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I am an student and in one of my college courses, the professor seems stressed or frazzled. He is always running late and unprepared, which seems odd because the Powerpoint slides are already done and he uses previous tests and quizzes. The tests, homework, and most of the quizzes are computerized and graded automatically. So, He can't be overwhelmed with grading. Which leads me to believe that he is having problems at home.

My question: would it be appropriate to ask him if he is okay, either by email or face-to-face?

I don't want to invade his privacy but I don't like seeing anyone in distress.

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I recommend you do not mark an answer as accepted so quickly, it will discourage other answers from being posted. –  eykanal Apr 29 at 18:01
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I'd be careful about jumping to conclusions ("which leads me to believe that he is having problems at home"). For example, he might be experiencing stress from conference submission deadlines or grant applications. It's fine to inquire or express sympathy, but it's safest not to assume this is connected with his personal life. –  Anonymous Mathematician Apr 29 at 18:11
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If your goal is to help another human being, then you could just be friendly toward him without prying. If he is having issues, a few friendly or encouraging words might help. There's really no need to go beyond that or to mention that it looks to you like he is having problems. If you are extremely worried that he might be near some kind of psychological breakdown, contact the undergraduate director for that program and let him or her know your concerns. –  Jim Conant Apr 29 at 21:17
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I find this question interesting because of the asymmetry. If the roles were reversed, and a student were showing signs of personal problems that affected their work in a class, I think most people would agree it would be appropriate for the professor to start a conversation. Indeed, many universities give their faculty "Student in Distress" brochures that more or less insist that they do so. Yet the other way around, it's controversial. –  Nate Eldredge Apr 30 at 1:23
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@KateGregory: Well, there are a lot of generalizations in your comment. Many of my students have lived in this town all their lives, whereas I've lived here less than a year. Many have full time jobs, and some are older than me. I'd venture to say many of my students have much stronger support networks than I do. I agree that it's considered "odd" for a student to reach out to a professor, but the asymmetry comes from the authority in the relationship, not because the professor is somehow inherently more likely to have his life together. –  Nate Eldredge Apr 30 at 2:35
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6 Answers 6

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He either has personal issues, or he doesn't focus on teaching.

If he is having personal problems, it is wrong to approach him like a friend and expect him to give details. You are the student and he is the professor, and his personal issues are private and he will share them with someone close if he wants to. As an adult, he probably knows how the process works.

Either way, the only thing that matters is whether he is doing his job properly. If you think he is not doing so, then you should give constructive criticizm, such as when you are in class and you don't understand, you can say that for the last classes you are having difficulties understanding and putting it all together and suggest a method so that you can benefit better from his course. Or, you can send an e-mail about how certain things can be improved without sounding very negative.

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I want to add that although 'you are the student, and he is the professor' I believe that the student's 'personal issues are private', too. Moreover, from the perspective of the student, too, 'the only thing that matters is whether [the professor] is doing his job properly'. –  Jim Raynor Apr 29 at 18:20
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Yes, I know he is adult and knows how the process works. I am not looking for him to spill his guts out to me. I was wanted to know if asking if him if he was okay was appropriate and if it would help him feel better that a someone/student is showing a concern or it might show that his "behaviors" are more outwardly then he realizes. Also, I am not the only student that has made comments. –  Jane Born Apr 29 at 18:41
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@JaneBorn I understand, but we don't know him and you didn't give any details about your relationship with your professor. So we cannot know or estimate how he will react. He can simply thank you for your concern, or he might say that it is none of your business which can lead to problems, considering his possible condition. In such a case, the best way is to keep it simple and keep it professional. And I think the fact that you are asking this question here shows that you don't know how he will react. What I mean is, if there is going to be a talk, it should focus on performance, not privacy. –  Kogesho Apr 29 at 18:52
    
@Kogesho I am not sure how to describe a relationship, if there is even one but I am interactive during class and had a few discussions with him about our similar backgrounds. But its a small class and maybe that is why its more apparent or I feel incline to act on a more personal level. –  Jane Born Apr 29 at 19:05
    
It would be interesting to see questions like this on appropriate behaviour on the proposed Etiquette site on Area51. –  starsplusplus May 1 at 11:06
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This is an incredibly bad idea. While I'm all for developing friendships between faculty and students, this does not seem to be what you're discussing. It's not clear from your question, but you make it sound as though you've never had a conversation with this professor (and if you've had some short ones about the class, that doesn't change my point). EDIT: I see from comments that you have had some more conversations with him. I don't think this changes my underlying point.

In general, you should move very slowly in developing a personal relationship of this sort with a professor. I might have been OK with asking such a question of my advisor by my last year of graduate school (but probably not), but I can't imagine doing it with any other professor earlier in my career. Asking someone you barely know a deeply personal question that could easily be read as an implicit indictment of their teaching (which ultimately, it seems it is) will lead nowhere good. I think the best case scenario is that they laugh it off as eccentric, but the worst case is they're hurt or insulted; you don't want that coming into their mind when they're grading or writing a recommendation later.

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@BenWebster-I see your point and I would try to make it a broad nonspecific question. But I think it is probably best that I leave it alone. Like I mentioned before, I think the smaller class (>10) makes seems a little more personal and it probably be different story if it was large class. –  Jane Born Apr 29 at 21:57
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Professors are human beings, just like everyone else.

If you have a concern about a professor's health or emotional well-being, then there is absolutely no reason not to ask in private. I would recommend doing it face-to-face, as anything said should be an off-the-record issue, an I don't think a faculty member who is having issues will want to "publicize" that in an email.

However, if you are a student of the professor in question (or a subordinate), the professor may not want to reveal any personal issues, again because she might view such sharing as inappropriate. On the other hand, so long as the professor is not a sociopath, she will appreciate the concern you're showing.

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"so long as the professor is not a sociopath". Hmm..... –  Suresh Apr 29 at 17:58
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This answer is fine, but do take care to note that your relationship is a professional one. Your question should be phrased broadly and you should take care not to appear prying. Location, the professor's attitude, gender, the nature of the class, previous interactions; any of these factors can cause a simple inquiry to turn into something uglier. I hate that I have to post this, but particularly in the US issues have been raised over interactions smaller than this. –  eykanal Apr 29 at 18:04
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I guess I kind of knew the answer to my question that its probably better not to say anything since it can be taken as inappropriate question for a student to ask a professor instead of genuine concern. –  Jane Born Apr 29 at 18:54
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On the other hand, so long as the professor is not a sociopath, she will appreciate the concern you're showing. You must have a very loose definition of sociopaths. I don't think it would be sociopathic to read such a question as a hurtful critique of their teaching, or as a totally inappropriate invasion of their privacy. These aren't necessarily helpful, but it doesn't make them sociopathic. –  Ben Webster Apr 29 at 20:25
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It depends on how you ask the question. If you make it sound like you're being a busybody, of course it's going to come across offensive. –  aeismail Apr 29 at 21:10
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Some people are just naturally frazzled. They could be having the greatest and most relaxing day ever, and show up to class 4 minutes late, hair all wild and uncombed, wearing odd socks and having forgotten to bring you your marked assignments. They may be remarkably easy to frazzle or they may not even feel frazzled, they may just look it! Asking if everything is ok, especially if you say why you are worried and point out you see a pattern, will probably offend this person.

Or perhaps something really is bothering your prof. I use "the same slides" every year (except that I read them over, tweak them, add some, rearrange others etc) and reuse some aspects of the tests and quizzes. You may not know this, but that's not the hardest part of teaching. Nor is marking. And the only profs who teach a single course are adjuncts like me who have a whole 'nother life off campus, or super distinguished researchers who've had their load lowered. So you are not the only dance this prof is dancing, and you may not be the most important one, either. Your belief that the workload for this class is easy doesn't mean that the prof's overall workload is easy, by any means.

But hey, perhaps you're a very perceptive person (I'm not, but I know some) and you've nailed it: this prof is going through hell with something personal. I have had to show up and teach while going through hell (a dying parent, for example) and about the worst thing that could have happened is some kid (everyone under 30 is a kid to me) asking me if I'm ok and if there's anything they can do to help. Some kid who doesn't even know me! I'd be so humiliated that my distress had shown through. I get my support from a variety of people, and I choose who I want support from. I would have trouble even stammering through a sentence like "I'm sorry if my performance isn't up to your standard this week, I have a lot on my plate that I would rather not discuss."

I just can't see this question leading to a good place if it was asked of me, even if (and it's a big if) your assumption of a personal problem is in fact accurate. And if it's inaccurate, that's even worse. There's really no upside.

Here's the furthest I think it's ok to go. You're having the usual conversation that you do after class, with questions about your field etc, and the prof either flat out says "I don't have time to discuss this now, I have to go and deal with something" or you get that perception. You could carefully say something like "Sorry, I didn't realize you had less time than usual this week. Hope things let up for you soon." Most likely the prof will just grimace, say something noncommittal, and head out. But there is a chance you'll get a reply like "I hope so, I can't take much more" or "no, I'm afraid it's going to be like this for months and then it will get worse" and those are openings for you to say something pleasantly supportive like "oh dear, I'm sorry to hear that. How can I help?" But without that opening, even if it's obvious to you what's happening, maintain the fiction that it isn't. That can actually be a form of help.

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@KateGregory-I didn't mean to make seem that professors have it easy if the coursework is laid out already. I am sure that there is a lot I don't know about. But then again, I guess I don't understand how he acts so overwhelmed/distracted to tweak the slides or tests. The last test had duplicate questions and questions from previous sections. Oh the other reason I think it is personal cause he let us out of lecture early and was late to lab cause he had to go home. –  Jane Born Apr 29 at 22:59
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Well, as I say, you may be right - you have more information than I do about your prof - and if you're concerned, go ahead and ask GENTLY but only in the moment. Don't ask like "hey, is everything ok about whatever it was you let us go early for a week ago?" React to opportunities to be supportive, but take your cue from the prof. –  Kate Gregory Apr 29 at 23:06
    
I think since I am having doubts and after reading the comments. I think there is too big of chance of it going wrong and I don't want it be awkward the rest of the semester. Side note: he may be distracted or late but he always is dressed nice (tie, sweater, & slacks), clean shaven, and hair done. –  Jane Born Apr 30 at 0:19
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I think we forget that professors also experience a range feelings such as happiness, anxiety, sadness, frustration, etc. The fact that he runs late and is unprepared is not acceptable behavior for a professor. However, I/you can't judge him because we don't know what is happening to him personally or professionally.

Professors are under a great deal from their supervisors, the school, and even the students. There is a possibility his job is in jeopardy & so he may be spending the time searching, rather than preparing. He may be up for a promotion, award or maybe he needs to submit the last chapter of his book that he's struggling to write. Obviously, these are all speculations but my point is it may not be "problems at home" that are stressing him out.

If your relationship with this professor is close, then asking if he is ok, face-to-face only, would be acceptable. The key is express your concern and not make him feel like you're judging him. Let him share what he wants to. If you feel you can, you may offer to help him. It will be his decision whether or not he accepts.

From my personal experience:

I had a very good professor my freshman year, who felt comfortable confiding in me about his professional, & when I graduated his personal challenges. During this time, we have built a friendship of 15+ years.

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After reading the comments and thinking, the conclusion that I have came up with is that everyone is humans and deals with personal or professional issues and that some people are just more compassionate/sympathetic then others. I think that if someone shows genuine concern without being obtrusive to a subordinate or supervisor shouldn't be a problem with the proper approach, timing, and relationship. If a person, does act poorly to a genuine concern then it just shows that the person doesn't know how properly deal with the problems and probably should be a concern to others.

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