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Things Not to Say to Professors

Updated on January 27, 2014

The US Census Bureau notes that, despite a drop in overall enrollment, 2012 saw 19.9 million people enrolled in colleges—two-year, four-year, and graduate—across the United States. There are certainly problems with the educations provided at those institutions of higher learning. Sometimes, those problems are the professors. Often, though, the professor is, in the words of one writer, “an incredibly smart person who was being paid to tolerate [the writer and] explain[ing] some of the most complicated and nuanced ideas ever developed in human history.” Too often, professors themselves experience a great many problems, including from the systems in which they are forced to operate, as another source notes. Too often also, the problems come from students, foolish problems indicated by a number of things most professors hear in every class every term.

Don’t make things worse. Don’t say any of these. Ever.

Is there any way I can get extra credit?

This one comes from two types of student. The first are those students who have been diligent and conscientious, who have done the work assigned them without fail and without complaint. They have attended every class or nearly every class, and they have been at office hours. Their grades are excellent, and so they do not need the extra credit.

They are also not the problem with the request for extra credit. The students who are fall into the second group. Those are students who show up late or rarely if at all, who obviously do not do the work assigned them until late in the assignment cycle (e.g., writing papers the night before they are due or showing up only for the study sessions right before exams). They are the ones who are asleep in class, or who distract other students with unhelpful side comments. They are the ones who come to professors after grades have been posted for the term and ask if there is any extra work they can do to raise their grade from failing to not failing, or from a D to a C.

Why would professors make more work for themselves, work they are not paid to do, for students who have already shown that they cannot or will not do the work they have been assigned? For that is what a student who asks for extra credit is asking the professor to do—and it should come as no surprise that the answer is usually the kind of resounding “No” that San Jose State University Professor Andrew F. Wood offers:

No. I’ll let you in on another professional secret: In student/teacher translation, I interpret “extra credit” as “extra grading,” and I do plenty of grading as it is. I do not have time to grade another assignment than the ones I have already created. Moreover, I am certain that you have plenty of opportunity to earn all 500 points available in this class. I work hard to ensure that you do. Extra credit would simply mean that you get more chances to earn points than your colleagues, and that is not fair to them or to me.

Life may well not be fair, but professors are people, and people will make it unfair for others before making it unfair for themselves.

In high school,…

What happens in high school matters little in the college/university environment. Responses to specific essay prompts and secondary pedagogy classes are the only instances that come to mind of times "In high school" is an acceptable introduction to any classroom or office-hour comments directed toward a professor. Unfortunately, the prepositional phrase does not restrict itself to those circumstances in the mouths of students; instead, it is usually used in an attempt to justify some complaint about the way the professor is going about things. It frequently pops up in student arguments that their work deserves a higher grade than it has received, something along the lines of "In high school, my teachers thought I did A work. Why isn't this an A?"

The short answer is that a college or university is not high school. It is called "higher education" in no small part because it is supposed to hold students to higher standards of performance. What is excellence at a high school level is *possibly* adequate at the college level. This is certainly the case in athletics; few students (or their parents, who are too often involved, about which more below) would argue that a player who was the star of the high school team should be able to play at the collegiate level without improvement. Academics are the sworn and stated purpose of college; why should they be held to a lesser standard than what is auxiliary?

Do you know who my parents are?

The answer to this is usually "no" (and the answer some want to give is "No. Do you?") Professors with relatively small teaching loads and low or capped class enrollment can expect to handle some eighty students each term; those with higher loads can start the term with *hundreds.* It is difficult to keep track of so many individuals alone, even seeing them once or more each week (and that presumes something other than a lecture-hall situation, in which professors are rarely able to see much of their students' faces in any event). Trying to keep track of even the names of the parents of those several score to several hundred students surpasses what most are able to do—particularly if they are expected to also command the field of knowledge expected of them in their capacities as researchers and teachers.

More importantly, this comment implies that the student will tattle on the professor to Mommy and Daddy if things do not go as the student wants them to go. In addition to coming across every bit as childishly as it is depicted (which hardly speaks well for the student who utters the comment), it potentially introduces annoying legal wrinkles for the supposedly adult college students and their professors. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, FERPA, restricts who can discuss student grades in a context that allows anything to be done about them (other than while assignments are in progress and students can get help with them). Put bluntly, professors cannot discuss the grades of adult students with the students' parents without extensive paperwork, which usually ends up involving college or university administration. It usually does not help the student; rarely is a grade overturned or a professorial policy altered because a student's parent came in and had a talk with the school. And when parents seek to confront the professors themselves, not only will the professors refuse to discuss the matter (as FERPA requires), they will likely begin harassment proceedings against the parents, or the school will do so on their behalf.

It is not helpful.

I tried to get in touch with you, but you were never at office hours/ never answered my email/text/phone call.

There are times when this happens, certainly. An older Newsweek article talks about it:

IT WAS A ROOKIE ERROR. AFTER 10 YEARS I SHOULD HAVE known better, but I went to my office the day after final grades were posted. There was a tentative knock on the door. ""Professor Wiesenfeld? I took your Physics 2121 class? I flunked it? I wonder if there's anything I can do to improve my grade?'' I thought: ""Why are you asking me? Isn't it too late to worry about it? Do you dislike making declarative statements?''

After the student gave his tale of woe and left, the phone rang. ""I got a D in your class. Is there any way you can change it to "Incomplete'?'' Then the e-mail assault began: ""I'm shy about coming in to talk to you, but I'm not shy about asking for a better grade. Anyway, it's worth a try.'' The next day I had three phone messages from students asking me to call them. I didn't.

I don't know if the 13th-hour students will learn that lesson, but I've learned mine. From now on, after final grades are posted, I'll lie low until the next quarter starts.

When it does, it is usually either because the professor knows that no good will come of the conversation—there is something of “don’t feed the trolls” at work—or because the professor is among the body of adjuncts who have neither office nor hours to spend in it, as Janet Ruth Heller notes in "Contingent Faculty and the Evaluation Process" (CCC 64.1 [September 2012]: A8-A12). Sometimes, too, life happens to professors; members of their families get sick, or they have other demands upon their time that must be met—not recovering from a hangover, but doing the kind of outside work that makes students look good for having studied under them. In no event is it helpful to pester the professor with the complaint of unavailability.

I need this for my [insert name or type of group here].

People who become professors are not usually those who were typical college students. They did not attend a university to party or to make new friends. Instead, they are usually those who went to learn. While they may have been part of one or more student groups along the way, they tend to view those groups as incidental to the real work of the school, both because of their own experience and because of their current position. As such, pleading for any kind of favor—an excused absence, a homework extension, the already-condemned extra credit—because of a need to fit in with any group is not likely to do much.

Typical offenders for these are members of the Greek community, and therein lies another problem. Schools such as Washington State University and Baylor University establish minimum standards for their pledges—and they are not very high. Washington State notes

On average, Panhellenic sororities require students have a minimum of a 3.0 cumulative GPA out of high school and a 2.8 cumulative GPA from a transfer college/university. On average, IFC fraternities require a 2.8 from high school. The United Greek Association chapters vary in their requirements but on average, require a 2.5 college GPA to join.

Baylor has a similar statement:

According to Baylor policy, a student must have completed 12 Baylor hours and obtain a 2.5 cumulative GPA to join a fraternity or sorority. However, many organizations require all potential new members to have a higher GPA to join their individual chapter.

The professorial viewpoint is usually that students who cannot maintain a C average, even with the help that most schools make available and that many Greek societies have ready to hand for pledges and members, really ought to refocus their attention and efforts on their schoolwork. It is, after all, the reason for college. Stating that it is not does not sit well with those who earn their living through that very thing.

I’ll do *anything* for a better grade.

It sounds like a line from a bad adult film. And it is not always the kind of thing that Timothy Carens identifies as a major cultural trope in "Serpents in the Garden: English Professors in Contemporary Film and Television" (College English 73.1 [September 2010]: 9-27), wherein a professor makes the offer of sex for grades to the student. It is sometimes an offer from a student to the professor, as the University of Hawaii acknowledges:

While sexual harassment often involves an abuse of authority or power, it can also occur between peers such as student-student or coworker harassment, or it can involve a student harassing a faculty member or employee.

The statement that a student will do anything for a better grade immediately puts professors in an uncomfortable position, one from which they are likely to extricate themselves by ejecting the student from the office and making a report to higher-ups immediately. The grim specter of sexual harassment allegations and their potential effects (Oleanna, anyone?) prompts professors to seek to protect themselves; even the suggestion by a student of sexual conduct evokes the quid pro quo form of harassment. Professors, particularly male professors, many of whom had to work for years to get the jobs they currently have, understandably want to protect themselves from any implication that they have done such a thing, since, as Katie Roiphe notes, "It is true that a female student has the unspoken power to whisper two words and ruin an entire career."

This is in *no way* to excuse those professors who do seek to abuse their positions of authority and exploit the students in their charge; clearly, quid pro quo harassment—any harassment—is wrong and should be heavily sanctioned. And that includes sexually suggestive offers made in exchange for better grades.

I paid for my A/I’m the customer.

Perhaps the most annoying thing professors hear from students, and one that they hear increasingly frequently, is that the students are the ones paying the professor’s salary, that they are the customers and that the customers are always right. While there are “schools” at which this is true, and students are in essence paying for As, they are relatively few; many colleges, perhaps still most of them, are exactly the opposite.

In some sense, students cannot be blamed for adopting the mentality of being customers of the companies that colleges and universities increasingly represent themselves as being. The idea is widespread in contemporary US culture. The New York Times featured a section of its Room for Debate blogging circle on the notion, foregrounding it in the American Zeitgeist. The Houston Chronicle has also addressed the notion, and Houston is no small city, so that its leading newspaper can be reasonably thought to reach many people and, perhaps, influence them. And, as noted above, there *are* places that explicitly operate on the pay-for-an-A model.

That they cannot be blamed for the view does not mean that they should be encouraged in it, however; what is wrong is wrong, even if it is arrived at through a means easy to understand. A webpage hosted by Brigham Young University offers several perspectives on why the attitude is wrong, both in the main text and the comments; the former notes that expectations will be placed upon students when they are out in the world, and that practice in meeting them—or in suffering for *not* meeting them—is valuable therefore. A commentator on the Chronicle of Higher Education assails several of the underlying beliefs of the customer-attitude: students do not pay salaries, at least not directly (they do as taxpayers, but so do the professors themselves), and education is not the same as entertainment (it is often dull, at least until breakthrough moments happen, but the breakthroughs rely upon the work done during the dull).

Another commentator entirely, Leonard Schlesinger, has what seems a better reason: a student asserting a customer status (or a professor or college/university asserting that the student is a product, not seldom a rebuttal to student assertions of being customers) demeans the value of education. For him, students and those who teach them are in a reciprocal relationship, a partnership, which both customer and product views prevent from working well and indeed, cheapen. To depart from Schlesinger, the assertion of a student as a customer serves to reduce both the student and the professor to a measurable quantity, the worth of which is determinable and therefore necessarily finite. It represents a step towards the commodification of human life and dignity, in effect moving along a line of reasoning that can be used to justify slavery and is similar to one that has been used to justify particularly grotesque means of mass murder. While slippery slopes are to be avoided as logically fallacious, anything which threatens to devalue human life (and to reduce something from the potentially infinite suggested by being unmeasurable to the finite necessary for measurement to occur is a diminution) is likewise to be avoided.

Going to a professor to demand an A because it has been paid for is an insult to the professor and an abnegation of the unlimited worth of the self. It is therefore assiduously to be avoided.

© 2014 Folgha


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    • Larry Rankin profile image

      Larry Rankin 

      3 years ago from Oklahoma

      In my experience, you can tell them not to say them but they still will, lol.

    • profile image

      Riel Hishon 

      4 years ago

      Interesting Hub :) very true so it was funny to read some of them

    • joanveronica profile image

      Joan Veronica Robertson 

      4 years ago from Concepcion, Chile

      A very interesting Hub! I've been a Professor in Chilean universities, the reality is somewhat different but the student types are universal. Some dialogues would be unrealistic in our reality, but some hold true. A great read! Voted up, etc.

    • sangre profile image

      Sp Greaney 

      4 years ago from Ireland

      Fascinating hub. You make a lot of valid points which I myself have witnessed from fellow student in college. Some people just have the nerve to do anything. Voted up!

    • Folgha profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      I sympathize, and I hope that Mr. A-or-Else has truly disappeared and not done an end-run. I have had that happen, wherein a student decides that the grade needs to be fixed from on high--in one case, the Dean of Students, and in another, the provost. The grades stood, but the experience was...not nice.

    • MrsDWrites profile image


      5 years ago from Troy, NY

      This is wonderful! At the end of last semester, I had one student pretty much demand an A and I'm (half-heartedly) working with a student who thinks her final grade was "a mistake". Mr. "I'm Getting an A (or Else)" seems to have disappeared into the ether, and I'm putting of Ms. "Mistake" for as long as I can. While I haven't been brave enough to say it out loud, when a student asks what they can do to bring their abysmal grade up, I really want to say, "Build a time machine."

    • Folgha profile imageAUTHOR


      5 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      Oh, my, yes. And my students usually get something like "Yes; I gave out the questions to the final exam as well as the answers to them." Other students have tended to play along with the joke, which always amuses me.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      And one of the worst things to say upon returning from an absence from class: "I miss class [specify a time]. Did we do anything important in class?"

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Very useful when dealing with angry professor. Good hub


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