i don’t always give lectures

I always enjoy the rare moments with students that Tina talked about. They are part of what makes teaching worth while. But I have another experience, much more common, that is both odd and a little awkward. It goes something like this:

Student: Hi, Professor Khan!
Shamus: Hi. How are  you?
Student: Fine… [long pause]
Shamus: What’s up?
Student: Nothing much… [pause]
Shamus: Um, how’ve you been?
Student: Good… [pause… continues to look at me expectantly]
Shamus: Good to hear [pause… waiting for a topic, or a question]… well, talk to you later.
Student: [surprised, even a little disappointed] Oh, okay. Bye…

Here’s the thing: I think students are so used to me standing in front of them talking that when they later encounter me they expect me to,  well, talk. And by contrast my thinking is, “You stopped me. I don’t really have that much to say.” I don’t mean that in a nasty way. But I generally believe that the onus is on the initiator of the contact to start a conversation. Now I know, students are a little intimidated by professors. So often they aren’t good at carrying conversations. But neither am I. I think that they get the wrong impression of what interactions will be like with me on the basis of my lectures. Like I always have something to say. That when we interact I do all the talking. That I’m happy talking. But I find that my lectures are performances that are quite different from my everyday life.

Where these experiences are particularly awkward are at social spaces, like restaurants and bars.

8 thoughts on “i don’t always give lectures”

  1. I agree and have experienced the same, though to my mind the worst is when they come to office hours just to say “hi”. I usually push them to talk about something substantive in these situations. Chapel Hill is small enough that running into students in the grocery store, on Franklin St., etc., is pretty common, so there it’s usually “hi, good to see you.”


  2. I’m convinced there’s a book out there entitled, “Ten Tricks to Doing Well in College” and one of them is: Go to office hours. Following this advice, they go to office hours. Only they have nothing to say. And so there you sit, wondering, “why the hell is this person here” and there the student sits, thinking, “I wonder why this is helpful. It’s actually quite awkward.” I don’t want to discourage students from coming. But at the same time I want to say to the class, “Please, come to office hours. But coming to office hours doesn’t help your grade if you have nothing to ask. Face-time means little to me.”

    I should write a book, “Tricks to Doing Well in College.” Only it would be filled with things NOT to do. Like email the professor asking about something that you don’t need to ask because the answer is on the syllabus.


  3. During one of these types of meetings, I asked a student if she had anything she’d like to talk about. “Oh, no… not really. I just wanted to introduce myself.” And I said, “Well, that’s good. But… do you have anything else you’d like to talk about in regards to the class?” And she explained that she was simply following the directions her high school teachers gave her upon graduating there.

    Apparently, at least this student was counseled that face-time is what you want at a large university: “Just go and introduce yourself. Teachers like to know who their students are.” True, but it’s hard to get to know who they are if no one speaks.


  4. Is there any way we can start including courses in small talk to be required for soc Ph.D. programs?* Between conference receptions, department gatherings, and office hours, there is a clear need here.

    *Granted, we’d probably have to hire non-sociologists to teach the courses.


  5. I think this happens because students want to connect with you, they just don’t know how to start. If you’re willing to take the time to have an interaction, why don’t you try to ask specific questions like, “How are your classes going?” so they have a chance to open up?

    I can understand if you feel that this isn’t the purpose of office hours and you don’t want to encourage people to come without a specific question, but if you are open to chatting with them, I’m sure they will appreciate this. Personally, I found college pretty isolating and lonely, and while I actually didn’t go to office hours much (because I didn’t want to waste professors’ time), I was always really grateful when a professor gave me a way to interact with them.


  6. Agreed with Shamus that these interactions can be quite awkward, but I think gradstudentbyday makes a good point.

    In my experience, students are somewhat intimidated and don’t know how to handle casual interactions with their professors. Personally, I use these situations to get feedback on the class. I ask them how the class is going, how the reading is going, and what they’ve found interesting or difficult.

    A lot of times this allows students to open up a little bit, and it also serves two worthwhile purposes:

    1) You can get a better idea of what students think about the class (after they’ve gotten comfortable and answered a few questions with “good” “uh huh” etc.
    2) Your signaling to the student that you actually DO care about their opinions about the course, and are interested in the course being a worthwhile experience for them. Students knowing this – that you care about their learning experience – does more to improve evals than practically anything else, in my experience.


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