how to talk to a professor

Over at lifehack, a column on "How to Talk to a Professor" from Michael Leddy, who blogs at Orange Crate Art, which I hadn't read before, but will start keeping up with. Leddy suggests five basic tips which usefully explain some aspects of academic office-hours culture to students, like greeting your professor when you walk in the door, phrases to avoid (what "will this affect my grade" really signals), and how to end the conversation.

When I was in college, at one of the "public Ivys," honors students were told over and over that we should "go talk to your professors in office hours." The idea was that you wanted them to get to know you, and that you the student would somehow benefit from chatting with them. I don't know if the same directives were issued to all students, but I certainly heard that message, and tried on a few occasions to follow it. But I often felt awkward -- like I had to make up questions to ask them, but questions that weren't in the book already or something I could research on my own. I have never been comfortable in situations where I felt I was being asked to suck up to an authority figure in any way, or where my actions might be perceived as an attempt to suck up. (Yes, this iswhy my track record with mentors has been so spotty.)

My own students usually come to office hours for one of the following reasons: they want to rewrite a paper or get assistance with a draft (usually because I've told them they should come in for extra tutorials); they are undergoing a medical or family crisis, or dropping the class; they want a letter of recommendation; or (and this is a small percentage) they are just curious about who I am.

This last group of students are the most awkward when they come in the door. They don't have clear agendas, or questions (although most have some flimsy excuse for coming in, a paper idea or something). What they want to know they can't really ask: "how does someone like you become a professor" or "how old are you" or "what is it like to be a childfree woman? So many of my students have followed their society's or culture's path and only later in life begun to question it. Many of them are confused about women professors, unsure of their qualifications. Their addressing emails to "Ms." rather than "Dr." which is the convention at my U, sometimes irritates me, but I've grown to see it as a symptom of the relative lack of women faculty on this campus, and the pervasive sexism in the larger society -- in most cases I don't think it's a conscious or personal attack on my qualifications, but a lack of awareness that faculty come in both genders. Plus many of my students don't really understand what it takes to be a professor, what the difference between a professor and a TA is, what "Dr" actually signifies.

But I don't mind answering questions about myself (within appropriate boundaries) and in fact consider it part of teaching students about academia, and about what a college degree might be good for. I'm happy to tell them where I went to undergrad or grad school, what it was like, why I became a professor, and what other kinds of work I've done. When a student wants to know those things, I know she's thinking about her own life path and what options she might have. When my LGBT students come to see me, often it's because I'm one of the few out faculty on the campus. It often matters less what we actually talk about than just being there. We chat about a movie, or a campus event, or a book one of us has read recently. That's the vague ineffable thing that's supposed to happen in office hours -- sometimes it's about defined intellectual topics -- but sometimes it's not. Sometimes it's about two people who can learn from each other just by opening up a little bit.

Because I'm shy and socially awkward by nature, office hours are kind of difficult for me too, even though I'm the powerful figure in the equation. I'm often unsure about rules for eye contact, smiles, and other interpersonal signals. So I tend to err on the side of formality rather than friendliness, just to keep everything clear and professional. But I do enjoy those rare chances to talk to students who just want to talk, who aren't there just about the grade or the paper outline.