At a recent conference a question arose about how to start relating to your professors and even if students should do so. The answer to the second question is a rousing yes. One student I know who graduated with a 4.0 GPA told a group of fellow students that he owed every A grade to the relationships he formed with his professors, many of whom wrote recommendations for his research job at Princeton and his entrance into a doctoral program in Economics. The answer to the first question of how to connect and how to relate to faculty is here in chapter 5 of my book.
Many students are intimidated by the teachers who stand in front of the classroom presenting volumes of material that they then expect you to know. They do have power—they grade your work. But they have also all been in your shoes. Most college teachers are in the classroom because they love the subject they teach and enjoy sharing it with individuals like you. This is a calling—work done more for passion than glory—and few can get rich doing it. What gives them pleasure is the student who also loves the subject area or who at least makes a real effort to understand and appreciate it.
So when professors tell you to visit them during office hours you should do it. Whether you want to continue discussion of a point raised in class, learn more about an area, or seek advice about how to do better, they welcome your interest and initiative. At some point they may write your recommendations for graduate schools, fellowships, awards, and even jobs. They may become mentors for your own research work. Be respectful of their time, as they are busy. Outside of office hours, make appointments or at least call ahead, rather than dropping in. Office hours are usually announced at the beginning of a course or on the professor’s door or web site. Even if you’re taking courses online you should develop ties to the faculty teaching them, whether by e-mail, chat room or Skype. If you’re an older student you may even have a basis for a closer rapport with your professors. Over time they may turn out to be your friends and real influences in your life. Relating to your professors is important.
Most often the faculty’s training has taken them at least to the master’s degree level, especially if the MA is the highest degree attainable in their field, such as the master’s in fine arts. In four-year colleges you will usually encounter faculty who have earned the PhD, which means they are considered expert in their field. They commonly study for six years and produce a body of work called a dissertation, which reflects some new knowledge or perspective that they’ve been able to bring to their chosen field. They have read hundreds of books and often written dozens of papers, as well as books of their own.
You may be taught by graduate students who are training to become professors, but who are already experts in their fields even if they haven’t quite completed the degree required. You may also be taught by faculty called adjuncts who may or may not have a doctorate, but who may bring specialized expertise and/or experience from the work world. They may not be full time at your school and may teach at other colleges too. Some are called clinical professors because they have significant practical expertise based on current real-world experience that makes them as expert as any PhD. They may be practicing MDs or corporate senior executives, for example.
Full-time faculty members are ranked by their experience and their scholarly contributions. Full professors are at the top of the heap and lecturers (often adjuncts) at the lower end, with (in descending order) associate and assistant professor and instructor titles in between. Full professors have done the most work in a field, contributing greatly to the body of knowledge and to the institutions where they teach. All who are in front of the class, however, bring something special to your learning experience.
At universities emphasizing researchfaculty members are expected to produce books, articles, and presentations that bring their work to the attention of other scholars and add to the body of knowledge. These works are often put through a rigorous process of review by peer scholars who validate or critique the theories put forth. In addition, at any school, faculty must prepare to teach their classes.
All of these activities and obligations are obviously time-consuming—the actual time in front of a class is but a small fraction of it. These professors must prepare every lecture, map out exercises, review materials (perhaps for the hundredth time!). A professor teaching a new course can spend easily over 13 hours per lecture or class period preparing for the class. And they have to grade any work they’ve assigned. I’ve often wondered what I was thinking when I assigned a 20-page final paper to a class of 20 students—that totals 400 pages of reading that had to be done by the time grades were due.
And thoughtful instructors take the time to offer suggestions and corrections on papers and exams so that students can learn from the experience and enhance their work the next time. Professors have deadlines too. So if a professor is teaching 3 courses in a semester and has papers and/or finals assigned for each one they typically only have a short time to get that done. Professors must also serve on various committees and engage in other work that helps keep the school functioning. Those who do all of these things well are granted tenure (life-time employment) through a tough process that takes years of vetting by peers.
What can you expect from relating to your professors? You will connect with some better than others. Some will have a teaching style that matches your learning style well. Some will be more entertaining than others. No matter, teacher and student on every campus, real-world or virtual, should have a certain set of expectations of one another that are plainly set out.
You should have a clear roadmap to the course, otherwise known as a syllabus.It will tell you what the course is about; the assignments on a class-by-class basis; the general expectations; how, where, and when you can find your professor; how grades are determined; and if there are optional tasks or resources you can engage. Grading policy should be clearly laid out. You should know if the professor grades on a curve (bases an A on the top score in the class and all others align accordingly) or if there will be points taken off for absences. (It is possible to fail a course based on absences alone since the instructor may assume that you cannot absorb the information if you are not there to receive it.) Books should be ordered and available in the bookstore or library. Material should be clear and coherent.
Both you and the professor should come to class prepared, she or he with a lecture or class plan and you with readings or assignments done. Courtesy is a two-way street—you and the professor have an obligation to each other and to the other students to be polite and respectful. You may disagree with a point of view offered in class, but do so politely, using thoughtful evidence, not just your gut feeling. Remember, the instructor has done the research, and while there can be more than one side to an issue, both sides should be supported by facts. So if you disagree, do not be surprised by the question, “And why have you reached that conclusion…?”
Overt rudeness is never a good strategy. You never know when you might need the professor whom you have “dissed” for a letter of recommendation one day. So do not walk out of class, call names, eat (unless you’re told it’s okay), come late frequently, not come at all with no excuse, turn in work late, use your cell phone, send e-mail, text friends, or sleep in class.
Disagreements and Disputes
What if you do disagree, for example, on your grade(the most frequent source of dispute between students and faculty)? First you need to be sure you understand the basis of the grade. Recheck the syllabus to see how the grades are determined. Most often some percentage of a grade is derived from exams, quizzes, midterms, and/or finals—all are ways of measuring how well you have absorbed and understood the material. Papers or projects are other factors. Class participation often counts, especially in small classes where discussion is a key element of the learning process. But look for how these are weighted. If participation counts for 25 percent of the grade and you’re absent a lot and sleep in class the rest of the time, then don’t expect many points in that category. That alone can drop you to a B even before you have taken a test or done a paper. If your paper is supposed to be ten pages long and you turn in seven, double space in 14-point type, you’re not going to get an A. If it’s a research paper, then citing Wikipedia will not count.
Good grades are not only about doing the work, but doing it well. It’s about quality—your work should be grammatical, logical, aligned with instructions, and thoughtful, as a bare minimum. So if you’re struggling to understand the lecture, doing badly on quizzes, seeing lots of red marks on your midterm paper, then you need to go see your professor to ask what you’re doing wrong and how to improve. In grading in non-quantitative courses, a subjective factor often exists, and the sincerity of your effort could be the difference between a B and a B+. Relating to your professors can make a difference. High grades are not an entitlement because you pay the bills and deign to attend class—they are a reflection of real effort and energy.
If you’ve been to the professor, however, and she will not budge or be of any assistance or cannot be found (which sometimes happens with part-time faculty), then go to the department chair, the boss of the department where the instructor teaches. This is the person who can locate a wayward professor, seek evidence of why a grade was given, and help negotiate an understanding and an amicable resolution. You’ll get marked as a troublemaker if you write to the president of the college and copy the board of trustees about your grade—this approach does not make friends. Furthermore, these officials are not empowered to change grades; that is the purview of the faculty. You may be in a good position to make your case, however, if you’ve kept copies of e-mails and all assignments, graded papers, and exams. To prove that you turned in a paper on a specific date, for example, you may need a computer record. Keep everything until you have your diploma in hand.
What about plagiarism? First understand what it is: basically, it is theft. When you quote or use someone else’s ideas as your own, without permission or without citing the source, you are essentially stealing their ideas, and you are cheating by using them as your own. You would be pretty annoyed if you wrote a story and found out that another student had won an award for publishing it as his own—he stole your work! Well, it’s the same effect when you do not use quotation marks, footnotes, parenthetical citations, or other techniques that give credit to the originator of the work you are using. You can find style manuals or guides, which explain the right way to cite your sources, online and in the library or bookstore. Web sites and tools such as Turnitin, the web-based tool faculty now use to scan for duplication, make it possible for instructors to find out if you have plagiarized, in seconds. If you do plagiarize and get caught, you can suffer penalties ranging from failing the class to getting thrown out of school.
The Positive Side
On the other hand, 90 percent of your experiences in relating to your professors can and should be positive. These teachers can be your best advocates. They are the ones who notice that you have talents you yourself may not have recognized. They may spot a problem just because you were unusually quiet in class. They can even become your friends as years go by (most of my Facebook friends are former students). One of the most important roles professors can play, once you have established a good rapport, is to write letters of recommendation for you for special programs, academic scholarships, graduate schools, postgraduate fellowships, and even jobs, as pointed out earlier. If you think this is a bother for them, remember that someone did the same for them and that, second, it is part of their job. It is also a pleasure to be able to say good things about a student you have come to know and value.
That said, you should observe certain courtesies when asking for these letters. First, plan well ahead so that you are not asking for a letter a couple of days before it is due. Give plenty of time—two weeks or more is best—perhaps even longer if it is needed at a busy time or right after the summer break. Ask whether your professor agrees to write a recommendation for you. It could happen, for example, that twoof you have asked him for letters for the same program, which could be awkward.
After your supporters write these letters, which do require thought and effort, be sure to not only say thank you, but more important, tell them what happens. Let them know when you are accepted or what your ultimate career or postgraduate plans are. They want to know the outcome of their efforts and celebrate with you. This can be one of the most joyful parts of the job for them.
It’s necessary here to say something about the difference between mentorship and friendship. Faculty members with whom you have a good relationship of mutual respect may be helping to guide you along the college path and even beyond, especially if you are continuing in the same field—this can be considered a mentoring relationship. It may be formalized if you’re doing research, for example, on a project the professor is working on, or if she or he is overseeing some of your own work as part of a formal program. This mentoring role may even continue later when you seek guidance on graduate school or career choices from a respected faculty member who has come to know you well. On the contrary, your instructors are not, and should not be, your drinking buddies, surrogate parents, or marriage counselors. They should never be dates (they can be fired for that.) Remember, they’re in the position of grading your efforts and writing recommendations for you—you always want to be seen in the best light in their eyes. It’s best to keep things on a friendly but professional level. Later in life you may come to know them as peers or even colleagues, and the barriers can then shift as appropriate.
There are many different sorts of individuals and college officials who play many kinds of roles in your progression through school. The faculty is one of many who are part of your team.
Marcia Y. Cantarella, PhD, has held positions at Hunter College, Princeton University, New York University, and Metropolitan College of New York. During her 22 year career as a dean and vice president of student affairs she has enhanced the academic experiences of and outcomes for generations of students. She is the author of I CAN FinishCollege: The Overcome Any Obstacle and Get Your Degree Guide.