As a researcher in a chemistry lab, one of the trickiest things I’ve ever had to puzzle out wasn’t some mysterious chemical reaction, or long and complicated mathematical equation…it was a simple question: how should I act around the students that I’m teaching? Almost every semester, for a period of ten years, I’ve worked side-by-side in the laboratory with a small handful of undergraduate students. The idea is that we take an undergraduate student whose only contact with a chemistry lab has been the carefully-planned, methodical lab exercises in their class, and we throw them into the deep end of chemical research. We give them a research project of their own, and set about teaching them the principles of organic chemistry. We talk about the different chemical manufacturers that could provide starting materials, we show them how to setup various reactions, how to decide on a purification method, how to analyze their final product – it’s a crash course in scientific technique. One of the largest and most important questions I find myself pondering every semester, is this: how close should I be to my students?
Like any other high stress, somewhat hazardous work environment, there is the temptation to become too friendly with your students. You’re with them eight hours each day in the lab, so laughing and carrying on, going to lunch with the group, meeting up with a large group after work to see a movie, all of this could be seen as a natural way to relieve the stress which the days work has brought. It’s a coping mechanism that all students are familiar with and which I, as a teacher, found myself tempted to fall back into. However, having tried both paths – becoming “one of the group” and also trying to remain aloof and a little disconnected, I firmly believe that the most productive path lies in keeping a certain distance from your students. It has nothing to do with being unfriendly or having anti-social tendencies, it’s simply easier for everyone involved.
Speaking for my own experiences, which are in the laboratory – cases arise where the situation turns suddenly a little bit dangerous. You may see your students adding the wrong chemical reagent to a flask, or perhaps using the wrong type of glassware for a certain application. It’s not a question of personal interpretation, it’s a clear set example of doing something in the wrong way, which almost always means the unsafe way. In my experience, if the person you’re about to start correcting is a close friend, it becomes a little difficult. You don’t want to shout at them, and you want to say things in the friendliest way possible, and you don’t want them to feel like they’re not smart enough to figure things out on their own. All of these things become mental speedbumps and the communication isn’t as clear and concise as it could be. While you’re fumbling over what you want to say, maybe even having to rephrase it several ways until it comes out harsher than it should, the process of science is slowed down. It’s a case of the friendship getting in the way of the work, instead of enabling the work.
Don’t get me wrong, I have great respect and admiration for everyone that I work with. We all have to rely on each other to keep the group as a whole safe from harm and in a quality working environment. No-one likes to work with someone who is unfriendly or who is constantly in a bad mood. That’s not what I’m talking about. There should simply be a certain distance between the instructor and the student – largely unspoken, but always present. Both sides respect the other, but when the teacher speaks, it’s understood that the teacher isn’t trying to belittle or argue. He doesn’t have to dress it up in pretty words, it’s clear and concise. When the person you’re trying to direct is a close friend whom you laugh and joke with, that process can be a little clouded.
Everyone wants to get along with their coworkers, and I think that’s great. Everyone wants to make friends, and I respect that as well. However, there is a cutoff point at which further interaction begins to hurt professionalism. Leave the laughs and giggles for when you graduate, at which point I’ll be happy to go to a party with you.