Encouraging Informality

Casual student-instructor socialization outside the classroom is critical to a fulfilling college experience.

By Henry Cantor

I’ve lost my plurality of identity while at UChicago. I feel like a monolith: strictly defined by my character as a student. Consequently, my social interactions are dictated by this identity, especially with adults. Our university is a knowledge economy in which students are consumers who solicit the production of goods and services from our faculty. While I may be superimposing Marx onto a seemingly innocuous structure, I think our position as students lends an imperial authority on our professors. I encourage students, faculty, and the University’s policies to prioritize the synchronicity of students and faculty socialization.

I remember that feeling in high school when I saw my English teacher at Party City: “Can they leave the school?!” This type of shock has followed me to college. Students and faculty exist in disparate realms, and there’s something fundamentally strange about being assigned to a realm where I engage with adults strictly in a mode of exchange. This mode of exchange creates an impersonal social orientation endemic to universities: Adults are seen as the incarnation of research and knowledge and exist to deposit their curriculum into students. As such, we often engage with faculty in one-directional discourse: question and answer, which gives our relationships a transactional character.

Over the last few months, I’ve enjoyed trying to deconstruct the formality inherent in this intellectual exchange. I’m eager to escape the student vernacular, putting curse words on sabbatical for twenty minutes. 

The University should adopt “Take a Faculty to Lunch or Dinner,” a university-funded program practiced at Dartmouth, Yale, Ohio State University, and University of Pennsylvania, among other recognizable institutions. These universities have a shared policy: sponsored vouchers, at least once per term, that cover the expenses of at least one student and one professor dining off-campus. Dartmouth describes their program as “designed to encourage undergraduate students and faculty to have substantive conversations outside of the classroom, engaging around topics of academic interests, future studies, and general life experiences.” Dartmouth offers a $30 voucher per person to be used Monday through Friday, allowing a maximum of three students and one professor per meal at either a fine-dining restaurant at the Hanover Inn or their campus food hall.

UChicago should facilitate a similar program to encourage student-faculty relationships unbridled by classroom evaluation and regulation, especially since we are already plagued by a reputation as socially inept students, well-versed in everything but eye contact. 

Though not administrative, I suggest professors also begin to reconfigure social norms. By referring to faculty only by their earned degrees, we are encouraged to see them as strictly defined by their intellectual labor. Instead, I encourage faculty members to let students refer to them by first-name. My Sosc professor prefers this address, and it certainly is not a demerit to his credentials. Rather, the lack of formality creates a more accessible and inviting learning environment. 

As for students, I encourage you all to find ways to bridge these disparate realms. Distance yourself from the structural barriers between you and your professor: Propose office hours outside of a laboratory or office, invite a professor to coffee and correspond via email with any lingering questions. Like many of you, I’m passionate about passion. I could listen to a lecture on Turkish weaving if the lecturer were emphatic and captivating enough to convince me to care about nomadic weaving motifs. I think many of us view our professors as an auditory machine, and we aren’t afforded the conversational freedom to understand how or why they acquired their knowledge, specialty, and passion. 

The modalities of student-professor interactions need to be expanded. I’m looking for mentors, not only teachers, and our school should do more to recognize the value of social interactions rather than just modes of knowledge exchange. 


Henry Cantor is a first-year in the College.