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How to Aggravate a College Professor

Tips for students to improve how they communicate with professors.

Key points

  • For college students, a little emotional and social intelligence always helps when trying to build a harmonious relationship with a professor.
  • It's important for college students to take responsibility for their own learning journey, which includes owning and mastering the coursework.
  • Tips to help students communicate better with professors include avoiding tactics such as whining, haggling, and threats.

Being a student can be humbling, especially when the professor seems arrogant or incompetent. Ideally, your professor will become your mentor and eventually evolve into a friend or colleague after graduation. Most of us love to develop those peer-like relationships that transition from the professor/student power dynamic. We are proud of you and love hearing about your achievements and how are applying our course content to the real world.

The students who become our friends took responsibility for their learning journey. Others were more difficult. Those students may want to avoid asking for a reference letter or social media request, and they shouldn't assume we will stay in touch. We are generally happy to never hear from people who commit these dirty dozen.

1. Refer to the assignments as “your assignment.” The professor creates and assigns the learning assessment (e.g., project, exam, paper, thesis, presentation, quiz, etc.), but it is really your assignment. The ownership is on you to complete it and master the content. Our role is to facilitate your learning journey by exposing you to new content, concepts, and ideas, as well as providing constructive feedback. It is our responsibility to embrace all of the above.

2. Haggle about grades. Every professor has their own method behind the madness of their grading system. It had to have been approved long before it was introduced to you. What is the point of arguing if you do not agree with their point system? They will not change it for you. Arguing about grades is a fight you will never win. If a student is really putting in the effort, I will happily bump them up a few points to the next grade. When students have argued with me about their grade, I share that their grade is most likely inflated and I am happy to recalculate point for point. Nobody has ever taken me up on that. Learn what you can and cannot control and move on.

Photo 3803 / Angry © Melissa King | Dreamstime
Source: Photo 3803 / Angry © Melissa King | Dreamstime

3. Threaten to go to the administration. I got this a lot in my rookie years of teaching in higher education. Although it’s probably been a decade and a half since I heard this, my standard answer has always been, “Go ahead; and if you do, show him/her/them the assignment with my comments, the rubric I used to grade it with additional feedback, and our email correspondences.” What can really be achieved by complaining to the department chair or dean? Good luck if you want to be that lone soldier that starts an uphill battle against an army. Practice your best calming techniques and move on.

4. Ask the professor to tell you what you missed. Mastering the course content is your responsibility. Show up to the classroom early, put away your phone, and try to make a friend or two in class. Call on a “study buddy” or project co-participant for a recap if you miss the class. Never ask the professor for a redo. The expectation is that you will find out what you missed and be prepared to step in when you return. Of course, reach out to your professor when you have questions about the assignments or course content.

5. Whine about the class. You have every right to hate the assignments and the way the course is run, but never complain to the professor. We truly do not care if you think the literature review is too long or you think the pop quizzes are stupid. Either deal with it or drop the class and take it with someone else. Save your constructive critiques for the course evaluation and whine to your study buddies.

6. Give unnecessary details when communicating what you need. Life happens. We can certainly relate to child care issues, illnesses, family emergencies, and personal crises that throw us off our game. Since most of you are adults with grown-up responsibilities, we get when life hijacks your academics. Ask for what you need and spare us the details. Keep it simple like, “I am requesting an extension for the paper deadline; I will submit it by x date. Does that work for you?”

7. Break trust. How do I know a student has plagiarized? My gut is never wrong. Whenever I have caught someone plagiarizing, I get an uneasy feeling in my stomach that prompts me to either copy and paste a random paragraph into Google or run the document through a program like Safe Assign, which checks to see how much was lifted from someone else without proper citation. Do not think of plagiarizing because you will not get away with it and you will lose respect and credibility.

8. Not follow directions. The course expectations, learning objectives, and logistics (format in which to submit assignments, how to communicate with us, participation norms for virtual and in-person learning environments) should be clearly stated on the syllabus and/or the course web page. Read everything so you are familiar with what is there and reach out if you have questions. It’s better to ask us a simple clarifying question than to go rogue and get it wrong.

9. Ask questions that are on the syllabus. The syllabus is the official course contract between professor and student. When you have questions, there is an expectation that you have already reviewed the course materials. If you ask questions like, “How much of our grade is this assignment worth?” If it is clearly stated in the course materials; expect to hear, “Look it up.” If you have questions about the details, then please ask.

10. Not reach out when you have questions. This might sound like a contraction to the aforementioned; however, we do care about your learning journey. If you are struggling with the course content, readings, assignments, please reach out. You are not bothering us. It is more bothersome to know that you are struggling and not reaching out. Use your voice and assert your needs!

11. Not respect our boundaries. This is related to following directions, but worth the separate mention, since respecting other people’s boundaries (as well as setting your own) is a life skill. The syllabus and course web page should clearly state office hours and the best way to communicate. Again, ask questions if you are not clear. Although the professor’s cell phone might be on the syllabus, do not text unless you are clearly invited, such as responding to the professor’s text or if it is clearly stated on the syllabus.

12. Name drop. Nothing screams desperation more than name-dropping. Nobody cares if you are related to a celebrity or a prominent person who is connected to the university. Regardless of whether you are the famous one or just well-connected, your purpose for being there is the same as every other student. Thus, you are treated like everyone else and expected to fulfill course requirements, since nobody is going to wave a magic wand and excuse you from anything. Save yourself from embarrassment and fulfill your purpose for being there.

When it comes to dealing with professors, a little emotional and social intelligence goes a long way. Be the student that everyone is happy to hear from; not the one that makes us cringe when we hear your name.

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