January 17, 2007
If You Don't Like Dealing With Students, Try Dealing With Clients
Posted by Christine Hurt

I have a secret love for the "First Person" columns in the Chronicle of Higher Education.  This week's article entitled "A Matter of Professionalism" is the second in a series after "Patently Not a Teacher."  The pseudonymous author, Kelly White, is a postdoctoral (t-track job seeking) student in the life sciences who confessed in her first column that she "despises" teaching.  She loves being in the lab and doing research, but she hates teaching.  After describing her anger at what she feels are insipid questions and complaints from students, she confesses

I am facing the realization that I do not have the personality for teaching. Instead of wanting to help and nurture students, I want to kick the little buggers into the deep end and see who bobs up. My personality, which tends toward the aloof, will never please students or their parents. If I stay in academe, teaching will always be the part of the job that I find least pleasant.

As you might expect, her column generated many emails to her telling her to slowly back away from the chalkboard and no harm will come to her. For the students' sake, put the chalk down. Her second column is meant to be her defense and posits the argument that even if one hates teaching, one can still be a good and effective teacher. That may be true, but her defense of herself is not compelling. She wonders, for example, if anyone can "like" their students:

A general definition of "like" is "to be fond of." I suppose in a way, I was fond of those students [who "got it"]. But I did not walk into the classroom on the first day feeling fond of any of them. Why? Because I did not know them, and I still don't. I know their work and maybe a little about what they are planning to do after college. But that's it. For all I know, some of them are sociopaths who have left a trail of amazingly well-concealed bodies and present a shiny facade for my class.

She goes on to explain her personality and how violated she felt when a fellow student started talking to her in an intimate way on the first day of class. I'm assuming that because she descrbies herself as "aloof," that she is in reality "severely aloof." I would think that for most people, our default is to like everyone we come in contact with until experience causes our feelings to change, not the other way around. 

But I find her struggle fascinating not because she is a fellow professor. I find it fascinating because she believes that the way for her to follow her passion of science and research without having to interact with unprepared, demanding students is to (drumroll, please) become an attorney. A patent attorney, to be exact:

With patent law, I would be able to be paid to read about science. And the law represents a profession built on logic and reason. For a person like myself, it represents a way to integrate my organizational skills, my detail-oriented thought processes, and my need for Prada all in one neat package.

I have to say as someone who has been both a practicing lawyer and a professor that the practice of law is not for people who don't like interaction with other people. Clients are much more demanding than even the most high maintenance student that I can imagine. And even though professors sometimes wail that students "act like consumers" or "act like they pay my salary," clients are consumers and do pay attorneys' salaries.  As someone who deeply loves her students but is a bit of an introvert, I cannot imagine that Professor White will find solace from interacting with strangers in patent law.  Although she seems to think that as a patent lawyer, she will just be given a quiet (well-decorated) space to sit and think, I'm afraid she'll be solely disappointed.  If Dr. White believes she is currently inundated with intrusive emails from students, wait until she gets clients and a BlackBerry.

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