“But I am their Professor”



“I am not their therapist, not their parent, not their friend. . . . Why should I have to take on any responsibility for them?”

I have heard this expressed repeatedly in faculty meetings at the state university where I am an associate professor. These faculty members are referring to the undergraduate students who take our courses, work in our labs, and seek our advice. As a community of faculty, we are largely untrained in student development and in many cases even teaching; we need to enter into a discussion about how we can best meet our students’ needs without driving ourselves crazy.

“Aren’t these kids adults?” I am often asked. I am struck by the dissonance, and I question the duality of our expectations. On the one hand, many characterize our current cohort of “kids” as lazy and irresponsible; on the other hand, we expect them to capably handle, as adults, what may be their first foray outside supervised care. This has led to an unsatisfying duality in practice: “handholding” versus “benevolent disregard.” Many have blamed our problems on a “new” generation of students who are informal and unprofessional. Many have said that these students are unable to assume responsibilities, while others have concluded that “students today” are apathetic and difficult to motivate.

Much has been written about the “millennials,” the generation that comprises many of today’s undergraduates. Neil Howe and William Strauss describe millennials as raised by highly involved parents in environments of convenience and entertainment. This can lead to an inability to take the responsibility and control necessary for independence and to difficulty delaying gratification. In reporting his study, conducted at Florida Gulf Coast University, of millennial students’ motivations and perceived barriers to success, Jon Brunner describes them as more stressed, narcissistic, and anxious than their predecessors, and less able to cope with independence or criticism. He suggests potentially greater rates of mental health problems than for previous generations. Brunner and Christy Price, who conducted a similar study at Dalton State College, both argue that these problems can be successfully addressed through well-structured strategies, but these authors also provide support for the view that these students are overly dependent and not necessarily motivated by a drive to learn.

Questions, however, remain. Are our students adults? Is a change in how we treat undergraduates warranted? I asked my class. Twenty-three out of twenty-five said they were not adults, yet about half felt that they should be treated as adults in order to help them mature. After fifteen years of working with undergraduates, I have concluded that my students are neither adults nor adolescents. Perhaps a new term, but more important a new perspective, reflecting their transitional status, should be adopted, much like the notion of a “tween.”

For today’s students, the transition to college is a major one. Prior to, and increasingly during, their enrollment, many students live with guardians who provide a large amount of supervision and control. This is not so during their first year higher education. Further in their first-year experiences at many colleges and universities, students no longer experience a learning environment where the appearance of achievement is built in. These students’ earlier transitions—their first day of elementary school, starting high school, learning to drive—were given support. It would be inappropriate and developmentally unfair to move middle schoolers into high school without it. Why do we not provide rules of engagement, training, and metaphorical crutches to our incoming college students?

How do I deal with my transitioning students? First, I stress that each of my students is an individual and an independent thinker, though this may not be obvious. I let go of how past students have shaped my expectations. This demands that I get to know my students academically and show concern for their learning, at the levels of the individual and the classroom. However, this does not mean that I need to befriend them.

Second, I develop a healthy amount of respect. At any stage, progress requires time, but it also requires that role models show positive behavior and discourage negative behavior. I see my role as that of not a parent but an academic caregiver. We are working with our cognitive apprentices, allowing for mistakes, and encouraging mastery through critique and encouragement. They should learn to accept criticism when it is underscored as a part of learning. This takes patience and the recognition of who is the adult.

Rules of classroom engagement and the consequences for noncompliance need to be made clearer than we think. While I have no talent as an entertainer, something many instructors view as key, I am responsive and open, and I promote collegiality. I may be called soft, but I strongly believe that if we approach students with compassion and a desire to understand, we can avoid much discord. Moving from teen to adult is a slow process of assuming individual responsibility that should not be taken lightly. It is difficult to maintain self-esteem while accepting that often what happens to us, and always what we choose to do about it, is of our own doing. We can let students know that we are a source of academic support. I stress that qualifier because students’ needs can lie outside our purview.

So no, I am not their therapist, not their parent, not their friend. Yet, as their professor, it is my responsibility to encourage students to look beyond a degree as a means to an end because I want more for them. I justify my learning goals and make myself a partner in an academic relationship, which means listening to students’ goals as well Above all, my students must know that we professors are a source of academic support during their stressful transition to adulthood. Does my approach work? You need to ask my students, as I certainly do.

Author Bio: Rebecca Jordan is an associate professor of environmental education and citizen science, and director of the program in science learning at Rutgers University.