Follow-up to today’s discussion: How much is too much interaction?

Hi everyone

I wanted to follow up on everyone’s thoughts of what Ping-Yuan and Josh brought up, and how this could apply to Heather’s (and all of our) teaching. Of course this is a personal decision, but how much do you think personal / non-academic contact outside of class helps students to succeed? I was trained as a high school teacher, and we had it drilled into us that you do NOT have any personal connections with students outside of class and you severely limit any personal information you share with students. Josh appears to have the opposite view (within limits), but Ping-Yuan seems to shy away from this.

In my classes, I try to show that I am a human being, and I try to understand students when they have problems, but more and more, it seems as if we are expected to act as counselors as well as teachers for our students. I have colleagues who have accompanied suicidal students to the hospital, and last semester I went with a student to meet with OUPD because of threats of physical violence made against him by his parents.

Of course, we want all of our students to succeed, and students do work harder when they like their instructors. But at the same time, when should we try to keep a traditional, student-teacher relationship and to what extent should we try to break into the more radical realm and treat them less as students and more as peers / equals?

Several times, I have had students identify with me more as a fellow-student (even though I look young, I am 20+ years older than they are!) and several have tried to use the “buddy” relationship they were trying to foster to get preferential treatment (extensions, get out of assignments, hints on tests, etc.)

Especially for those of you who have experiences teaching at smaller institutions, where this kind of student interaction is more institutionalized, do you feel a more personalized approach such as this encourages student success? In addition, as our merit review (at least for Group II) is increasingly based on how well students like you, to what extent should we focus on building interactions with students OUTSIDE of the classroom?

Please let me know whatever you think! (Don’t make me get Josh’s Taser!)



9 thoughts on “Follow-up to today’s discussion: How much is too much interaction?

  1. Chris Griffin says:

    It’s interesting, I’ve taught at smaller schools, but apparently not small enough that I’ve ever been encouraged to engage past a strict student-teacher guide. Actually, while in graduate school, most of the guidelines were about how to distant ourselves (aka- do not drink with students, do not eat with students, act like they are gremlins).

    I try to share things that are relevant and within the scope of appropriate for my classes. Like how trying in physics got me an A, even though I still don’t love the subject. Or *why* I think skeletal muscle is fascinating. I even talked about my surgeries this last year, but I didn’t get into the grittty details of my cystectomy. It’s a strange line to draw, and periodically I do overshare.

    One of my favorite assignments is my students in lab receive extra credit points for finding my typos. It’s a way to show I’m human, plus, they’ve read the darn lab…

    I say walk the line.

    All of that said, I keep chocolate, coffee and Kleenex in my office for those needing them…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ping-Yuan Wang says:

    Since the teacher and her/his (undergraduate) students are in a relation of power, their relationship is one of inequality by definition, in my opinion. When I apply the principle of professionalism to the question, “whether or not I should be friends with my students,” the answer is clearly, “no.” Moreover, speaking for myself, I worry that it is emotionally draining and unsustainable for the teacher to walk the fine line between holding a position of power and being the students’ buddy (and being liked as such). I have observed that, however, students like and truly appreciate a teacher when they respect her/him for her/his expertise, wisdom, advice, teaching style, or willingness to help in academic matters. One may walk back and forth on a spectrum of teaching styles and ways of interacting with students–it eventually comes to down each individual’s conscious decisions, taking teaching objectives and the desired public persona into consideration. But I think it’s important to draw an acceptable boundary and protect ourselves as we endeavor to provide a good learning environment for our students.


  3. Anonymous says:

    Are personal relationships beneficial?

    As a teacher, I am charged to do a job. My job is to coach students to understand the subject that I teach, and to provide an assessment of their accomplishments according to (more or less) established guidelines. Successful coaching depends on the personalities of the coach and the students. In other words, a person that relates very poorly to his students can still be a very good teacher.
    Personally, though, I prefer not to be an SOB. I feel that, more often than not, a closer personal relationship is beneficial because it tends to improve my ability to engage the minds of my students. It creates an atmosphere in which teacher and students alike find it more enjoyable to come to class and interact. As a teacher, I like to think of the personalities of my students and how to speak to them. The more I know, the better I can relate, the better I can explain.
    I have my limits, though. My capacity to open up to my students is not infinite. I need time for myself. I need to be “in sync” with myself to sustain my ability to be a good teacher. Nobody can expect from me to be available for personal problems of my students. As a human being, though, I like to help if I can. And I will do so if I have the (emotional) resources…

    So – how much interaction is too much?

    Well, I don’t see a clear answer, only a guiding principle. Keep in mind that our charge is to teach. I think that I have to act professionally (echoing Ping-Yuan’s comment) and avoid anything that interferes with my task. I see intense emotional relationships as a problem because I cannot see how they substantially improve the learning process (at least in my subject: Organic Chemistry). On the other hand, there is a much higher likelihood that too much relationship will have a negative influence on my ability to teach and my students’ ability to learn.
    But then there is nature! Intense relationships happen! They are part of being human, and they can be what makes our lives worth living.
    As a professional, though, I believe that I should recuse myself from teaching a student that I am too involved with. There is a high likelihood that I am not dividing my attention fairly, and there is a high probability that other students suspect a biased assessment in class.

    Last Question: Should a teacher be punished for having too intensely emotional, maybe sexual relationships with a student?



    • Adi King says:

      I hope I didn’t give the wrong impression…I’m not interested in hanging out / going to parties / becoming “friends” with my students or even having emotional relationships with them…I’m more worried about at what point should we tell students that our job is to help students learn the skills to master the material, but it is not our job to help them work through all of THEIR personal issues, almost as a personal counselor, which is happening more and more (I had three meetings this last week alone where students came to me to talk about their personal issues that are affecting their coursework).

      For example, this week I had several students (including some with whom I work closely outside of class as the adviser of German Club) trying to encourage me to go to Queer Prom, sponsored by the LGBT center. This event is not restricted to the student population, but is open to faculty / staff as well as the Athens community. I am happy to support my students, and because of my visibility as a member of the LGBT community on campus, German in particular has become well known as a “friendly” language to take, because students don’t have to be afraid to be who they are in class (which makes German a very popular choice for transgender students, many of whom have told me that German is the only class on campus where they can truly be themselves). I would like to support these kinds of events, but at the same time, I am not interested in socializing with my students outside of German Club events (which is required as a member of the German program, including attending and participating in weekly student-run events and attending the informal German discussion group).

      Of course, all of our disciplines are different. Teaching a language, especially in first year, almost everything is personalized (hobbies, family, etc.) Of course, as I tell my students, you are free to make up whatever you want, as long as you are practicing with the grammar and vocabulary (which is something I often do). However, teaching smaller classes (24 in 1st year, 15 in 2nd year, sometimes as small as 5 in 3rd and 4th years) you do develop many more one-on-one interactions with students, and the STUDENTS tend to sense that they have a closer (albeit NOT romantic) relationship to their instructors than I do.

      I must admit I would not be able to do personal journaling like Josh does with his students…but I am concerned because with each passing year, it seems as if students need/expect more and more emotional support from the people they look up to (here: their professors), but where should we draw the line?



    • I was always taught that a sexual relationship between student and teacher is inappropriate. I don’t drink with my students. I don’t share meals. Normally my line on personal issues is, “we all have lives and resposiblities, growing up means learning how to handle them.” Then I show them the links available for help. Short of severe illness or death in the family, I don’t give a break. I worked when I was ill, I was too sick to drive and had to had people come get me. I still taught class until my surgery (after which I was physically incapable of talking).

      I, too, would love to see Ping’s section on professionalism, please! I think it would be great for my upper level labs to think about their work in the context of “real life”!


    • neilwbernstein says:

      Dear Klaus, re your last question: Ohio University’s sexual harassment policy is quite clear on this point:
      “Please note that Ohio University forbids amorous relationships between faculty and students, when the faculty member has grading or other advisory authority over the student. Amorous relationships that occur in the context of educational or employment supervision and evaluation present serious concerns about the validity of consent. The disparity of power between persons involved in amorous relationships of a teacher and student, supervisor and subordinate, or senior and junior colleagues in the same department or unit makes them susceptible to exploitation. Those who abuse their power in such a context violate their duty to the University community.”


      • Josh Birnbaum says:

        Great thoughts, everyone. In her book Teaching Community, bell hooks speaks out about sexual relationships with students and their inherent power imbalance, as well as teaching with love but learning to set boundaries. The chapters are entitled “Heart to Heart: Teaching with Love” and “Good Sex: Passionate Pedagogy.” She also addresses the role of the erotic in the classroom in Teaching to Transgress. And I quote from this chapter entitled “Eros, Eroticism, and the Pedagogical Process”:

        “To understand the place of eros and eroticism in the classroom , we must move beyond thinking of those forces solely in terms of the sexual, though that dimension need not be denied. Sam Keen, in his book The Passionate Life, urges readers to remember that in its earliest conception “erotic potency was not confined to sexual power but included the moving force that propelled every life-form from a state of mere potentiality to actuality.” Given that critical pedagogy seeks to transform consciousness, to provide students with ways of knowing that enable them to know themselves better and live in the world more fully, to some extent it must rely on the presence of the erotic in the classroom to aid the learning process. Keen continues:

        ‘When we limit “erotic” to its sexual meaning, we betray our alienation from the rest of nature. We confess that we are not motivated by anything like the mysterious force that moves birds to migrate or dandelions to spring. Furthermore, we imply that the fulfillment or potential toward which we strive is sexual-the romantic -genital connection between two persons.’

        Understanding that eros is a force that enhances our overall effort to be self-actualizing, that it can provide an epistemological grounding informing how we know what we know, enables both professors and students to use such energy in a classroom setting in ways that invigorate discussion and excite the critical imagination. Suggesting that this culture lacks a “vision or science of hygeology ” (health and well-being) Keen asks: “What forms of passion might make us whole? To what passions may we surrender with the assurance that we will expand rather than diminish the promise of our lives?” The quest for knowledge that enables us to unite theory and practice is one such passion.”

        Read the chapter online here:,+Eroticism,+and+the+Pedagogical+Process


  4. Ping-Yuan Wang says:


    Thanks for pointing out the inevitably personalized nature of beginner language courses. I have not taken that into consideration. In that case, I can see how students may feel closer to the instructor in such a classroom setting, and it is interesting that many students in the LGBT community find German a friendly language partly because of their perceived connection to some instructors. I have fairly small classes, too. The largest general education survey course I’ve had has 35 (25-30 is the norm), and most of my upper-level courses have on average 10 students. (Note that even as the largest OU regional campus in student population, Lancaster still only has about 2600 students in total.) I do know all of my students by name, but the extent of personal information students divulge in my classes is definitely not the same as the situations you have described.

    As to students seeking advice or support on their personal issues, I recognize that my choice of expression in the previous comment was not most pertinent to the subject in question, but the thoughts behind it remain the same. I have found that a formal statement on the respective responsibilities/obligations of the instructor and the students (i.e. a written definition of professionalism) on the syllabus, combined with a verbal expression of that on the first day of class, can help set the tone. It is extremely difficult to draw the line when it comes to helping students succeed, however, given that we do want to support our students. I don’t have a perfect solution, but let me share some of my experiences with students with personal issues.

    Occasionally a student would share her/his personal struggles with me in the context of academic struggles–missing too many classes, poor grades, etc. due to some family or personal troubles. I would listen to them, express sympathy when appropriate, and offer to help them catch up on or make up for missed work if possible. However, I would tell my students that I am not qualified to offer advice on their personal issues but would be happy to refer them to individuals on campus that specialize in helping them sort things out, such as the counselors at Student Services. My students usually do not feel rejected when I say I am sympathetic but unqualified to help.

    One of the many things a student in college needs to learn is drawing boundaries and respecting them, once drawn. It may be worthwhile to explain to students what a professor’s role is in relation to their learning and that a line has to be drawn when it comes to non-academic and social functions.


    • Anonymous says:


      Would you be willing to share your statement on professionalism from your syllabi with the entire group? I know I would like to see it and see if I can draft something similar!



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