Even though I am technically not a student, and not currently teaching, either, I am still under the sway of the academic year. I love this time of year for all of the trite reasons: new school supplies, simmering things all day in a slow cooker, pictures of dorm room decor, students arriving to campuses en masse. I always plan my work/writing schedules anew in September, and have been forcing myself to get out and about at Boston campuses for the invigorating energy of it all.
As I wrote in my last studyblr-themed post, I’ve been doing this academic thing for a long, long, LONG time. Thus, I thought I’d adapt something I originally wrote for students on a non-personal-blog a while back, and share it here as a Back to School post.
Tips for interacting with your instructors
You might have a favorite teacher or professor, but most of them don’t even seem like the same species as you, do they? It feels like there are all sorts of secrets and codes and insider information that you don’t have privy to when it comes to dealing with the scary and unapproachable professionals who teach your classes. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could find out some of the tips and tricks? What do your instructors want from you? What are they thinking? Why are they so picky?
It’s your lucky day. Here it is… the inside scoop from an actual, real-live college professor. Let me fill you in on some important things that will make your student-teacher relationships much more fruitful.
Always check the syllabus first
Never, ever, EVER ask a question about something that can be found in the syllabus. There is nothing more exasperating to a teacher than when we get questions about things that are right there in black-and-white for this very purpose. This is why we spend hours every term updating and revising it and making copies and giving it to you.
Read the syllabus the first day you get it. (Several of my friends have Easter Egg elements to their syllabi, including scavenger hunts, or, in one case, instructions to “email me a picture of a dinosaur” as proof it’s been read.) Keep the syllabus with you at all times. Print it out and highlight exam dates. That due date? Essay criteria? I will bet you fifty bucks it’s in the syllabus. Keyword search the downloaded document three or four times. Ask a friend. Quadruple check, and even verify that another classmate has tried to find out the answer. ONLY THEN may you email your professor and ask them when your next assignment is due, or when you’re having that extra seminar, or how long the essay is supposed to be. Make sure you demonstrate in the email that you made an actual effort, too. “Dear Professor Q, so sorry to trouble you, but I’ve been through both the List of Required Texts and the daily schedule on the syllabus, and I can’t find the name of the extra articles you suggested we read for Monday’s class.”
Only contact your instructors in the ways they have said to contact them
Most instructors will have their contact info on the course syllabus, including office hours. If your professor has included an email address, do not Google their personal phone number and call them or text them. Don’t try to friend them on Facebook or contact them through social media unless they say in class that they want you to do this. Don’t @Tweet them with a class-related question. Don’t just drop by their office whenever, unless they have said this is okay.
Address them appropriately
One of the biggest faux pas we see from students is when they either address us by something that is not our name/title, or use our first names without permission. Every term, there is at least one student who will send an email opening with “Hi, Emily!” or “Dear Mrs. Barnard,” the first of which is inappropriate and the second of which is not my name. (Ninety-nine times out of one hundred, this kind of thing happens with female teachers, and whether you mean to or not, it’s a sexist assumption.) The proper way for my undergrad students to address me is either “Professor Barnard” or, now that I have my PhD, “Dr. Barnard.” Do not presume to use an instructor’s first name unless you have been invited to do so.
Your teachers and professors will usually tell you how they want to be addressed in the first minute of the first day of class by saying “I’m Mrs. Jones/Dr. Smith/Mr. Singh/Kathy/Min-jun.” Pay attention. If they say their full name, then notice how they sign themselves on their emails. If your instructor signs herself “Naomi,” or a quirky nickname like “Prof. Buzz” or “DocGaff,” then that suggests you may address them as such, but wait until they do so.
Don’t call your college professor “Miss/Sir” or “Miss/Mister First Name” like you addressed teachers in elementary/primary school.
The rule of thumb, no matter what country you are in, is usually that your high school/secondary school teachers will be titled Mr. or Mrs./Ms./Miss. If you are in a specialized or private college prep institution or international or religious school, your school may have its own very specific rules for addressing teachers, too. Your college and university-level instructors usually have doctorates (although check first by looking at their listing on the college’s website or the syllabus), so they are either “Dr.” or “Professor.” In one memorable case, I had a class with a guest lecturer who was a dame, so we addressed her as Dame First Name. When you are an undergraduate, address your instructor as “Professor Surname” or “Dr. Surname.” Usually by the time you are a grad student, you will likely be invited to call your instructors by their first names, but again, do not assume so until they give you the go-ahead.
If your teacher has a PhD, address them as “Dr. Surname.” If you think that non-medical professionals using the title of “doctor” is ridiculous or pompous, address your teacher as “Dr. Surname.” If you think that you have every right to address all adults by their first name because calling them by titles indicates troubling hierarchy and elitism, address your teacher as “Dr. Surname.” If you think “Ms.” is silly but your teacher goes by Ms. Surname, address your teacher as “Ms. Surname.” You do not get to debate their chosen monikers with them. Doing so is only going to annoy us, because every single year, there is at least one person (usually a dude) who wants to have a freaking argument with us about how we are addressed professionally (and it’s almost always rooted in sexism/racism). I repeat: we choose our addresses, not you, and if you want to have a decent working relationship with us, you will respect those personal preferences.
Note: it is okay to call a professor with a PhD “Professor” instead of “Dr,” so you have not committed a faux pas if you address Dr. Washington as “Professor Washington” instead. It is also acceptable to ask your instructor politely during your first class meeting, “How would you prefer that we address you?” It is not okay to wave your hand and ask them “Hey, are you a doctor? Do we have to call you ‘doctor’?” “Do you let us call you by your first name?” or inform them “I’m just gonna call you Professor B, okay?”
Be professional/formal in your communications
You are not texting your friends or your crush. Do not open with “Hey!” Do not use words like “wanna” or “thnx!” Do not use swear words until a relationship with the professor has been established and the professor uses curses. DO NOT USE NETSPEAK ABBREVIATIONS. Don’t attach cute pictures of your pet or kid. Don’t sign off with kisses or include emojis. Don’t email them on weekends and then send six frantic follow-up emails going “WHY HAVEN’T YOU RESPONDED?!”
Use a salutation, a few sentences in the body. If you’re in a big class or this is your first interaction with them, state your name and note which class/section you’re in. Close with “Sincerely/Thanks for your time/Best, [your full name until it has been established that the instructor knows who you are].”
We read and save emails, and they may need to be used or fwded to administrators to show that we communicated with a student about X issue on Y date. You may need to save and use emails to show that you communicated with a professor about X issue on Y date, and it will be less impressive if said emails read “Hey, Prof. B! Gotta get reading 4 class but fuckin librarry closed cn u plz fwd scan of ch????!!!??? Thnx!”
Do your work
Want to build the best possible relationships with your teachers? Want to impress us the most?
Go to classes. Do the reading. Complete your assignments. Write your papers. Don’t be the one who groans “You know, some of us have other classes” when we give you an assignment.
Arrive to class on time (which means a few minutes BEFORE the class starts). Do not waltz in ten minutes late as a regular thing. Do not waltz in late with a big bag from McDonald’s or a giant Starbucks cup. If you have a reason why you can’t be in your seat when class starts (and many students do, due to back-to-back classes and cross-campus sprints), talk to the instructor.
Turn in things on time. Pay attention.
Don’t sit in class with your laptop open, poking around on Facebook or working on something else. (In fact, if you take notes by hand, you will retain the information better. I tend to not let students use computers in class, unless they need to due to a disability issue, for this very reason.)
If I say “read ___” or “download ___,” you can bet that it’s relevant, and will either be essential for an exam or a paper. Don’t blurt out “Will this be on the test?” or “Do we have to read this?”
On the other hand, don’t come to class sick. We can’t afford sick days, and if you bring your nasty-ass germs into our classrooms, we will hate you for it. Don’t come to class and fall asleep. If you are that exhausted and think you might accidentally doze, enlist your nearest desk neighbor to keep an eye on you and poke you periodically.
Part of the workload at school is to prepare you for actual workloads at work in your near future. You are preparing to be a fully-functioning adult in society. We expect you to behave like responsible people because the rest of the world will expect you to behave like responsible people. You won’t last long in your career if you groan every time your boss gives you a project or don’t have that presentation ready for the meeting. You will be the most hated person in your office if you come to work with the flu and spread it around or fall asleep at your desk because you pulled an all-nighter.
Don’t wait until the last minute
We can help you… if we have time. But if you send me a frantic email the day before an assignment is due complaining that you can’t find any critical texts, I’m less inclined to feel sympathy.
One of the popular Studyblr cornerstones is to battle procrastination. Let this be reinforcement for that: don’t procrastinate not only because it sucks to rush an assignment at the last minute, but because if something is giving you trouble, you’ll have time to get help with it.
Don’t bullshit your teachers
We’ve gotten it all, from “My computer crashed” to “I had food poisoning/cramps/work” to, from one of my students once, “I was too drunk.” I had a student a while back who (supposedly) had three different family deaths in one semester, so yes, if you say your relative died, I may ask to see an obituary or a leaflet from the service.
Don’t attach an empty document so that you can say later that you don’t know why the essay wasn’t there when your instructor tried to open it. Don’t turn in a paper with 14 point font and margins adjusted so that your two page paper looks like it’s four pages. Do you think we won’t notice? Do you think we haven’t seen these tricks before?
Do you think we didn’t try these same things back in the day?
Do not EVER plagiarize a paper. You will get caught. You will get in major trouble. You will get suspended or expelled and even if you don’t, you will lose your instructor’s trust. Believe me, we can tell if this is not your work. If we have the slightest doubts, there are all sorts of ways to check. If you are so freaked out about an assignment that you think your only option is to copy or cheat, do not do it. Talk to your instructor, and work out real solutions instead.
(And please don’t copy from or quote Wikipedia. Do you think we don’t look at Wikipedia ourselves?)
Don’t tell us you read the book when you just read SparkNotes or the Wikipedia entry or watched the film version. We can tell, and you’ll make an ass out of yourself during class discussion for not knowing ___, or thinking that ___ happened when that was only in the movie. Augmenting your reading with SparkNotes, summaries, and movie versions are great, and can bring up good discussion or paper topics, but they do not replace reading the actual text.
Be honest about your workload and stress level. If you have a job or are struggling with getting through Ulysses, we want to know. If you are dealing with some personal shit, you can tell us. Believe it or not, we want to help you succeed. That is actually the point of our job. There are all sorts of possibilities for students who have extenuating circumstances during a semester, like extensions, recommendations for a counselor or tutor, or dropping and re-taking a class. (And if you do not want to disclose the details for whatever personal reasons, i.e. you don’t want to tell your professor “I’m dealing with my recent abortion” or “I just came out to my mom and it didn’t go well,” that’s okay, too.)
Just don’t give us a laundry list of all the other things you have going on and how stressed out you are, and expect a free pass or an extra week before you take the midterm. We hear it on a daily basis, and you aren’t telling us something we haven’t heard a million times before.
And you aren’t telling us anything that we don’t experience personally, either.
IMPORTANT NOTE: We get that you are at a stage in life where you’re learning how to balance the big things, and that you might be dealing with your first big breakup, or sexual assault, or family issues, or a new baby, or, yes, the real death of loved ones. Learning how to deal with these things and how to find a personal/professional balance is an important part of your college experience, in fact. So out of respect for the students who really DO deal with a massive trauma or loss in the middle of term, please don’t fabricate a dead grandma in hopes of getting a few extra days to study before taking a final. (We can’t just “let you take” the final a week later than everyone else. And it never improves your grade, anyway.)
Link: Dead Grandmothers
Don’t ghost a class
Every semester, I have at least two students who just… disappear for weeks at a time, usually after missing a big assignment. They don’t show. They don’t return my emails. Then, sheepishly, they come back a week or two before the class ends, or when they need to get that failing grade or incomplete off their record, and explain that they wanted to talk to me sooner, but they were too embarrassed or scared, so they just kept putting it off, and now they don’t know what to do.
Don’t do that. Students get overwhelmed and overextended. We would rather get an email from you in Week Four saying “Dear Prof. Barnard, I am so sorry, but I am not going to be able to complete my assignment/make the exam. I have no excuses other than that I’ve fallen behind and am unprepared. May I schedule a meeting with you in the next week to discuss a plan for catching up on assignments and staying caught up going forward?” than an email from you in Week Twelve freaking out.
Don’t assume your instructors don’t know or understand what you’re going through
Remember, we were all undergrads once, too… some of us not that long ago. Know what? The workload in grad school is even tougher. So yes, we absolutely know how hard you’re working and how stressful it is and how overwhelmed you might feel. We’re stressed and working hard, too. You are one student and have three classes? Okay, we teach three classes, have 20 students in each, and are taking three classes of our own. You have to write three papers for your classes? We have to mark sixty of them, and write exams… plus revise two articles for publication, write a conference presentation for next month, write six application letters for funding, read the four critical books that just came in through ILL, and edit the essay for that collection that’s already behind deadline. There’s an extra meeting this week scheduled, and a guest lecture on Thursday with a top scholar that we can’t and don’t want to miss. We’re all on antidepressants and anti-anxiety meds and in therapy.
But this isn’t a competition. What it means is that we get it. We understand, first-hand. We can help.
Your instructors also get that you have lives, even full-time work in some occasions, outside of school. When I was an undergrad, I juggled two jobs along with my classes. I know people who had small children, or family tragedies, or a mom with dementia, all in the midst of a full course-load. So I understand that it feels like there’s never enough time or that everyone wants to be your first priority. But that is just part of being a student. And an adult.
That is something you have to learn how to deal with through time management skills, disciple, and work. It will not go away.
I’ve had students who complain about how they don’t have enough time to get everything done, and yet they have weekly manicures, or belong to several extracurricular groups, or party every weekend, or are going out of town for a week, or have season tickets for a match/game/show. And not to be all “uphill, in the snow, both ways” about it, but as a PhD student/post-doc + college instructor, I would LOVE to have the extra time and/or money for a luxury like weekly manicures, or be able to take off for a weekend or join a rowing team. Hell, there was a two year period of my life where I only had one day off a year: Christmas Day. Otherwise, I was at one job or another on MWFStSn, and on campus all day on T/Th. I worked extra hours during Spring Break. I didn’t have time, money, or insurance to go to the doctor or dentist for over three years. It sucked.
Remember, no matter how tough you think you’ve got it, your instructor is dealing with four times as much, so we will not be shocked or impressed if you wail at us “You just don’t understand how stressful my life is! I have two classes and a job and I just broke up with my partner!” “I might have to start taking Prozac!”
That said, let your instructors know from the beginning if you have special circumstances. Are you a caregiver? Do you have a long commute? Are you in the middle of planning a major move or getting divorced? Do you have a learning disability or physical limitations? Give us a heads up right away, otherwise it can sound like you’re making excuses to get out of an assignment. But if we know, we can help. And empathize.
Be aware of our workloads
A lot of it is just stuff that hasn’t occurred to you, I know. But I’ll give you some more dirty insider secrets, for perspective, about what our jobs entail and how that affects our lives:
- For every hour that an instructor spends in the classroom with you, we spend at least three hours outside of the classroom preparing. Yes, we teach two to four classes. Do the math, and you’ll see how much time a week that is, right off the top
- We read all of the books right along with you, even if we’ve read them before. We have to revisit texts every time we teach them. And no, we don’t always like them or breeze through them ourselves, either. We also have to read all the latest critical essays on texts so that we are teaching the most up-to-date approaches, and assigning the most useful ones to you. About half of the material for every class we teach is new to us, too, each semester
- It takes us several days to write questions for an exam. We can’t always re-use the same ones from previous tests because the grading standards or what the administration is looking for changes from year to year
- It takes 30-60 minutes to mark a single exam
- I spend about an hour to 90 minutes marking a three-to-four page essay. I read through it once to familiarize myself with it. Then I re-read it, making comments and notes. Sometimes I have to look things up, like a critical text to recommend, or a reference that a student has used that I’m not familiar with. Then I write up comments formally, include a concluding assessment and suggestions, and then write up a summary for my own records, so I have a timeline of what I’ve recommended to a student and when, how they are progressing, what areas need improving, and so on
- We do not get days off. We get up early, and grade or read or write over morning coffee before classes. After classes and meetings, we come home, gulp dinner, and then slog through more marking, or writing, or reading critical texts. We do this on weekends, too. During the summers, we are teaching or writing or taking classes or doing research or working extra jobs to earn money. We do not have extra time.
So now you can understand why we don’t have your corrected papers or tests back to you the day after you’ve turned them in, right?
But as cheesy as it sounds, we do this much work for low pay because we love it, because we want to foster a love of learning in you. We want you to understand how powerful knowledge is. We want the generation after us to be smarter and more thoughtful. There is nothing more amazing to an instructor when we get to see that lightbulb moment in our students, when we see them get a concept or fall in love with a text or get caught up in a class discussion. We love teaching because we love learning, and want to help you love learning, too.
Especially now. More than ever. You are our future.
Finally, never, ever, EVER ask for extra credit!
Not even if you just want to look extra studious… but especially if you’ve missed assignments and are in danger of failing/repeating a class. There are few things more infuriating and insulting than when a student who has blown off class all term or turned in papers late who then comes to us in a panic and goes “But I really care about my grade in this class! Can’t I do some extra assignments to make it up?”
First of all, if you really cared about your grade, you would have done the work, or let me know in a responsible and timely manner that there were real circumstances why you couldn’t, so we could find workable solutions.
But second, and more importantly, how dare you think that I have nothing better to do than to make up special assignments just for you, and then find time to mark them in the last harried few days before class ends and grades are due? I already have a stack of essays from students who got them in on time that I need to mark.
Finally, if you have shown no work ethic or ability to finish assignments already, why on earth should I believe that you are capable of turning in a quality essay on something in less than a week, an essay that will earn a high enough grade to make up for an overall class failure? If you’re already failing a class, you would likely need to write two extra essays and pass two or three extra exams in order to make up points, and no, I am not taking hours I don’t have in order to write special test questions and essay topics for you in the last week of class, and then mark them. And you certainly can’t manage that much extra work yourself, either.
If you are excited about a subject and want to learn more, I’m more than happy to meet with you, recommend books (and even lend you mine), and answer questions. But no, I can’t just give you extra assignments so you can raise your grade/guarantee yourself of a high mark without offering the same option to everyone else in the class. That’s not fair, in most cases it’s not acceptable to the administration, and I don’t have the time to create special extra assignments anyway.
But if you come to me and ask if I can suggest a good biography about ___ or tell me that you want to read more by ___, I will be thrilled to help you.
Let me know if you have specific questions you’d like me to answer or things I can demystify for you! And if you have insights from the perspective of a STEM field/non-Humanities to share, that’s what the comments section is for.