I have a professor I really care about and our professional relationship as a student/teacher has been growing in a positive direction. The professor has been really kind to me in many ways including giving personal/academic advise and providing motivation towards certain goals.

My professor has been gone, without word, for an extended period of time...

I got stupid and curious, and using Google, I figured out the professor lost an important loved one.

I now feel ashamed because I know I violated the professors privacy; however, now that I know my first instinct is of empathy and to give my condolences to my professor.

Now the more I think about it, I don’t want to say anything so that I don’t disrespect our relationship, but I feel that giving my condolences is the “right” thing to do when someone you care about is in pain, but I only am aware of the situation because I already disrespected our relationship.

I’m frustrated and confused. Could any lecturers or professors give me some guidance?

  • What did Google reveal to you? Was it a newspaper article, a university press release, or one of the professor's twitter posts? If it was widely published information, the professor would understand how a student came to know about it. If was the professor's own social media, well, then it's still "public", but maybe not as intentionally so. May 5 '18 at 12:01
  • The searches started out as "professor + lecture" then digressed to "professor + emergency", but then I realized family emergency, so then I searched for "professor + hometown area + obituary". I really was hoping to not find anything because I didn't want anything to be wrong, but I did find it, and it made me extremely sad.
    – user84539
    May 5 '18 at 12:31

I'm not sure that you 'violated the professor's privacy'. Googling his name seems altogether appropriate.

Still, I wouldn't say anything. Since he hasn't told you (and no one else has told you), it seems he doesn't want to discuss it with you. I would respect this. Thinking back to when I taught classes, I certainly would have appreciated the effort, but it also would make me just a tiny amount uncomfortable, particularly since I hadn't announced the death.

By the way, I'm assuming you're an undergraduate and you only know him as a teacher. If you are a grad student and he is a prof in your subfield, I still would err on the side of not saying anything, but it could go either way depending on the personalities involved.

  • 2
    Snooping around is a violation of privacy. This is rather evident from the fact that you would have felt "uncomfortable" because you "hadn't announced the death".
    – user9646
    May 5 '18 at 9:13
  • 5
    @NajibIdrissi It seems not absurd to me that the searches could have been done in good faith (maybe trying to find if the professor was visiting at another university), but unintentionally revealed more personal information. I think that's the context this answer is written in.
    – user10060
    May 5 '18 at 12:06
  • 2
    To double down on what @Science12345 said, work is often where people can escape the grief for a while by concentrating on something else. If you bring it up when they aren't prepared, they might well start crying in front of you, an awkward experience that's best avoided...
    – nengel
    May 6 '18 at 4:38

I agree that making specific reference to the information you found is a step too far - it took some Googling to figure it out, the professor hasn't shared it with you, and the professor may very well wish to keep their personal life and work life separate.

However I do think you could send an email simply noting that you've noticed the professor has been gone, you wish them well, and you appreciate their kindness, advice, motivation, etc. with a specific example or two. It always feels nice to know you've had a positive impact on someone, and it's a way for you to do something kind for someone who has been kind to you without violating their privacy.

  • 1
    This is a very kind and thoughtful advice.
    – The Doctor
    May 12 '18 at 23:47

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