Communicating Successfully with Your Professors
by Dr. Randall J. VanderMey, Professor of English
How can a student get across messages to those frazzled, shy, socially gawky, ozone-seeking creatures called professors? Well, speaking as one of them, here are some points about communication I wish every student knew:
- True communication is two-way. Say you visit a professor in her office. You have a purpose; so does the professor. You have information; so does she. You have attitudes; so does she. So go prepared to give as well as to receive. That way, the two of you can enter into a two- way process, working out meanings, agreements, and solutions together.
- Teachers are always teaching. If your professor answers your question with another question, or goes “Hmm,” like a mad scientist, what does that mean? It may mean that while you’re just hungry for some info, the professor is seeing a “teachable moment” shaping up. The professor, in fact, may be angling you like a rainbow trout. Sound threatening? Take it as flattery. The professor sees you as worth the effort. Remember, helping you get your expensive education is a professor’s calling.
- Be direct, prompt, and sincere. Have to miss a class? Don’t call the day after and say you’re sorry and you “hope you didn’t miss anything important.” Professors cringe when they hear that. They want each class to be so important that no one would want to miss it. And don’t tell your friend to try to catch the professor on the sidewalk to deliver your excuse. Call, if you can, before the class you have to miss. You don’t have to produce a huge, hacking cough over the phone to prove that you’re sick. Just state the reason. Ask for an excuse. And say when you will contact the professor to catch up on any missed work. Then take the step that proves your integrity: Call when you said you would. Remember: Communication is a process, and the process isn’t finished until you follow through.
- Don’t be afraid to talk to a professor. Some students flush like strawberries when a professor asks a simple question. Relax. Breathe. A professor has to eat and shower up, just like you.
- Stay focused on the purpose. Your education is ultimately in your hands, more than in the professor’s. Before you talk to a professor, then, figure out your purpose. Let the purpose emerge early in your conversation. Keep your purpose before you during the conversation, and confirm it in the end. Try to emerge from a conversation with a sense of what would be best to do next.