Saturday, February 25, 2012

Confessions from the Professorial Side of the Desk #1

Confessions from the Professorial Side of the Desk #1:
Did You Really Mean That, or Do You Just Want Something?

This is the first in what may become a series about how professors – or at least this professor – sees college life, intended half as myth-busting, half as frank (and occasionally irreverent) advice.

Something that virtually all professors face in their careers is how to interpret student enthusiasm.

Unless a professor is just bad (and there are always a few), he or she will – at some point – encounter the Really Enthusiastic Student™. The problem for many is whether to believe the student’s professed interest. This is something students should be aware of, if they want their professors to take them seriously.

Now professors were once students themselves, and many were (to quote Pink) “too school for cool.” We wound up professors because we actually got excited by ideas and theories – GEEKS of one sort or another. And many had a professor or three … or five … who they admired, and who inspired them to go on to advanced studies. So we GET that. And we’d LIKE to think all students who approach us fall into that category.

But time and experience have worn off the shine. We’ve had too many Close Encounters of the Lazy, Desperate, and Deceptive Kind, heard horror stories from colleagues about similar, and received dire warnings from college administrators. We’ve become skeptical, cynical, dubious …

So when a student approaches us to say, “Wow, I really like your class; you’re a great teacher!” we may smile and thank the student … but inside, our minds are clicking through all the possible motives behind the praise. This is all the more true if the compliment is given during a semester, not after final grades are handed out.

Some students understand that. I’ve had more than one offer some sort of qualifying statement that showed a little savvy for potential doubts. But others – more na├»ve – may not understand why their professor seems a bit … cool. Sometimes this is even interpreted as professorial arrogance, or not caring about the student. It might be. But more often, it’s professorial uncertainty.

Do you really mean that … or are you just engaged in the age-old student ploy called “sucking up”?

Professors build their careers on their intelligence, and being duped undermines that, so they can be TWICE as sensitive to attempts to play them. The last thing they want is to look like an idiot. So a student trying to fool his/her professor is challenging that professor’s fundamental self-identification: “Smart Person.”

Just sayin’…

The problem is simply that the longer we’ve been teaching, the closer we come to the, “I’ve heard it ALL before” … and learned to believe less than a quarter of it. You may tell your professor the honest truth, but if s/he seems dubious … remember, you’re the 23rd person to relay some version of that, and most of those who tried it before were LYING.

Student “skittishness” is much discussed. Students can be afraid to approach professors to talk about problems they’re having, or bad grades … or even how much they enjoy the class. They assume the professor won’t have time for them and could care less – based on bad experiences, or horror stories from their friends, or popular perceptions about professors in campus culture.

Professor skittishness is just as real but far less discussed (at least outside professorial circles). If students are afraid of how a professor will respond, professors are often equally unsure what a student truly INTENDS. This, of course, lessens the more a professor knows a student, but below are some tips to students for how to speed up the process and demonstrate their interest is genuine ….

1) CARDINAL RULE THE FIRST … NEVER TELL YOUR PROFESSOR YOU LIKE A TOPIC IF YOU DON’T. Nor should you ask to read a professor’s article unless you actually plan to read it. If you promise to do something … keep the promise. We’ll figure out if you haven’t, and we’ll assume your interest was mere flattery.

I think students sometimes feel they must at least pretend to like everything their professor does. No. Most (sane) professors do not assume that. A student taking my class on Alexander the Great may have absolutely no interest whatsoever in my class on, say, Rome and the Early Church. I’m not offended. Even when I act as advisor to history majors, some seem to fear that if they don’t claim some interest in ancient history, I’ll be upset. Well, no, I want to point students to classes that interest them, not fill up my roster. Yes, I know a few professors are territorial or will try to sell a class to a student who doesn’t want it, but in my experience, that isn’t most of them. We’re more likely to be annoyed if a student fakes interest.

If you are interested in something, but time got away from you … just say so. Professors are often extremely busy themselves and understand, “I’d really like to do that, but don’t have time right now.” Yes, they may wonder if it’s a polite-ism for “not really interested,” but they’re far more likely to become annoyed if you promise to do something … and don’t.

2) Give us time to believe in you. If you come up to us on the first day, oozing enthusiasm and excitement, and we’re just a little … cautious – it’s not you. (Well, probably not you.) It’s that we’re not sure what to make of your enthusiasm. We’ve had students pretend enthusiasm before. Rarely will a professor be so rude as to dismiss you outright, but if we seem to take a step back … it’s because we’re trying to assess motives. If your work and class participation supports your enthusiasm, we’ll be thrilled to have you.

3) Remember that we’ve probably heard every story under the sun. We’ve suffered some very obvious, some less than obvious, and some really clever attempts to play us. Sometimes strange things do happen that interfere with class, and sometimes a student’s beloved grandmother DOES die during a semester. But we get so many “dead grandmother” stories it’s a wonder there’s cemetery property left. If it’s real, you should be able to document it. Don’t be upset with us for asking you to do so, even if you’ve taken previous classes with us.

4) We’ve also had students who started enthusiastic and determined to work hard, but who got the proverbial inch and took a mile. They interpreted our encouragement as license to get away with murder … or at least with late papers, skipped class, and rickety excuses. We sour on such quickly, and begin to fear all students will Take Similar Advantage ™.

5) It’s fine to offer compliments during a semester, but we’re more likely to take you seriously if you send us a letter AFTER grades have been recorded. Then we’ll believe you (and probably thank you most sincerely).

6) “Repeat offenders” – that is, students who take more than one class with us – will more likely be believed if they say they like our class/topic/teaching style. We assume so, or they’d run far, far away from us. We’re also a bit more likely to grant such students the benefit of the doubt … BUT see #3 & #4 above. If the excuses get increasingly frequent and shaky, we go from tolerant to downright resentful fast. Why? A sense of betrayal. We wanted to believe that student really did like our topic/us … but maybe not. And (again) skepticism raises its ugly head … were we just played?

There is a simple way to combat this – one students rarely recognize or are too embarrassed to employ. Tell us the truth – even if it’s not flattering to you (or you worry it’s not). No, we don’t want excuses … but we do want reasons. When a previously good student suddenly starts performing sub-par, we aren’t sure WHAT to make of it. But if that student just broke up with his/her long-term S.O., or is dealing with a problematic roommate, or is now carrying two part-time jobs and trying to study, or even if he or she has just been having trouble deciding if this major is the right one … well, CONTEXT is all.

Remember – all professors were once undergrads, too. And not all were perfect students. Sometimes we didn’t study enough, we borrowed from peter to pay paul, we blew off tests, we partied late, etc. etc. We also had (and have) to deal with real life crises of our own. CLUE IN your professors about what’s up with you. Sure, a few won’t give a damn. Many will, especially if you’ve proved yourself to them before. You’re NOT 6, or 12, or 16. You’re an adult (if a young one, in most cases). Professors will treat you accordingly if you act like an adult.

7) A simple (if perhaps un-PC) truth … if you are an attractive young woman or man, be careful how you approach the professor. Professors of both sexes have had students try to flirt with or even seduce them for a grade. Male professors suffer this far more than female. To be honest, I’ve never had a male (or female) student proposition me, even when younger. This is partly a factor of cultural norms. Men do not, on average, date older women (even if the difference is only five or six years), nor will they date those with higher academic degrees (at least not if it’s a Ph.D). It may not be fair, and some may want to deny it or claim it’s changing, but I’ve still found it to be overwhelmingly true. Some men do flirt in an offhand, friendly way, but rarely press it. Instead, male students unhappy with a grade are more inclined to try intimidation. If they stand close, it’s to tower over us and seem menacing – not to flirt. Unsurprisingly, this is more likely to make a female professor really pissed off. But male students with a crush on a female professor rarely, in my experience, act on it. (In fact, in the few cases where I was told about such a crush later – usually by someone else – I’d had no idea the student had felt anything beyond casual admiration … if that.)

By contrast, women have always been open to older partners or those with higher degrees for a variety of social-cultural reasons. So a male professor with half a brain will be especially skeptical of young female students, skimpily dressed, who lean over the desk to show their cleavage (or young male students who get too friendly). Can some be flattered? You bet. But many won’t be, and may become cold and even hostile if you try. Professors can, and have, lost their jobs over affairs with undergrads.

8) Last … ah, the ethics of navigating Social Media. Undergrads, please don’t ask to “friend” your favorite professor on Facebook, or at least don’t be surprised if your professor turns you down. Some may keep an account meant for public consumption much like authors, journalists, doctors, musicians, artists, etc. But the majority I know don’t (they’re more likely to use Twitter or a blog – like this one – for that purpose). Facebook is for family and friends. Occasionally professors may friend select grad students, but many routinely draw the line at undergrads. (Besides, do you really want your professor to see that photo of you wasted last Friday night and wearing underwear on your head? I thought not.)