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Back to School--Meet the Professor
There are three important points to remember:
- Communicate with your professors
- Know the rules
- Disagreements happen
Who are these "professors" you speak of?
In front of every classroom is the professor (or instructor or TA--and some people are very picky about the title). This person has specialized information--due to either training, study or experience--that they want to pass along to you. You, as the student, want to receive this information to help achieve your goals. Box of fluffy ducks, right?
The relationship between the professor and student is . . . well . . . what it is. As someone who is experienced in the art of professing and has had both positive and negative encounters with students, let me give you a few tips on surviving the crazy person in front of the room.
See, they do smile
Phrasing is everything . .
1. Talk to them. Really.
A professor in front of the class is looking to make a connection with the class. He or she wants to have a positive teaching/learning experience and that is much easier if there is a rapport between the class and the professor. One way this is achieved is through simple conversation. Most professors try and arrive a bit early to class to have time to interact with students. The topics of these interactions are typical bull sessions--they will flow from the weather to sports to what's happening on campus to, even, what's happening in class. Here you will see the professor in full-on "human being" mode.
Warning number 1: Not every professor likes to interact with students. Some will become downright hostile if you approach in less than full grovel mode. This type of professor is referred to by the scientific name "largicus jerkicus" and is generally not very well liked by his peers, either. It probably had something to do with his or her toilet training. This type of professor is best left alone in the classroom or office (and probably should be tagged and released back into the wild). During my undergrad years I had a professor yell at me for showing up to his office hours and slam the door in my face. These creatures do exist are best avoided.
Warning number 2: Some professors want to know too much detail about students' lives. These should also be avoided. Any professor who begins a conversation with "So, how's your sex life?" is seeking too much information. Avoid these professors at all costs unless you absolutely have no choice and must deal with them--then make sure you are up to date on your vaccines. But, seriously, if you feel a professor is being inappropriate, go to your advisor or the department chair and let him or her know what is happening. Chances are you won't be the first and maybe your information will be enough to resolve the issue.
Benefits: First, having a good rapport between the class and professor will add to the energy level of the class. The professor will be engaged and will want to be in the class, both physically and mentally. In my experience having taught classes where there has been no rapport between myself and the students, it is extremely difficult for both myself and the students to pull ourselves to class. The reasons why this occur are numerous--the time period stinks (7:30 am, anyone?), the students personalities and styles didn't mesh with mine. It may be only sixteen weeks, but it will feel like thirty-two (meeting twice a week) or forty-eight (three times a week) lifetimes for everyone. The professor and students end up talking past each other and count the minutes until the period is over.
Second, knowing who the professor is can help you as you precede through your college career. Professors make wonderful job references as most of society still believes us to be good judges of character (but not capable of much beyond that). A professor who can place your name with a face and remember that you were engaged in the class is more likely to agree to write a letter for you.
Visiting the professor
Have you ever taken advantage of the professor's office hours?
Important information to get from the syllabus
- Attendance policy
- Policy on cell phones, tablets, etc.
- Late work policy
- Assignment due dates
- Instructor contact information
What is this syllabus you speak of?
2. Know the Rules
Every professor has his or her idiosyncrasies in the classroom. One may not have problems with you using electronic devices during class while another will threaten technological apocalypse if he or she so much as sees a cell phone on the desk. Keeping it all straight can be a chore. Fortunately, every professor will make a syllabus available for their course. The syllabus is a document that sets out the plan for the semester. It contains the daily schedule, required readings, assignments and the rules and expectations for behavior and conduct.
Once the syllabus is made available--we used to hand them out on the first day of class and now they are on schools' LMS (Blackboard, etc.)--read it. Understand what is being asked of you and what the teacher is promising. This essentially is a contract between you and the professor which makes this a very important document. Each classroom is like a little kingdom ruled by a (mostly) benevolent overlord--learn what you need to know to keep your head (figuratively speaking).
There are a number of things in the document it is important you understand. The first is the attendance policy. How will absences from class affect your grade? Some professors have tight attendance policies with excused absences--absences from class for a legitimate reason--that do not count toward the total number of absences. Make sure you understand what the professor is willing to label "excused" and what documentation you need to provide to show why it should be excused.
The second is the professor's policy on technology. Some professors will allow free use in the classroom, others will restrict it (allowing you to use it for class tasks but not, say, Facebook) and a few who will play whack-a-mole if they see it popping up from the desk. Some professors see this as an issue of respect. The professor believes that he or she should have your full attention when class is in session and that anything that takes away from that full attention--sleeping, reading outside material or technology--is disrespecting him or her. And if you are going to disrespect the professor, well . . . it's not pretty. His or her house, his or her rules. You may feel it to be unfair, but it won't be the last time you believe something to be unfair In college (just take a look at what your student fees go to fund!).
The third is the policy on late work. Some professors will be lenient, others will have firm deadlines. Knowing this will save you points and headaches for the class. Most professors will allow you to turn in late work in extreme circumstances, but that is up to them. If you have an issue or problem arise, notify the professor immediately. It is better to keep them in the loop than to beg for mercy on the day the assignment is due.
If you have questions about the syllabus, ask the professor. He or she would rather spend a few moments to clear up confusion than to have a stressful situations arrive later in the semester.
When you get a syllabus for a class
Grades--Can't Pass Without Them
Steps to resolving disagreements
Disagreements happen. When they do:
- Talk to the professor after class or in his or her office.
- Ask questions and present your case.
- If you feel you are being singled out or treated unfairly, consult the department chair or dean
- If you feel that you have been hurt by the grade, appeal it
3. Disagreements happen.
Disputes between students and professors are inevitable. Anytime there is judgment being passed--and grading is an exercise in judgment--there are bound to be differences of opinions. These can be handled well or they can be handled badly (and I have seen both). The keys here are that both the student and the professor have a chance to speak their mind and that both parties must feel that they are being treated fairly in the exchange.
A scenario--you worked really hard on an assignment and it got a lower grade than you expected. It is disappointing, but remember three things: First, unless you showed the professor your efforts (showed him or her a rough draft, asked several questions in class), he or she does not know how much time you put in on the assignment. Second, most assignments are judged on how well they meet the objectives, not on time spent. You might write the best paper on Andy Griffith but if the assignment was about the Andes mountains . . . that's a problem. Third, when a professor gives you a low grade on an assignment, it is not "punishment" or a judgment about your worth as a student or a human being. Professors grade the piece of paper (or tape, or computer file, or whatever the assignment medium is) that is in front of him or her. A grade is a reflection on how well the professor feels you met the objectives for that assignment, not what the professor thinks about you personally.
What to do: Step one is to approach the professor about the grade in a non-confrontational way. The two best options are waiting and talking to the professor after class and/or going to the professor's office during office hours. This allows the two of you to talk privately about the assignment and allows for the professor to be much more specific about the assignment. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) limits what your professor can say in an open forum, so yelling immediately after you get the paper back and demanding an explanation, in public on why you got the low grade--not so much helpful.
Step two is to ask for feedback. Knowing why you did bad on an assignment is helpful for getting better grades on future ones. Listen intently and/or take notes. Ask specific questions about comments you find on the paper (in my case, my handwriting is so bad students first ask for translation). If you have concerns about the comments you received from the professor, raise them. Most professors don't mind being questioned "why" if they can tell there is a genuine attempt by the student to learn. Realize that the grade may not change--it is not a given that 1) the professor will agree with your point or 2) that they will be willing to make a grade change. All you can do is state your case as specifically and persuasively as possible and learn from the experience.
Sometimes there are further steps to be followed. If you believe that the grade you received was patently unfair and assigned in a capricious and an arbitrary manner, you can appeal to a higher power--the chair of the department or the dean of the college. The key here is that the grade is "patently unfair"--that you are being singled out and received a grade that was not based upon the merits of the assignment. If that is the case, you must then show that the grade was assigned capriciously--without basis in any kind of evaluation--and/or arbitrary--that the professor basically made up the criticisms and the grade.
If the above is true, then it is on to step three--talk to the department chair or college dean. You will be expected to provide proof for your claims at this level, and they need to be specific. "He don't like me" or "She thinks I'm stupid" are not good enough to prove your case. Bring specific statements that the professor has made to you and provide witnesses who also heard these statements. The chair or dean will make notes and approach the professor with his or her concerns. (I will attest that deans and chairs follow up with faculty. Students tend to think that nothing happens at this point and that their concerns are buried. Again, I will attest that there are things happening behind the curtain, so to speak, to try and address the problems and allegations that the student made).
If you are not happy with that outcome, there is step four--a grade appeal. These happen after the semester ends and deal with the final course grade. All schools provide a mechanism for appealing grades. These usually involve filing a form with specific reasons why the grade should be changed. The terms are the same ones used above--patently unfair, capricious and arbitrary. You will need to file proof of your assertions, so make sure you keep the assignments in question. You and the professor will appear before a panel made up of faculty, students and (sometimes) academic staff. You will present your side of the case and the professor will be offered a chance to respond to your assertions. One thing that students often fail to do is bring evidence either written or witnesses who can attest to what you are saying. These can help to make your case for you.
A note--students often believe that the odds are stacked against them during the hearings. I will tell you from serving on these panels that is not the case. The panel is interested in getting at what happened and, if needed, making a suggestion for a remedy. The process is about being fair and making sure the right decision gets made. The system is far from perfect, but every group is represented in the process and all parties get a chance to state their case.
Have you ever appealed a grade?
. . . and Now You're Off
Professors are an interesting, funny, helpful, strange, kind, eccentric and flawed bunch. Knowing how to interact with them from day one will be helpful in having a successful college career. Hopefully these tips will help you in your relationships with professors. Remember to
- Communicate with them.
- Know the rules.
- Handle disagreements.
Have a great semester! Only ____________ days until _______ break!