Jonathan Plucker’s Tips on How to Succeed in College #10: Professors Are People, Too

A selection from the classic, “Poems About Professors”:

My professor is crushing

it today; does she know

her shirt’s on backwards?

Professors are quirky, average, happy, sad, moody, unpredictable, predictable, busy, lazy, boring, exciting, and morose. They have good days, they have bad days, they have mediocre days.

Just like you.

The Single Common Trait of Professors

If you keep that fact in mind, you’ll interact well with your college instructors. Of course, professors are a diverse group of people. In fact, the only common characteristic of every professor I know is that they all want their students to succeed in college and beyond. It may not feel like that at a given moment, but it’s true.

Take a deep breath.

One of my students — we’ll call him David — once came to class in an angry frame of mind. He told me a professor had returned his midterm without a grade. I asked him if he knew why the exam was returned. “Oh, I know,” he said. “Apparently he can’t read my handwriting and wants me to rewrite one of my answers. Can you believe that jerk?” (He didn’t say jerk.)

David took the exam out of his backpack and showed it to me. It was hard to keep a straight face — not only had he written his response in red pen (Umm, why?), it was completely illegible. As in, impossible-to-read-a-single-word illegible. David then said the magic words that always lead to massive failure and heartbreak: “I’ll show him!”

After letting him vent for a few minutes, I encouraged him to take a deep breath, put aside his plans for revenge, and do what the professor had asked: Rewrite the answer and turn it back in. Which he did, and the professor was totally cool about it and gave David a good grade.

Treat your professors as you would want to be treated.

I see this sort of thing often: Students reading into a professor’s comments or actions, and doing so in the most negative light possible. Yet at least nine times out of 10, the professor was trying to be helpful, and the student’s misinterpretation of the situation turned a potentially positive interaction into a negative one.

Can professors come across as edgy, heartless, and just plain odd? Of course. But you have no idea what’s going on behind the scenes: Maybe their child is in the hospital, but they still came to campus for their meeting with you, despite the fact they are worried and were up all night.

Or maybe you haven’t been attending class regularly, but when you met with the professor, you lied about missing class and blamed her for not providing you with enough information to complete an assignment (a particular pet peeve of mine; even in large classes, we do notice who does and doesn’t attend). And, to be frank, I’ve never seen a professor do anything weird or edgy that I also haven’t seen students do!

In general, keep the golden rule in mind and you’ll have great interactions with professors. We’re all humans, and we’re all in this together. If you treat professors with respect and understanding, almost every professor I know will return that respect and understanding many times over.

Takeaways:

  • Professors can be quirky and eccentric, but so can you.

  • All professors want you to be successful in school and in life. Treat them with respect, and they’ll treat you the same way.

  • Most professors remember what it was like to be a student. If you have a problem, let them know. Nearly all will bend over backwards to give you an extension, provide some advice, or help you out in some other way.

  • If you enjoy a particular professor’s class, let her or him know it after the course is over. Like most professionals, professors generally hear the complaints and negative comments but rarely get positive feedback about what worked well. We need both types of information to improve our teaching and mentoring.

Read Jonathan Plucker's introductory article on How to Succeed in College, as well as his two most recent posts, Be Proactive About Safety and Stress Management. You can also check out his final installment on January 15, 2016.

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