As a freshman, I approached my professors in college much as I approached my teachers in high school. I thought them to be bastions of knowledge from some ivory tower charitably dispensing their knowledge unto me, a humble student. To grow from such instruction, it was my duty to afford them proper reverence – completing homework properly, apologizing at the beginning of each email for bothering them with my petty concerns and respecting the wall between me on the ground and them at the top of their tower.
The most important non-class college lesson I’ve learned is that professors are people too. They are worried about their salaries. They have other projects they are working on. They have their own passions. And I think students should try to appreciate this throughout their college years.
My first encounter with some semblance of professor humanity was when I wrongfully assumed a professor of mine had a Ph.D. He told me he was “just a journalist.” My writing professor that year was an adjunct who came into class two-thirds into the semester announcing that she had successfully defended her thesis.
Recognizing that our professors are human makes them more approachable and reasonable. You don’t need to accept that you have a deadline and your professor doesn’t. You can discuss it with them. You can mine them for information outside of class and begin networking now, as a student.
This isn’t to say that no reverence should be afforded to professors. Ultimately, a professor is in charge of the class, as a parent is in charge of the home, and so emails should remain somewhat formal, interactions professional. But there is a way to stick up for yourself, to reason with the professor about missing classes or explaining why you believe you should have gotten more credit on an exam.
One of my high school teachers would call this “grade grubbing,” but you don’t have to stay in that avenue. Professors are generally passionate about what they teach. Ask for keys into the tower. Do they have any advice as to how you can tackle an assignment? Are there any books they recommend to delve further into a topic on your own while the class continues?
Learn about your professors. At least in the fields that I studied at Stony Brook — journalism and pre-med — sometimes watching or listening to a professor act rather than teach conveys new lessons that don’t come across in the classroom. You can learn tricks to conducting research and navigating databases. You can read well-written articles and find out how they were reported and constructed.
There is value in becoming friends with your professors. Besides the fact that professors are more likely to have a network of friends in the workforce you’re interested in, a friendship with a professor can add value to your life. For me, it’s nice being approached at the library Starbucks by a professor or two who asks about how my classes and job search are going. It’s interesting to listen to a professor discuss their career and what they’ve learned over the years. I’m lucky that there are people who read what I write and tell me all the things I forgot to say and all the things they disagree with.
Not all professors are open to such fraternizing. Some prefer to look down from their ivory towers. Some might not be platonically compatible with you. Maybe they’re too sarcastic or not sarcastic enough. You don’t need to be friends with everybody, but you should feel comfortable approaching anybody.
Before starting college, I asked rabbis from college campuses across the country what I could do to succeed. One told me to find someone five to 10 years older than me in a place I want to get to in five to 10 years. If I made that person my role model and followed their advice and checked in with them regularly, chances were I’d make it. I’d have a guide who knew exactly which steps to take.
Thanks to my penchant to talk, I have stayed after class to discuss anything from geopolitics to my dating life with professors since my sophomore year.
I don’t know my professors’ ages – I’m reasonably certain most of them are more than 10 years older than me – but my relationships with them have grown me as a person probably more than my classes have. Don’t wait until your junior or senior year to appreciate you professors’ humanity and to find the chutzpah to challenge them.