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How to talk to a professor

How to talk to a professor

Talking to a professor–out of genuine curiosity, a genuine interest in learning, a genuine desire to improve–is one of the smartest things a college student can do. While some professors are genuinely unapproachable, many are happy to talk to students. Here are five points to consider when you’re talking to a professor.

1. Be mannerly. Before asking “What are your office hours?”, check your syllabus. If hours aren’t listed or won’t work, ask your professor when he or she can meet with you. A reasonable professor will understand that office hours cannot accommodate every student’s schedule.

When you arrive, knock on the door, even if it’s open, and greet your professor by name. I’m always slightly amazed when a student walks into my office without saying a word and waits for me to say something. If my back is to the door, it’s downright weird.

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2. If you’re coming in to talk because you’re having difficulty in a course, there are a few familiar sentences to avoid:

“Will this affect my grade?” Whatever “this” is, it will play a part in your grade. How much or how little depends upon the rest of your work.

“Can I still get a B?” This question will usually lead a professor to think that your grade-point average, not learning, is your priority.

“I’m an A student.” Grade inflation is widespread, and some of those As may not be the most accurate evaluations of your work. Even if they are, your professor won’t grade you on the basis of your reputation.

3. If you are having difficulty in a course, let your professor know that you realize it, and ask what you can do to improve. When I talk with students, I find that it’s almost always possible to offer specific suggestions that can make the work go better. These suggestions often involve common-sense life hacks unrelated to course content: Move your alarm clock away from your bed. Use Post-it notes to mark up the reading. Get a planner. Break a big task into smaller tasks. Hit Control-F to find each coordinating conjunction and decide whether it needs a comma.

4. If you want to talk to a professor in some other way–about a question that you didn’t get to ask in class or an idea that you want to discuss–just do the best you can. Your professor will very likely meet your genuine interest with kindness and encouragement. (If not, find another professor!)

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5. Ending the conversation can be tricky. Some professors will wrap things up for you, while others will be happy to just keep talking. In other words, a signal that you’re “dismissed” may not be coming. So don’t hesitate to take the initiative in bringing the conversation to an end, especially if you have other obligations.

Some of my best college memories are of talking with my professors in their offices. I was a shy kid (still am!), and I treasured the chance to ask questions and try out ideas during office hours. Sitting with my coat and books piled on the floor, I found my way into the possibilities of genuine intellectual dialogue. You can do that too.

Michael Leddy teaches college English and has published widely as a poet and critic. He blogs at Orange Crate Art.

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Previous Michael’s Column: Rule 7 – Do the work

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The Gentle Art of Saying No

The Gentle Art of Saying No

No!

It’s a simple fact that you can never be productive if you take on too many commitments — you simply spread yourself too thin and will not be able to get anything done, at least not well or on time.

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But requests for your time are coming in all the time — through phone, email, IM or in person. To stay productive, and minimize stress, you have to learn the Gentle Art of Saying No — an art that many people have problems with.

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What’s so hard about saying no? Well, to start with, it can hurt, anger or disappoint the person you’re saying “no” to, and that’s not usually a fun task. Second, if you hope to work with that person in the future, you’ll want to continue to have a good relationship with that person, and saying “no” in the wrong way can jeopardize that.

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But it doesn’t have to be difficult or hard on your relationship. Here are the Top 10 tips for learning the Gentle Art of Saying No:

  1. Value your time. Know your commitments, and how valuable your precious time is. Then, when someone asks you to dedicate some of your time to a new commitment, you’ll know that you simply cannot do it. And tell them that: “I just can’t right now … my plate is overloaded as it is.”
  2. Know your priorities. Even if you do have some extra time (which for many of us is rare), is this new commitment really the way you want to spend that time? For myself, I know that more commitments means less time with my wife and kids, who are more important to me than anything.
  3. Practice saying no. Practice makes perfect. Saying “no” as often as you can is a great way to get better at it and more comfortable with saying the word. And sometimes, repeating the word is the only way to get a message through to extremely persistent people. When they keep insisting, just keep saying no. Eventually, they’ll get the message.
  4. Don’t apologize. A common way to start out is “I’m sorry but …” as people think that it sounds more polite. While politeness is important, apologizing just makes it sound weaker. You need to be firm, and unapologetic about guarding your time.
  5. Stop being nice. Again, it’s important to be polite, but being nice by saying yes all the time only hurts you. When you make it easy for people to grab your time (or money), they will continue to do it. But if you erect a wall, they will look for easier targets. Show them that your time is well guarded by being firm and turning down as many requests (that are not on your top priority list) as possible.
  6. Say no to your boss. Sometimes we feel that we have to say yes to our boss — they’re our boss, right? And if we say “no” then we look like we can’t handle the work — at least, that’s the common reasoning. But in fact, it’s the opposite — explain to your boss that by taking on too many commitments, you are weakening your productivity and jeopardizing your existing commitments. If your boss insists that you take on the project, go over your project or task list and ask him/her to re-prioritize, explaining that there’s only so much you can take on at one time.
  7. Pre-empting. It’s often much easier to pre-empt requests than to say “no” to them after the request has been made. If you know that requests are likely to be made, perhaps in a meeting, just say to everyone as soon as you come into the meeting, “Look guys, just to let you know, my week is booked full with some urgent projects and I won’t be able to take on any new requests.”
  8. Get back to you. Instead of providing an answer then and there, it’s often better to tell the person you’ll give their request some thought and get back to them. This will allow you to give it some consideration, and check your commitments and priorities. Then, if you can’t take on the request, simply tell them: “After giving this some thought, and checking my commitments, I won’t be able to accommodate the request at this time.” At least you gave it some consideration.
  9. Maybe later. If this is an option that you’d like to keep open, instead of just shutting the door on the person, it’s often better to just say, “This sounds like an interesting opportunity, but I just don’t have the time at the moment. Perhaps you could check back with me in [give a time frame].” Next time, when they check back with you, you might have some free time on your hands.
  10. It’s not you, it’s me. This classic dating rejection can work in other situations. Don’t be insincere about it, though. Often the person or project is a good one, but it’s just not right for you, at least not at this time. Simply say so — you can compliment the idea, the project, the person, the organization … but say that it’s not the right fit, or it’s not what you’re looking for at this time. Only say this if it’s true — people can sense insincerity.

Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

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