Managing Your Relationships with Professors

By the time you get to college, unless you were home schooled, you will have already gone to school for at least 12 years. You have dealt with lots of teachers by now. And for the most part, college professors are people – just like the teachers you’ve had so far. So what is different about dealing with faculty in college? In high school, you probably had classes of 30 or so students for most things and most classes probably lasted through the whole school year. College courses can vary widely in terms of size – many basic courses at large schools could have 100-200 students, while writing classes, labs, or advanced seminar type classes may have as few as 10 students. So while you probably got to know most of your high school teachers over the course of a school year, you may hardly get to know some college professors and may get to know others quite well.

You should also be aware that especially in many larger classes, while the professor may be lecturing the class, most of the grading and direct student connection happens through teaching assistants (TA’s) who are usually graduate students in that particular field. They will be the ones grading your papers or exams in many cases. Usually, at the beginning of the term, the professor will lay out the guidelines for a particular class in a course syllabus. This will give you information about when faculty office hours are and when it would make sense to meet with the teaching assistant and when to meet with the professor.

While not always true, there is more of an expectation in college that you try to master material in assignments or readings on your own before you come to class and that lectures expand on information you should already have some handle on. This is not always true – you will probably find out in the first few lectures what is expected of you in terms of preparation for class and mastery of the material beforehand.

Here are a couple of simple suggestions for managing your relationship with faculty:

  • Be respectful in class and in communications. It is always good to be more formal when communicating with faculty. Refer to them as “Professor Jones” or “Coach Smith.” If you are sending a note or email don’t address it “Hey Prof”; instead write the note – even if it is email-as you would a more formal letter. This respect should carry over into classroom behavior as well.
  • Speak up in class, use office hours and study sessions. It is a really good idea to take advantage of office hours to discuss issues like term paper topics, topics or concepts from lecture that you are unclear about or ideas for ongoing or independent research in topics that may interest you. Professors enjoy students who take an active interest in their coursework. But you should also use your judgement and not hog or monopolize their time. If there are 200 students in class, it is probably not sensible to go to every office hour and take a lot of time.
  • Go to study sessions. When study sessions are offered it is a good idea to go. You can sometimes get a feel for what is being emphasized and what areas to spend extra study focus on from these sessions.
  • Be prepared. If you are going to speak in class or visit the professor during office hours to discuss a class topic, make sure you have prepared assignments and have an idea what you’d like to discuss. It isn’t fair to ask the professor or TA to explain or discuss work if you haven’t made a basic effort to learn the material yourself.
  • Be respectful of boundaries. Usually professors will set out guidelines for communicating with them outside of class and office hours. Respect those guidelines. It is not appropriate or fair to email your faculty at night or on a weekend and expect a response before the work week has begun. And even then, you may need to wait a bit before someone gets back to you. If a problem is urgent, make that clear in your note. If it is an urgent personal problem, you should probably contact the Dean of Students office or counseling services.
  • Be aware of relationship boundaries. Professors and TA’s may be cordial, informal and friendly as you get to know them – but social, intimate or physical relationships between faculty and students are not acceptable. If you feel that a faculty or staff member are acting outside of acceptable boundaries, let someone know. The dean of student’s office or the campus office on sexual harassment would be a good places to start to discuss your concern.

Remember, when all is said and done, your faculty are real and regular people. They are doing what they do because they enjoy teaching and mentoring young people and have expertise and interest in their area of concern. They have lives, families, friends, good days and days when they are cranky or not feeling well. You should start by relating to them as you would any adult who is in a position of some respect. These ideas will definitely take you pretty far in having positive and educationally rewarding experiences with your professors and other university staff.

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