Dunbar: Professors exist outside of the classroom


Blair Dunbar, Columnist

A couple of weeks ago I saw one of my professors in the “real world.” It was just downtown Evanston, but it was far enough away from any campus building to be completely separate from my academic life.

I was having a meeting in 527 Cafe and he walked in to pick up takeout while wearing a silly-looking wool hat. I walked up to him and said hello, obviously a little shocked. He reminded me that professors were, after all, real people who occasionally step outside of their offices. Deep down, I know that, but for some reason professors at Northwestern often seem larger than life.

NU students don’t often form close relationships with their professors. Maybe it’s the size of the school or its reputation as a research university. Since many classes are so large, they have TAs. These are the people grading the papers and holding discussion sections. In these classes, a student is much more likely to make an appointment with the TA than the actual professor. The professors themselves are busy building tiny robots or translating ancient manuscripts and writing scholarly articles. They don’t always have time to sit down and chat for an hour.

There is also an imposing aspect about professors in general. They are experts in their field. They studied one subject for ten years. I don’t know about anyone else, but the thought of having to go through a doctoral program makes me shudder on the inside. As a result, I am always in awe of my professors as they stand at the front of the class during lecture. I can’t imagine getting coffee with one of them. I could barely handle one of my professors picking up takeout from a local cafe. (I also imagine professors at NU living far away from campus.)

But professors are average people, and I know this from personal experience. I have an old family friend who teaches at NU. I didn’t really think about her profession growing up; she was just another regular at our family gatherings. Since coming to NU, I have asked my friends who have taken her classes what they think of her. Without fail, their description is so vastly different from the way I remember her. While they see her as a stern and domineering figure, I always think of her as the woman who always brings the Yule log to my grandma’s Christmas dinner and laughs at my grandfather’s terrible jokes.

People put on different personas depending on the situation. Most people will admit that they act differently around their friends than their parents. Maybe professors are the same way. They want to be taken seriously so they put on a suit and talk with a straight face. Or maybe they want to be funny so they show some video clips or crack a joke. Or maybe they are like every student at Northwestern with a million things on their minds, and so from time to time they are a little scatterbrained. Who knows what they are like outside of the classroom?

I wish I were closer to more of my professors. From my experience, they are often some of the most interesting people. Only a week ago, my favorite professor told me that when he first came to college, he wanted to become an astronomer because he liked looking through telescopes, like any other kid. That made me smile.

When you think about it, most professors are somebody’s father or mother or grandparent or family friend.  They’re people, and they’re worth getting to know. Maybe it’s time to start breaking down some of the professor-student barriers. All it takes is going into his or her office every now and then and striking up a conversation.

Blair Dunbar is a Weinberg sophomore. She can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, email a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].