Care and Feeding of the College Professor

A college prof is a completely different animal from what you had in high school.

No matter how well (or how poorly) you did in your classes back home, or how pleased your high school teachers were with you and your work, one significant difference you’ll find on campus is that the college professor is a whole different animal. Behavior, expectations, communication and attitude vary widely between the two species. Understanding the distinction between your high school teachers from senior year and your college professors this fall can mean the difference between making it your first semester or not.

Deceptively Simple
Is it hard to make a professor happy? How do you know what they’re looking for? While it may seem mystifying at first, focusing on the basics is a good place to start. Thomas O’Brien, Ph.D., a professor of theology at DePaul University in Chicago, says the most important things a student can do to ensure success in a class are, “Come to class. Submit assignments on time. Participate and stay engaged. Read and follow the syllabus.”

Rick Malloy SJ, Ph.D., an anthropology professor at Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia echoes the sentiment, “It will help tremendously if the student has gone to every class. Missing class is a loud message to the professor, ‘I want an “F” for this course!’ On the other hand, if you are in class every day, how can a professor admit he or she was unable to teach you anything?”

It sounds pretty easy. Just show up and the rest will fall into place, right? Well, not exactly.

The Hard Facts
You will surely encounter some fantastic and very engaging teaching on campus, just as surely as you will have teachers that can bore you to sleep in the first ten minutes of class. College can be a mixed bag when it comes to the quality of teaching. Though many professors make an effort to keep student interest piqued, there are also many who take the attitude of ‘not my problem’.

“We are not high school teachers in any way, shape, or form,” explains Dr. O’Brien. “Fortunately or unfortunately, most professors do not think it is their job to make the classroom entertaining. Few will reward you for just showing up to class and sitting there lifeless, but almost all will deduct points if you skip.”

Going to class is no guarantee you’ll pass—but not going assures that you won’t.

Whose Job Is it?
Back in high school if you were struggling in class or an assignment was missing you’d usually be invited to stay after class to chat with your teacher. The change from senior year of high school to freshman year of college is a huge shift in responsibility—theirs to yours. Last year the teacher kept track of how you were doing and what work was missing, this year that’s your job.

Loyola Marymount Professor Dr. Amir Hussain tells his students, “If you do not turn in an assignment, I will not ask you for it. I will assume that you are content with a grade of zero for that assignment.” He offers extra help but also reminds students, “Contact me when you first have a problem. If you wait until it is too late, then it is too late!”

“Take the initiative and take ownership of your education!” advises Michelle Goodwin, Campus Minister at the University of Texas. “Be prepared and participate. If you don’t understand something, ask questions, e-mail [your professors with] concerns or set up an appointment. Office hours are there for a reason. Meet your professors and help them put a name to a face. They’ll never get to know you at all unless you make the effort both inside and outside the classroom.”

How do you keep a college professor happy?

“College professors are sensitive sorts,” says Fr. Malloy, “They take it personally when you express manifest disinterest in their lecture, course, subject, discipline or person. Care and feeding of your professors is important. TALK to them. It is amazing how many first year [students] don’t get their money’s worth from their professors. Make them work during office hours. Many of them actually like students.”

Keep in mind not all profs will be offended if you don’t show up, get your work in, or get to know them. Most are too busy to care and assume that since you’re paying for it, it’s your education to waste. Conversely, a little bit of class participation (asking a question, offering an answer in class), coming to a special event or speaker hosted by the department, and showing up during office hours can go a long way!

Professor Pet Peeves
Everyone has things that irk them, and your college professors are no exception. Some hate it when people carry on side conversations; others don’t like you to bring food to class. Expect to be on your best behavior. Don’t arrive late or leave early (common professor irritants) and BE SURE your cell phone doesn’t ring during class. One professor I know kicks students out for that offense! Remember that in many, if not most, of your classes you are learning about a subject from someone who has dedicated his life’s work to it. Showing a little respect for that dedication is wise.

“The change from senior year of high school to freshman year of college is a huge shift in responsibility. Last year the teacher kept track of how you were doing and what work was missing. This year that’s your job.”

Here’s a short list of classroom manner tips from Dr. Hussain:

  • Turn off (or set to silent any electronic devices such as watch alarms, pagers and cellular phones.
  • If you come in late, leave early, or need to leave during the class, do so with minimal disruption. Open the door slowly, and close it slowly behind you. Don’t make a lot of noise packing or unpacking your things. If you are coming in late, it’s a good idea to take off your coat and open your book bag/knapsack in the hallway.
  • Don’t start to put away your things until the class is over.
  • Do not interrupt when someone else is speaking.

Good manners will go a long way, but pay attention during the first few classes. Most professors will tell you right off the bat what makes them crazy so you can avoid an academic faux pas.

‘Office Hours’ and Other New Terms from the College Glossary
Office Hours, Study Group, Learning Center, and Syllabus might be new terminology to you, but it behooves college freshmen to get that lingo down, fast. Most colleges require professors to keep office hours—a set time every week when professors are in their offices and available to students. This guarantees you a time and place to find and speak with your professors if you need them. In high school your teachers were on campus and available during every school day…not so with college profs. Their office hours are generally relatively limited. Most will not have time to talk right after class so don’t let this precious resource go to waste! You’re paying for it with your tuition whether you use it or not.

Every professor will give you a syllabus, a printed summary of the course (or they will direct you to one online), at your first class. Guard it with your life and rely on it throughout the semester. All the information you need to do well in that class is in there—expectations, attendance policies, grading, tests, assignments and contact information for your professor. Some professors will drift from it a bit but many use it as their own outline for teaching the course. One professor named as one of his biggest irritants, “students who have failed to live up to the requirements of the syllabus and then claim I am being unfair when I hold them to the standards set at the beginning of the class.”

Study Groups, gatherings of students who help each other in a subject, and Learning Centers (or labs), tutoring centers staffed by graduate students and advanced students in the major, along with many other resources are available if you need extra help. Dr. O’Brien recommends making an appointment with your professor if you’re struggling in a class, he or she can talk through your options with you and point you in the direction of assistance.

Starting from Scratch
No matter how smart you are or how well you did in high school, you can’t rest on your laurels or count on your reputation preceding you here. Fr. Charlie Donahue, CSP, Chaplain at University of California, Berkeley suggests humility.

“You are back at square one, just on a different board,” he says. “That great application that got you into this school is now filed away somewhere. Yes, you are ‘God’s special and unique snowflake’ but it is snowing outside!”

Know that you will have to prove yourself to your professors by showing up, jumping into class discussions, learning the material, and turning in the required work completed to his or her specifications. It won’t always be easy, sometimes it’ll be a tremendous effort but if everybody could do it they wouldn’t award degrees for it!

Dr. O’Brien says it well, “No matter what your friends tell you, college is hard work and you owe it to your future self and to your family to focus on your studies for the next four years. If you really need an adventure, then take a year or two off between High School and college. Don’t treat college like this is going to be your adventure. It is not designed to be an adventure and there are penalties for not realizing this. It is designed to be a learning experience and there are substantial rewards for understanding this.”