Friday, March 11, 2011

College: Some Thoughts from a Guy Who's Trying Real Hard to Become a Professor-type Person

[Note: Conor called me at 10:39 on Friday evening asking me to pinch hit for him for his Friday Classic Brian. But, since the last time he called me and said, " you want to do me a favor?" he asked me to stick my hand in a toilet, swish it around, and flush it, with the phone near enough that the sounds could be heard, this seemed like a relatively minor task, so here goes.]

Considering that most of the people writing and (I think?) reading this blog are in college, I thought it might be interesting to give you a few thoughts about college from someone who's been through it as a student and is now going through it again as a graduate student/teaching assistant. As an undergrad, I majored in English and minored in music and theatre at Truman State; as a PhD student, I teach freshman writing and TA at Loyola University Chicago and will start teaching low level lit classes next spring as well. Here are some thoughts based on those experiences.

Do not underestimate the importance of the first impression you make on your professors. Your punctuality, attentiveness, preparedness, and quality of work in the first month probably shouldn't be more important than those of the third month of the semester, but realistically speaking, they most likely are. I don't know any professors who actively count those sorts of things more at the beginning, but all the 'firsts' of the first month or so of the semester are what a professor uses to develop their picture of you - the picture which will form the context for everything else you do in their class. If, in month three, something goes wrong in terms of attendance, turning in a paper, etc., you want the professor to think, "Oh, that's so unlike them," not "Here we go again." Make sure that they see good habits as the rule with you, and slip-ups as the exception. Again, this is an intangible, because I don't know anyone who is actively biased in this way, but I suspect that, to varying degrees, a first impression can have a significant impact on your overall credibility with your professors. If you have a really stellar first month, and slip up a few times in month three, I'm willing to bet that it'll hurt you less than if you have a sloppy first month and do fine in month three (when the prof probably already feels they 'know' you and is paying more attention to other things). Note that this is probably less true of papers than of, say, punctuality, attendance, and reading preparation. I recommend that you always be prepared all the time, but realistically speaking, if you're going to try extra hard sometime, do it early.

If you miss a class: 1) Do NOT tell the professor something really stupid, like "I just had so much going on that day" or "Don't worry, I'll always be on time on Wednesdays because I have to get up at 6:00 for my fraternity" (both of which are excuses given to professors I know this semester). Saying nothing is better than saying something that makes you look like a moron. 2) It's a toss-up whether it's better to give a true, albeit unhelpful explanation ("I just overslept") or say nothing. Either one maintains your integrity, so I'd say it's up to you. 3) If you do think you have a pretty good reason for your absence, feel free to explain it to your professor, but don't do so in a way that makes it sound like you think they OBVIOUSLY should ignore their own syllabus to excuse your absence - many professors might cut you some slack (or might leave some slack in the syllabus), but approaching anyone with power over you with an attitude that reeks of entitlement can only hurt you. A humbler approach is more likely to work in your favor. 4)If your professor has a few 'free' skips built into the syllabus, then generally you don't need to excuse them, and silence is fine. But keep in mind that if you use them as blow-off days and then you get sick when you're out of skips, you may well get burned.
Also, if you're leaving a day early or coming back a day late from a break (Thanksgiving, Spring Break, etc.), DON'T give some lame excuse about some other unlikely thing that has come up at the last minute that, honestly, for reals, has nothing to do with the fact that this is the last class period before break. It just makes you look dishonest. If something like this actually DOES come up, you might consider silence or you might consider saying, 'Look, I realize this sounds unlikely, but XYZ came up. I understand if you still need to treat it like any other day-before-break absence, but I just wanted you to know it wasn't intentional' or something like that. Again, judgment call.

Think hard about what you want from college - a lot of things that aren't advertised or offered are possible if you pursue them assertively (but without an attitude of entitlement). When I was in undergrad, I REALLY wanted to take a playwriting class that had been offered a couple of years before I was around to take it. I went to the professor and told her that I was very interested in playwriting and hoped very much she might be able to offer the class again before I graduated. She was flattered by the interest, and also interested in teaching the course again, I think, and as it turned out, she was able to get it on the schedule for my last spring semester. That semester, there were two courses I really wanted to take - 1) Advanced Creative (Fiction) Writing and 2) Playwriting. I was worried that they might be at the same time, so the semester before, when the schedules were in the process of being made, I spoke to both professors and they were able to find out the tentative course times for me - lo and behold, they overlapped, making it impossible to take both. I asked if the times were set in stone - the ACW class was, as it turned out, but the PW class wasn't (yet), and the professor told me if I could find a time that worked in her schedule and the department's schedule, etc., she'd consider requesting they move the time. I found a time that she actually liked better than the original time, and everyone was happy. However, this would not have been possible if I hadn't been proactive. Now, this exact situation would probably not be as easy to arrange at a larger university like OU or U of I, but the general point still holds - a lot of things are possible that aren't obvious if you know what you want, educate yourself about them in advance, interact respectfully, and pursue your goals. No one has time to do this with everything, though, so you have to think about your priorities and then pro-actively protect them. Similarly, this semester as a grad student, a class I was supposed to teach got cancelled for administrative reasons at the last minute; long story short, having to rearrange my semester on three days notice meant I might fall 3-4 months behind in my time-to-graduation (by having to prolong my coursework by a summer or semester), but by being assertive but respectful and working with the department administration and, through them, the graduate school administration, I was able to get the issue fixed without losing any time. This was after what had looked like (and been presented to me as) a couple of dead ends, but I figured I had nothing to lose by thinking up my own solutions, and happily, one of them worked out for everyone. In summary - know what you want, respectfully go after it, and some of the time, at least, things will probably work out better than if you just go with the flow of what the system presents to you.

On a related note, if you want something from college that your school doesn't offer, think about starting it yourself. I heard about 24-Hour Theater from a friend at Bradley University, so I started it at Truman. My wife Michelle really wanted to do some children's theatre work, so she petitioned for an independent study course, got a professor to agree to oversee it, talked to a local elementary school and partnered with a teacher and his class, and did a really cool semester-long theater project with 20-odd fifth-graders and maybe 5-10 theatre students. On a larger scale, Chicano Studies programs, Women's Studies programs, and many other university classes, programs, and departments now available to you were first formed after students demanded them (in various ways and at various decibel levels, figuratively speaking). Again, the message here is, decide what you want, and decide how to get it - the way things work right now isn't the only way they can work, though institutions often change slowly, if at all.

This goes for professors as well. Not all professors are equally clear about their expectations, grading criteria, attendance policies, etc. Think about what you want to know, and go after the info in an assertive but respectful way, but think about how you'll come off first. You don't want to be the guy who says "How many free skips do we get?" in class - that will never help you. Also, asking "Will this be on the test?" will probably never help you. Sometimes you might learn that it's not on the test, but sometimes that question will get it put ON the test, and it always makes you look like someone who wants to do the least work possible. Most of us do, at some level, want to be efficient with our time, but you have to think about image, too. Ask "How would you recommend we study for the test?" rather than "Will this be on the test?" It gets you essentially the same info without making you look bad. If a professor's term paper prompt (or other assignment) is unclear, poorly written, etc., consider tactfully asking for more specifics in class, after class, or in office hours. If their response is still unhelpful, consider asking if you can look over a good example from a previous class or something like that, so you can be sure you have an understanding of what kind of work you're being asked to do. If that fails, too, your obvious options are limited, but I might suggest trying to track down someone who's had that prof in a previous semester to get their opinion on what the prof is looking for. As a teacher and a writing center tutor, I can tell you that easily half of what is wrong with student papers is failure to actually address the assignment called for in the prompt. Sometimes it's because the student hasn't carefully read (or properly understood) the prompt, and sometimes it's because the prompt is bad or unclear, but it's always bad news for your paper if you don't address the issue soon in your writing process.

If you're emailing a professor, ALWAYS format the email formally, and make sure if you have a 'signature' tacked on to all your emails, that it isn't super casual. Consider any written communication with a professor a professional communication - not all professors care, but most prefer to have "Dear Prof. xxxxx" at the top and something like "Sincerely, namenamename" at the bottom, and it can occasionally hurt your image with the professor to send them a really sloppy email. On a related note, especially once you start thinking about internships, jobs, study abroad programs, etc., make sure that your voicemail recording is professional and informative. My sophomore year I studied abroad in London. one day I checked my voicemail and had a message from someone in London about the program; they sounded a bit annoyed, and I realized it's because before they could leave their message, they had to listen to a 30-second recording of 'Springtime for Hitler and Germany' from the Producers soundtrack. Change your message before that happens.

Know that your professors are busy, and it's sometimes easy to slip through the cracks in their attention or annoy them by wasting their time. Don't email with questions whose answers are on the syllabus - that hurts you. You have a right to use their office hours to get help, but make sure you're doing so in a time-efficient manner, and if you make an appointment, don't blow it off. Everyone appreciates a person who makes it evident that they take your time seriously and don't want to waste it.

Note from a writing teacher: if your paper doesn't (implicitly or explicitly) answer the questions "So what?" and/or "Who cares?" with regard to your topic and thesis, it's probably not a very good paper and you should rework, at the very least, your intro and conclusion. Also, the conclusion of your first draft often functions well as the introduction of your second draft, allowing you to finish with a more complex and insightful conclusion the second time around (that takes the first conclusion as its starting point).

Be as careful with credit cards (and debt in general) as you possibly can in college. I know way, way, way too many people who got in more debt than they needed to by thinking "Well, I'll just put it on a card and pay it bit by bit - it's only a couple thousand dollars, that's not too bad," and who are still paying now and/or are trying to avoid bankruptcy and/or spent ten (or more) miserable years sending most of their disposable income to credit card companies. They are, if not evil, at least highly dangerous corporations that have make many a person's life a living hell for quite some time. Be careful around them. Also, if someone at a desk in the Student Union says you get a free pizza (etc.) if you fill out your info for a credit card application, but that doing so doesn't mean you're approved and get a card, so don't worry, DO NOT DO IT. They are not telling the truth (whether they know it or not), and you WILL end up with a credit card you probably don't want and that is hard to get rid of. Worse, if you don't know it's coming and just throw it out as junk mail, someone could find it and use it to rack up money under your name (I know people to whom this has happened). I know college = debt for most, but handle your debt with the utmost care.

Read your professors carefully, figure out what kind of prof they are, what they prioritize, what they don't care as much about, what they're good at, what they're bad at, and use that information to ensure that your experiences with them go smoothly. Professors, like all teachers, have very different skill sets (and competence levels) and you need to be able to work as effectively as possible with all kinds, even the bad ones (though avoiding those is a better idea when possible). This is also good practice for bosses later on.

Writing teacher talking again: plagiarizing well takes about as much effort as writing well. If someone fails at plagiarizing well, they're screwed. If they fail at writing well, they do okay-ish. Plagiarizing is not worth it. They might get away with it from time to time, but it only takes getting caught once to really, really screw someone, and frankly, they have it coming, because everything they do to cheapen their degree also cheapens your degree in the eyes of everyone who looks at their lazy, corner-cutting work later in life and thinks, "They graduated from _____?? I thought that place had standards," and then values your degree a little less as a result.

Take your end-of-course evaluations seriously. Most professors value and adapt in response to detailed, thoughtfully-written student evaluations; evals that are one or two sloppy sentences are easily ignored and frankly not that helpful to you or anyone else, whether they're positive or negative. This is a chance for you to tell the professor and their superiors how they're doing - use it! I know of situations in which a professor has had their course load shifted away from a course they taught particularly poorly twice in a row (as the thoughtful student evals indicated). If you didn't like how a prof did, your eval will be taken more seriously if it is fair and well-explained and less seriously if it is vindictive, personally attacking, and generally mean-spirited.

Well, I think that's probably enough for now. However, if you have other college-related questions for someone who's on my end of things, feel free to post them in the comments and I will be happy to respond!

Sean O'Brien (for Conor O'Brien)


  1. This was really annoying of you, Sean. I was literally just about to write an email to my French TA telling him I’ll be missing Tuesday and Wednesday to go to concerts in Illinois. Now I have a difficult 2am decision to make.

  2. I decided to do it. With a super formal email.

  3. I really like this post. It feels like something I would write in the future (or right now, really pretentiously). Looking forward to to future guest writes from Sean. It's always a pleasure when Conor steps down.