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Things *to* Say to Professors

Updated on August 26, 2014

In an earlier hub, I note a number of things that professors cringe or become greatly annoyed at hearing. While it is a good thing to know what behaviors to avoid, it is not enough; one must also know what behaviors to cultivate. Hence this hub, in which I offer a number of things from my long experience studying and teaching at the collegiate level that please professors upon the hearing.

One note must be made with them, though: the saying must be sincere. This usually means that some sort of follow-up will be required (and I note useful follow-up patterns in what follows). A one-off will soon be forgotten, and repeated insincere utterances ring hollow in professors' ears--a ringing far worse than silence. Suit deed to word, and what I give below may be of help. Failing to do so can lead to harm to academic careers.

What are the most important journals in the field?

One of the things that collegiate coursework is supposed to do is introduce students to the ways of thinking prevalent in the various disciplines and to train them in those patterns to varying degrees. General education classes do little more than make the introductions, classes for minors offer basic training, and classes for majors prepare students to do independent work in the field. (Graduate classes take students to the edge of current knowledge about the field so that they can begin to contribute to it.) This means that those who will work in those disciplines have to keep abreast of what goes on in them, and the primary method for doing so is reading the various research journals each discipline produces. Students are well advised to mimic their professors in doing so, and asking the professor after the major journal/s that cover/s the class's discipline is an easy way to find what to read.

This is particularly true for major coursework; students are theoretically looking to enter the fields of their majors as professionals within them, and professionals do well to know what is going on in their professions. But even in minor and general education coursework, asking after major journals and reading them (vitally important, this) offer benefits. Many assigned papers ask for specific numbers and types of sources, usually including peer-reviewed research journals. Those important to the field--particularly those professors name--will be easy contributions to such assignments. They might even yield some knowledge and understanding to carry forward into other classes and future endeavors.

I read X article, which says Y about [concept relevant to the class]. I was wondering what your opinion of it is.

A student who can bring up relevant, recent scholarship is a rare treasure, immediately attracting the favorable attention of the professor. Such a student demonstrates awareness of the prevailing trends of the field and an identity as a participant in it, which is far better to see in a class than the usual rows of students fighting sleep and boredom to sit through another lecture as one more small step to getting a fancy piece of paper. For the student to then seek the professor's opinion of the matter adds a welcome indication of respect for the knowledge and expertise the professor is supposed to have to the already-favorable impression the reference itself creates.

The concern with this is as with any type of name-dropping. Effectively making references to articles requires reading and understanding them--which is good for the collegiate environment, generally. Being able to frame a reasonable question about the article or the methodology it employs suggests itself as a good indication of having read it. Only being able to name the title and author/s of the article, without saying anything more substantive than a summary of the abstract, is not. Do not fall into the trap of such name-dropping; it inevitably creates the impression of being a suck-up, which is never good.

What does your research cover?

The professoriate exists, among others, as a way to professionalize scholarship, to ensure that those who are disposed to study have the resources that allow them to do so. The idea is that allowing them to do so allows them to work out ideas that tell us more about ourselves and the world in which we work, whether that be in the arcane intertextuality studied by professors in English departments or in the abstract mathematics physicists use to describe the inner workings of energy. Yes, they are supposed to teach, but they are supposed to uncover and develop new knowledge to teach--they are supposed to do research at least as much as to report its results. (Indeed, the reporting takes less time and energy than the researching, and by a great deal.)

Asking after a professor's research (or creative work, if the professor is in a fine arts pursuit such as painting or creative writing) is a nod to that important part of the professorial identity. It shows that the person asking the question is interested in more than just the immediate concerns of the classroom, more than just getting a good grade. It shows that the student is interested in learning more about the field, and I have yet to meet a professor who does not appreciate students seeking to learn more about his or her field.

Simply asking once will not suffice, however. Reading, or trying to read, the published work will be key, which leads to the next point.

Your article/book says X. I am not sure what you mean by it. Can you explain it for me?

Professors tend to be vain about their knowledge and intelligence. They are human, after all, and people tend to be proud of the parts of themselves they show most prominently--and there is an expectation that professors are both smart and experts in their fields. Playing to that vanity often works well--if it is done with tact and sincerity.

Asking for clarification of published research tends to fall within that rubric. Doing so suggests immediately that the one asking has read, or at least tried to read, the research in question, and there is no small degree of flattery in knowing others are reading what a person writes. (I remember being cited at a conference. It warmed my heart greatly.) Too, it shows that the one doing the asking is interested in the idea for itself, and it allows the professor being asked to show off a bit. In explaining the concept, the professor displays knowledge, and in doing so such that a nonspecialist can grasp it, the professor shows intelligence--and both influence the professor favorably towards the one receiving the explanation.

Again, though, a one-off will soon be forgotten, and repeated instances that are not supported by subsequent action will come off as shallow and obvious attempts at flattery; they will backfire. The thing to do, then, is to use the research concept explained (with appropriate citation, of course) in class papers and/or discussions. This shows that the explanation was effective and that the student has learned materials not only from the course but from its context. The professor shows up as a better teacher therefore, and that is never a bad thing.

You wrote X on my paper. How can I avoid the error in the future?

Related to the above in that it involves getting an explanation that many professors are happy to give, asking for clarification of comments on papers tends to go over well with those who assess them. While professors are likely to get many questions about their grading, most are whining and belligerent. Asking for clarification of the comment and for ways to avoid making similar errors indicates a willingness to learn and improve--rather than only to get a higher grade--of which those in instructional positions tend to approve. It also does so in a way that acknowledges the authority of the one issuing the comment, which is important. Such comments as "This isn't wrong; you're wrong" and "I'm already a better writer than you'll ever be" (both of which I have had from students) present themselves as direct challenges to be dismissed out of hand--along with the students who make them. Indicating respect for the greater knowledge and expertise the professor is supposed to have, however, mollifies the professor in question. It makes what could be a confrontation into a chance at collaboration, which benefits both student and professor. (Occasionally, I have found that my earlier comment was in error and have adjusted accordingly--but I do not look when students are jerks about their grades.)

Simply asking is not enough, however. The knowledge gained must be acted upon if it is to be of any use. Correct the error as it appears in other assignments; getting an answer is a favor, and failing to capitalize on it comes across as an insult. Insults will not likely be regarded kindly--nor will those who offer them.

Thank you.

This is perhaps the most important thing to say to a professor.

While it is true that many professors enjoy teaching--most, in my experience, very much enjoy working with students who are willing to work--many or most have projects which consume their thoughts and minds. (Not for nothing did academia emerge from religious organizations; both are callings rather than jobs.) They know that such legacies as they leave behind will be seen more in their work as researchers than as teachers, however much impact they may have as the latter--certainly their abilities to advance in their own careers and take care of their own families is more reliant on the former than the latter, and they can scarcely be faulted for attending to their own.

They are thus giving of themselves and their time for their students. This deserves thanks. And even if they are not at their best in the classroom--as some are not, admittedly--they are still making available to the students knowledge and understanding not otherwise accessible; despite the ease of acquiring information, data itself and alone does not truly equal knowledge. It requires context and applied patterns of thought to make sense of it, and those patterns cannot be gotten from online materials. They cannot be gotten in isolation. They can only be gotten in direct interaction, responsive and immediate, and it is that interaction as much as anything else that a professor--any teacher, really--can provide.

Offering thanks at the end of each lecture is probably a bit much; it will come off as obsequious, which is not favorable. Offering thanks for each email reply is less so; professors typically are not paid for time spent outside the classroom or office hours, yet they often answer emails and work on their classroom materials outside those times. In essence, they are doing students favors by answering outside of office time, and that deserves a show of gratitude. The same advice obtains for appointments; again, the professor is taking unpaid time to work with a student, which merits thanks. (In such cases, particularly if they are repeated as with a student getting help with a project over several weeks, a written note is welcome.) A note of thanks at the term's end is also appreciated.

At root, a word of thanks, and indeed all of what I list above, is an acknowledgement of shared humanity. If it is true, as I have asserted, that that which dehumanizes is to be avoided, it perhaps follows that that which humanizes is to be sought--and what I have suggested be said to professors does that. Other things will, as well; they should be found and said often.


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