take professor to lunch
Credit: Sammie Yoon

As I filled out course evaluations last semester, praying that my finals saved my grades, I started to reminisce on the professors that I have had at Penn. It was interesting that I could not stop writing for some professors, while I was trying to force words for others. It was like I didn’t even know them.

While ability to teach and passion for the subject were the most important factors, they were not what made the class or the professor memorable. It went a little beyond that. For classes that I found memorable, I not only had great professors but I also knew them personally. I relished hearing stories about their dog Bailey or their college years. This in turn made them quite friendly and approachable. 

I knew them and they knew me. I did not feel like a number. They did not seem like a human form of their curriculum vitae. All in all, they made Penn feel like a smaller and less daunting place. 

It’s surprising that I want to know the subject just as much as I want to know why my professors love that subject. What drives them to wake up every day? What was their college experience like? Did they struggle in college or life? I want to have candid conversations with these accomplished professors. I want to know the humans behind the desks and professional attire.

Knowing professors personally plays an immense role in creating a better educational experience. When they open up, we can start to see the similarities between us and they become more relatable. They become easier to approach and thus, it’s easier for us to ask them questions whether that is about the class or life advice.

In fact, studies have found that student-faculty interactions enhance student achievement and motivation. A study in the College Student Journal found that knowing just one professor well made students more satisfied with their college experience and motivated them to pursue their careers further.

For Wharton junior Daim Malik, the Take your Professor out to Lunch program provided him an avenue to get to know his professors better.

“The program's great because there aren't any assumed roles once you sit down for lunch or dinner," Malik said. "You both set the tone for the conversation and it really helps you realize how much the professor and you are alike.” Malik went on say how he bonded with his professor over Manchester United. 

Some might fear the disintegration of a professional relationship between a professor and student which would reduce the authority and respect of a professor. I’ll be honest: My respect for a professor goes up exponentially if they can open up about their struggles because it shows perseverance and resilience. Furthermore, it’s inspiring to know that their path was not a straight line and that they have still managed to accomplish so much. And just because a professor tells us about their college anatomy class does not mean that we are now on a first name basis. They will be still be addressed as Professor. 

But getting to know professors can be very difficult in many classes. Many people have suggested that office hours are a great time to talk to professors. However, this simply doesn’t hold true for many classes at Penn. How am I supposed to get to know my professor when there are 20 people in the room trying to get a better grasp on magnetism? What conversation can you have knowing that you are one of many on the queue with five to 10 minute designations?

In many groups, including the Undergraduate Assembly, we’ve had conversations about improving the relationship between professors and their pupils.

The revamped "Take Your Professor to Lunch" program certainly makes great strides in bridging the gap between faculty and students. I commend the administration for supporting this initiative and I highly encourage everyone to take advantage of this opportunity. At the very least, it’s free food!

But that’s just the start. I think all of us should view this program as a start of a conversation rather than a one-time lunch. That is, a conversation between faculty and students.

For professors, we really want to know who you are as people. We want life advice from you. So don’t be afraid to incorporate your dog Bailey into lectures or digress for a bit talking about your struggle in a particular class after giving back exams. 

And all this applies not only to faculty, but to administrators and staff as well. I was most comfortable giving suggestions on how we can better Penn after I got to know you personally through meetings. So I encourage you, if you have time and your schedule permits, to go out to campus events and meet students.

These are seemingly small changes, but I can assure you, they will have a profound impact on a student’s experience in class and ultimately, their time at Penn.

JAY SHAH is a College junior from New Hyde Park, N.Y. in the Behavioral Basis of Behavior Program. He is the Vice President of the Undergraduate Assembly. His email is shahjay@sas.upenn.edu. "Shah Says" usually appears every other Thursday.

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