Misunderstood Millennials

They've been called cocky, entitled, delusional, superficial, coddled, narcisstic...and don't even mention tech-obsessed. But some say the millenial generation is actually full of promise, and may have a thing or two to teach the rest of us. 

The "Academic Seduction" of Professors

Why, how, and when students can talk to professors.

Do I mean seduction like sexual seduction? Of course not. I have quotation marks; don’t take me literally about students seducing professors. Do I mean seduction like gaining unfair advantages over other students via ingratiation? Guess again. Do I mean seduction like creating a human connection with shared interests in academic pursuits? Bingo. Let’s talk about some practicalities of interacting with professors (and by professors I mean all species of college teachers). 

This is not an exhaustive guide, but there’s some good stuff coming up.

Why interact with professors? 

Students should interact with professors because it does them good. The research in higher education is clear on this issue: Interaction with professors—outside of class and even outside of office hours—is associated with greater student persistence, motivation, academic development, confidence, career aspirations, enjoyment, engagement, and learning (see, for example, Komarraju, Musulkin, Bhattacharya, 2010 [BTW, Meera Komarraju wrote a wonderful guest blog post for me a few years ago.]). Another important reason is professors will be writing letters of recommendation that should include more than, “Ashley was a student in my class who apparently showed up and received an A-.”

When to interact

Lots of students seem to feel that they can or shouldinteract with professors only when there’s a problem or when they have a complaint. Another popular time to meet with professors is after tests or assignments are graded. Good idea! It’s never a mistake to ask, “How can I do better?” However, I routinely tell my students on the first day of class that I know the answer to that question NOW. This leads to my main point…

Students should come and talk with their professors before the first test, and even as early as the first week of class (see my letter to college freshmen). Such meetings are where the real academic seduction, and some really cool academic benefits, can happen. But let’s get rid of that seduction theme (now that you’ve read half the post) and call these positive meetings, meaning that there’s no problem to be solved or complaint to be make. Positive meetings can set the tone for great teacher-student relationships—even in big classes. Imagine this opening for a letter of recommendation: “Ashley was the first student I’ve had in my hundred years at the University who came to my office hours before the first test….”

Students should also take advantage of opportunities for less formal interactions with faculty members. Such opportunities vary depending on the culture of the campus, but can include scheduled conversation hours at coffee shops, campus functions such as plays and concerts, or just quick chats in the hallway.

How to interact

One of the most important things students (should) learn early in their college career is that they and their professors are in a professional relationship. Students should show respect for their professors by using such guidelines as the following:

  1. Use formal modes of address (The Doctor-Not-Dude Principle) unless invited to do otherwise.
  2. Show up for appointments, and show up on time.
  3. Communicate that you want to learn something, not just squeeze out a couple points.
  4. Delay sending nasty emails for 24 hours, or forever.
  5. Use proper grammar and avoid texting conventions (OMG, is this important!).
  6. Assume that even if you argue for points and don’t get them, you will learn something about the subject matter, about the professor, and/or about being a student. 

For interactions around problems or complaints, Dr. Mark Felsheim at the Minnesota State colleges and Universities system recommends the following:

  1. Identify the issue
  2. Make an appointment
  3. Be assertive, NOT aggressive
  4. Adopt a problem solving/cooperative attitude
  5. Listen
  6. Accept responsibility
  7. Offer solutions
  8. Be clear on expectations
  9. Thank them for their time!

What to talk about

Early in the semester, students can come off as being (and be!) really curious and motivated without the subtext of having done poorly on an exam. Whether it's during office hours or at college functions, my advice is still to keep it professional and respectful even if the meeting is less formal. Ask about advice for doing well in the course and in college. Talk about the goals you have for your career. And be sure to ask about most professors' favorite topic: them.

The Twinke-In-The-Eye Rule. Students should ask questions that produce a twinkle in the professor’s eye as they recall something about why they’re in this business in the first place. (They might also leaqn back in their chairs and look up and to the right.) Some possible questions to ask:

  1. What do you like most about teaching this course?
  2. What do you like most about teaching?
  3. What was it like the first time you stepped into your own classroom?
  4. How did you get into graduate school?
  5. If you weren’t teaching, what would you be doing?
  6. Which of your former students are you most proud of?
  7. If all else fails: What kind of research are you doing now? (Budget an hour for this one.)

You get the idea…

What if the professor is a jerk?

Yeah, it happens. Some professors are (or act) inaccessible, disrespectful, bitter, lacking in basic social skills, and unappreciative of what a privilege it is to teach college students (I get that way a little on Thursday afternoons). But learning how to deal with jerks in authority positions is a wonderful professional skill! Don’t let one—or seven—bad experiences get you down! Think of batting averages: getting a hit 40% of the time is pretty! And sometimes just making the effort can make a difference even if the meeting appears to goes poorly. (Some professors really do care about their students even if they have a “tough” persona.)

What Can Professors Do?

Faculty members can do more than simply encourage or require students to come see them. The research is clear on this issue as well: Faculty members may enhance the quality of students’ education by interacting well with students outside of class. They can increase the quantity and quality of their interactions with students by being accessible, by having and demonstrating their concern for students (which is not mutually exclusive with having high standards), and demonstrating respect for their students. These qualities and behaviors are just as much part of teaching as preparing for class. In other words: Professors should put a twinkle in their own eyes…

In other posts I’ve told some stories about positive interactions with my professors. What are your stories?

Reference

Komarraju, M., Musulkin, S., & Bhattacharya, G. (2010). Role of student-faculty interactions in developing college students’ academic self-concept, motivation, and achievement. Journal of College Student Development, 51, 332-342.

Acknowledgement

I thank Laura Sanchez of the Learning Resources Center of the University of Colorado at Denver for leading an exceptional workshop that stimulated lots of good discussion and thinking.

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Mitch Handelsman is a professor of psychology at the University of Colorado Denver and the co-author (with Sharon Anderson) of Ethics for Psychotherapists and Counselors: A Proactive Approach(Wiley-Blackwell, 2010). He is also an associate editor of the two-volume APA Handbook of Ethics in Psychology (American Psychological Association, 2012).

© 2014 Mitchell M. Handelsman. All Rights Reserved

Misunderstood Millennials