I recently had an experience that I suspect every instructor can relate to – I was just finishing up office hours and heading home when a student stopped by ‘just to chat’. Nearly an hour (and four or five topics) later, I was finally out the door. In hindsight, it struck me just how much trouble I had wrapping up that conversation, not because of the student, but because of myself.
There was no moment in which I felt that it was right to shut the discussion down. I genuinely like it when students are passionate enough about ideas to want to talk about them, so it felt like part of my duty to be there. I also didn’t have any imminent demands on my time, so it’s not like I had somewhere else I had to be. Even still, it felt like an imposition, like it was just too much.
I realized that the reason it never occurred to me to put a stop to things is that I had never really put much thought into my boundaries with students. Instead of articulating a philosophy or defining my principles, I just approached every interaction on a case-by-case basis. If a student wanted to talk about class, we talked about class. If they wanted professional advice, I could do that too. If I knew them well enough, I might even be able to provide some guidance about everyday problems. Students who would be better served by talking to trained professionals, whether that be in the counseling center or financial aid, would get connected to the appropriate people. But nothing was ever systematic or deliberate, and so everything was – at least potentially – a slippery slope. And my informal conversations with colleagues lead me to believe that I am not alone in my laissez-faire approach.
After some soul- (and a little Google) searching, I found an article that got me thinking about my own boundaries. First, I had to decide the topics of conversation that were and were not appropriate. That decision involved more than just thinking about how much personal disclosure I was comfortable with – it also required that I think about where I could offer expertise and where I could not. Next, I had to think about how much time I could commit to any given conversation. Again, this is more complicated than it might seem at first; busy office hours require a significantly different set of thresholds than unexpected pop-ins, all of which need to be balanced against other (non-student) commitments. Finally, I had to figure out a way to communicate these boundaries to my students. To be honest, this is the step I’m still trying to work out. Obviously, having something in my course syllabi is important, but I’m not yet certain how I would like to frame it. It also seems crucial that students who are not currently in my courses have a sense of this information as well, but the appropriate mechanism for distributing this information is far from obvious.
It is my hope that wrestling with these questions will help me create an environment that is more equitable for both my students and myself. In the process, I hope that it will help me be more focused and engaged in the time that I can actually spend with my students.