by Daniel Huang
Rachel Kowal sits at her desk in a nice corner office on the 4th floor of Tisch Hall. A professor at New York University for over 25 years, she has taught hundreds of Stern students in a variety of different courses related to business and law. Many have stayed in touch – one of her earlier students is now her family accountant.
In class, she tells funny stories, poses interesting questions, and encourages students to share their thoughts. It’s hard to believe that outside the classroom, she describes herself as an introvert.
“Whenever I’m not teaching, I just like to be by myself,” Kowal reveals. “But from my first day, whenever I’m in class, it’s like this other part of me shines through. It’s like I’m another person.”
The teacher-student dynamic is an interesting one. As the natural leaders of the classroom, professors are responsible for any class, no matter the size or mix of personalities. However, something in the nature of the classroom raises a wall around professors that students have a hard time scaling.
It’s not just difficult to imagine an outgoing professor as an introvert in her other life, it’s that we struggle to imagine she has another life at all.
“The first time a student sees his professor at a grocery store, it’s like, ‘Wait you eat?’” said Fabienne Doucet, a Steinhardt professor in the Teaching and Learning department.
But professors do exist as human beings outside the classroom, complete with hobbies, aspirations, even family and friends. As students, we rarely consider their out-of-classroom counterparts, but they rarely stop thinking about us.
Doucet says she is always brainstorming new ways to make the classroom experience more positive for her students.
“If I do it right, once everything has gelled, it’s just beautiful,” she said. “It’s this really nice feeling, like we’re all in it together. Everyone is learning and growing.”
As Doucet describes the moment, the smile on her face spreads wider and wider.
“It’s like when you’re running and you’re feeling tired but then all of a sudden you hit your stride, your sweet spot, and then you’re just…going. I love it,” she said.
It’s easy for us to move on. After every break, we enjoy the luxury of a fresh start. But many professors will stay in the same room, teach the same material to the same rows of desks. Only the faces have changed.
“The best is when students come back and tell me, ‘Okay I get it, I understand why you made us do this,’” said Rose Vukovic, who teaches Adolescent Development in Steinhardt’s Teaching & Learning program.
But as with any job, there is also unavoidable muck: students using cellphones, dozing off, writing a paper the night before.
“I was giving a lesson in this large lecture hall one day,” begins Doucet. “All of a sudden, out of the corner of my eye I see a student take a picture of her friend.”
She looked at me, her eyebrows raised in mock surprise.
“‘Can I get one too?’” Doucet remembered saying to the student as she struck a pose.
The class laughed. Doucet had obviously mastered comedy at the head of the classroom.
“But then afterwards I told her, “Okay, you really can’t do that. It doesn’t even make sense.’”
But interactions with students may not always be so harmless.
“I had a student a few years ago who was suicidal,” says Doucet. “Her mom would call and ask me all these questions about what she was doing.”
Eventually, Doucet felt the best she could do was refer the student to the right people.
“I just couldn’t be part of it any further. I didn’t think I was qualified enough to handle the situation,” she says.
Cases like this blur the boundaries that define a professor’s responsibilities.
Another time, one of Doucet’s students simply stopped coming to class. After not having heard from him in several weeks, she sent an email to his father.
“He replied with this really brief message saying his son had come home for the semester.” Doucet sighs. “I felt like as long as I knew he was alive and with his family, I could breathe. But I was still worried about him. You don’t just stop thinking about someone.”
Transience also defines the teacher-student relationship. A semester often passes much quicker for the professor who feels she is just getting to know her class.
“One of the biggest challenges for me is just feeling like I don’t have enough time,” says Vukovic. “Sometimes there just aren’t enough hours in a day to get students where I know they can go.”
Vukovic describes a student she had last semester who wasn’t cooperating at first.
“So I talked to her, tried some new things, and they totally worked! She started paying attention and her work got a lot better.”
David Holland, a math professor in the Courant Institute agreed.
“It’s amazing to see someone you’ve had in class just catch on fire and follow their trajectory,” he said.
Then, he summed up what it meant to be a professor.
“I want to help.”