Your professor’s house: A brief guide to etiquette

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As the end of the semester appears on the horizon, there may be many of you who, whether through TA positions, a small seminar class, or general enthusiasm for a class’s subject (nerd), will find yourselves invited to a professor’s home for a bit of discussion and light refreshment. This is particularly true for professors who live on College Hill, as moving class to their abode adds only a few minutes to the commute. You may be chomping at the bit to witness the colonial beauty of your instructor’s residence, but, like all things Puritan, visiting a professor’s house isn’t fun and games. It’s fraught with the risk of eternal damnation for the image you’ve carefully crafted throughout a semester’s worth of class meetings. Here are a few conundrums you may encounter, and my recommendations for how to react.

Attire

What ought you wear to a professor’s home? Clearly it ought to be something fairly nice. This means that your “(Blood Alcohol) Concentration Advisor” tank from Spring Weekend is a non-starter. At the same time, you shouldn’t overdress. your get-together is probably taking the place of a normal day of class, so black tie is a bit much. You can get a clue as to what’s acceptable by comparing your clothing to what your professor usually wears to class, and see if you can approximately mimic their sartorial formality. Alternatively, you can damn the torpedoes, show up in pajama pants, and act like everything’s cool (it isn’t).

Food: How Much is Too Much?

Your professor will likely provide you with, at the very least, a plate of cookies or crackers to snack upon whilst you either have a relatively normal class or else relax and discuss whatever subject you and your classmates settle on for the day. Typically, cookies are the food of choice.

Cookies

No white chocolate macadamia nut? The knave!

Obviously, you can’t grab too many. Your articulate critique of capitalism will ring hollow if you attempt to seize the whole platter for yourself. At the same time, you have to have at least one, so as not to insult your host (age-taker of a section of your GPA). You must absolutely have a cookie. If the only choice is one of those weird Italian cookies that are dusty like the desert and twice as dry, you had best suck it up and eat one. You wrote a bullshit essay to get into this school, so there’s no doubt you can feign confection-induced ecstasy for a moment.

The real game begins after you’ve had the first cookie. Supposing you’d like another, how long do you wait? 10 minutes should be a long enough span, but if no one else looks to be going for a second, you’ll likely feel awkward. If possible, wait for one of your classmates to break the standoff by taking a second cookie before you make your move. The length of time you must wait also varies based on how many cookie are left on the platter. The fewer cookies remaining, the more difficult it becomes to take one and maintain the illusion that there are still plenty left for the rest of the class. Note that in the early stages of cookie détente, taking a fragment of a cookie is a neutral action, but if the fragment is one of the last remaining pieces, you run the risk of being an uncouth scavenger. If you fear that your cookie-lust will overpower your political savvy, eat before arriving at the house. Then you can take a cookie or two and watch the rest of the class struggle.

If you’re off meal plan, disregard the above advice and take whatever you can get with abandon. Food isn’t a game for you. Seize any remains on your way out the door. Grab the plate itself, if you can swing it.

Family Members and Pets

Odds are, your professor shares his house with some variety of other living beings (if not, sit close to the door). If your professor has an adorable dog, the temptation is to sit and pet it while trying vaguely to pay attention to class (DO NOT PET THE HUMAN FAMILY MEMBERS). This is generally a sound strategy if the class is large enough, since you can get away with not contributing much to the discussion and occupy yourself with thoughts of what it would be like to be a dog (probably the bomb dig, in my opinion). If there are less than 5 people in the class, take care to keep an ear open to the discussion, and be absolutely certain not to talk to the dog out loud in a baby voice. Cute can be a dangerous trap.

Golden Retriever

The face of deceit

On the opposite end of the spectrum, what if your professor’s pet is standoffish? A failed attempt to coax the animal closer to you doesn’t say much for your persuasive abilities, and your professor may take note of this in a final paper. When in doubt, observe the animal for a few seconds at a time, and lazily offer it your hand to inspect if it ever gets close enough. Don’t get too invested in your budding relationship. No one wants to get their heart broken in front of a crowd.

If you think the professor’s dog/cat (okay, cat) is a complete prick, you can try to make a small joke about it, but this is a dangerous game. Your professor, understandably, values their relationship with the cat more than their relationship with you, so don’t highlight that fact. The kitty does not wish for your company. It is to you what the green light was to Gatsby. Don’t lose yourself in the pursuit.

Your professor’s family members are no danger to you. Greet them politely if they choose to appear, though they likely won’t bother. Don’t bother introducing yourself. They don’t need to know your name, and once you’ve done it you make the rest of the class feel obligated to introduce themselves. This grinds the progress of the meeting to a halt, which is not advisable. If the cookies are homemade, and you know that a present family member baked them, offer a quick compliment if no one has done so already. No other classmate will be able to follow up without sounding like a clod who briefly forgot their manners and is trying desperately to correct the error. You’ve got to be quick on the draw, and if you’re not sure who made the cookies you’re taking a considerable risk, but the potential payoff for your image is high. This is how an A- becomes an A. Carpe diem.

Time

If the meeting is taking the place of a class period, you have a convenient way of knowing when to leave your professor’s house. If the meeting is separate from the syllabus, you’ll have to observe how the conversation is flowing to determine when to make your exit. If you haven’t contributed anything so far, make sure that you don’t depart before making at least one insightful comment. The conversation is the point of going to the professor’s house. The golden retriever is a secondary concern. There is an element of risk to being either the first or last student to leave the house, so leave as a class if at all possible. Stragglers are a chore for your professor, who has to clean up after you and get on with their day. Thank your professor for their hospitality, and take your leave.

Above all, be polite and don’t break anything unless you’re somehow in a life or death situation. Even then, try to spare the good china. If all goes well, your professor will have no lower an opinion of you than when you entered the privacy of their home. If you make a catastrophic mistake, take heart: you can always just drop the class.

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