On talking to your professor outside of class


Andrew Hoffman ’24 is a government and public policy double major from Chicago, IL. Email Andrew at ajhoffman01@wm.edu.

The views expressed in the article are the author’s own.

For a long time now, I’ve been having different variations of the same nightmare. I’m sitting at the reception of my own brother’s wedding in a beautiful white-tablecloth ballroom. The lights begin to dim to Etta James’ “At Last” (or Elton John’s “Your Song,” or sometimes Christina Perri’s “A Thousand Years”), and he takes the center floor to have the first dance of his new marriage. Then, as I turn my head leftward always left, never right I suddenly notice that I’m sitting next to my professor.

Even as I type this, just thinking about it, my palms begin to sweat, my heart races, my breath becomes erratic. It’s not the same professor each time. Sometimes it’s a teacher from high school. But they’re always sitting there, silently, giving me a cordial smile and a pleasant “Hi, Andrew. How are you?”

I rarely remember what happens next, except for the vague perception that I made a billion devastating social blunders. Should I not have asked how they know my brother? Was that rude? Did I come on too strong? Why did I tell that story?

Last semester, my nightmare literally became reality. I was at a urinal in Blow Memorial Hall, doing my business, when I looked over my left shoulder and saw my professor doing his. Seeing someone I know in the bathroom and seeing a professor outside of class both independently rank on my list of Top Ten Social Fears. For both scenarios to occur in the same moment caused every mental faculty I had to rupture and explode.

 I panicked. Should I say hi, I thought. I don’t want to be rude. But “Hi”? Just a mere “Hi, Professor?” This man is a champion of liberal arts, a fountain of knowledge, Andrew. He will not be satisfied with your mere hello. What are you, an idiot?

My professor silently made his way over to the sink, and when I turned around and began to zip up my pants, we suddenly made eye contact through the mirror. He wore a gasping expression, and I realized that this was as awful for him as it was for me. 

I needed to get out of there. I needed to cut the tension with something witty and amicable, something casual but spectacular. I needed to say something genius. But as he dried his hands on a paper towel and I buckled my belt, the unfortunate words that tumbled out of my mouth– the words I will never be able to take back were: 

“Geez, professor! We’ve gotta stop meeting like this!”

 I regretted it instantly. The line itself is bad, but the delivery was even worse. I said it loudly, with emphasis and a chuckle, like I was on a bad sitcom and there was a live audience in the stalls.

“Yeah… yeah, I guess we do,” he said. He then gave a frantic, nervous laugh, bolted through the door, and we never spoke again.

I’ve stayed up long nights thinking about why I said this. It’s true, we had seen each other in the bathroom before, but why would I mention that? Why would I say that? I don’t think I had ever before, in my entire life, said “geez.” Why was this the right time to try it? 

But the inner-workings of the human mind are a mystery. And I will never know the answers to these questions.

I don’t fear my professors, but there’s something paralyzing about seeing them outside the classroom. When I ran into another, he asked me how my weekend was, and I gave a five-minute response that involved a nuanced review of the new Batman movie. Another time, I gave the key details of an obscure unsolved colonial murder. My friend once saw her professor after class and fell down a flight of stairs, injuring her knee, but pretended she was fine, thinking it would be less embarrassing. 

Another friend had a similar experience. She was typing something on her phone when she ran into her professor physically ran into her professor in Colonial Williamsburg. 

“Oh, sorry professor!” she said, but he gave her a blank stare in return and walked off in the other direction. 

She thought it was odd, so later that week she jokingly brought it up at office hours and apologized again. 

“Ah, yes, that!” he said bluntly. “I just have a policy. I don’t acknowledge my students outside class or office hours. It’s just embarrassing for both of us.”

I think this rule might be extreme. I like all my professors and enjoy talking to them. (Especially the ones who happen to read through the Flat Hat opinions articles. Those professors are the best!) But in the long months I’ve had to process “We’ve gotta stop meeting like this!” the nightmares have heightened, and I’ve realized that sometimes it is embarrassing to both. 

We all want to seem distinct and interesting, but that doesn’t mean you need to tell your professor why you started collecting baroque eggs, or the last time you replaced a wheel on your car. And yet, as I write this, I imagine such conversations are happening in coffee shops all across Williamsburg awkward, terrible conversations about Shakespeare, or the architecture of Argentina, or the chemicals in a can of Coca-Cola. These are conversations in which angsty college students are trying to impress their professors with their intelligence, instead of talking to them like humans.

So sometimes a mere “How are you, professor?” is enough. 

And if you happen to be in the bathroom, it’s better to stay silent altogether.



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