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The Globe and Mail

I'm sorry but I'm your professor, not your friend

I participated in a university photo shoot for national recruitment brochures. I had an opportunity to chat with the student "models" during the mock office hours and mock classroom lecture. One of the things that I was struck with was that the students wanted to know what made a student a favourite of mine.

I was polite and tried to explain that I do not really think of my students that way. Instead, I think about how I want students to be successful and learn. I really did not understand the question at first. Then, it hit me, they wanted to know what do I like in a student and how a student should befriend me. Here is the tricky issue with this question: I do not think of myself as my students' friend. I am their instructor, adviser, mentor, and in some instances their confessor. I wear many hats, but friendship is not one of them.

I explained to the students that there are certain traits that I appreciate: When a student is prepared, on time, demonstrates familiarity with the course materials, and current events. I appreciate it when a student is trying and seems to care about doing well for the sake of learning the material or more about Political Science.

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Do I have favourites, though? I thought about this over the course of the next week, and my first reaction was: no. I still think that I do not have favourites. Occasionally, I will get an e-mail or vibe during office hours that tells me that a student considers us friends and I try to steer the conversation back to our class or the situation at hand. I take my advising seriously and do get to know many of my students well; however, this is not mistaken for friendships. But, there are some students who want to act like friends. Usually, this starts with an extremely casual e-mail and I typically respond back more formally. Do I have friends who are former students? Yes, but this is usually post-graduation and even then it might take several years for that friendship to develop.

I have students who I get to know better by virtue of them taking more courses with me, my honours students, and then the students who I am mentoring in a stronger capacity thanks to office hours, and additional chats. Then, there are the students who have different issues: crises, help navigating support on campus or other issues, and I get to know them even better.

I think that the students that I know better are the ones who I light up when I see and these students are not favourites, but students who I merely know better. To answer the question: No, I do not have favourites. Like I said, I do not completely understand the question. I would frame it differently. What makes a student stand out? What type of students do I prefer? Those are questions that make more sense to me, but I do not think like a student. I am on the other side of the table, desk, and classroom.

Janni Aragon is an Assistant Teaching Professor in Political Science at the University of Victoria.

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