Ever wonder who your professor really is behind all of that tweed and fancy jargon? OK, perhaps we no longer wear tweed or smoke pipes (yuck!), but some students may find us a bit mystifying. Why does a professor talk with students after class one day but not another? Why did it take over a week to grade those 10-page papers? Whose assistant are Assistant Professors? Why aren’t professors always in their offices when you drop by? Who are these sometimes elusive and confusing creatures?
As professors, we are each unique individuals, but in this column I will reveal some of the secrets that many of us have in common. Knowing these secrets will help you understand your professors and make the most of your academic experience.
Secret #1: Professors Adore Our Students
Did you think I was in it for glory, fame, and riches? No, indeed, most professors could pursue more lucrative professional avenues, but chose teaching because we love it and adore our students. I get to have fascinating discussions and explore and debate interesting ideas with some of the coolest people I have the pleasure to know, my students! College students are taking time to learn, grow, and explore, and they throw themselves into it.
At the Wilkes Honors College, where I teach, students have signed up for the privilege of working EXTRA hard and cheerfully take all honors courses all of the time. When my students graduate after four years of demanding honors courses and completing an independent honors thesis research project, I am just as likely as parents to get a little teary-eyed with pride. And I am delighted to get a card, e-mail, or visit from former students and hear about their exploits.
At many universities, large introductory lecture classes are taught by a professor on a stage addressing more than 200 students. That stage may make professors appear distant, but I can generally assure you that they started teaching because they love it. Later, as you take specialized advanced seminars, or if you are at a small liberal arts and sciences college, you may be in a cozy room with a professor and relatively few students. In all cases, I urge you to get to know your professors. In a large course, sit near the front and participate or ask a question when appropriate. In a small class, be extra prepared, plan ahead, and list ideas and questions you might contribute to discussion. Once you have demonstrated your own knowledge and independent thinking, it is also fair game to ask for your professor’s opinion.
Outside of class, introduce yourself to your professors in the halls or on the quad. You might drop by during office hours, introduce yourself again (keep in mind that you are one of many students that your professor is getting to know), and ask a few questions from class, lab, or the readings. Most professors enjoy talking with their students and, for you, interacting with the professor will not only improve your understanding of class material, but also make you memorable when you ask the professor for career advice or recommendation letters.
Secret #2: Professors Adore Our Subject Matter (and Can Be a Bit Obsessed)
As professors, we dedicate our lives to studying one single subject and we love our subjects—often really REALLY love our subjects. This can occasionally lead to the problem of professors assuming that “everyone knows” some obscure detail of their field. Fortunately, frequent interactions with incoming students remind us that everyone does not know, and then most professors are happy to explain further, perhaps in excruciating but fondly rendered detail.
This love-fest with our subject areas often means that, with interested students, professors relish in-depth analysis during office hours (or in the cafeteria every now and then), suggesting extra reading, and discussing relevant documentaries, news, and discoveries. I was delighted when a student sent me links to videos on dialectical behavior therapy following our Psychopathology course discussion of personality disorders. For students bound for graduate studies, professors can offer advice and mentorship.
This passion for our subject area creates wonderfully enthusiastic and dedicated teachers. Remember this to avoid stepping on our toes. It is disappointing when students ask to add into my full course because they “have to take it” and they are trying to “get it out of the way.” Ouch! You would be better off telling a new mother that her baby is ugly. It is much nicer to hear that students are looking forward to my course, find the topic interesting, are hoping to take it because it is relevant to their future plans, or they simply want to explore. Asking to add into a class (or any other request) is more likely to be welcomed when you do so with some sincere interest. I am not recommending that you be dishonest or insincere. It is in your own best interests to think about how you could benefit from each class you take and to motivate yourself to see each course’s interesting aspects. If you can communicate some of this to your professor, you will benefit doubly.
Secret #3: Professors Are Most Responsive to Prepared and Pleasant Students
This secret may sound obvious, but students occasionally forget that their professors are human and radically underestimate their professor’s job demands. A considered approach for interacting with professors will be more successful.
Be aware that professors are busy (why will be explained in a later column) and be sensitive to this. A well-prepared student might ask for clarification of a theory or mention an event or topic related to class and, if the professor seems open to it, share thoughts about possible career ideas or other classes. In such conversations, pay attention to the professors’ moods. If we seem rushed or distracted, cut things short and come back another time. If we are relaxed and enjoying talking, feel free to ask additional questions or share more.
As much as we might like to, most professors can’t engage in unlimited visits with students and will not appreciate being asked a question that you could (and should) have found the answer to in your textbook, notes, syllabus, or online. Professors are happy to help you learn, but you should demonstrate that you have done your part by familiarizing yourself with the syllabus, completing the required reading and assignments, checking with other students, and being punctual and organized. Professors have too many students to act as anyone’s personal assistant.
Use Secret #3 to guide your communication with professors. We love questions, but framing your question in the right way is important.
Examples of PROBLEMATIC question framing:
The same questions with BETTER question framing:
- When is our exam? (This is on the syllabus).
- What is optimal arousal theory? (This is in the textbook and notes).
- Do we have to know this for the exam? (This can communicate a lack of genuine interest).
- What can I do with a psychology degree? (This could be Googled).
- I just want to be a guidance counselor, so why do I have to know research methods? (With a more positive spin, this could be a great question . . .).
I hope that understanding more about your professors will help you to interact with us in enjoyable and beneficial ways. Most professors adore our students, adore our area of study, and do our best to juggle many demands. If approached positively, professors can be great resources for information, advice, and support.
- I made chapter outlines, flashcards, and reread my notes. How else should I prepare for the exam? (Demonstrates initiative and desire to improve).
- Optimal arousal theory and flow seem conceptually similar. Could you explain how they’re different? (Shows you learned the basics and want to take the ideas further).
- Do you have suggestions for prioritizing my studying so I can be sure I spend enough time on the most important concepts? (Asks for direction without being negative).
- I have read that clinical psychology programs are very competitive. I have good grades and am studying for the GRE. How could I be better prepared? Should I also consider other degree programs? (Demonstrates initiative, openness, and motivation).
- How can I apply research methods to school psychology topics? How might I use this? Is your lab doing any research that I could get involved with? (Starts a positive conversation).
Laura Vernon, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at the Wilkes Honors College of Florida Atlantic University. As an undergraduate at Northwestern University, Dr. Vernon completed two undergraduate honors theses in psychology and sociology and took many small advanced seminar courses. The benefits of that individual attention remain with her and she is delighted to offer the same types of experiences at the Honors College. Dr. Vernon enjoys introducing students to her beloved field in her General Psychology course, as well as exploring the fascinating nuances of Psychopathology, Psychotherapy, Positive Psychology, and Social Psychology with her students. It is her goal to give students enriching and challenging learning experiences and help them apply what they learn to themselves and their lives, all while having fun. As a clinical psychologist, Dr. Vernon’s research is on psychological disorders and their treatment. Her lab broadly examines anxiety disorders, emotion, cognition, and mindfulness. Some of her recent research has examined the effectiveness of a mindfulness-based equine assisted therapy for clinical patients, the usefulness of brief mindfulness interventions for college students, the contributions of fear and disgust to spider phobia, and the cognitive processes of emotion and phobias. She is also interested in the potential for games and online gaming to revolutionize teaching and learning. Dr. Vernon has been faculty sponsor of student clubs such as the Psychology Club, the Newman Catholic Club, and the Quidditch Club. Dr. Vernon enjoys mentoring students through their academic career and beyond.
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