Apparently, some 24-hour bug has been going around for the past few weeks. I unfortunately know this firsthand, not because I have the stomach flu (yet), but because I recently had to stomach the effects of someone else’s flu.
At the end of my seminar class one recent evening, as I casually started toward the door, I looked up just in time to see one of my classmates lurching towards the landfill section of the classroom garbage bin. There, in front of an audience of four traumatized students and one traumatized professor, he released the contents of his dinner all over that poorly designed can. We all pleadingly turned toward our instructor’s authority, awaiting some call to action, some directive, some reassurance — but most importantly, some relief from the putrid smell that permeated the air.
My professor stopped to let pass a moment of fleeting concern, then said: “Uh… Can someone call University Health Services? I have to catch a train back to New York.” And with that, she left the room. I was dumbfounded. Was she going to leave the four of us to handle this mess on our own? Did she feel no obligation to at least call for help herself? Did she feel no responsibility toward the welfare of her students? I temporarily stifled my confusion to make a smooth exit through the door, throwing one last pitiful glance at the kid bent over the trashcan. Another student was helping him up and I wasn’t about to stick around any longer than I had to. This might seem hypocritical, given that I had just judged my professor and all, but I’m only eighteen, and the sight of vomit still makes me want to vomit. Besides, my responsible, adult professor was the one with the obligation to help out that poor kid, right? Later, I thought about it more and decided: maybe not.
Our modern understanding of in loco parentis, the concept that a temporary caretaker of a child takes on all or some of the responsibilities of a parent, is often applied to primary and secondary educational institutions, where the recipients of care fit the legal definition of a child. However, in his 2011 article, Phillip Lee of Harvard University revisits in loco parentis as exercised in the American university, stating that, prior to the 1960s, “[the] doctrine allowed universities to exercise great discretion in developing the ‘character’ of their students without respect to their students’ constitutional rights,” thereby subjecting university students to heavy regulation of their private affairs. Criticism of these regulatory practices by student movements of the 1960s led to the general dissolution of this concept in higher education.Today, university students supervise themselves. On campus, the student, although subjected to and responsible for abiding by university policy, has no true parental figure. So then, why do we sometimes treat our professors — representatives of the University — like parents?
Maybe it’s a first-year phenomenon or the result of lingering impressions made on us during our secondary education; perhaps it’s some weird complex that explains why you accidentally called your teacher “Mom” that one time — but the enduring notion that professors are supervisors is a threat to our progress as scholars and independent, critical thinkers. While professors are undeniably authority figures, this authority derives from the value we place on their academic prowess, not from the authority we merely assume in an individual who occupies a teaching position. When we give importance to the position rather than the reason behind the position, we forget the principal purpose that professors serve: to motivate, enlighten and inspire inquiry. To treat your professor as only your guardian and never your peer in an academic environment is to hinder your ability to take your potential for agency, contribution or refutation seriously. Although professors deserve respect for the invaluable knowledge and guidance they provide, they should not be seen as infallible parents — this image is harmful for both you and them. Just as much as professors are permitted to pass on dealing with the kid who just puked (which they are), you are permitted to question the soundness of their ideas or offer methods to improve discourse in a classroom. Accepting the idea that your professor can also be a peer is a step toward growing up and taking on responsibility, both in life and in academics.
Reva Abrol is a freshman from Syosset, NY. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.