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Advice for Students: How to Talk to Professors

Advice for Students: How to Talk to Professors

A while back, I recommended that students get to know their professors. I realize, though, that many students are intimidated or put off by their professors. This is especially so when students need something — a favor, special help with an assignment, a second chance on a test.

It doesn’t need to be that way. Professors are people, just like everyone else, and if you approach your professors with the same basic respect and decency you offer everyone else you interact with, you’ll probably find that they react with the same.

There are, though, a few things you should keep in mind when you talk to your professors, especially if you’re going to be asking for a particular favor:

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  • Call them by the right title. A “Doctor” is someone with a PhD; not all professors have a PhD. “Professor” is usually appropriate, unless you’ve been told otherwise. I prefer to be called by my first name, and I make that point clearly on the first day of class; if your professor hasn’t said anything about this, you’re better off not using their first name. If you’re totally unsure, a “Mr.” or “Ms.” Is usually fine. Do not use “Mrs.” unless the professor herself uses it; after 30 years of women making this point, it’s time to recognize that not all adult women are or want to be married.
  • Tell the truth. After the first couple of semesters of teaching, your average professor has pretty much heard it all. It’s a sad fact, but true nonetheless, that we grow pretty jaded and take all student excuses with a grain of salt. If a professor thinks s/he’s being played, they’re not going to respond very well to whatever request you have to make, so you might as well be honest. If you feel you absolutely must lie, at least make it a huge flaming whopper of a lie, so the professor can get a good laugh when they share it at the next faculty meeting.
  • Be prepared to do the work. If you’ve missed an assignment or a test or are falling behind in your reading, and you are seeking help to get caught up or a special dispensation to make up the assignment, you’d better be prepared to do the work — and generally under more difficult circumstances. I get the impression that a lot of students imagine I might just say “don’t worry about it, I’ll give you the points anyway” which, of course, is not going to happen.
  • Be clear and concise. Unless you’re paying a “social call”, get to the point quickly: tell your prof what you need or want and be done with it. Don’t spend 30 minutes explaining your childhood and family arrangements and how hard it is getting a job with a few felony convictions on your record and blah blah blah for a 10-point assignment. Simply say “Professor, I missed an assignment, can I make it up? Can I do something else?”
  • Pay social calls. Your professor is probably required by school policy to be in his or her office and available to students for a set number of hours per week. On top of that, most professors like talking to students — it’s part of the reason we took the job. Chances are, though, that s/he spends the majority of her or his office hours playing Minesweeper and reading email, because students almost never drop in on her. Pay your professor a visit or two, just to talk. Tell him or her about the work you’re interested in or about problems you’re having (but remember, a professor is not a therapist; they’ll talk about whatever you want, but may not be able to offer professional advice). Build relationships with your professors — at the very least, they’ll remember you when you call up three years later asking for a reference letter.
  • Do not, under any circumstances, flirt. The days of professors marrying their promising students are long, long gone. Nowadays, even the hint of favoritism can ruin a professor’s career — let alone any actual relationship-type behavior. Unless your professor is a total sleazebag, any sign of flirtation will make him or her shut down immediately. They simply cannot risk it.
    • Note: Many students develop crushes on their professors. They do not respond much to the argument that a professor’s position and authority makes any romantic response on their part problematic at best; most college students feel they are adults and able to make their own decisions, and that there is therefore nothing all that improper about a relationship between a prof and a student. And they’re right: they are adults and they are capable of making their own decisions, and should have the good sense therefore to leave their professors alone. It may well be the case that a professor, being human, slips up — maybe he’s getting a divorce or just broke up with her boyfriend or any number of circumstances, and a student comes along and seems to find them interesting and attractive and all that. This transgression may cost them their jobs and the careers they’ve worked hard to build. And in the end, all crushes pass; professors, who seem so competent and intriguing in their classrooms, turn out to be normal people with normal people’s faults outside the classroom, and the attraction fades. So give it a pass; keep your relationship with your professors friendly but not too friendly.
  • Prepare for disappointment. Depending on how far you’ve let your studies slide, there might not be anything a professor can do and still be fair to the rest of her or his students. Or it might not be technically possible: arranging make-up tests, for example, is difficult. Your prof probably spent hours writing his or her syllabus, and probably spent another hour explaining it to you at the beginning of the class, so he or she’s got a lot invested in the rules it explains. Too many students try to bend or break the rules for her or him to be easily swayed from them. They especially hate it when people don’t do an assignment and then ask for a way to make it up; it throws off our whole “rhythm” to read an assignment from 6 weeks ago. So often a professor won’t or can’t help you. Your only option might be to shift into damage control, see what you can do, and ask honestly if you should continue in the class. And learn from your failure; take the class again and do it right.
  • Hold the threats. Professors get threatened with lawsuits a lot, and even threats of physical violence are not unheard of when things don’t go a student’s way. Obviously, professors aren’t going to respond very well to threats. On top of that, most professors have pretty good relationships with their departments and superiors, which means they know that baseless accusations and going over their heads isn’t going to get a student very far. If you find yourself needing to resort to threats, chances are you probably don’t have much of a reason for a professor to help you out, and you should start thinking about how to do better next time.

As I said, most professors will respond in kind if you treat them openly and decently. We didn’t become professors because we wanted to make students’ lives miserable (well, most of us, anyway…). We became professors out of a passion for our disciplines and a desire to share our knowledge with you. As a general rule, professors respect commitment and genuine curiosity, and will go out of their way to help if they feel that you are honestly interested in doing well. On the other hand, professors get to feeling pretty used by the numerous students who work hard only at gaming the system, and if they feel you’re one of those students, they’re not likely to bend very far to make life easier for you.

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Good luck!

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Published on April 7, 2021

6 Signs Of A Controlling Person To Be Aware Of

6 Signs Of A Controlling Person To Be Aware Of

Some of the most manipulative people are so good at what they do that their words and actions can convince you into thinking they truly care about what’s best for you when in reality, it’s quite the opposite. The most common signs of a controlling person are rarely obvious to outside observers. And for someone enmeshed in a controlling relationship or friendship, it can be incredibly challenging to stay away from this toxic person, even if you’re aware of their emotionally abusive tendencies.

While it’s ultimately up to you to decide whether to preserve or leave a lopsided, unfulfilling relationship, it’s nevertheless critical to understand the following six signs of controlling people so you can better advocate for yourself and mitigate the influence of their manipulative tendencies in your own life.

1. They Push Their Own Personal Agenda

Do you know someone who always tries to micromanage the words, behaviors, and attitudes of people around them? Does this person act like they have the right to know anything they want about you, including your location, what you’re doing in a given moment, who you’re talking to online, or any other private information about you? And when planning events and special occasions, does this person dominate conversations, steer plans in their own preferred directions, disparage others’ suggestions, and refuse to collaborate with anyone who might disagree with them?

If you answered “yes” to some of the above questions, then those are clear signs of a controlling person whom you absolutely need to be cautious around. Controlling people are reluctant to even consider alternative ideas, let alone enthusiastically work with people who have differing views. They prefer to be the captain of every ship—regardless of how much or how little an issue personally impacts them—and they have an arsenal of manipulative tactics to deploy if someone stands in the way of them achieving their own personal agendas.

In long-term relationships with controlling people, you may feel constantly pressured to meet their demands, follow their schedule, and focus on whatever they feel is most important. It’s not an exaggeration to say that these people act like the universe revolves around them, which can be exhausting to deal with for their family members, friends, and colleagues.

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2. They Make Everything Transactional

Controlling people aren’t always self-centered, but they’re not too empathetic either. Empathy for them tends to appear in the form of strategic concessions they use as a means to get what they want. They typically view interpersonal relationships as transactional opportunities to extract more value from people surrounding them, which can have a draining effect on those they interact with.

For example, one sign of a controlling person may be their insistence on “keeping score.” This can involve doing nice things for you with the ulterior motive of demanding something from you at a later date in exchange for what you thought was just an act of kindness or a friendly support.

Perhaps they shower you in praise (also known as “love-bombing”) or gifts then blow up at you if you don’t intuitively know they’re expecting something back from you. None of us are mind-readers, but controlling people behave as though everyone else should think and act like they want others to and those who fall out of line are punished for failing to meet their impossible expectations.

A controlling person may also threaten to withhold support if you don’t adhere to their demands, but they do so in such subtle ways that the guilt they impose blinds you from the unreasonable nature of their behaviors.

Some statements to be wary of include:

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  • “I did ___________ for you. What do you mean you can’t do ___________ for me?”
  • “Remember how I helped you with ___________? That took a lot of time and energy from me, but I guess you didn’t appreciate my help.”
  • “I always give you ___________. Don’t you care about my needs too?”
  • “You’re so selfish!” or “You don’t care about me at all!” (gaslighting if you respond with hesitation or politely decline their request for help for perfectly valid reasons, such as not having enough time or resources to assist them)

3. They Criticize Everything

One of the most common telltale signs of a controlling person is their capacity to criticize anything and everything, even small things that seemingly don’t matter. As with many toxic traits in relationships, these problems typically start out so small that you may not even notice. At first, you may even agree with their criticism or at least be able to understand their perspective when they bring up an issue.

However, the criticism tends to get more intense, more constant, and more perplexing for people who maintain relationships with controlling people. You’ll likely notice how they rarely seem to criticize something they do. It’s almost always other-oriented and these types of people are so manipulative that any rationale they offer can seem plausibly legitimate.

Some warning signs of a controlling person who’s overly critical to the point of abusiveness include:

  • Criticizing things about you that you have little to no control over (e.g., appearance, disability, family)
  • Criticizing your personal choices and interests, such as educational pursuits, career, clothing, favorite music, time spent on your hobbies, etc.
  • Punishing you for expressing vulnerability by invalidating thoughts and feelings you share with them
  • Attacking you whenever you express an opinion counter to theirs

4. They Balk When Someone Criticizes Them

We all know the adage, “what goes around, comes around.” But this statement doesn’t apply as much to toxic, controlling people. They’d much prefer to dish out criticism without ever having to take it in return.

For instance, if your friend constantly talks about your appearance with little regard for your emotions but flips out if you make just a single comment about their appearance, there’s a possibility that they could have some hidden controlling tendencies left unchecked. Remember, these people aren’t just controlling in their behaviors towards others. They’re also actively trying to stay in complete control over every aspect of their lives, which includes how others view them.

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This seemingly insatiable desire for control can prompt them to lash out against even the smallest bits of criticism, leaving people around them too weary or scared to speak up again in the future. While it’s possible they may suffer from something called rejection sensitivity dysphoria, this does not excuse them from the consequences of their words and actions. They should seek professional help to better manage their reactions to criticism.

5. They Socially Isolate You

Not all controlling people do this, but for manipulative narcissists, socially isolating victims is a go-to strategy for maintaining control because it’s effective at preventing people from truly understanding how toxic their partner, family member, or friend is treating them. Think of it this way—if you don’t talk to many other people in your life, there’s less of a risk that you’ll damage their reputation by revealing their abusive tendencies.

Socially isolating others also gives the person more control over you and your life as it becomes more difficult to break away from them if you don’t have other healthier channels of communication and interpersonal support to turn to.

This process doesn’t happen overnight, nor is it something you can readily recognize as abusive. At first, it may seem reasonable, such as asking you to stop engaging so often with family members with whom both of you disagree on major social or political issues. As the social isolation progresses, they may suggest cutting people out of your life—especially if they don’t like that person, regardless of how you personally feel—or even conjure up high-stakes problems like “it’s me or them” under the guise of saving you from people in your life whom they don’t like for whatever reason.

In a controlling person’s life narrative, they’re always the protagonist who’s incapable of any wrongdoing. The blame is always redirected at someone else, whether that’s you or other people in your life. The more they isolate you from other supportive people in your life, the more susceptible you’ll be to falsely believing that they’re right and you “don’t need” your other friends and family when you have someone as perfect as this person.

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6. They’re Emotionally Abusive

It’s hard enough to be in control of your own emotions but when someone else is constantly belittling you and your interests or leveraging guilt and shame to manipulate you into saying or doing what they want, this can make it even more challenging to stay in control of your own life and emotional well-being.

Emotional abuse is another sign of a controlling person that is often overlooked in relationships. After all, human personalities vary widely in terms of passivity, and it’s not uncommon for one person in a relationship to be significantly more passive than the other. This becomes an issue when the controlling partner or friend exudes signs of emotional abuse, which can start subtly and become much more pronounced over time.

Concerning signs of emotionally abusive language or behavior to watch out for include:

  • Dismissing your needs and/or belittling your interests in counterproductive ways
  • Privately or publicly shaming or humiliating you
  • Making you feel as though you can never live up to their expectations or do anything right (according to their own vague, subjective standards)
  • Gaslighting you into thinking they said or did something that never actually happened (making you question your own reality)

Final Thoughts

It’s sometimes hard to see the negative things about someone with whom we have a relationship. We may sometimes unconsciously overlook the signs of a controlling person, especially if that person is someone we have known for a long time or are close to us. However, cutting them off your life is the best thing you can do for yourself. Just watch out for these six signs of a controlling person and take immediate action when you spot them.

More Tips on How To Deal With a Controlling Person

Featured photo credit: Külli Kittus via unsplash.com

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