GOOD GRIEF: Perfecting the student-professor relationship

Matilda Swartz

You heard it on Accepted Candidates’ Day; you read it in all of the glossy literature you took home after your first, second and fifth campus tour; you may even be one of the esteemed individuals placed in the privileged position of relaying it to doe-eyed prospects, but you still question it — “it” being that inescapable, uniquely Villanovan notion that professors here are more than classroom figures. With their small class sizes and sacred oath to uphold Augustinian creed, adjunct, tenured and full-time non-tenure-track faculty members are advertised not as the red-pen wielding giants who could render your high school GPA a thing of adolescence, but as friendly touchstones of the gilded Buddha-belly sort. 

I was, after Candidates’ Day and after going on every tour and reading every brochure, inherently skeptical. 

I had always gotten along with teachers (and I suspect that the majority of minds who make it past the countless rounds of Villanova admissions share similar paths), but the thought of me constructing a relationship with a busy, academia-oriented PhD seemed ill-fated. Nonetheless, over the course of two and a half years swimming in and out of various faculty members’ class rosters, I have surprised myself by fostering and witnessing a web of varying relations with a handful of professors.

It all started, as every great family does, with a mom. Perhaps my version of ACS differed from most of my cohorts’: I quickly became accustomed to gathering around a moderately sized conference table (all 15 or so of us externally composed but internally mortified freshmen), three times a week. Our professor, rightfully bestowed with the “Mama” nickname by past classes, provided a doting, soothing presence (with the exception of that first semester’s midterm, Death by Blue Book). She made Aristotle, Augustine, Euripides and a slew of other multisyllabic classics go down easily. 

Even after graduating from her nest, I am consistently in the know regarding her learning community’s events and what local performances I should be attending. Ironically enough, due to matching Tolentine schedules, I still see her Monday, Wednesday and Friday with her new litter, but they need to remember she was mine first.

Some of the younger faculty members, though, fill less parental archetypes. Never will I forget introduction to philosophy, again as a freshman, being intimidated by both the subject and the guy in the front of the room who exuded an enigmatic sense of cool. 

He was that close friend of your older brother’s: the quiet brooding one who probably wrote you off (if he thought about you at all) as a low seedling. I wanted nothing more than to impress him and his Iggy Pop-referencing self, but there was little my lowly communication major mind could formulate to astound his Plato-plastered one. 

Our student-professor “relationship” was one I could only dream up (for those who would’ve opted for a more action-oriented approach, see Student Handbook page 94). To this day I catch him around Falvey; in between puffs of his ultra hip cigarette, I still get a hello. 

Mothers and love interests aside, I have seen tried and validated cases of the student-professor friendship — friendships, I must clarify, that go beyond the general cordiality extended by either party involved to ensure guaranteed letters of recommendation or application references. I know of a fellow junior who still meets with a professor from semesters’ gone by on a semi-regular basis over coffee to talk love, life and travel plans. 

The professor has made a habit of clipping out the New York Times’ Sunday wedding announcements to pass along to my grateful chum. 

I myself have experienced, first-hand, a professor bring back the last box of Marvel-themed Puffs tissues from BJ’s for a student who ogled the same box in her office weeks before. 

Maybe I’ve been too lucky. We cannot expect every classroom dynamic to morph into a social companionship, mentor opportunity or passionate rendezvous (keep in mind page 94, you daydream believers). 

A word to those desperately seeking the learner-educator dynamic: Less is more. 

Villanova professors have fractured the framework for what roles they’re willing to portray, but there is a line (in mullets and in friendships) between business and party. 

I’m all in favor of a trip to Holy Grounds (make that MilkBoy) with one who spent months drilling theoretical frameworks into your head, but I would recommend against spamming his or her Facebook wall…or forwarding them that inspiring Baracka Flacka Flame video. 

Matilda Swartz is as junior communication major from Highland Park, Ill. She can be reached at [email protected]