Things to Never Ask or Tell a College Professor

Published October 5, 2012 by harleyquinnly

Working as a college professor while attending college has opened my eyes to both sides of the roles/experiences of professor and student. To me, I tend to have a better understanding of my students because I can still relate to them and know what it is like going through classes. On the other hand, sometimes I catch myself almost attempting to take control when a discussion in a class I’m taking is lagging. Sometimes a double edged sword, but I love every minute of it.

While I can relate to them and understand what they are going through, sometimes I get caught off guard by s**t some students say. I’m excited that my brain-to-mouth filter works much better than in the past but instead of blurting out whatever my cynical and tactless brain comes up with, I have been rendered speechless with a blank stare at the student. (I’m trying to work on my poker face but so far have just been able to prevent a stank-eye) There are some things I’ve been told/asked or my colleagues have been that I could never imagine having the guts to ask or tell a professor. I’m sure a lot of it is that they don’t think before they ask or realize what it means to us but on the other hand, some of it comes from the self-entitled spoiled little special snowflakes.

This list is by no mean complete or encompassing everything college professors experience. It is also not meant to be an insult against all students as an “all students are stupid” rant. I really, really enjoy teaching and love my students. Yes, there are days I would like to throw a book at them, but for the most part, they are quite lovely. I see myself as their instructor, guidance, and cheerleader. I WANT them to succeed, and I see myself as teaching them how. I try to teach them not only a basic understanding of my field (history) but also skills to succeed in other classes and life in general.

Anyways, unlike the exhaustingly cheerful highly-caffeinated cheerleader, I have sore spots. This list covers quite a bit of them. The first ten are from the article “10 Questions You Should Never Ask Your Professor,” by Jill Rooney, Ph.D. and the rest are from me or other professors. Keep these in mind before you ask a professor a question and never forget you can always ask questions from other students!

1. “Did we do anything important when I was out?”

This is my least favorite question in the entire world. I have heard many answers to this from my colleagues, everything from patient explanations of the course content to “ask your classmates for their notes.” The smart ass part of me just wants to say, “No, we couldn’t possibly get on without you here and prayed for your safe return.” I just tell them to check the syllabus and get someone’s notes. A better way to ask is: “How can I get the material I missed when I was out?”

2. “Why do we have to learn this?”

(Insert fingernails on chalkboard sound here). *Shudder. When a student asks this, I mostly hear “This is stupid and I shouldn’t have to be here.” Especially since in all of my lectures, especially in a freshman class, I explain how it’s relevant to today and thus, why it’s important. I have yet to really come up with a professional and polite answer to this question. It’s mostly a brief stare and repeating why whatever I’m talking about is relevant to today or can translate into a life skill or “because it makes you into a well-rounded educated person.”

3“Do we need the book?”

Are you really asking this-or do you think we professors just randomly pick books off the shelf and assign them because we find it amusing to watch you read a book you don’t need? Of course you need the book. Sometimes you need it for actual use in class; sometimes you need it to read on your own as a supplement to the course content. A good rule of thumb is that if it is listed as required on the syllabus, you need it. If you have a financial difficulty with purchasing required textbooks, as many students do these days, talk privately with your professor, who can direct you to the appropriate resources.

4“How much work do we have to do in this class?”

This one is another temper point for me. I just want to immediate retort, “Get out.” As a college student by choice, you don’t have to do anything. But as you chose to take the course, you should be prepared to do the required amount of work, which is outlined on the syllabus. You can try to skate through it like some students, who only do the minimum amount of work, but that’s risky-and one thing I can guarantee you is that having to take the course all over again when you fail is really quite a lot of work. A better way to handle any concerns about the work load is to ask your professor for tips on how to handle the work load. We’re always more than happy to help out with such suggestions. And, at the end of the semester, if you have a 59.99 and I know you’ve purposely been doing the minimum, I’m not going to round up your grade because you don’t deserve it. Professors will help way more if you are actually trying and being a productive human being. (Thank you to a couple of science and math teachers for sympathy As).

5“When will final grades be posted?”

This was contributed by the folks over at Profology on Twitter, who added the related question, “can you email me my final grade?” This is an interesting one, because as a rule professors of course don’t mind sharing your grade with you–it’s our job! They are your grades and you are entitled to them. But there are certain things we cannot do, based on federal law-including e-mailing your grade or publicly posting them-because that violates student privacy laws. The real problem here is that you already know when your grades will be available because the syllabus usually explains that. This question is related to one highlighted as a no-no by Florida Gulf Coast University: “Do you have our grades yet?” The answer is always the same: “No, I don’t. I’ve been too busy eating bon-bons by the Jacuzzi to grade your papers. But I’m sure that Jeeves will be through with them forthwith.” Grading takes time!

6“How many footnotes/sources do I need?”

The answer to this one is also always the same: You need as many footnotes as you require to appropriately cite your sources and to support your argument. There is no other measure. I’m pretty sure you’ve been told this before.

7“Do we need to know this for the exam?”

Similar to the “why do we have to learn this?” question, this one is always a joy for professors to hear because it assumes that only the stuff that will show up on the exam is worth your time. Educator Gabriella Grossbeck (@ggrossbeck on Twitter), told me that she usually replies, “Where were you?” because the student is responsible for following course content and instructions. The answer I always give is “I don’t know,” because I never re-use exams and create new ones every semester. That’s also a useful answer to hold onto in your head, because a good exam answer brings in as much material as possible and demonstrates thoroughness.

8Do you have a stapler?

What am I, a walking office supply store? Being prepared for class is your responsibility, not mine. Also, stop asking to borrow my pen! Show respect for your class, your professor, and yourself by taking your responsibilities seriously. Besides, these are special teacher pens, and if I loan you my pen, I will lose all my professor powers, like Samson and his hair.

9“Can I leave early?/Is it OK if I go to my club meeting?”

Sure, you can do both. You can do anything you want because you chose to take this course and it is yours to do with as you wish: pass, fail, whatever. This question is much better asked as, “Will I fail the class if I don’t take it seriously and value my social life and extracurricular activities more?”  I think you already know the answer to that question.

10“Are you sure you that’s right?”

Yes. Yes, I am. I’m the professor. Unless you’ve gone to graduate school and have developed an expertise in this field since enrolling in the course, you would be advised to ask this question in a better way: “I’ve heard/read/been told by another professor something different from what you just said. Can you explain this a little more?” That gives us an opportunity to really delve into the issue and help you link together the material you may have learned in other courses, which helps create a general body of knowledge for you. Also, it’s not an insinuation of incompetence on our part. It’s an invitation to academic debate. We love that!

My additions

1. Asking anything you already know the answer to

I get this somewhat often. I’ll have the one student that is not only an overachiever (because that’s perfectly awesome) but an aspiring teacher’s pet. It doesn’t work in college the way it works in high school. I can tell when a student asks a question he/she already knows, just to be speaking in class or to appear smart or to be doing extra work. It doesn’t impress me and it just annoys me and the rest of your classmates. Yeah, they know when you’re doing it too.

2. Can’t you just give me an A?

This one was asked of me while passing out a study guide. I’m serious, and so was he. Again, my filter stopped the knee-jerk response of “get out.” You EARN grades. You (or your parents, scholarship foundation, government) are paying to BE there, not for the grade. And honestly, I get paid the same whether you pass or fail. It’s much more frustrating when I get asked this in a class with several other students that attend every class and put forth real effort. What does he think I’m going to say? “Sure! See these students that have been working their asses off all semester? I’m just going to throw them all under the bus and give you an A for gracing us with your presence once every three weeks because you’re just so special.” If this question ever occurs to you, you need to go away and really think about why you’re even in college in the first place.

3. Can I get an extension on this assignment? I’ve been really stressed lately.

Disclaimer: if there’s a serious, real emergency, such as an emergency room visit or death of close relative, yes I do consider extensions or assignment substitutions. Otherwise I take absolutely no late work whatsoever. You have deadlines in the real world (job) and you will here too. In addition, that means I have to do more work to grade your late work and get it posted instead of doing it with all of your classmates. No, not happening.

4. I didn’t have time to study for this test. I had a lot of math homework this week.

I got this statement written at the bottom of a test. I simply wrote back, “time management skills.” It’s college, you’re going to take multiple classes at once. If the workload is too much, don’t take so many courses. College is also a great place to learn multi-tasking. I will not shape my courses to what other professors are teaching. That’s your problem, not mine.

5. The student who never stops talking…ever.

This one isn’t really a specific question or statement but a common problem. I’ll have one student every semester that while a perfectly fine person and student, will constantly interrupt class with inane commentary. Most of the time they don’t realize they’re doing it and it’s hard to stop them without seeming rude. But it is the professor’s job to keep charge of the discussion and class time. By all means, participate and contribute to class, but is your statement relevant and provide information to the class? Also, keep your comments short and get to the point quickly. I think this annoys other students more than it does me. This person will always sit as close as possible and when they start speaking, I can see immediately see twenty sets of eyes roll. I’ve been in classes with these types of people and when the professors failed to keep the class moving forward, as soon as the interruption started, I’d start balancing my checkbook or something to keep from strangling them. (I’d like to thank a certain graduate from UCO who kept a certain person from interrupting my thesis defense because you were sure I would kill him/her. You’re a hero).

6. Asking me to explain what I just finished explaining

I understand that sometimes our minds wander, mine is no exception. It is one of my pet peeves to be interrupted by someone asking something I had just said because they weren’t paying attention. If your mind has wandered, ask a fellow student or wait until the end of class to ask.

7. What are we doing today?

Trying to find Narnia. As innocent as this question probably is, it’s still slightly grating. I outline in the syllabus the topic of discussion and chapters for every single class. Check the syllabus. It’s always in the syllabus.

Do you have questions you hate to be asked as a teacher or as a student?

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