There is no denying that access to professors is the foundation of a successful university experience: They offer advice, answer questions, and provide students with the resources they need to reach their goals, such as letters of reference and research opportunities. For the average undergraduate, however, there are only so many ways to get to know a professor. Going to class is an oft-overlooked but effective method, as is attending office hours. Though professors are, with few exceptions, genuinely interested in their students, class sizes are often too large and office hours too few. It is not always easy to get an instructor to remember your name, let alone develop a fruitful connection with them. The departmental student organisations’ preferred modus operandi when it comes to tackling this issue is, of course, the ‘wine and cheese.’
The Computer Science Undergraduate Society (CSUS) recently hosted a wine and cheese,attended by both students and professors in the department. The frequency with which these types of events occur—one could easily get tipsy with the faculty of a department every week—reflects the necessity for McGill students to take the initiative when it comes to establishing fruitful contact with professors: Facilitation is beneficial only so long as students are willing to take the first step.
There is much to be said in their favour. Apart from the free wine and delicious cheese—both of which are highly effective social lubricants—they offer students the chance to have a real conversation with their professors, who, it must be said, enjoy talking about their research as much as, if not more than, the research process itself. Moreover, such events have the advantage of being held in more informal settings, away from the academic focus of class and office hours. This has a certain humanising effect on otherwise intimidating figures, and it obviates the (perceived) need for pre-prepared discussion points that constitutes many a student’s excuse for not attending office hours.
Yet informality is not always a positive thing. A recent gathering hosted by the Chemistry Undergraduate Students’ Society (CUSS) and advertised via Facebook featured a warning to students, telling them not to get too drunk. The potential for rowdiness poses a risk to newly developed and fragile student-professor relationships, especially for those who might not be used to drinking. The prospect of attending class after imbibing a bit too much in a professor’s presence is not only unappealing—it is downright terrifying.
Moreover, as these events are student-organised and hosted, the department’s star scholars are under no obligation to attend. This can result in get-togethers that are more reminiscent of awkward family functions than networking events. Even when such a scenario is avoided, the competition for a professor’s attention is fierce, highlighting the wider issue of the increasing student-to-professor ratio at McGill.
The departmental student societies’ insistence on wine and cheese socials derives from an undeniable need to create opportunities for students to meet their department’s faculty. An undergraduate at McGill is one among many. Students must therefore fend for themselves and make full use of the resources at their disposal. This of course means attending wine and cheese events, but it also entails making the effort to knock on a professor’s door.