Friends with Academic Benefits

Olivia Shackleton, Editor-in-Chief

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There is a clear structure in a professor and student relationship. A professor is meant to be a guide and mentor who imparts knowledge and helps students get to the next phase in life. The best professors inspire their students and immerse them in the subjects and topics being taught. Typical students come to class, hopefully prepared for the lesson and curious to learn more. The best students seek out more information and ask questions to help them understand the material. The professor/student relationship seems so simple. Except, it isn’t simple at all.

How do professors and students create boundaries? How do they know what are considered appropriate interactions in and out of the classroom? Can professors and students be friends while maintaining a professional relationship?

These are questions I’ve been considering lately, as I have had several professors throughout my time at JCU who have felt more like friends than adults paid to educate me. I get excited when I pass them in the halls and go to office hours to talk about class but also about life. I can see that they care about me and my future, but they also care about my day-to-day life and situations that I am currently dealing with.

As I began researching this topic, I found that there were competing views on whether a professor and a student are able to be friends while maintaining a professor/student relationship.

One main argument of those who are against friendships between professors and students is that it weakens the respect the student shows to the professor, due to their informal relationship. Shahidha Bari, a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, explained that she worked the hardest and turned in her best work for “teachers whose admiration and praise” she hoped to gain. She also stated, “Friendship isn’t necessarily conducive to that … you need a degree of formality [in the staff-student relationship], and friendship doesn’t permit that.” However, I find I work even harder to prove myself to the professors that I am close with. When I turn in an assignment that is subpar to my usual work, I am disappointed in myself, and I feel bad for even turning in a low quality assignment to someone I respect so much.

On the opposing side, some academics view friendships with students as a positive. Benjamin Poore, a teaching fellow in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary, explained how some disciplines of study lend themselves to a more social dynamic between professors and students, “[A seminar style class creates] a sort of synthetic form of sociability, something that’s almost like a friendship but is not that as well.” Professor of behavioral ecology at the University of Sheffield, Tim Birkhead, stated that “the verbal interaction between student and tutor is absolutely vital for [undergraduates’] development.”

Instead of relying on professors’ experiences from other universities, I wanted some perspective from a JCU professor, considering the University prides itself on making students feel valued and supported. I reached out to one of my favorite professors, Colin Swearingen, to discuss his views on student and professor friendships, both in person and online.

“I think it is possible to have a [non-romantic] relationship with students, especially when you have unique experiences,” said Swearingen. “For instance, if you go on an immersion. You get to know students on a slightly different level than what you get in class. The same could be said when you have students in multiple classes and you are advising and mentoring them. And in a lot of ways, you are invested in what they do post-graduation.”

He stressed the importance of remaining fair to all students. Having an open door policy when he is in his office and responding quickly to all students’ emails are tactics he uses to ensure this fairness.

When discussing online communication, he said, “My typical policy on Facebook is I do not to accept friend requests, unless they graduated or if I went to Honduras with them. For Twitter, I’m not going to block students or anything like that. I don’t think students view that as a platform for communication. I try to keep boundaries for how students communicate with me.”

This friendship quandary is not exclusive to me; other students also seem to face this too. Recent JCU grad and former managing editor of The Carroll News, Julie Hullett ’18, said, “I think any good student would run into this because they spend a lot of time with their professors.”

Another JCU student, Kyle Blasinsky ’20, explained his thoughts: “In college, you are adults and meant think freely. Especially in niche fields, these are the people you are going to be working with in labs or writing research papers with down the line. So who is to say you can’t craft a friendship with another adult?”

“Everyone has that same opportunity to go talk with a professor. Swearingen is a good example — if you like data and analytics, then go talk to him. If you want prelaw, go talk to Stiles. And if you craft a friendship out of that, then great, but everyone has that access,” Blasinsky continued.

Additionally, several other students mentioned different stories or personal experiences they have had with JCU professors that have shaped their time at Carroll, helped them choose their majors or given them a sense of comfort and a feeling of belonging at the school. These experiences created a deeper bond between the students and their professors that go beyond the typical academic relationship.

Finally, it is important to note that sexual harassment and sexual assault do exist. This complicates relationships between professors and students even more, and creates a whole new set of issues.

However, when I look at the prospect of professors and students having informal relationships, I lean on the side that friendships are acceptable. Having close relationships with those who teach you helps to build your confidence as a student and gives you people to turn to when you are faced with a challenging situation. Having professors’ support helps students develop, motivates them to turn in high quality work and allows them to engage in thoughtful, adult discussions.