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What A Student Should Know...

Margaret Whitt

What Should a Student Understand about a Faculty Member’s Professional Life?—Or How Are We Different from High School Teachers?

Margaret Whitt
Professor, Department of English

When I go to meet my class for the first time, I will take with me the course syllabus, my promise and my plan for what will happen when my students and I meet each time throughout the term. The syllabus also contains useful information about how a student may contact me: my office location, hours, phone number, and email address. Each of us is expected to be in our offices a suggested number of hours a week for the express purpose of being available to speak with students. On my syllabus, I usually include a time that I will respond to emails; for example, I will respond to all emails within 24 hours, and usually, if it is a daytime exchange, within the hour, sometimes within a few minutes if I am at my desk and happen to be on email when the message comes in. Sometimes a student will ask me in class if he or she may stop by my office at a given time. I don’t take my calendar with me to class, so I suggest the student email me and set up a time. That way, both of us know when we should be somewhere.
Parents should encourage their students to make use of a professor’s office hours for help, for clarity of assignments or information, for make up work. Email may be the best mode of initial contact with professors.  When students call us on their cell phones, sometimes they do not remember that our calling them back may mean a long distance charge. I respond to cell phone calls by email, unless it is a local number.

High school teachers are most likely to teach more students than college professors, but we are evaluated and valued by not only our teaching, but also our scholarship and our service. Time in our office, the library, or at home is often spent reading and writing. For colleagues in the sciences, they will spend time in their labs. So while we are happy to answer students’ questions and write letters for them when asked, we also need to be ever mindful of the time. Students might not realize that while we are in our offices, for many of us, these places are also the hub of our intellectual lives. I read and write in my office. I use the computer for research, and for contacting colleagues across campus and across the nation for help with whatever is my current project. For most of us, our current projects hang heavy in our heads. When I am in the midst of writing a book, I am always thinking of what my next paragraph will be, what I need to do to get ready to write that paragraph, and what I still need to research before I can write it. We all work differently in the writing process, of course. For me, I write a page a day—and don’t go home until the page is complete. Sometimes this is easy; most times it is difficult.
Parents should encourage their students to be focused about office visits. Students should know what they want, why they have come, and what they hope to have accomplished by the time they leave. This way, a professor is always glad to see a student.

College classrooms are usually empty spaces—no posters, student work, art on the walls or on the shelves. For one hour, the room may be a Spanish class, then an anthropology class, next an economics or a history class. A student has no idea about the intellectual life of a professor until the student comes into his or her office. Here is the space where a student will see those things that matter, intellectually, to the professor. In my office, students would be hard pressed not to know by the time they leave my office that I care deeply about William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, the civil rights movement, student art work, and my family. What matters to us most will be present in the office space—here is where a student may come to find out a bit more about who we are. Obviously, it is the place, too, where we have the time to find out a bit more about who our students are.

The following ten questions are, surprisingly, ones we might hear on the phone, in class, or in an email. I offer below some possible ways that a student might think about re-phrasing the question or thinking seriously about not asking it at all.
Parents should encourage their students to use good manners in their interactions with professors. Many of the questions below would not arise if students remembered what they have been taught at home.

  • Is this going to be on the test?
    This question suggests you are only interested in being responsible or accountable for the information you will be tested on. The committed students bring to class an intellectual curiosity, realizing that every text has a context. Try substituting, Why is that? How does this make a difference? Or even, Would you repeat that point with a different example?
  • Sorry I missed class. Did anything important happen?
    Such a comment invites a smug reply, which most professors will refrain from delivering. Try to see such a comment as this one as rather thoughtless—it places the speaker at the center of the world, suggesting that because of his or her absence nothing at all went on in class. This is an insult to both your peers and your professor. Try substituting, Sorry I missed class. I will take responsibility and get notes from one of my classmates.
  • I realize your class is closed, but it fits perfectly into my schedule. Sign my add slip.
    Good manners go a long way in endearing you with the professor. You might want to shift the focus off yourself and try a more subtle attempt to gain admission. Try substituting, I realize your class is closed, but I have had a life-long interest in this subject. I promise you I will come to class every session, take good notes, participate responsibly, study hard, and make you glad you decided to let me in. Will you consider signing my add slip?
  • I put my paper in your box/ under your door/ in an email to you. I don’t know why you didn’t get it.
    Most professors like to receive papers, projects, reports, etc., during class on the day they are due. It is too easy for a paper to wind up in the wrong box, under the wrong door, or get lost in cyberspace. If you must send a paper to your professor outside of class, it is your responsibility to conduct a follow-up check with your professor to make sure he or she actually received the paper. It is not the professor’s responsibility to be surprised at where he or she will bump into your paper. It is your responsibility to make a plan and see if your professor is amenable to receiving the paper outside of class.
  • You gave me a B/C/D/F on this paper. It is clear to me I deserve an A/better grade.
    When professors evaluate your work, they bring to the task years of professional judgment. They are the ones who are best suited to determine your grade. If you already know what grade you should receive, then you should either not be taking the class or teaching it yourself. Try substituting, I didn’t do as well on my last assignment as I would like. Something must be wrong with the way I am preparing/studying/approaching/writing. I wonder if I might meet with you so that I can improve my efforts on our next assignment.
  • You are wrong about what you just said.
    Professors have spent years studying their respective subjects and should be expected to know what they are saying, but certainly they can make mistakes. If you find your professor contradicts something you have read in the class text, by all means point out politely the discrepancy. Try substituting, I hear what you are saying, but how do I reconcile that point with what the author says in our text on page 22? It could be just as likely the text is incorrect.
  • Will you write me a letter of recommendation for a scholarship/summer job/graduate school/campus award/etc.?
    Professors fully expect to support their students by writing letters, but HOW you ask for the letter is important. First, you need to make sure the professor knows you and your work well enough to write a responsible and positive letter. Try substituting, I know you are busy, but do you feel that you know my work well enough to write me a positive letter of recommendation? I would certainly appreciate your taking the time to do so. I have all the information here you will need, including a stamped, addressed envelope. The deadline is in two weeks. Is there anything else you need from me in order to write the letter?
  • Sorry I overslept and missed the exam. When can I take a make up?
    Professors do not necessarily prepare make up exams, especially when students miss the exam for reasons that are vague or generic. Try substituting, I really messed up—it is my fault—and if you want to hear the story, I would be happy to tell you. I don’t know your policy on make up exams, but if you could find it in the kindness of your heart to help me out this time, I would never make this mistake again. Professors understand that mistakes happen or that events in the residence hall might prevent you from your work. Be honest and ask for mercy. You may just get it!
  • Can we get out early today?
    For most classes, there may not be an attendance policy, and we are all adults. If you want to miss class, don’t come, but never ask your professor to cut short his or her plans. Do ball teams leave the park before the game is over?
  • Can we meet outside today?
    Meeting outside in good weather offers a wide assortment of possibilities for distraction. When a student asks such a question, the professor may well assume that students would rather be distracted than pay attention to what he or she has to say. If the weather is nice, let your professor make the first offer to go outside.

In conclusion, your students will do well in their interactions with professors if they make a point to visit a professor’s office, know what they want to ask once there, and use good manners in each transaction. At DU, we have a happy student body for the most part. Students are glad to be here and the relationships between faculty and students are warm and caring.