Dos and Don’ts of communicating with your college professor

Editor’s note: Cross-posted from Originally written end-of-semester May 2012. 

With the end of the semester last week, I completed my fifth year as a college instructor. Five years and hundreds of students. And for the life of me, I can’t figure out why the end of term antics and ongoing student rudeness continue to surprise me. Case in point: I chafed (and then laughed) at being called “completley rediculous” for enacting my highly publicized grading policies this week and I bristled at the multiple emails insinuating that I am awful for not (arbitrarily) raising grades. These types of messages make me dread the end of the semester even though by and large, I love teaching and being in the classroom.Maybe the stress and lack of sleep overwhelm common courtesy? I don’t know. What I do know is that I and my fellow instructors/professors/teachers share the same rants every semester and most boil down to student courtesy and responsibility, and lack thereof.

So students, this is for you… Thursday 13 hot tips for communicating with college professors/instructors.

Pic from: “Animals Disappointed in
Your College Performance”

1. Know the syllabus. Upwards of 95% of the questions I get asked in class and via email can be answered by a careful reading of the syllabus. I actually spend a TON of time every semester writing and refining syllabi so that the document is a one-stop-shop for questions about course procedures, policies, grading, and assignments. You better believe it drives me NUTS when students ask me questions (over and over) the answers to which are already at their finger tips.

2. Don’t lie, especially regarding the health of your relatives. I’m floating a theory that midterm and final exam season are deadly. Why else would my students report that so many of their grandmas and grandpas died (again)? When students present me with tragic or outlandish tales near deadlines, I presume they are lying. Further, I am much more likely to be lenient if I know the truth. So students, if you’re looking for an extension or a special favor, just ask for it because I for one hate to be lied to!

3. Take responsibility. Miss a deadline? Feeling overwhelmed by the state of the semester? Exhausted? Best not to blame your professors. They didn’t sign you up for 18 units, or make you stay out late with your friends, or procrastinate on that essay. As with lying, I am more happy to work with students who admit responsibility for their actions and especially those who talk with me about what’s going on.

4. Know the syllabus. And please don’t act surprised when the policies therein are enacted at the end of the semester. Ahem.

5. Be courteous in emails. The vast majority of out-of-class contact I have with students takes place via email and I am astounded–yes astounded–by the overwhelming lack of etiquette and courtesy. My “favorite” emails are the ones that start “You didn’t do X Y Z” or “Why don’t I have my points for X Y Z  assignment yet” and close with “Please get back to me immediately.”

Some email tips: Start with “Dear Professor” or their name*, whatever is their preference. Construct your question or concern in a manner that won’t immediately make them defensive. And do NOT order them around. Close with your name at the very least, a “sincerely” or “take care” if you’re being polite. And for heaven’s sake run spell check.

I may have to get me one of these shirts soon!

6. Wait a day before sending a second email. Or a third. While I realize that some professors take forever to respond to emails, and yes, I agree it’s annoying, do consider your instructor’s life (a few of us have them) before sending five emails in 24 hours. It’s rude and not likely to prompt empathy (especially if, see above, your questions pertain to syllabus content). In my syllabus, I outline expectations for email response. For emails sent during the hours of 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., I get 24 hours to write back. For something really urgent, pick up the telephone or better yet, stop by the office.

7. Know the syllabus. Really. Keep it with you in class. Refer back to it often. Love it. Squeeze it. Cherish it. (Ha!)

8. Don’t lie, especially about technology. “My printer broke.” “I sent you that paper yesterday.” “My hard drive crashed.” “I didn’t save it.” Puh-lease. With as tech-savvy and tech-obsessed as my students seem, I figure at least 99% of the technology-related sob stories I hear must be bogus. Locate the nearest 24-hour Kinkos for last-minute printing and get a Dropbox account to avoid hard drive crashing issues. If you want an extension for a paper, ask** for it.

Photo credit.

9. Go to office hours. As an instructor, I’m required to spend a goodly amount of time in “office hours.” This is designated time for the sole purpose of meeting with students. As a rule, the majority of students never darken my office door step and it surprises me. Why not take advantage of that time to ask questions, receive help with assignments, or get to know your instructor as a human being? This term, I saw but two students in office hours… the entire semester!

10. Don’t try and bribe your professor. Ever. This semester, I received my first “bribe” attempt. The student offered $6.54 for a deadline extension. While obviously a joke, I responded in earnest. Levity about my ethics? Not cool. Furthermore, I was a bit insulted by the sum. I think he must have forgot some zeros.

The walrus has a point. Photo credit.

11. Discuss grade concerns early, often and in privateIn my syllabus, I promise to discuss grade concerns, in detail, so long as the conversation occurs in person, in private and at least 24-hours after a grade has been handed back. Often students get upset when they see a number at the top of the page and they’d rather ask me “Why?” immediately than read the oodles of margins comments to find out for themselves.

Also–and this happens every single semester–students ask me “What can I do to raise my grade?” And they ask during finals. When I can do absolutely nothing to help. Students, please, please, please keep track of your grade throughout the semester and talk to your professors early and often if you are concerned.

12. Ask good questions. Often. My harping about syllabi may suggest that I am anti-questions. On the contrary, I prefer to be peppered with questions rather than have students stress out and invent answers. For instance, this semester one of my favorite students sent me an email asking if I was “mad” at the class because I hadn’t posted grades for an assignment. I literally laughed out loud. No, I was not angry… just busy! Although silly to me, I’m glad he asked the question instead of wondering if my delay in posting grades was somehow related to the class average.

Further, questions help me as an instructor all the time. When students ask for clarification, I’m able to explain to the whole class. When students notice mistakes and politely inquire, I’m able to fix things and make assignments or policies better for the group. When students ask “Why?”, I have the opportunity to be self-reflexive about decisions could be adjusted or explained better to help the class. So ask lots of good questions, people!

13. In all things, remember the Golden Rule. I think we could boil this whole list down to #13. Treat others as you wish to be treated. Show respect. Be kind. (You probably won’t be surprised that this is tattooed in my syllabus!)

Anything you’d add?


*And for HEAVEN’S SAKE, spell their name correctly. This semester, a student noted my name as “Sphelana Malvani” spelled differently for every assignment.

** But at least in my class, don’t be shocked when I say no. And you won’t be, if you’ve read the syllabus!

Related Links:
– Stripper turns award-winning college instructor? Hardly. Welcome to my most embarrassing moment in the classroom.
– Banishing verbal fillers: How, umm, to like, stop saying umm and stuff
– Back in the teaching saddle and loving it
– The loves and hates of teaching
– Grading Nazi/Kindergarten teacher/saint: Processing student evaluations
– I heart the first day of school
– Wait, they’re not actually demon seed?
– Reading about spiritual practices: Sometimes grading can be fun
– Grades are not Halloween candy

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