On my first day of first-year classes, I walked into Baker 200 to a standing-room-only crowd. Despite arriving early to class, I look through the packed CHEM 2070 class, scouring for a free seat. Some students sat on the floor, while others spread out into the wings of the balcony. My transcript states that the two lectures combined had a final enrollment of 784 students, but due to heavy dropping after the first prelim, there may have been closer to 1,000 enrolled Cornellians on that first day. My other STEM foundation courses had similar enrollment patterns: in my freshman fall, my only class with less than 100 people was my First-year Writing Seminar.
I came from a high school with 78 people in my graduating class. My teachers knew exactly who I was, either from teaching my sister in previous years or hearing about me through the grapevine. At college, particularly in my STEM classes, I was in the big leagues, writing my student identification number before my name on exams.
I had always hoped that college would be a place where I could really get to know my professors. Unlike high school, where students are distinctly and legally children, college seemed to be a more equalizing place where instructors and students could meet as peers. Before coming here, I imagined chatting with my professors in their offices between classes, or at least being able to exchange a wave in the halls. That might sound like a naïve vision of college, but it isn’t far from reality for my friends who attend small liberal arts schools. One good high school friend of mine, who now attends Colby College, says that she and her peers regularly grab coffee with their professors, attend dinner parties at their houses or even babysit their kids.
Cornell’s student-instructor culture is vastly different, however, especially in the large departments and STEM classes. With the large (and growing) student population, there just aren’t enough faculty to facilitate meaningful relationships in classes unless the subject is niche and the class is small. Moreover, while Ithaca isn’t New York City, the city is large enough that there isn’t the small-town phenomenon of bumping into professors out and about.
Yet the distance between faculty and student isn’t universal within Cornell. Last year, an acquaintance mentioned that he was having dinner at a professor’s house later that week. I was shocked. Most of my professors didn’t know my name. Now that I’m a sophomore, I’m starting to understand though. The STEM teaching culture at Cornell discourages student-instructor connection — and not without reason.
With so many students in STEM fields, it’s understandable that many discussion sections are taught by TAs rather than faculty. Compared to my friends’ experiences in other majors, however, the STEM TAs are more likely to be graduate students and not peers. While my friends may see their TAs out at social events, I know that I will never cross paths with mine outside of class.
As pre-med and pre-graduate school students search for letters of recommendation and research placements, I can understand the weariness to connect on a professor’s part. To be completely honest, many of my attempts at connecting with faculty have come from self-serving goals rather than intellectual curiosity — it’s only human to seek strategic relationships. However, I still wish professors seemed more interested in getting to know me. Sure, I could attend every office hour and stop by before class, but I feel that most Cornell professors don’t want that. Instructor time already feels stretched thin with the large queues of students waiting to ask questions, so spending time discussing nonacademic matters feels disrespectful. I certainly prefer being anonymously distant to being recognizably annoying.
As I’ve aged past some of the foundational STEM courses into more niche subjects, I’m starting to see how my future classes may allow for better relationships with my instructors. Perhaps it is just a waiting game, not something to strategize or plan for. Until then, I’ll continue to daydream about midwinter dinner parties in cozy upstate homes filled with the murmur of conversation, scholarly and colloquial alike.
Julia Poggi is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]. The Outbox runs every other Sunday this semester.