Friday, November 18, 2005

How to talk to a professor

[Advice for students]

Talking to a professor — out of genuine curiosity, a genuine interest in learning, a genuine desire to improve — is one of the smartest things a college student can do. While some professors are genuinely unapproachable, many more are happy to talk to students. Here are five points to consider when you're talking to a professor.

1. Be mannerly. Before asking "What are your office hours?", check your syllabus. If hours aren't listed or won't work, ask your professor when he or she can meet with you. A reasonable professor will understand that office hours cannot accommodate every student's schedule.

When you arrive, knock on the door, even if it's open, and greet your professor by name. I'm always slightly amazed when a student walks into my office without saying a word and waits for me to say something. If my back is to the door, it's downright weird.

2. If you're coming in to talk because you're having difficulty in a course, there are a few familiar sentences to avoid:

"Will this affect my grade?" Whatever "this" is, it will play a part in your grade. How much or how little depends upon the rest of your work.

"Can I still get a B?" This question will usually lead a professor to think that your grade-point average, not learning, is your priority.

"I'm an A student." Grade inflation is widespread, and some of those As may not be the most accurate evaluations of your work. Even if they are, your professor won't grade you on the basis of your reputation.
3. If you are having difficulty in a course, let your professor know that you realize it, and ask what you can do to improve. When I talk with students, I find that it's almost always possible to offer specific suggestions that can make the work go better. These suggestions often address common-sense matters unrelated to course content: Move your alarm clock away from your bed. Use Post-it Notes to mark up the reading. Get a planner. Break a big task into smaller tasks. Hit Control-F to find each coordinating conjunction and decide whether it needs a comma.

4. If you want to talk to a professor in some other way — about a question that you didn't get to ask in class or an idea that you want to discuss — just do the best you can. Your professor will very likely meet your genuine interest with kindness and encouragement. (If not, find another professor.)

5. Ending the conversation can be tricky. Some professors will wrap things up for you, while others will be happy to just keep talking. In other words, a signal that you're dismissed may not be coming. So don't hesitate to take the initiative in bringing the conversation to an end, especially if you have other obligations.

Some of my best college memories are of talking with my professors in their offices. I was a shy kid (still am), and I treasured the chance to ask questions and try out ideas during office hours. Sitting with my coat and books piled on the floor, I found my way into the possibilities of genuine intellectual dialogue. You can do that too.

Related posts
How to answer a professor
How to e-mail a professor

comments: 11

Bardiac said...

This is a great article, as is your piece on emailing a professor.

I've referenced/linked to your posts in one of mine; I hope that's ok.

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for the kind words, academic coach and bardiac. Of course it's ok to link. Thanks for asking.

Anonymous said...

This is really helpful. Thank you!

Michael Leddy said...

You’re welcome, Anon. Best wishes for your conversations with your professors.

Anonymous said...

I'm always really nervous when I talk to my professors; all I can think about is how smart he or she is and how much I don't want to sound like an idiot. On the other hand, I really do want to get to know my professors and ensure that they get to know me, I feel this is important both for the learning process and is important if a student wants to continue his or her education after undergrad. I'm just wondering how to get a really good conversation going with a professor. Generally I come in, ask a question and then leave...

Michael Leddy said...

Anon., it sounds as though you’re ending up intimidating yourself (something I know about too). Here’s a suggestion: go in as if you were an interviewer who wants to find something out. That might help you to feel less intimidated by your profs. And keep in mind: they’re supposed to know more! Try to see that as something wonderful, not something that makes you unworthy.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. The article was very well-written. I've just started pre-law and I'm nervous about talking to my professors as well. I'm naturally friendly (most people say perky) but I'm not sure if I should be myself when speaking to them, or if I should be a more subdued, less smiley version of myself. I want them to get to know me, but not be put off or think me unprofessional. Just to clarify, I'm perky, but I don't sound ditzy or anything, and most people don't find it overbearing, but I'm wondering if it's appropriate. Thanks in advance.

Michael Leddy said...

This is a difficult question, Anon. I’d say that because “perky” can look like salesmanship or insincerity, it might be better to begin by being a little subdued. But as you get to know your profs and feel less nervous talking with them, your character will begin to come through in a way that won’t seem phony. Does that make sense?

I’d suggest also asking people whom you trust and who know and respect your work. See what they think. And best wishes with your studies.

like such as said...

Hi. Thank you for your helpful articles.

I have a professor who enjoys starting class with videos/articles which he thinks we will find interesting or possibly useful in life, but which are not specifically related to the course material.

Recently he had us watch a video and proceeded to editorialize (preach?) against a financial practice he called a "great evil." It doesn't really matter what specifically he was talking about, but I disagreed with his position and didn't really appreciate his using the platform to tell us what to think about that and, upon finishing, simply say "onto today's lecture."

I didn't say anything while he was talking (thankfully I'm not quite that immature), but I would like to send him, via email, my thoughts on what he said. My question for you is this: would you find the gesture to be inappropriate, provided that I maintain a respectful tone in the email, or should I just drop it?

Thank you.

Michael Leddy said...

If the topic is unrelated to the work of the class, I would let it go. If it’s related to the class, I would suggest asking yourself whether the professor seems open to dialogue. If it seems possible to have some sort of conversation, I’d suggest talking during office hours, not sending an e-mail. E-mail in this context seems to me a little passive-aggressive. By going to office hours, you’re making it possible to have a genuine dialogue, asking why he holds the view he holds and offering yours. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for useful post! Some professor don't like to talk with students