College Success & Survival @ UNI

How to talk to Professors by alcdanielle
August 30, 2010, 1:53 pm
Filed under: General | Tags: ,

From a Former Freshman

I know you’ve probably heard this at least a handful of times by now. Everyone tells you that you should get to know at least a couple of your professors. If you’re like me, by the end of your freshman year, you’ll be panicking because you haven’t made a professor your buddy yet. Well, panicking never solved anything.

I will be starting my sophomore year of college this fall. I’ve e-mailed several professors, but I haven’t gotten “close” to any of them yet. And you know what? I’m not worried anymore. I have three more years to find the right professor to connect with. Just because I didn’t find one my freshman year doesn’t mean I won’t ever find one. It takes time to find that one professor who understands you. I may not find one until my senior year. Who knows?

My advice would be to keep your eyes and ears open. Talk to your professor, ask them questions, e-mail them, but don’t force yourself to have a relationship with every one of them. The time will come when you find one that will hopefully become a very good acquaintance, and (dare I say) a friend. Professors are good resources. They can help you with tough educational decisions and maybe write a recommendation for you when you need one. So, on that note, talk to your professors, but don’t worry if it takes you a while to discover a friend in one of them.

From an Upper Classman

If I remember anything about my freshman orientation experience, it was the sheer number of times “TALK TO YOUR PROFESSORS!” was underlined in giant block letters in handouts or emblazoned into walls via Powerpoint projections. Well, great, I remember thinking, thanks for the advice. What am I supposed to do, invite them out bowling? For many freshmen (and sophomores, juniors, etc.), developing a relationship with a professor can seem intimidating and confusing. Sure, strong relationships with your professors are incredibly helpful, but how do you go about cultivating them?

What I’ve realized over the last couple years (and what I wish I understood when I was a freshman), is that professors aren’t divine gatekeepers to an exclusive world of knowledge. They’re one of the most valuable resources on campus, and they’re here to help you. But, they can’t do that unless you’re willing to take the first step. But, again, how to go about taking that first step?

1) Ask for clarification. Now, this doesn’t mean “bother your professor with questions that could be answered if you’d bothered to crack open your textbook once,” but if a topic you discuss during class genuinely interests you, and you want to learn more, stay behind and ask if your professor can point you toward some other information/resources on the subject. Having trouble wrapping your brain around a specific concept or philosophy? Ask for help untangling the ideas. Look at your professors as experts in their fields of study, and use this opportunity to learn as much from them as you can. Make these connections early in the semester, and you’ll also let your professors know that you’re serious about your coursework. And if you can do that, then they’ll take you seriously as well. That leads me to my second point:

2) Learn to schmooze. I’m not saying you should go out and get them giant fruit baskets a la Ralphie in A Christmas Story, but if you want your professors to write you recommendations or nominate you for a scholarship, it never hurts to get on their good side and let them know you’re serious about your education. Clarification: Don’t lie. No professor needs shameless, phony ego strokes. But if you enjoyed a particular lecture, or found a topic/reading exciting or interesting, stay after class and let them know! If you really valued your time in class that semester, jot off a quick email to a professor and let him or her know you appreciated his or her work. If a professor recognizes that you valued the subject, he or she will value your contribution, which can’t hurt your chances later when you need references and recommendations.

3) Ask for help when you need it! Most professors are sympathetic to the demands of college life. If you’re really struggling in a class, let your professor know before circumstances prevent you from finishing that big paper or mastering the material for a test. There’s not much your professors can do once you miss a deadline; if you communicate with them beforehand, however, they’re much more likely to grant you an extension or put you back on the right track. On this note: asking for an extension or a forgiven absence is going to be much easier for you if you’ve followed the steps above and already made contact. You’ll feel less intimidated talking to them, and they’ll feel more inclined to show a little lenience if you’ve previously demonstrated your commitment to the course.

So don’t make the mistake of waiting until you’ve had three or four classes with them to communicate with your professors. Develop those relationships now, and you’ll absolutely get more out of your education at UNI.

From a Professor

Talking to professors may seem scary, but remember, we are here because we love to work with students. We want to know you. As a professor, I write many letters of reference. But, if I don’t know you, I have nothing to write about. You will soon find that almost every application you fill out (admission to programs, scholarships, internships, study abroad, jobs, and the list goes on . . . ) request letters of reference. If you haven’t formed any relationships with professors, you will find yourself in quite a predicament! So get to know us.

I have also found that the students who have gotten to know me and visited with me in my office often did better in class. Why? I didn’t give them any preferential treatment; it was because they felt more comfortable asking questions and discussing material in class once they knew me. Positive relationships build confidence and trust—and as a result, learning improves.

Another reason to get to know professors is that they know people. Networking is vital to success. I am sure you have heard the phrase: “It isn’t just what you know—it is who you know.” This is an important reality. People can open doors for you, so be your own best advocate. Present yourself professionally and form productive relationships. How do you start? Really, it is as easy as saying “Hi, my name is ____________.” Stop in during office hours; chat with us before, during, or after class; drop us an email; chat with us on Facebook or during virtual office hours online. We want to know you—we are here for you! But there are some pet peeves you should know about and some rules to follow:

  • Be respectful and professional—ask professors if they have time to talk or when a good time would be to talk before you begin spilling your life history.
  • Remember that professors are busy—don’t waste time with unnecessary emails. Yes, tell us about yourself and how things are going—but quickly get to the point.
  • Sign your emails with your name and follow business etiquette. “Hey—when is the next quiz?” with no address or signature does not create a good impression.
  • Consult all of your notes and class resources first before asking a question. Professors become irritated when they must continue to repeat themselves—especially when the answers to the questions you are asking are available in a variety of places. (Read your syllabus!)
  • Tell us about personal problems right away, so we can work with you. Don’t wait until the end of the semester to tell us about illnesses or family issues you were dealing with.
  • Allow plenty of time for responses to emails. Don’t email us at midnight and expect an instantaneous response. (Allow a few days.)
  • When you need references, plan ahead. Allow professors at least two weeks and provide all the necessary contact information and the purpose for the letter of reference.
  • First impressions matter! This includes email.

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