Talk to Your Prof…But How?

For many college students, the professor is an oddly “in-between” authority figure. On the one hand, the professor may seem not too much older than his or her students—maybe he or she dresses casually, seems cool, and is completely approachable, like the older kid leading the elementary school pack. On the other hand, especially for students away from home for the first time, the professor functions as a surrogate parent, someone to confide in and get advice from about day to day minutia. Teaching the subject and mentoring appear to go hand-in-hand with the authority to stand behind the collegiate podium. Yet, it is just this professional duality, which can muddle or tarnish the experience of the learning environment, the ultimate function of the student-professor dynamic. If a group of college-level teachers swap war stories, I would venture to guess that a significant amount of discussion would start with, “So I got this email from a student…” “You will not believe the email I received from a student yesterday!” “How in the world would somebody think it’s ok to ask me that??” followed by the obligatory professorial qualifier: “I would never have thought to write/say that to my professor when I was in school!”

If you have taught at college-level, you know these emails, and some may be seared into your memory—trotted out for a great anecdote/ice-breaker at a party, or an empathetic tale retold to a panicked newbie, unsure what to do about x or y. Themes may include:
1) The 1 – 5 AM series of emails, one more frantic than the next, begging for a paper extension/a better grade/for you to ANSWER NOW OMG WHY AREN’T YOU RESPONDING?!?!
2) The notes giving you way too many specifics about a student’s GI problems, preventing this week’s class attendance.
3) The overwrought, detailed explanation for a poor quiz performance, blamed on the antics of an ever-cheating boyfriend (“should I break up with him, btw? Just curious…”).
4) The emails addressed to…no one (“Hey! I was wondering…”), or a first name…when you have requested to be called “Professor so-and-so”.
5) The stream-of-consciousness commentary on that day’s lecture.
6) The request for a recommendation letter the day before the deadline, with no information regarding where it should be sent.
The list could include student email attacks or examples such as this one and these from the “favorites” shared on the Chronicle of Higher Education Forum (CHE).
It is this aspect of the student-professor relationship which can diminish the impact of the other, more important, in-class interactions and color a professor’s attitude towards the class as a whole. Yet, what is “this,” exactly? I could call it “etiquette,” “interpersonal ineptitude,” or a general by-product of the decay of social relations in the age of texting and social media (if I was feeling like a grouchy old lady).

grouchy old lady

Regardless of its title, this, the “unofficial” communications between a student and his or her professor, seems to be woefully unaddressed in freshman orientations, leaving college students without the means to navigate these tricky, but necessarily-traversed waters.
And, thus, Talk to Your Prof was born. I intended this site as a student resource, to fill the gap in pre-college prep. I hoped that students could use it as a guide for some of the more awkward niceties or tensions of student-professor interactions—from “What do I call my professor?” , to office hour etiquette, to how to handle potential grading bias. For the entertaining, but often inappropriate email content, I added an email and “Email Translator” section, turning a student’s most fervent, emotionally-charged feelings or TMI narratives into neutral professor-speak. In articulating, and continuing to emphasize the boundaries implicit in a student-professor dynamic, I hoped that Talk to Your Prof posts could clarify the often ambiguous nature of the “professor-as-teacher-or-friend” query. In addition, I wanted Talk to Your Prof to give professors a resource, a quick “how-to” (or “how not to,” as the case may be) reference in lieu of syllabi bogged down with paragraphs of instruction. Slate and other sites have published countless articles by professors attempting to compensate for students’ confusion regarding plagiarism or the appropriate time of day to email, if at all. What if…the syllabus could just be a syllabus? What if the syllabus just told students about office hour times, course requirements, and the theme and content of the class? For all other concerns—plagiarism: why it’s bad and what it is, office hour etiquette, email procedures, a professor could just include a link, and Talk to Your Prof would do the rest!
As I continue to develop the site, my hope is to include sections which might be termed “strategy.” From the other side of the desk, I see how I could have managed my own undergraduate career a bit better—formed a more substantial connection with my professors; taken advantage of their open offices or their advice; not been so afraid that they really couldn’t give a fig about what I had to say, in class or otherwise. From the other side of the desk, I want to help students learn from the mistakes I made, to give new undergrads the tools to gain in a college professor an invaluable resource, friend, or mentor. To that end, I’ve included strategizing tips, such as how to prep for office hours, and will include more specific posts in the future about building a relationship with faculty members. After all, an undergrad’s first step towards achieving the designation of “ideal, engaged student” is to talk to the prof; sometimes students just need a guide to know “how.”

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