COFFEE WITH STUDENTS: THE IDEA OF MENTORSHIP

I was having coffee with an American visiting scholar and a local colleague from UB, and, I’m not sure in what exact moment of the conversation, he asked whether we had the habit of taking coffee with students, meaning the teachers in each Department. My colleague quickly replied “no, we don’t” and I answered almost on top of her words, “yes, I do.” I didn’t get a chance to ask the visitor why he’d asked, but I assume he wanted to be given the ‘rules’. ‘Rules’ we don’t have, which is why the whole process is complicated.

I believe that there is room for friendship between teachers and students, and this often starts with a coffee. My own experience is that this first coffee can lead to personal, long-lasting friendship although there is always a little bit of mentorship in it. If only because of the obvious age difference and life experience.

This means that the teacher must always keep a little distance and, this is very important, never appear to ‘need’ the friendship with the student –this even sounds scary to me. We, however, are also human beings and, well, we do have emotional needs which may not always be under control. Let me clarify for the dirty-minded that I absolutely abhor the idea of sex between teachers and students as it involves too many power issues. If the attraction is there, and it is genuine, then it’ll have to wait until the pair in question no longer share a classroom. There, I’ve said it. Now, let the gossip flow…

My Department takes office hours very seriously and we’re always available for students. Mostly they come because they have a problem but I simply love it when the resolution of the problem ends in friendly conversation and, indeed, when they simply drop in for a chat. I like very much talking with my students and I must also say that I have to talk to them, because without a minimum communication with them the intergenerational connection would be lost. I really hate it when I have to rush or finish a good conversation because I have other things to do, usually far more boring.

The next step is obvious: whether a student is in my class or not, if there’s a chance of a more relaxed conversation over coffee I take it. At the university cafeteria for, as a rule, coffee elsewhere is best once the teacher is no longer assessing the student –in individual cases, I mean. I see no problem in meeting groups of students for socialising outside the university, though I realise that coffee or, even better, dinner with a whole MA class is much easier and comfortable than organising something with a handful of under-grads. Likewise, coffee outside the university with a doctoral student is a common matter, whereas meeting an undergrad needs, somehow, justification.

Here’s the tricky matter: who takes the first step. I think it should be the teacher. If a student in my class asks me to meet for coffee, this might be misconstructed as a form of undue flattery (or, em, sucking up to the teacher). This is also why I tend to ask individual students once I’m no longer they’re teacher. It’s not easy. Or I should say it’s particularly difficult with heterosexual boys –let me be honest. Girls and male gay students usually accept coffee with no second thoughts (sorry, I don’t know about lesbian girl students as I don’t know who they might be…). Boys, even when they positively know that the teacher, that old thing, cannot, surely, be after them, always hesitate a little bit… Unless they are post-grads with a good grasp of how mentorship works and quickly see the purely friendly reasons for the invitation.

You may believe me or not, but my habit is to invite to my office or to coffee students for whom I think I can do something positive. This is what mentorship is about. This is not about picking up the cleverest ones but those with whom good personal rapport may lead to enjoyable conversation and whatever I can do for them. I’m happy to receive in exchange a little room for communication, as the simple truth is that with my colleagues most talk is about bureaucratic matters –hardly at all books, films or things that matter outside the university. And, yes, in the end it’s for the student’s benefit as we teachers are very often asked to provide references for other universities, jobs, etc. Also part of mentorship.

I have no idea why the university is often so uptight and has so little room for socialising among teachers and students. Whenever I have seen the chance, I have asked my students to celebrate all together the end of the semester. We don’t have a place for that in my school and I use the classroom for partying, for which I’m frowned upon by the caretakers. So sorry… (not really!)

I’m SO looking forward to the final party in June with my Potterheads!! And, yes, also to the many coffees I intend to share along the semester…

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4 thoughts on “COFFEE WITH STUDENTS: THE IDEA OF MENTORSHIP

  1. It is a tricky situation as – especially with the very young i.e. first or second year – students the power issue looms large. It’s obviously simpler when you’re dealing with postgrad students as they are not so overawed by our age and presumed knowledge (in that order, I think). However, surely the REAL problem is that we as teachers don’t socialise all that much amongst ourselves either. When you visit other universities abroad and see how they organize informal talks and have a glass of wine and a chat afterwards, it makes you wonder why we are always in so much of a tearing hurry to leave our colleagues and so reluctant to chat about our research (with notable exceptions of course).

  2. Felicity,
    I have always wondered about our very limited socialisation with other colleagues. I don’t know if it has to do with the UAB’s being a campus university and people living far from it, or with local cultural habits. I mean that we Catalans tend to go home as fast as possible after work, not quite what happens, for instance, in Madrid. Yesterday, by the way, I met my ex-MA students for ‘merienda’ at 17:30, which was lovely, but I finally got home at 20:45… Not something to be done everyday!!
    More on coffee, teachers and students in a couple of days…
    Sara
    Sara

  3. I find students are usually extraordinarly shy with teachers (or with most teachers) and that teachers seem to think that socialising with students may bring more unforeseen and unwanted trouble than any help or pleasure. Which may be true in most cases, above all if your are the exception in socialising with them, and especially if you lack a clear decalogue about how to handle trouble— but then you lose the chance of the many benefits which might come from more socialising, perhaps great frienships, who knows, but at least some interesting relationships and a more interesting and less rigid and stuffy social life at university. Well, let me congratulate you about your socialising with students if you find you can manage it, as you seem to be quite happy about the results and to be the kind of person for whom that works. It’s not everyone, definitely, from what I see! And another thing, let me congratulate you (once again? I don’t know if I’ve done this before but I have often thought about it) for your ability to write in a fresh, direct, intelligent and articulate manner about SO MANY aspects of academic life and teaching.

  4. Thanks for your kind words, once more, and for your loyalty to my blog.
    Socialising with students does bring trouble indeed, beginning with lots of gossip… which is why it’s much more complicated for men than for women. And even so, it is difficult.
    I personally worry about the growing age difference. I wonder what people think when they see me having coffee or dinner in the company of much younger people. I guess they assume they’re my children, which is odd as I have no children.
    More about this soon, as you’ll see.
    Sara

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