Monday, September 26, 2016

10 Things You Should Never Ask Your Professor (And What To Ask Instead)

We all say things we would avoid saying—or saying it in a particular way—if we knew their impact ahead of time. We professors often get questions from our students that are ill-considered—and often reflect badly on the students asking them.

The thing is, such questions are often innocently asked but usually come across as insulting to the teacher or dismissive of the whole learning process. Some of them may also be taken to imply that the student asking the question really isn't committed to success in the course.

So I'm going to give you a few of the common questions we hear from students that will probably have unintended negative impacts. For each of them, I explain why it can come across badly and offer suggestions for a better way to ask it.

Before I do that, however, I want to address the matters of tone and facial expression. Sometimes we are not even aware of it, but our demeanor when asking a question can come across as irritable, snarky, condescending, whiny, entitled, accusatory, or just plain snotty. Not good. You will not endear yourself to your professor (the one who assigns your grades), nor to your fellow students within earshot.

Make a habit of always checking your manner and tone before asking a question. Even if you don't like your teacher or the course. Everything will go much better for you.

Think carefully before asking these 10 questions!

  • When are your office hours?
  • Where is your office?
  • What is your email address and phone number?

These questions are okay to ask in a few, rare circumstances. For example, if you've already looked up your professor's office location, but are having trouble finding it on campus.

But in most circumstances, what a professor is likely to hear is, "I don't want to bother looking this up online or in my course syllabus, so take some of your time now to tell me."

What to do instead? Look it up, so you don't have to ask. This may seem like a small thing, but when a professor has several students asking these questions as they are busily trying to make room for the next professor to set up for their class, or get going to the next class or meeting, or set things up for your class, it can make a bigger, more negative impact, than you may realize.

  • I emailed you on Friday afternoon and you didn't respond all weekend.
  • I emailed you last night and you never responded.

We live in world where online help desks are often staffed 24/7, or at least for several hours every day. Often, there are helpers standing by on a chat line to give immediate help. And a lot of college-age people seem to continually check their devices for new messages. And so we have come to expect immediate responses to our questions.

Professors, however, have many responsibilities. The majority of us are part-time faculty who are trying to scratch out a living by teaching many courses at several different institutions. Both full- and part-time faculty have meetings, appointments, grading, lecture preparation, research, constructing quizzes and tests, setting up labs and demos, and more. And we have our additional "life" responsibilities to ourselves, our friends, and our families.

So it's just not possible to be available to respond to emails 24/7. We are not blowing you off. We are attending to our duties—including eating and sleeping.

Besides that, many of us are of a generation that simply does not "check in" with digital messages very often.

I realize that not having an immediate answer to your question can provoke anxiety. First, reflect on the actual urgency of the matter. Can it wait a day or two? If not, perhaps there are other resources to use, such as asking other students, asking someone else at your college, or looking in more places to find the answer (have you tried the syllabus?).

If you find that you really are having a hard time regularly connecting with your professor, ask them (nicely) what times and manner of contact generally work best for them? Who else might you contact if you have a truly urgent matter and the professor is unavailable?

Also consider that some questions take some time to answer. Perhaps the professor is researching a technical issue for you, or has to check with colleagues, the department chair, or dean before responding to you. Or is double-checking their facts. Or trying to hunt down "that page in the book that says..." for which you forgot to give the page number.

  • I'm going to be on vacation for two weeks this semester, okay?

Really? Assuming you are taking a 16-week course, you are asking to skip out on 12.5% of the course—and still expect to pass. That's a huge gap in your ability to learn what you need to learn.

Besides that, it implies that you want the professor to individually accommodate your "catching up"—if that's even possible. If it is possible, then you are asking your professor to take on a significant additional workload. For your vacation, which you may not realize is not even an option for your professor during the semester. What if ten or twenty students ask this? Yikes.

Professors often hear this question as, "I want to blow off much of this class and still get a good grade—and make you work harder—so I can lay on the beach for a couple of weeks."

So I can tell you before you ask it—it is NOT okay to take a two-week vacation during your course. But don't fret, we have a way around this! Take the course next semester instead. Sure, you'll be a bit behind your planned graduation date, but that's what it will take to make it work.

Once you understand that it's nearly impossible for most students to succeed in A&P when they miss that much of the course—and that it's a big imposition on your professor to accommodate this—it's okay to present your situation if it's something more important than a vacation keeping you out. Like a surgery that can't be delayed, for example. Or you must go to Sweden or Norway to accept your Nobel Prize.

I suggest laying out your circumstances, clarifying that you acknowledge the extra work an accommodation will mean for both you and your professor, and ask your professor for suggestions. Likely, they will recommend taking the course during a later semester—but they might have another solution they can offer.

  • That's not how my other professors do it.
  • It would be easier if you ran this course differently.

The first of these two questions can imply that you are questioning your professor's ability to design an effective course. One of the fundamental roles of a professor is to choose from a variety of proven strategies and examples, based on their professional judgement, training, and experience. This is an application of a core principle of higher education called academic freedom. Your professor probably already knows that their course is not quite the same as other sections of the same course. What is the constructive purpose in telling your professor?

A better approach is something like, "I've noticed that your course is different than some others I've heard of and I'm interested to know the benefits of your approach." Then ask them about specific things that you want to know about. For example, "why do give more tests than some other teachers?" Or perhaps, "not all sections have a term paper assignment—why do feel that's important for us?"

This leads us into the second question listed above. The role of a the professor is not to make the course as easy as possible. Learning is hard, not easy. So why even take the course if you want your professor to be easy on you? Maybe the professor has found that the learning benefits of more frequent testing or writing assignments have a big impact on learning outcomes. You want a good course—an effective course—not the easiest course.

Instead, consider asking, "What is it about frequent testing that works better than fewer tests?" But if there's something not likely to impact your learning, it's okay to bring that up in an office discussion with your professor. For example, you might ask, "you require that our paper be submitted as a PDF file, but most of us don't know how to do that--have you considered allow us to submit them as .docx files?" There may be a good reason for the requirement, and you'll get a chance to hear it (and appreciate it). But it could be something with which the professor can be flexible.

  • Are we going to be doing anything important in the next class? in the last class?
  • Did we do anything in the last class?

Just assume that your professor takes the role of facilitating your learning process seriously and is not going to be wasting the class's time. When you ask one of these questions, the message that is often heard is, "we normally don't accomplish anything in this class, so missing a class is no big deal, right?" Or worse, "I really don't value what you are doing for me." It's far worse when this is asked during class. But it's not something you want to ask privately, either.

Instead, privately tell your professor about an unavoidable absence—and it really should be unavoidable. Then acknowledge that you are missing a great opportunity for learning. Then ask if the professor has any suggestions for limiting the damage to your learning.

Sometimes, the real question behind these potentially insulting questions is really something like, "are we going to have any graded work during class?" such as a quiz or case study or something like that. In that case, apologize for the unavoidable absence and ask specifically if graded work was required and ask for suggestions on an alternate activity.

There are more!

These are only a few of the many such questions that students commonly ask, such as "can I turn in my assignment late?" When I first got the idea for this article during a discussion with faculty and students, I started jotting down examples—and before I knew it, I had dozens of them! So expect some additional examples in future postings.

Now may be a good time to subscribe, so that you don't miss any new articles as they are posted. And you'll know how to ask questions in a courteous, professional manner! And make it clear to your professor that you really do care about your learning!

(middle high) Benito LeGrand
(middle) Iwan Beijes
 (bottom): Holzi Holzer