05/21/2014 02:30 pm ET Updated Jul 21, 2014

A View From the Lectern

He's donned the cap and gown, he's earned the pomp and the circumstance, now you approach the moment he actually leaves for college. He's been successful in high school and worked hard to balance academic, social and family life. But now he's heading to a place where you'll have no control and no day-to-day voice in his affairs. Sure, he's learned responsibility, but you've been his safety net. Now, he's sailing solo.

You haven't been a meddler in the past, but on occasion you were justified in sending an email to that teacher -- the one who wrote nasty notes on papers or assigned unfairly low grades. Usually you could help your son sort through the problem, but now, it will be up to him to communicate with those arbitrary classroom leaders. And this time, they're not high-school teachers; they're professors.

You remember the professors from your college years. At best, they were fascinating, prompting curiosity about Foucoult's pendulum or Pavlov's dogs. But they could also be stodgy. Some wore ill-fitting clothes, had off-putting personal habits, and used their pedantic lexicon as a shield to distance themselves from mere students. They seemed to live in an alternate universe where everyone discusses Galileo and Descartes at cocktail parties. Your son may be sitting in a classroom with one of those professors, and he's got to navigate the class, the assignments, the professor on his own.

I am one of those professors. I may have your son in my English 101 class. I'll walk in the first day with a scholarly look and a no-nonsense attitude. I'll go over the syllabus and the assignments that make up the class; I might even use some words he doesn't understand. I'll warn him to do his homework, pay attention, take notes, and participate. I'll also explain some ways my class is not like high school: I won't remind him when he misses an assignment; I won't take it personally if he skips class; I won't be surprised when 20 percent of the class fails. He is an adult now, in the eyes of this institution of higher education. Not only will I not contact his parent if he's struggling in class; I'm legally prohibited from doing so.

But, what your son will learn if he comes to class, completes his assignments and participates in the academic experience is that I'm also a human being. Most of us professors are.

What your son may not know, and what you do not know, is that I have a son too. One day soon, he will go off to college. I think about my son when a freshman student comes to my office to talk about an assignment. As the emerging adult in front of me searches for words to convey his confusion, frustration, or confession, I think about how I would like my son to be treated in a parallel situation. I think about how nervous he would be to walk into that office, sit in that chair, and start a conversation with a professor. He may stammer, cry, or tell me a long, detailed, falsified story. He may know he's in hot water, or he may be using every shred of his courage to ask compelling questions about an assignment he doesn't understand. I think about you at home, wondering how that meeting with the professor is going today -- or whether your son has told you the gritty details of his situation.

As I talk with your son in my office, and as I stand behind the podium three times a week, I'm thinking about his perspective. I'm looking at the faces of those 19-year-olds, trying to determine whether they're following me, whether they'll be able to successfully complete the paper I've assigned. I modify my teaching approach based on their cues. I'm not a lecturer who takes pride in eccentricity and esotericism; I don't live in an ivory tower. I actually want to get through to these students and see them succeed. I want them to understand and think deeply about what they read and write, and I want that writing to be clear and substantive.

In the long view, I think about that student as a future professional and the weight of my responsibility. I'm the last stop before he hits the world of work. I envision him giving a presentation at a meeting, negotiating with colleagues about how to solve a problem, or reporting to his boss about the company's status. Will he be equipped? If any of these roles demand reading or writing, it's my job to prepare him.

So, in my interactions with students, I walk the line between abiding rigidly by my policies (Your paper's late. The penalty clock is running.) and summoning empathy for a kid just a few months out of the close bonds of high school. I recognize where he's been, but I also envision where he needs to go. In that office meeting, in that classroom, I'm 85 percent academic and 15 percent mom.

This doesn't mean that everything turns out all right in the end. The truth is that your son will stumble in the next year. The severity of the fall and the quality of the recovery may determine his academic and professional success. I, or a professor like me, could play a key role in this drama. You may never know the full circumstances of the situation, and neither, certainly, will I. He might fail -- the negotiation, the class, or the entire college experience. But if he lands on his feet, he'll take that experience and build on it for his next interaction with a professor. He'll return to campus sophomore year perhaps with a bit of swagger, but certainly with the confidence that he's "got this."

And when he walks across that stage to receive his diploma (hopefully some time in the next five years), I'll be right there in the crowd with you, cheering him on.