By Sarah Wright
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A Balancing Act
Unless you went to a pretty relaxed school, or are currently attending a very large university, your relationship with your professors is probably unlike any teacher-student relationship you've had before. In some ways, professors are more peer-like in college than they are in high school. They don't have the same disciplinary authority, and we tend to spend less time around them. Plus, they don't have to put up the same professional boundaries that high school teachers have to.
If you ever have the opportunity to have a non-academic chat with a professor, you should take advantage of it. Not only is it a good idea to get to know your instructors on a more personal level, but it's also good practice for the office party-type scenarios you'll encounter once you graduate. Since these are casual situations, it's fine to relax and enjoy yourself in a way you wouldn't in class. But that doesn't mean that anything goes. Here are some tips to avoid a potentially embarrassing situation.
Keep it light.
You wouldn't want to have to discuss your day job during off hours, so why force your professors to do so? If you want to talk about class, go to office hours. A party situation should be for more informal, friendly conversation. This isn't to say that you should avoid academic subjects to the point where you'll change a conversation topic if something comes up naturally. But don't corner your English lit instructor and deliver a monologue on your interpretation of Paradise Lost. Using social situations as an opportunity to impress people is kind of tacky, and it's best not to get in the habit of being too aggressive.
Sure, it's not a job interview, but that doesn't mean that the same conventions that govern other casual social situations apply at parties with faculty. Don't drink too much, even if there's an open bar and the chair of the physics department is currently experimenting with alcohol's effect on gravity. You could be relying on some of your professors for grad school or job recommendations, and it's best that they get the impression that you're a self-possessed, interesting and competent person, rather than a child who's out of their depth in adult situations.
Would you say that to your mom?
A good rule of thumb is to not say anything to a professor you wouldn't say to your parents. If you have a remarkably open line of communication with your parents, think instead about what you wouldn't want to say to a boss, or a significant other's parents. Yes, you can have a friendly relationship with your professors, but that doesn't make them your peers. Describing the wild party you went to the night before is only going to make you look childish.
Use your social skills.
If you're still under the impression that age automatically grants maturity and poise, you should dispense with that notion immediately. Socially awkward people don't have to be our peers. Sometimes, they're actually older than us. It's not always easy to come up with a topic of conversation with someone who is 10+ years older than you. But developing the ability to be easy in conversation with just about anyone is valuable, and you may as well practice while you're in college.
It's always a good idea to consider how your behavior as a student impacts your instructors.