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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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Last Updated on September 18, 2020

13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

For the original article by Celestine: 13 Helping Points When Things Don’t Go Your Way

“We all have problems. The way we solve them is what makes us different.” ~Unknown

“It’s not stress that kills us, it is our reaction to it.” – Hans Selye

Have you ever experienced moments when things just don’t go your way? For example, losing your keys, accidentally spilling your drink, waking up late, missing your buses/trains, forgetting to bring your things, and so on?

You’re not alone. All of us, myself included, experience times when things don’t go as we expect.

Here is my guide on how to deal with daily setbacks.

1. Take a step back and evaluate

When something bad happens, take a step back and evaluate the situation. Some questions to ask yourself:

  1. What is the problem?
  2. Are you the only person facing this problem in the world today?
  3. How does this problem look like at an individual level? A national level? On a global scale?
  4. What’s the worst possible thing that can happen to you as a result of this?
  5. How is it going to impact your life in the next 1 year? 5 years? 10 years?

Doing this exercise is not to undermine the problem or disclaiming responsibility, but to consider different perspectives, so you can adopt the best approach for it. Most problems we encounter daily may seem like huge issues when they crop up, but most, if not all, don’t have much impact in our life beyond that day.

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2. Vent if you have to, but don’t linger on the problem

If you feel very frustrated and need to let off some steam, go ahead and do that. Talk to a friend, complain, crib about it, or scream at the top of your lungs if it makes you happy.

At the same time, don’t get caught up with venting. While venting may temporarily relieve yourself, it’s not going to solve the problem ultimately. You don’t want to be an energy vampire.

Vent if there’s a need to, but do it for 15 to 20 minutes. Then move on.

3. Realize there are others out there facing this too

Even though the situation may be frustrating, you’re not alone. Remember there are almost 7 billion people in the world today, and chances are that other people have faced the same thing before too. Knowing it’s not just you helps you to get out of a self-victimizing mindset.

4. Process your thoughts/emotions

Process your thoughts/emotions with any of the four methods:

  1. Journal. Write your unhappiness in a private diary or in your blog. It doesn’t have to be formal at all – it can be a brain dump on rough paper or new word document. Delete after you are done.
  2. Audio taping. Record yourself as you talk out what’s on your mind. Tools include tape recorder, your PC (Audacity is a freeware for recording/editing audio) and your mobile (most mobiles today have audio recording functions). You can even use your voice mail for this. Just talking helps you to gain awareness of your emotions. After recording, play back and listen to what you said. You might find it quite revealing.
  3. Meditation. At its simplest form, meditation is just sitting/lying still and observing your reality as it is – including your thoughts and emotions. Some think that it involves some complex mambo-jumbo, but it doesn’t.
  4. Talking to someone. Talking about it with someone helps you work through the issue. It also gets you an alternate viewpoint and consider it from a different angle.

5. Acknowledge your thoughts

Don’t resist your thoughts, but acknowledge them. This includes both positive and negative thoughts.

By acknowledging, I mean recognizing these thoughts exist. So if say, you have a thought that says, “Wow, I’m so stupid!”, acknowledge that. If you have a thought that says, “I can’t believe this is happening to me again”, acknowledge that as well.

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Know that acknowledging the thoughts doesn’t mean you agree with them. It’s simply recognizing the existence of said thoughts so that you can stop resisting yourself and focus on the situation on hand.

6. Give yourself a break

If you’re very stressed out by the situation, and the problem is not time sensitive, then give yourself a break. Take a walk, listen to some music, watch a movie, or get some sleep. When you’re done, you should feel a lot more revitalized to deal with the situation.

7. Uncover what you’re really upset about

A lot of times, the anger we feel isn’t about the world. You may start off feeling angry at someone or something, but at the depth of it, it’s anger toward yourself.

Uncover the root of your anger. I have written a five part anger management series on how to permanently overcome anger.

After that, ask yourself: How can you improve the situation? Go to Step #9, where you define your actionable steps. Our anger comes from not having control on the situation. Sitting there and feeling infuriated is not going to change the situation. The more action we take, the more we will regain control over the situation, the better we will feel.

8. See this as an obstacle to be overcome

As Helen Keller once said,

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experiences of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired and success achieved.”

Whatever you’re facing right now, see it as an obstacle to be overcome. In every worthy endeavor, there’ll always be countless obstacles that emerge along the way. These obstacles are what separate the people who make it, and those who don’t. If you’re able to push through and overcome them, you’ll emerge a stronger person than before. It’ll be harder for anything to get you down in the future.

9. Analyze the situation – Focus on actionable steps

In every setback, there are going to be things that can’t be reversed since they have already occurred. You want to focus on things that can still be changed (salvageable) vs. things that have already happened and can’t be changed. The only time the situation changes is when you take steps to improve it. Rather than cry over spilt milk, work through your situation:

  1. What’s the situation?
  2. What’s stressing you about this situation?
  3. What are the next steps that’ll help you resolve them?
  4. Take action on your next steps!

After you have identified your next steps, act on them. The key here is to focus on the actionable steps, not the inactionable steps. It’s about regaining control over the situation through direct action.

10. Identify how it occurred (so it won’t occur again next time)

A lot of times we react to our problems. The problem occurs, and we try to make the best out of what has happened within the context. While developing a healthy coping mechanism is important (which is what the other helping points are on), it’s also equally important, if not more, to understand how the problem arose. This way, you can work on preventing it from taking place next time, vs. dealing reactively with it.

Most of us probably think the problem is outside of our control, but reality is most of the times it’s fully preventable. It’s just a matter of how much responsibility you take over the problem.

For example, for someone who can’t get a cab for work in the morning, he/she may see the problem as a lack of cabs in the country, or bad luck. However, if you trace to the root of the problem, it’s probably more to do with (a) Having unrealistic expectations of the length of time to get a cab. He/she should budget more time for waiting for a cab next time. (b) Oversleeping, because he/she was too tired from working late the previous day. He/she should allocate enough time for rest next time. He/she should also pick up better time management skills, so as to finish work in lesser time.

11. Realize the situation can be a lot worse

No matter how bad the situation is, it can always be much worse. A plus point vs. negative point analysis will help you realize that.

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12. Do your best, but don’t kill yourself over it

No matter how bad your situation may seem, do your best, but don’t kill yourself over it. Life is too beautiful to worry so much over daily issues. Take a step back (#1), give yourself a break if you need to (#6), and do what you can within your means (#9). Everything else will unfold accordingly. Worrying too much about the outcome isn’t going to change things or make your life any better.

13. Pick out the learning points from the encounter

There’s something to learn from every encounter. What have you learned from this situation? What lessons have you taken away?

After you identify your learning points, think about how you’re going to apply them moving forward. With this, you’ve clearly gained something from this encounter. You’ve walked away a stronger, wiser, better person, with more life lessons to draw from in the future.

Get the manifesto version of this article: [Manifesto] What To Do When Things Don’t Go Your Way

Featured photo credit: Alice Donovan Rouse via unsplash.com

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