First things first, all professors were once students. We ARE professors because one or more then-professors inspired us and caused us to love higher education enough to want to do it full time. In short, all current professors had a professor or three s/he/they genuinely idolized.
The problem, speaking from the other side of the desk, is that we also get students who attempt to suck-up in order to get an A (or sometimes just a passing grade). When I was an undergrad, I resisted talking to professors for that reason. I’d loved chatting with teachers in junior high and high school, and got called a “teacher’s pet” by those jealous. So I went the other way in college. I stayed aloof. That’s not the solution, either. It took grad school to reconnect me with professors as human beings.
Remember, professors are human, and we’re in this business NOT for the money (trust me!). We love to teach. We love to share knowledge. We love to see other people excited by what excites us. Frankly, I hate grading. Giving feedback is one thing. I want my students to improve. But I’m required to grade. If I could just give feedback to students who honestly wanted to receive it (and actually READ it and took it to heart), and I never had to grade at all? DAMN! That’s my ideal world. I’d work so much harder with each student. But students do papers I grade with extensive markups that I know damn well half (or more) never look at (comments that sometimes literally take hours), so why am I wasting my time? They just want the grade. Not to LEARN. It’s so disheartening.
So there you go. If you want to compliment a professor you really LIKE, who inspires you…tell us what you’re LEARNING. Talk to us about the class you’re in. Ask questions beyond the lectures. Swing by during office hours, just to chat. NO, you’re (probably) not bothering us. Why do you think we’re here? Also, we’re open to hearing what’s not working for you, especially if it’s a new/first time class. Professors experience a class differently from students. I can’t know how students experience it unless they tell me. The best classes are not built by professors alone, but by professors in dialogue with former students.
We want to TALK to you about what we teach. Really.
Telling me I’m “such an awesome lecturer” and “I really love your class” just makes me suspicious about what you want from me. I mean, that’s nice, and maybe you’re genuine, but I hear that shit from a lot of students who just want an “A,” and they think flattering me will get it.
I’m not a narcissist. As soon as you tell me I’m “a great teacher” with no qualification (unless it’s AFTER I’ve turned in final grades), the more I wonder what you want. I’m sorry that’s true, but it’s like excuses for missing class. Students have so many “dead granny” issues during the semester that for the student who really DOES lose a grandmother they loved dearly (my brother went AWOL from the Navy when Granny Brouillette died because he was so close to her), we’re disinclined to believe you. And I hate that. Because if you really DID lose your beloved granny, I’d prefer to sympathize with you. (So, word to the wise, if you’ve an ill family member, please tell your professors immediately in the semester, so if you do lose that person, we’re aware it might happen and it’s comes far less like an “excuse.”)
The upshot is this. The more specific you are about what you like in a class, and the more you ask questions or chat after class/outside of class, the more we’re likely to believe compliments. The more we can See You Real. I prefer that with students. I want to know you. Even if history isn’t your major (it’s not required to be interested in history!), if you still enjoy the topic, let’s chat.
But if you really are just sucking up to the prof to improve a grade you know is borderline? We’ve probably got your number and it works against you. Crap students who try to play Happy, Shiny People at semester end (especially if hoping to graduate) when they’ve been mediocre (at best) all semester? Yeah…not buying it. That actually hurts you as you’re pissing me off by trying to play me.
Last, however much you may like your professor, please maintain polite, professional distance. Don’t loom over us, attempt to touch us/hug us, etc., without exceptional circumstance. This is quite aside from the obvious, don’t offer to have sex with us! Don’t invite us out to have a beer, or bring us presents (worth more than a dollar or two) until after grades are given out. You may mean it innocently, but they present a professor with an ethical dilemma: insult you by refusing a present, or take the present and risk accusations of impropriety. I once had a student leave class for a personal emergency who wrote the reason for it on a dollar bill…all he had. I still have that dollar bill in my desk (rather than using or depositing it) to avoid any accusation—years later—of bribery. Now, it’s for humor, but not in the years immediately after. It MATTERS.
More no-nos…don’t try to friend your professor on Facebook (unless a grad student). Never ask for a professor’s phone number, home address, or (non-uni) email, unless there’s a really damn good reason (perhaps a professional conference or similar). Sometimes professors will invite an upper-division class to their home for an end-of-semester party, which is fine with all students there. (I do this for my ATG class.) Don’t try to stay late, or arrive early. Even if it’s innocent, it puts the professor in a bind. Don’t call your professor by his/her/their first name unless invited. (And frankly, they shouldn’t invite it. They’re Prof. ___ or Dr. ___.)
So yes, we’d love to get to know you outside of class! But do maintain those professional boundaries. And if a professor is NOT doing that, and not taking your signals to keep a polite distance…talk to someone else in the department. Don’t become a victim of a predator! If you think it’s creepy…it’s probably creepy. And if I find you creepy (I’ve got one this semester; no sense of personal space), I’ll keep you at a distance and probably be hostile to you. I’m not sure what you want, but suspect it’s not good.