, much less people I see that briefly. (I do learn the things about my friends, it just takes time.) Ah, the egocentrism of – I was going to say youth, but it’s really people in general, isn’t it.

  18. I did a chunk of teaching when I was in grad school, and had a few awkward moments. I had one student who loved the course and every week he would follow me down the hall to my office and stand in the doorway talking until I had to remind him that I only had a 30 minute break between classes and in that time I wanted to check my emails, collect whatever papers I needed for the next class, and maybe eat something (and also pee).

    For internet interactions, the most awkward one was the guy who sent me a message on OKCupid, basically saying “hey, you’re my teacher, fancy seeing you here” and I sent him a polite but firm reply explaining that it really wasn’t appropriate to send me messages on a dating site, even if the message itself was innocuous..

  19. I think Jennifer’s comments are right on target here. I taught many classes as a grad student and also worked as an adjunct for awhile post PhD, and I was a pretty popular teacher for creating classroom environments like the LW described. While I was not/am not uncomfortable with outside of class interactions, my awkwardness with former students partly arises from getting a PhD in clinical psychology, which means that I also have many former psychotherapy clients from the same institutions. These clients are usually of the same age/demographic characteristics as my former students and I can’t always tell apart who is who because there are so many and now so much time has passed. Also, as a psych professor, there are a number of students who would come to me and tell me personal things of a difficult nature as a way of seeking help.

    One thing I have found is that in American society today there are often awkward confusions about roles and relationships. Young people have the least experience, and my view as a teacher was that it was partly my role to talk with them about the weirdness/awkwardness of trying to negotiate these cultural role ambiguities. So, for example, I wrote something in my later syllabi about how texting and interneting on the part of students in my classes negatively impacted my teaching because teaching is a relational and performing art, which is dependant in part on the engagement of the students–basically I told them that their participation had a huge impact on my motivation and my performance. They really liked that I spoke with them openly instead of sayiing “You bad kids, with your narcissism and entitlement and your interneting.”

    In that spirit, when the LW works out their personal philosophy regarding outside/after the class is over interactions, that might be something that could be noted in their syllabi, perhaps in the section that covers their policy on social media relationships. After detailing the social media policy, especially if it includes something about “friending” after teacherly relationships are finished–or even never friending or whatever, LW might say something like “After our class is over, I often run into former students on campus/in town, and sometimes it can be awkward for both of us to know how to act toward each other. I generally feel friendly toward former students, but I’m not sure how they might be feeling about me, so it’s generally my policy to let students approach me if they want to engage in a conversation. So, if we see each other later, say “hi” and approach me if you’d like to talk!”

  20. I hurt myself laughing at the “wrong Jennifer” story. That poor, poor kid.

  21. This one time I ran into a guy who seemed familiar, but I couldn’t quite place him. He cleared up the mystery by identifying himself as one of my former students.

    That wasn’t the awkward part. The awkward part was that we were at a party featuring naked hot tubbing, and we both ended up in the hot tub.

    Fortunately, this occurred several years after I taught my last class ever, so it was merely a little weird rather than panic-inducing.

    • JenniferP said:

      This is an amazing story. My awkward hood level would be about here after that:
      Kenny from South Park

      • stellanor said:

        I think my awkward hood level would have been DROP THE CLASS so I’m actually kind of proud of “wrong Jennifer” guy for merely reacting with awkward hood.

        • JenniferP said:

          We were late in the game and it was 6 expensive credit hours. I’m glad he powered through!

      • Correction: nekkid pool party, not nekkid hot tub. We weren’t on opposite ends, but not right next to each other, so that made it less awkward.

        If I had still been teaching, I would’ve felt more uncomfortable. If he had been taking a class I was teaching right then, I would’ve gone home. 😀

    • Laughing Giraffe said:

      Last week some of my students announced they were going to the beach, did I want to come?
      “Maybe. Whereabouts?”
      “[Local Famous Nude Beach]!”
      “Er. No. Thank you. …You guys do know why it’s famous, right?” (They did. They’re international students, so I didn’t want them to be surprised by boobies.)

    • I have an extended family member who, on vacation on a different continent from the one where he lived and taught, was greeted in a no-clothes sauna by a former student. When I started teaching, that anecdote became a lot less funny and a lot more cringe-y to me. Yikes. YIKES.

  22. dfwl said:

    Tom Cruise interaction advice – awesome and hilarious!

    But the “wrong jennifer” texter story….soooo toe-curlingly painful.

  23. MB said:

    So many awkward stories with students outside of class.

    I think the worst one was when all the staff had a very drunken Xmas party on campus. Leaving the campus we merged with students who had been performing in a concert. They were wearing formal evening dress. One of them had removed his bow-tie. One of our number, the undergrad administrator in fact, took umbridge at this tux-sans-tie outfit and started to point it out. Two of us tried to quieten him by staying that it was one of our students – on reflection I’m sure we thought we were whispering and we were not. Our admin responded with ‘so? I could take him’. The student in question had the decency to pretend he didn’t hear us, but it went on and on – for ages at the bus stop and on the bus journey.

    The following year after the same party another tutor hit (albeit playfully) another student over the head with her umbrella, and all I could think was can we not get through a Christmas party without someone threatening a student?

    Extra bonus awkwardness: The poor student in the first instance ended up on a first date seated beside me and a friend in one of those restaurants where tables are so close you’re practically sitting on the knee of the person beside you. I managed to communicate to my friend though eyebrows not to continue the personal conversation we had been having, but that poor kid!

    There’s been a few close calls where I see someone I know, think they must be a former student and I should say hi, only to realise, just in time, that they’re someone from TV!

    LW, you are not alone!

    • Myrin said:

      I’m both laughing and almost-crying regarding that student who doesn’t seem to be able to catch a break from his teachers.

      • MB said:

        And he was one of those smart, quiet kids, you’d like to encourage and not, you know, harass. I was impressed with the forbearance he showed in both situations!

  24. harvestkitchena2 said:

    for the “wrong Jennifer” moments in life, i offer this song https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukVV7ZGGfD4&feature=youtube_gdata_player.

    my mom is a university admin person who does a lot of student advising. knowing her name was once included on a Buzzfeed Top 30 Signs You went to (this university). Hah! Fortunately I don’t think she often has embarrassing student moments around town (being older and less social), but just a note to say, University folks recognize the public role they play and it’s good to help students learn appropriate interactions. Good tips!

  25. MrsMorley said:

    I don’t teach college, but I have taught formal classes in other contexts.

    When I’ve run into students outside of class, I tend to wait for them to say hi, and try very hard to remember names. If I can’t remember, and they didn’t lead with their names, I say something like:
    “I’m sorry, I don’t remember your name. Who are you again?”

    What’s good about that is sometimes they’ve mistaken me for someone else.

    More to the point though: it’s awkward to forget their names or faces. It’s awkward when they forget mine. It’s annoying (or funny!) when they say “Hello MrsMorley, you taught me [thing I’ve never taught]” and I find myself saying, “Thank you, but someone else did that.” And then they insist. And for just a moment I wonder – did I teach that? But then I remember that I don’t know anything at all about [thing I’ve never taught] and it doesn’t even interest me much, so really, it couldn’t be me.

  26. Brains are sometimes really bad at context switching.

    I ran into a former professor at a convention and it took me the entire three days of the event to figure out who they were after the initial intense deja vu + confusion. I would smile and nod if we passed each other in the hallways, as would they, and afterwards turn to my friend with my hands on my face going “I KNOW THAT PERSON BUT HOW.” I stared at their name tag during a book signing and muttered it to myself for hours afterward, I am not even kidding, trying to figure it out; I googled the name and their wikipedia page had lots of stuff about the books they’d written but none of it rang a bell.

    Finally, somehow, the synapses connected and I realized with horror that I’d been the embarrassing student who’d just stopped showing up to their class halfway through the semester because Mental Health Issues…two semesters in a row. I had a good laugh at my Jerkbrain since I’m Better Now, and privately admired how skillfully this professor kept their university instructor identity separate from their fiction author identity that they’d never mentioned the author part during class and my internet searches for the author hadn’t turned up the professor part.

  27. Polychrome said:

    I would like to be the 1000th caller to *adore* the “wrong Jennifer” story (with perfect apposite images appended). It’s nice to know that whatever happens in awkward territory with my students, it has already been topped.

    A couple of strategies I’ve come up with in terms of negotiating the awkwardness involve making the awkwardness more explicit. So in my lower level classes I insist that students call me “Professor Chrome” and I reciprocate by calling them “Mr. Hoodie” and “Ms. Classy Earl” because since we are all grownups if I want to be addressed by a title I will also address them by a title. In upper level courses we reciprocally use first names. I explain these ground rules on day one and I stick with it in encounters, emails, everything. It helps to sort of set the idea that yes, this is a funny stilted relationship and we will just be funny and stilted about it. And students who take a lower and then an upper course get to sort of feel that yes, we are more “friendly” now, we’ve paid our friendly dues, but they are friendly dues attached to a formal structure, not loosey-goosey friendship.

    At the end of upper level courses in which I have gotten to know the students well I say toward the end of term how much I have enjoyed getting to know them and so on, and would be ready to write reference letters in future if they need them, but since it might be a few years down the road I am telling them now to set aside the paper they wrote for me of which they are most proud because I will ask for it. This sort of sets up the expectation “I like you, and I support you, but I may not remember you in detail down the road”. I mean, they already know this — it just makes it less awkward to say it out loud.

    • Drew said:

      I am intrigued by your ideas and would like to subscribe to your newsletter.

      Seriously, that is a classy AND smart way to handle things. Very nicely done.

      • Polychrome said:

        awww thank you!

  28. dragonlady said:

    I’m not a professor; I’m a university librarian. It’s a small campus and most of the students are military – so very polite. Many times, I’ll help someone at the reference desk, they’ll leave, and then, days/weeks/months later, they’ll see me and THANK ME so profusely for the help I gave them! I generally CAN NOT place them except as students, so my fallback (which hasn’t failed me yet) is to say, “I’m SO glad I could help! Let me know if you need anything else!”

    Not the LW situation, but that’s what I kept remembering as I’m reading these great comments.

  29. timemakesfoolsofusall said:

    @JenniferP – Re: “It’s madness to take student evaluations personally, but that doesn’t mean comments on your hair or clothes or body or speaking voice don’t sting and aren’t super weird to read.”

    I really do not want to derail, but this relates to awkward professor/student relations: Do you have any guidance for rules of etiquette of providing personal compliments in evals? I once said in an evaluation for a great professor, after a lot of substantive praise of his course, that I thought he was hot in a Rupert Giles way where he balanced being sexy and scholarly at the same time (all of his hypotheticals for class were from Buffy).

    • Mary said:

      Genuine question – why would you do that? I have taught in universities and now run training courses, and I am pretty vain, but the last thing I am thinking about is whether my course participants think I’m pretty. What was your purpose in writing that?

    • JenniferP said:

      While I’m sure your comment was well-meant, and that particular professor probably took it in stride and laughed about it, making personal comments about appearance or dress or “hotness” on student evaluations isn’t cool. It’s a version of Notes From a Boner, where a person’s work is getting derailed (even positively) by issues of appearance. I would not like it on my evals even if the comments were positive. It would be like, aw man, really? We’re doing this?

      • timemakesfoolsofusall said:

        Thank you so much Captain and everyone else for your thoughtful replies. I read Notes from a Boner, which is awesome, and I totally understand the wrongness of what I did. I’m going to take this to heart as a learning experience and improve my behavior going forward. This is really just a phenomenal site and comment space, and one I appreciate so much.

    • Laughing Giraffe said:

      Basically, if you want to give an instructor a compliment on their eval, think of it in terms of what they might want to put on their resume. “Motivates students to show up to class,” yes. ” – ’cause he’s so SEXAY!” …no. Enjoy the view and consider it a private perk, but don’t share.

    • Pam Adams said:

      In this casem you could comment on the hypotheticals- ‘Becuase you used my favorite show for examples, I really understood the issues,’ without mentioning looks.

    • Tastycakes said:

      Eeeeks. I’m sure you didn’t mean any harm, but when you apply for teaching jobs or you go up for tenure, a lot of the time you have to submit your teaching evaluations, and it’s mortifying to know your future colleagues and boss are going to be reading things like that!! Please don’t set your teachers up for embarrassing situations like that.

  30. roramich said:

    I really think inserting personal comments in evaluations of a professional person (professor, medical person, whatever) is not useful. Knowing that someone thinks I’m ugly stings more than knowing that a student thinks I’m “hawt”, but the rating of attractiveness has f-all to do with my professional work, even when it’s a compliment. It seems to me that inserting that kind of opinion into student evals of professors is a weird mixing of the personal and professional and isn’t at best not helpful and at work, really confusing. As in, “hmm, random anonymous student is commenting on my tie/dress/hair…why exactly?” I guess if the professor really needs to get a clue about professional dress, or their appearance in some way makes it difficult for the student to learn in some what that the professor can address, maybe? But otherwise… just refrain.

    • ks said:

      I’m a physics professor and a girl, so there is already going to be some awkward with many of my students. The engineering boys just don’t know how to cope with a woman who knows more about stuff than they do. But then I get the comments about how I’m such a MILF (or the opposite–I’m a horrible beast who nobody should ever have to see, ever) on the evals. They seem to think that just because it’s anonymous, they can say whatever the fuck they want and it’s totally okay. They also seem to think that my fuckability (or lack thereof) is somehow relevant to whether or not they understand how to analyze a circuit. So I make sure to tell them every single semester before they do the evals that they should keep their comments constructive, as the point is to help me be a better instructor for the next group of students. It doesn’t really do much good, but I keep trying.

      And Jennifer is right–I have to show that crap to the dean every year at my review and if I apply for jobs outside my current university, I’ll have to show them then as well. And it is completely not relevant.

  31. roramich said:

    sorry… at WORST.

  32. boutet said:

    Kind of awkward story but only for me, the prof had no idea. I took a creative writing course and loved it. I loved the prof, the way he taught, we had interesting conversations. And I found out a week after my last class that not only was he a famous author but I both OWNED one of his books, and had helped physically MAKE another of his books at my summer job at a book printer place. I was so mortified! I had spent a week or two on the job staring at his name and his author pic on the back cover! I had purchased and read his work! I spent a couple evenings a week for months with this man and nothing clicked!
    It probably wouldn’t have changed anything if I had figured it out sooner. I just felt so silly.

  33. NailBed said:

    Sorry this is off-topic but just to let you know, the comments aren’t disabled on your Forums page and there’s a lone hopeful spam comment there. Cheers.

    • JenniferP said:

      Thanks, I have dispatched it and turned off comments there.

    • LW599 said:

      Hello all–original LW here. The Captain’s reply, and everyone else’s ideas, are solid gold. I hesitated to send in this question out of shyness, but I’m very glad I did. This thread has been one of the high points of my summer. Thank you for all the great thoughts and stories and encouragement. I’ve gotten many great tips, large and small, that I’ll be incorporating into my interactions with students in the future.

      So yeah…not much to say, other than that you people are awesome and wise, and you helped me, and you made me feel much better. Thanks for your generosity! Thanks, Captain, for answering my question: I was thrilled.

      • JenniferP said:

        Thank you! I’ve been getting feedback on Twitter that it’s applicable for clergy, therapists, & other people in helping professions as a reminder that hey, we’re not always at work or in work mode, and our relationship with others isn’t always one of “I am here to help you!”

  34. miss_chevious said:

    I’m a former TA (English) and a lot of students would glom on to me because Freshman English was one of the few classes at my large school where the teacher (me) knew their names. Which I did, but only while they were in my class. Once the semester was over –whoosh!–out went the name. So I sympathize with the LW and really enjoyed the responses from everyone.

  35. LW, like you, I’m in grad school, and while most of my running into former students has gone well, the potential for awkwardness is a big part of the reason I avoid social networking sites. That is getting to be enough of a liability to start considering other ways to handle awkward online interactions.

    Thank you for writing with this question.

  36. Ms. Cat said:

    I normally only lurk, but must share some awkward student-teacher moments (from both sides).

    (tl;dr: Sometimes, things are awkward. Roll with it, and the people around you will, too.)

    Story 1:
    3 weeks into my first high school teaching gig (I was 22 at the time), I was out at dinner with my partner on a friday night. Two sisters who I coached, one of whom was in my class, walked in with their dad. The one I taught (henceforth AwkwardSister) waved, and I nodded politely, hoping that would be it. Nope. They put their stuff down at their table *and came over to mine.*
    AwkwardSis declared “Hi Ms. Cat! I’ve done all of my homework for your class already. It was really interesting!”
    Me: “Oh, that’s good. I’m glad you enjoyed it. This is my partner, Mr. Cat”
    PoliteSis shakes partner’s hand. AwkwardSis smiles sheepishly. “I’m really having a great time in your class.”
    PoliteSis, “Come on, Sis, let’s let her eat her dinner.”
    AwkwardSis, “Oh, but I have one question about the homework.”
    PoliteSis pulls AwkwardSis away from table, “See you on Monday, Ms. Cat! SIS OMG WHY DID YOU EMBARRASS ME LIKE THAT?!?!”
    Mr. Cat looks at me and says quietly “Well, that was awkward. Is she always like that?”
    I continued to coach both girls for three years. I was very close with both girls and their mom for the duration of their time in high school, and I forgave all awkwardness.

    Story 2:
    Also in my first year of teaching, I went to big teacher conference. I sat down in a workshop, and about five minutes in, I realized I very, very vaguely recognized the guy. About half an hour in, as we were discussing at our table, it hit me, and I ask
    “Do you still Geology at MyHighSchool?”
    Him “No, I haven’t been there in several years since I moved across the country for my wife’s job. Is that why you look familiar?”
    Me: “Yep. You never taught me, but I saw you around. My name is ____ ”
    Him “Oh… you were the one who aced X and Y classes without doing the homework!” [very small school, I was a very good, if lazy, student] “Well, now I feel old.” [he was probably 35 or so at the time, so 30 or so when I was in high school]
    Me: “Uh…Let’s work on ACTIVITY!”

    Story 3:
    I taught one truly, truly exceptional high school student. He would spend much time talking to me outside of class, and he did an independent study with me as well. I frequently thought “I want to be your friend when you grow up. Because you are awesome.” [I thought the same thing about his girlfriend. At one dance I chaperoned, the two of them joined me at the breathalizer table with a bored game. Much fun was had]. We are now in the same different city, me in grad school, him in college. And guess what? He wants to be friends! When his girlfriend came to visit, we (and my husband) got lunch! I am very happy about this. And also very amused that he avoids addressing me as anything. Ms. Cat no longer seems appropriate, since I’m not his teacher (and I’m only 7 years older than him). But he won’t use my first name either. Awkward. But whevs, We get to hang out (but, at this point, I let him initiate. I respond enthusiastically. We’re not quite at the real friends level yet, and I think it’s appropriate for the student to initiate things.)

    [This is totally enough information for some of my former students to know who I am. HI FORMER STUDENTS!! I still tell stories about you all 😛 ]

    The moral of my epically long comment is that sometimes, teacher-student relationships are awkward. And that is okay!

  37. ks said:

    I once had a former student come up behind me at the farmer’s market, where I was getting lemonade with my children, and whisper in my ear that he named his cat Shrodinger (I teach physics). I didn’t see him coming toward me at all, so I had no context for this experience whatsoever except for the whole creepy person sneaking up behind me and whispering in my ear in a public place experience. It was awful. And he apparently had expected me to be super friendly and have a nice, long conversation about his experiences after graduation once I figured out who he was instead of being creeped out and only just barely managing to hold on to my temper and be icily polite (and only because I had my kids with me and didn’t want to let on how completely freaked out I was).

    But usually I just run into them at the grocery store or they are the server at the place I’m out to dinner with my family (in which case the husband will make comments under his breath that we maybe don’t want to eat there because I’ve pissed off so many students over the years). And I avoid the campus gym precisely because I don’t want to see them naked and I don’t want them to see me that way either.

  38. Trixie Leitz said:

    This issue resonates so much with me. I do occasional teaching in our medical school (maybe six sessions per cohort spread over two years), and the earliest students I taught will have qualified and be practising by now. I’ve occasionally wondered if I’m likely to meet a former student in a clinical context, with either myself or a loved one as their patient. Chances are they won’t remember me or I them, given that I met most of them so few times so long ago, but there are a few individuals on their way through training now whom I trained one-to-one in another subject area before they entered med school. So there could be a little awkwardness if we meet again in a context where they’re the expert rather than me 🙂

    Fortunately, perhaps, the material I’ve been teaching in these classes is to do with conducting a productive and respectful practitioner-patient relationship, so I’m optimistic that I, at least, will be equipped to handle the situation 🙂

  39. elizabeth said:

    I teach yoga and I see students out and about all the time.. they are always SHOCKED that I don’t just live in the studio. Or I get this litany of ‘Oh.. I meant to come to class but xzy.’ I’m like, ‘I just said hi….’

  40. laughingfry said:

    My dad is the department chair of a very small, very competitive program at the university I went to. (The university is pretty big, but the program is small.)

    Not only is he kind of a polarizing man as a teacher (he’s very blunt – one of those “harsh but constructive” teachers that you either love or hate), but for a long time, he was the one in charge of telling all the hopeful freshmen which ones got accepted into the major and which ones now had to find something else to study. As you can imagine, this often made him very unpopular with the people he turned down.

    Whenever I mentioned that my dad was a professor and I got the inevitable “Oh, what does he teach?” I always braced myself because there were only 3 possibilities: 1) they had never heard of the program, 2) they loved him (rather uncommon), or 3) they hated him with the fiery passion of a thousand burning suns. Usually if they had heard of the program, it was #3. It always became very awkward at that point, because obviously you don’t want to quite tell someone that you straight-up HATE their dad, but you could always kind of tell when they got the “gritted teeth smile” going on. I never quite knew what to do.

    • Trixie Leitz said:

      Ohhh, I feel your pain. When I was at high school, my mother also taught at the same school for a while. Never my classes, fortunately. She didn’t hold back on the discipline where required, and the students she sent to detention always felt the need to complain to ME about it. I knew how those kids behaved for other teachers, so I figured they deserved the discipline, but, as an awkward geeky teenager trying to find some middle ground between “being the class brain” and “not standing out”, I found it embarrassing at the time to be confronted about it.

      All of which is not helpful to you, I guess 🙂 Maybe if they get the gritted teeth look, say “people find him rather polarising” and then change the subject?

  41. One of my favorite bosses — at a large factory of a huge corporation, but I think the idea transfers well — used to begin every new project first-gathering-of-the-team meeting by saying something like, “Each one of you is tremendously important to this project. By the time it’s over, we’ll have spent a few all-nighters together out on the production floor, as well as more hours than any of us would like in meetings like this one. So I want to let you know a couple of things about me:

    “First: By the time we’re done, I probably really like and respect you. When the team breaks up, I’ll be sad. I’ll miss you. But when I run into you in [nearby city] or at a convention, I’m not going to remember why your face is familiar.

    “Second: I’m really good at team management; that’s why I’m leading this project. What I’m really NOT good at is interpersonal relations at the one-to-one level. So if we have an awkward conversation, it’s not you, it’s me – you can trust me on that.

    “And third: If you pass me in the hallway and I snarl at your cheery ‘Good Morning,’ it’s probably that I was up all night with a screaming two-year-old and I haven’t had my fourth cup of coffee yet. Again, it’s not you, it’s me. If ever I’m actually mad at you, I promise to tell you straight out.”

    He was one of the easiest people to work for, because he made a point of taking all the awkwardness of the power differential onto himself, and of being straight up about anything that went wrong. I highly recommend the approach, and have used it many times.

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