Monday, October 18, 2010

Stefan Hagemann, guest writer:
How to answer a professor

[My friend Stefan Hagemann offers the following advice for students. Stefan and I have known one another for more than twenty-five years. When we met, he was a brand-new college student; I was a brand-new professor. Over the years, we have had many conversations, spoken and written, about books, music, teaching, and everything else. Stefan is as astute as it gets. He teaches English at Edgewood College, in Madison, Wisconsin.]

Some time ago in the comments section, a chat over Michael’s How to e-mail a professor post and its misappropriation by others on-line led to Matthew S’s suggestion that Michael write a sequel, “How to answer a professor.” I thought this was a great idea, one that might help students improve their ability to speak up in the same way that Michael’s previous effort has helped them compose winning e-mail messages, and I said so — with enthusiasm. Maybe I should have kept my head down — I know I didn’t raise my hand — because, to my surprise, Michael asked if I’d like to write such an essay. In view of the fact that I was a shy student, one who turned red, cleared his throat endlessly and seemed always to babble more than answer, I’m no doubt the perfect pick to pen such a piece, and although I doubt I can match the wisdom and clarity that Orange Crate Art readers find here every day, I’m hopeful that I can at least start a discussion about, well, discussions. What follows is surely incomplete, a skeletal set of suggestions, and if I’m delighted by this opportunity, it is at least in part because I’m excited to hear comments and suggestions from Orange Crate Art’s smart and knowledgeable readers.

How to answer a professor

In the spirit of serious inquiry: It is usually okay to be playful, but don’t be silly when you are called on. Take a moment to think if you need to — consider any key terms in the question; make sure you understand its purpose — and if you are unsure, ask for clarification. When you are ready, speak confidently and if possible, with wit. Try to make eye contact when you answer, and try to avoid generalities (“his perspective changed,” “she wants us to think”) or obvious dodges (“it depends,” “I can see it both ways”). Instead, respond precisely and with plenty of specific detail. If the question involves a text, refer to the text to support your answer, just as you might in an essay. If others have spoken up already, consider linking your answer to theirs. This will help create an atmosphere in which the exchange of ideas is welcome, and as a bonus, it will show that you’ve been paying attention. Don’t simply agree, however, with what’s already been said. That’s the most obvious dodge of them all. Rather, try to move the discussion forward in some specific way, perhaps by offering a relevant example or an analogy that illustrates your point. If there is good reason to challenge a classmate’s comment, do it in a friendly, non-threatening way, one that suggests trying to get to the bottom of things rather than scoring points at the expense of a peer.

With honesty: If you have no idea, if you’ve been caught unprepared, it’s probably best to ’fess up. Be apologetic — I’m sorry; I’m not prepared for class today — and resolve (to yourself) to be prepared next time.

From a position of power: A good way to avoid having to ’fess up is to come prepared. The cliché about how knowledge is power applies here. If you read, think, and write (in the margins, in a journal, on a blog) ahead of class, you’ll be powerful in class. Your answers will be powerful. If you want to avoid embarrassment and to answer well, do your homework, all of it. Read assignments critically, more than once and with a pen. Don’t simply highlight interesting passages; engage them. Question them. If there is an introductory note or a brief author’s biography in your textbook, read it. Jot down ideas while you prepare, and try to guess what your professor might focus on in class. Write down the sort of questions that you’d ask if you were responsible for leading the discussion, and make sure that you have good answers to them. Prepare for class the way presidents (the good ones!) prepare for press conferences. And if you want really to shine, push yourself a little bit. Find out something about the books or films or songs that your professor mentions. If she puts a title or an author on the board, she is probably hoping that you will show some initiative and do a little legwork — or at least a Google search. This is doubly true if your professor puts books or other materials on library reserve. Search out those materials and skim them at least. She has put them on reserve because she knows they will help you better understand something. Don’t make her draw you a map. (Unless, of course, you don’t actually know where the library or the reserve desk is located. If that’s the case, please stop reading this immediately and go find out.)

Be interested in a lot of things: Some questions are designed to test your command of a set of facts, and some leave little room for interpretation. Once in awhile, a question might even permit a “yes” or “no” answer. But often you’ll be dealing with open-ended questions, ones about which there is much to say and from many angles. Recognize that most open-ended questions range across academic disciplines and areas of interest, and do your best to develop a good grasp of the world around you. Good question-answerers read widely, talk to their peers and professors, attend on-campus events such as plays and concerts, and (I’m guessing here) subscribe to PBS and NPR. Good question-answerers also listen. If you know a little bit about the world around you and make an effort to experience your immediate environment, you may be surprised by your ability to add outside knowledge to your answers. Broad experience equals (or at least increases the chance for) serendipity.

Pay attention to how others do it: Like most things in life, some people are better or worse than others when it comes to speaking in class.Some (theater kids, maybe, or only children) are naturally hammy and some (speech or communication majors) may have more experience than you do. Some, it turns out, just have the knack when it comes to speaking up. Notice these folks. What makes their comments seem more insightful than yours? What is it about their answers that you admire? It may be only their confidence and command of the material, but chances are, there is some other thing — enthusiasm, curiosity, a sense of gleeful, perhaps even mischievous purpose — that sets them apart from the pack. There is good reason to doubt the old saw about how “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” if only because flattery is by definition insincere, but the truth is, we learn much in life by imitation. Anyone who uses language to think about this claim will recognize its truth — that’s how you got that language in the first place — and any kid who has imitated his baseball hero’s batting stance or her tennis hero’s overpowering serve knows something of imitation’s upside. See who makes it look easy. Pick up on who seems to be having fun. Notice the ones who get the most positive feedback during class discussion. Try to determine what it is that they do. Do it too.

With panache: In a pinch, ignore all of these suggestions, and answer with enthusiasm and the courage of your convictions. Answer in a way that trumpets your interest and broadcasts your sense of wonder. Make it clear that you are happy to answer, that you are present on this day, on this campus, in this class precisely to answer. Answer in a way that reflects your serious purpose and your desire to embrace the knotty ambiguities of life. Answer so that, joyfully, your answer poses many new questions.

[The unalterable footer — “By Michael Leddy” — does not apply to this post. The writer is Stefan Hagemann. Thanks, Stefan, for a great contribution!]

comments: 8

Rachel said...

Interesting post, Stefan!

Your suggestions are great. Maybe having been a "professor's kid" has helped me empathize with my professors, and I always do my best to answer in class thoughtfully, concisely, and honestly.

I also think that not dominating the discussion is VERY important, and something that many of my classmates in college and grad school apparently do not understand.

Nice post!

stefan said...

Thanks, Rachel. I wish I had thought of adding something about not dominating discussion, but I'm glad you did. It's a great point and something students and professors alike must grapple with.

Heidi A. Cray said...

I've noticed that in classes where very few people have the confidence to speak out, if I go slightly over the top with it, they are more likely to gain the confidence they need. In many classes that I have had, the semester started with only me (one of the hammy theatre kids) participating. By the end, everybody was involved. I think the most important part about confident participation, even if your wrong, is that the more shy students learn that it's ok to express your opinions.

Michael Leddy said...

Heidi, I’ve often found that just one or two students who are willing to talk can help to lively up the rest of the class. I’m sure your professors are really grateful for your contributions.

K. Rhodes said...

As one of the very, very shy students, this is good advice. I usually come prepared anyway, but just don't have the confidence to speak in front of people, even if it's just to ask a simple question. Many of us shy kids just simply don't want to embarrass ourselves in from of our classmates. However, with some work shyness can be conquered! Thanks for the advice, it really helps!

stefan said...

Thanks, Heidi and K, for your smart and helpful comments. I'm sorry I didn't respond sooner to yours, Heidi, but I felt like Michael said what I'd like to say. I will add only that he's right--I appreciate your contributions to class discussion a great deal. And K, I'm delighted to hear your optimism. As I mentioned in my introduction, I was a really shy student too, and for us, the idea that others might laugh or scoff at our comments can be paralyzing. But one thing I like about college is that it gives us a chance to move beyond all that cool kid stuff. C.S. Lewis in an essay called "The Inner Ring" suggests that once you stop worrying about what the in-crowd thinks and instead begin concentrating on doing well what you love, "you will presently find yourself all unawares inside the only circle...that really matters. You will be one of the sound craftsmen, and other sound craftsmen will know it." In other words, nuts to the people who might laugh! Saying what you think will gain you entry into the world of like-minded people, and I can say from experience that that's a fun place to be. (I considered updating Lewis' somewhat sexist language, by the way, but somehow "craftspeople" sounded terrible.)

Again, thank you both for taking the time to comment. It means a lot to me.

stacey said...

Stefan,
As both a student and a teacher I found this article helpful. I enjoyed the comment on "dominating the discussion". It reminded me of my oldest, so I called in my high school and middle school daughters to read it too. I am constantly being told by their teachers that one never stops talking and the other never participates. My youngest who never particpates, called the article "intense" and told me it really spoke to her and she will try some of the suggestions. The older could not comment on the writing as she was too busy listening to herself talk! Thanks! Stacey

stefan said...

Thanks, Stacey, for an amusing and touching comment. I'm delighted to learn that you asked your daughters to read the piece, and I'm even happier that they liked it. They are now my favorite readers, and if the essay helps the youngest (I'm following your lead by leaving out names, but readers may be interested to know that these fine young women are my nieces) in school, well, that's icing on the cake.