If you want to know why students should connect with their professors think of this sad image: There she is sitting in her office surrounded by books and maybe a wilting plant. The Lonely Professor. Piles of papers on her desk and no one comes to see her. She has her lonely apple for lunch. She thinks about the students she sees in her classes and wonders what they are doing now. They certainly are not in her office, that is for sure.
Well—maybe that is a bit dramatic. But I do know that I have had those moments when teaching where I did wonder where my students were. Not that I did not have enough to do—in addition to teaching I was usually doing something else like being a dean or director of some program. And I had papers to correct, course plans to create. There was always enough to do. But there was sometimes that missing element… connecting one-on-one with my students. Maybe this phenomenon of the lonely professor exists because students don’t know why they should connect with their professors.
In my own experience as an undergraduate, I remember long talks with utterly brilliant faculty and being handed a stack of books to use in a paper.
Where are the students of today? A recent conversation with a student who was sure he was failing a paper for a course revealed that he was afraid to tell the professor how confused and behind he was. He was so embarrassed that he was willing to risk an otherwise stellar GPA dropping several points. So he never connected with the professor who could have saved him.
I have had students who placed people with the title of professor in an exalted light rendering them intimidating. But the intimidation factor plays into the failure of students to connect with professors an see them as allies and collaborators with them in achieving their hopes, dreams and goals.
There is the reality of a power relationship. Professors do give grades. That is a lot of power. But they also tend to enter the field with two interests—sharing a subject they care about and caring about the students they teach. Some faculty give more weight to one than the other but both are part of what draws them to the work. It pains professors to give failing grades. But that power held in the giving of grades can also be a source of fear for the student. The fear is that if a student asks questions or reveals weakness they will be judged as lacking and less worthy. And so students do not connect with their professors.
That fear of being judged as less than – which we all face at different times of our lives—plays out particularly for first generation students. The reality is that asking questions or even asking for help by connecting with a professor is a sign of interest and curiosity. Faculty begin their work by asking questions about our world. When students bring their questions to us they are engaging us in discourse on something we care about and want others to understand. It is not a sign of deficit but of interest to ask. It is just fine and the best way to connect with professors.
I know a student who said that he owed his 4.0 GPA to having built ties with his professors whom he felt he could ask questions. They, in turn, saw drive and curiosity in his inquiries leading them to offer him chances to do the kind of research that lead him to a course of study as a PhD student in a top university.
So here are reasons to connect with professors:
· First is always to see how to succeed in the class or subject area. It is fair to ask a professor what they look for in an A student or better yet what they want you to learn from their course.
· Faculty relationships need to be cultivated for professional reasons. They may know of job opportunities. They have colleagues who can lead to slots in grad schools. They can be references.
· A reason for connecting with a professor is conversation on what life might become. Professors can share their own experiences or those of alumni to help students see directions their own lives might take.
· A conversation about the shape or theme of a paper could lead to shared understandings about each other’s backgrounds and perspectives.
· There are definitely times when a student needs to be lifted out of a morass of his or her own creation. This can be the paper or exam that was a disaster or a matter in the student’s personal life where the professor can be the wise adult.
· There can be strategy sessions on how to manage relationships with other colleagues or college processes.
· Sometimes they buy you lunch or coffee. I have had pretty horrible lunches in student centers and better ones in faculty dining rooms with students, but always fascinating conversations.