Tuesday, November 8, 2011

"Investigating" a Prof Ahead of Time? 5 OTHER Things You Should Know

(It's been a while since I felt the need to speak to another outlet's blog post about professors. When I saw 5 Things You Should Know About Your Professors from the TalkNerdy2Me blog (National Society of Collegiate Scholars), before I even clicked the link, I had a feeling I'd have something to say. So, here goes!)

"Investigate your profs before taking a class."

This is the primary advice of the above-mentioned piece, as well as what to look for once you meet the prof. While I have some thoughts from the "other side," I appreciated the NSCS article a great deal. The author, a student, correctly encourages to students to take their time with professors thoughtfully and seriously.

I love, love, love that idea! (Of course!!!)

Let's jump in by talking about the realities of meeting your prof early, particularly when registration occurs months ahead. Not to mention, you're probably mired in classwork for your current term and pretty busy! I know that waiting is a risk, too: If you get into your classes and can't stand a prof, you may find yourself without a class to take.

Here are your options if you want to try and meet your prof now: 

a) Go visit the prof during office hours and ask for a syllabus (the current one is fine; you can learn a lot about the flavor of the class from the tone); or,
b) Sit in on a class before you register (another great idea, if your current schedule allows); or,
c) Ask previous students what they thought of the prof (a questionable approach--everyone has their opinion, right?)

And once you meet the prof...

I'm going to give some recommendations behind the five criteria the author discusses.

Translation: Five criteria that students should stay away from.

As you take this advice, you will benefit from some back-story.

Otherwise, you may be left with very, very few profs from whom to take classes... and you might miss out on a ton of valuable learning from others... and about yourself!

5.  Flexibility
Yes, you do want a prof who is flexible... where it counts. The author says that profs should realize students are taking more courses than just theirs. We do! And we teach more than one class, too. However, we have objectives to cover. Those objectives are not typically just chosen by us, but rather by a department, committees, and administrators. We have to teach a certain amount of material. It's college--it's meant to be rigorous!

Where I do agree that students want flexibility is in scheduling, such as if the entire class isn't "getting it" or if some other issue happens that requires a democratic revisiting of the syllabus. Unfortunately, unless you ask the prof straight out, "Hey, let me give you a scenario: Whole class falls behind. Do you stick to the schedule? Or change it?", you just aren't going to know just how flexible the prof is until you're already knee-deep in class.

What can you say? Once you're in the class, ask for a schedule change if it's warranted: "Can we re-look at the schedule since we seem to need more time covering this material?" Have your other classmates ask individually, too. There is power in many single voices... more power than you saying, "Everyone's not getting this!", which can water down your argument/request.

4.  Personality.
Ugh. Hollywood, reality TV, and celebrities are not good for profs. We are on a "stage" every day and if we don't have enough personality, then the recommendation is to avoid us! Once again, there is no way to know about personality until you are in the class. Even a rock-star prof can have an off day or two... sometimes an off-term!

The author of the TalkNerdy piece suggests that if a prof calls on students at random and "makes them feel uncomfortable," this is another personality warning sign. My wonderful student readers, let's trade places for a second: Picture yourself standing in front of a class, asking a question, and waiting out three minutes (or more) of stone cold silence. We don't call on students to make them feel uncomfortable; we do it in the desperate hopes of engaging students in discussion. Also, we want all students to have a voice, rather than those who always speak up. Some profs don't know students' names; it's a bonus if they care enough to know yours and try to get you to talk.

What can you do? Speak up in class so you don't have to worry about being called on! Your thoughts don't have to be perfect like I discussed in this post. Your prof have an unpleasant personality? Guess what? A term is only about 10 to 15 weeks. You will learn a great deal about yourself by working with someone who doesn't entirely click with you. It's going to happen sooner or later with a boss or co-worker, so think of your no-personality prof as great work experience!

3.  Clarity
I fully agree that students should understand their professors and not feel perpetually perplexed by what they are saying. But this is where students need to advocate for themselves. Your prof needs to know that you are confused--it will make him a stronger educator. How he responds to your request for clarity is what you need to look at, not so much whether the prof is consistently clear to begin with. Once again, there is no way you are going to know how comprehensible the prof is until you are in that person's class a time or two.

What can you say? Ask a ton of questions in class, such as "Before you go on, could you please clarify...?" even if it holds up the lecture. Chances are, other students will be so glad you did! If you are still confused, go see your prof during office hours or send him/her an e-mail saying, "Professor Jones, these concepts are not coming across clearly. Can we send you some questions that you will address at the beginning of class? Can we have a Q & A session at the beginning or end of the next class?"

2.  Relevancy
The author is dead-on that profs should not assign busywork, nor should they "birdwalk" too far away in their lectures. But, how will a student know if what they are doing is busywork? Many of us assign smaller, incremental assignments to a) give students practice; and b) so we can offer feedback before a more high-stakes assignment/exam. Something else to think about: How many exams/quizzes are you assigned in your class? Not many? Your prof has to spend your points somewhere. If he/she isn't going to test or quiz you a bunch, then he's going to need you to write, speak, analyze, discussion forum post, etc. Again, make sure that what you are calling busywork... is.

With respect to getting too far off-topic in class, profs are definitely guilty of this. If it happens once or twice, that's fine and a little frustrating. A habit is unacceptable. 

What can you say? If you are concerned about how the work you are doing relates to the overall course objectives, then say, "Professor, can you explain how this assignment fits in with what we're learning right now?" If your professor can't answer that question, then you can either do the work anyway and take the points offered, or you can challenge having to do it in the first place.

And the tangent? Interrupt your prof's narrative about her last vacation and ask questions directly related to the material. You can get another classmate to do the same. That should get your prof back on track. If this doesn't work, then self-advocacy comes into play again. Say to your prof (or write it in an e-mail), "I'm afraid we're getting off track in class and I want to make sure I understand the material" or "It seems like we're behind and I'm concerned" or "I noticed we didn't cover Chapter 12 today like it says in the schedule. Will we be getting to this tomorrow?" If you remain backlogged the entire term and this ultimately affects your grade, then you can take the issue higher to a division chair or dean. Chances are, your prof will make the adjustments. He/she doesn't want to fall behind either.

1.  Approachability
The author has it right on all counts here... and you can learn about a prof's approachability early by a quick visit to his/her office before you take the class. Hopefully, you'll get a warm, welcoming, fuzzy feeling, but if you don't, the person could be rushed or having an off-day. Don't let this be a deterrent to taking the class. Instead, make sure the prof is available to you when you need help.

What can you say? "What are your office hours?" "Do you respond to e-mails in 'off' hours, like nights and weekends?" "What's your policy on reviewing work early?" A prof's responses to these questions will give you insight into her approachability. But remember, the prof is required to have office hours. Even if this person does not review work early or answer e-mails at a time that you'd need, you can still go to their office hours or set an appointment to make contact. So, essentially, you have the right to make the prof approachable... by approaching them.

I have said before in this blog that "like" is a bonus in the student-professor relationship... nice to have, but not a requirement. Your prof is required to deliver sound instruction, engage you in the learning process, and assist you when you need it.

Do I want you to love every prof you come into contact with? Of course, I do!

Loving a prof means that you will hopefully love or like their subject matter and love learning!

But the truth is that you're not going to love or even like every prof.

The good news is that you can deal with some of the "unlikeable" qualities and get through your term successfully!

The better news is that, like I said before, the term will, indeed... end. And, you will be so proud of yourself for getting through it!

Students, have you researched your profs ahead of time? How has this helped you? How have you previously gotten through a term with a prof that you didn't click with? Faculty, what do you think about the advice in the NSCS piece? I'd love to know! 


  1. When I speak up in class when something is confusing, I know it's helpful for everyone else in the class because there's bound to be someone who's too shy to say anything.

  2. Hi, Sarah,

    Absolutely! It's so true... students are typically hopeful that someone will speak up when they can't. It's an important thing to remember. So, for students out there, go for it!

    Thank you for commenting, as always!

  3. WHERE WERE YOU when I was in college! I want to have YOU as my prof!

  4. Bruce, awwww! That is an amazing sentiment and my heart appreciates it! I love what I do :-). Ellen

  5. Very Nice post
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