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04 March 2013

The False Dichotomization of Teacher-Student Relations

Professors like to worry about the boundaries between themselves and their students. I've written about it. SociologySource has podcasted about it. John the SLACer has a couple posts on the topic. I'm increasingly convinced, however, that dichotomizations like profession/personal[1], student/teacher, and front-stage/back-stage are problematic in post-secondary education. By compartmentalizing and fragmenting our lives, we educators break down the pedagogical milieu that makes college unique. This is doubly true for those of us who work at liberal arts institutions. I suspect that the concern is part of a larger k-12-ization[2] of higher ed., an infiltration of a set of once-unheard-of ideas into colleges and universities in a post-NCLB world. (See here.) Along with standardized testing and value-added language, concerns of appropriate boundaries are seeping into our awareness and conversations. But, college is not "high school just a bit harder," and it certainly isn't "high school, part two." College is qualitatively different than the type of education that goes on at the primary and secondary levels. One way that it is different is that the students are adults, no longer children. It's tough to overstate the significance of this. There are very good arguments to be made for disconnecting adult teachers from their minor students, but those arguments mostly fall apart when the students age into adulthood. That said, the student/professor relationship is still one that is--even if lamentably--imbued with a power differential, which requires caution.

[1] In the broader context, the professional/personal dichotomy serves to alienate us further as workers from the products of our labor. In this way, the professional/personal dichotomy serves as a culturally hegemonic tool of capitalism. The product in this case is not the student. Education is not about satisfying customers. Instead, the product is the knowledge or wisdom generated by the students.

[2] h/t Stephanie McClure. My stab at it was "high-schoolification."

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