Questions to not Ask Your College Professor
Sometimes, there is such a thing as a bad question
As a general rule, I do my best to encourage students to ask questions. I would much rather have an overly inquisitive student than an apathetic one. My favorite questions are those that relate to the academic material, particularly when they indicate some depth of thinking. Questions about class procedures are not as fun, but I recognize that they are often necessary. Students can often save themselves a lot of trouble and unnecessary stress by just asking me a simple question.
Still, the old adage that there is no such thing as a bad question is not entirely true. So I have compiled a list of questions that students who do not wish to annoy their college instructors should generally avoid. (If you want to annoy your instructor, then please stop reading here.) Most of the time, I will answer these questions without showing a significant amount of irritation. But every now and then, I cannot help but point out the inherent flaws in a question. It may cause a bit of embarrassment, but at least students will learn something for future situations with teachers who are more easily irritated.
1) Will that be on the test? This is a legitimate question, and at the least, it indicates that a student cares about his or her grade. There are implied messages in this question, however, that become increasingly clear if a student asks it more than once. First of all, a student is implying that the teacher is in the habit of saying irrelevant things. In addition, a student who asks this frequently is basically saying, “I am only going to ‘learn’ something if it will enhance my future test scores. In itself, learning this stuff has no inherent value to me.” The deeper implication is that the class itself has no value. The goal is to memorize the minimal amount of information necessary to get the desired grade. On some level, we teachers know that a large number of students have that attitude. We probably had it ourselves on many occasions when we were students. We don’t need to be constantly reminded, however, that our courses, and ourselves, are not inherently fascinating to most students.
2) Do we have to do this? The simple answer to this question is always no. Students are always free to ignore any instructions that I give. They need to recognize, however, that their choices have consequences. If they skip a test, flake out on a reading assignment, ditch a class, or choose some other irresponsible action, then their chances of receiving a decent grade will be reduced. It’s college, so no one is forcing them to do anything. Of course, people who ask this are not making a philosophic inquiry related to personal responsibility. What they often want to know is whether or not they will receive immediate points for completing a task. If there is no immediate reward, and if I am not going to check to make sure that they have done something, then many students assume that they do not have to do it. Never mind that the benefits of the activity will not be immediately apparent. For example, students are not required to take notes, and I make no attempt to check the quality or existence of class notes. Failing to take decent notes, however, will most likely have negative consequences in the long run. For most people, my tests are a bitch without decent notes to help them study.
3) Does attendance count? This is closely related to the previous question. It demonstrates that a student is planning on doing the minimal possible to get through a class, information that you do not want to advertise to your teacher. But in most of my classes, attendance does have a direct impact on the grade as a significant part of class participation. In classes with large numbers of students, however, there is no practical way for me to take attendance accurately. So in those classes, a student might come to the conclusion that attendance does not count. I simply announce on the first day that grades in my large classes are typically lower than others because students believe that they have the option of not showing up. Many flake out anyway, and they are forced to learn the hard way.
4) Why do we have to know this stuff? If asked in the proper tone, this is actually a very good question. I even wrote a hub explaining why I think that learning history is valuable. Unfortunately, this question may often be asked by people who just want to complain about my class because it has no relation to their future career and is therefore completely pointless. If a class does not directly lead to future income, then what’s the point? So for these people, my answer is simple: you have to know this because the educational system says so. Like everyone else, if you want the piece of paper, then you have to play the game. So why not make the most of it. (In other words, stop whining.)
5) Can I borrow a pencil? In certain circumstances, this may be legitimate. Pens run out of ink, pencils break in classrooms where there is no sharpener, and we all have a brain fart from time to time. This question, however, should never become anything close to a habit. Growing up and learning the basics of personal responsibility are major parts of success in college. Walking into a classroom consistently unprepared may be understandable when dealing with a fifth grader. By the time you get to college, it is well past inexcusable. My favorite is when I am asked this question on the day of a test. I have trouble understanding the mindset of someone who could walk into a test so completely clueless.
6) Is this Psychology? (Geography? Sociology? Etc.) Sometimes, for various reasons, students will come to my classroom by mistake thinking it is the location for a different course. Usually, they figure out their mistake right away and go searching for the proper classroom. Occasionally, however, a student will sit in my history class for about an hour before they ask if they are in the right place. I don’t know if this is a reflection of their general intelligence or of the job that I am doing. (Maybe I am clearly such an expert on everything that they cannot tell what course they are in.)
7) I was sick, so can I take a make-up test? In theory, the answer to this question is yes. I do, however, make them verify their illness with some sort of a doctor’s note. If I took all students at their word, then a small plague would break out among my students on every test day. Either that or there will be a wave of auto accidents, deaths in the family, or other “tragedies.”
8) Why did I get a (fill in the blank for a score) on this test? This is a perfectly legitimate question, but not during class time. Most students understand this, and they will wait until after class to discuss their test. But every now and then, you get a student who wants to have an immediate, in-depth discussion about their particular test in front of the entire classroom. It’s a part of the “world revolves completely around me” syndrome. So I respectfully ask them to talk to me after class, not looking forward to the discussion to come. People like this don’t easily take no for an answer.
9) Can I go to the bathroom? At least this question is polite. But one of the benefits of college is that you no longer have to get either permission or a bacteria infested bathroom pass in order to relieve yourself. Asking for permission ends up being more disruptive than slipping out of class as quietly as possible. This answer also applies to any other related requests: Can I get a tissue? Can I take this phone call? Can I get the hell out of here for a couple of minutes before I go insane? Etc.
10) I can’t see the screen, so can I move up? In most of my classes, for purely practical reasons, I have a seating chart. So if you were unfortunate enough to either be absent or show up late on the day that the chart was made, you might get stuck with a seat that you did not want. But this thing is by no means set in stone. So if a student has a legitimate reason for needing to relocate, this can be easily arranged. Unfortunately, I occasionally have students tell me toward the end of the semester that they spent the entire class unable to see the screen. When I ask them why they waited so long to tell me, I tend to get a blank stare. So this question is only bad when a student waits too long to ask it. Do they really think that I care more about the permanence of my seating chart than their educational well-being? Once again, their failure to speak up indicates a general lack of adult responsibility.
11) Are you still adding students? This question is only bad when asked during the second week of a class. In an era of class cuts, every student with a clue should know that the first day of class will be the only likely opportunity to register for a class after it has already started.
12) Please send me the Power Point outlines for the day that I was absent. For various reasons, I do not do this, mostly because it will tend to encourage student irresponsibility. What bothers me is the assumption that I have nothing better to do with my time than send out class notes to the large number of students each day that could not put up with the inconvenience of showing up to class. If people can be saved the trouble of putting out any effort, some will gladly take it. In special circumstances, of course, I will break this general rule and help people out. But in general, bending over backwards for people who do not show up tends to encourage a high number of absences.
13) Do you actually like this stuff? The simple answer is yes. I am basically a dork (and proud of it) who actually finds the human experience over time to be inherently fascinating.
14) Have you always been bald? In general, thinly veiled insults are a bad idea. It might earn a few laughs from juvenile classmates, but if that is your primary goal in attending school, it is time to go back to junior high. But if you were wondering, the answer is no. From looking at my dad, however, I always knew that this would be my ultimate fate.
15) And for one last “favorite” question, it is important to offer some context. Sometimes, if a student asks a question for which I have no good answer, a student might say something like, “I thought you were a history teacher. So why don’t you know that?” I am then forced to point out the obvious fact that I do not know anything close to everything. I might also throw out something about a history teacher not being an expert on historical trivia. In most cases, if you point out your ignorance, the majority of students will actually respect that. But if you have someone still in high school mode that views a teacher as an adversary, he or she might take the opportunity to score a few points.
The beauty of teaching college is that most of the questions listed here don’t come up too often. Most community college students are far from perfect, but they have at least reached a certain level of basic maturity. This is why I long ago escaped teaching at the secondary level, working with students who had annoying questions down to an art form.