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Matthew CooperFive Tips to Make an Ally of Your Professor

by Matthew Cooper

There’s no two ways about it: College pushes students to their limits, and from time to time, we all need help to realize our goals. Writing centers, study groups, and online resources are helpful, but nothing can truly replace guidance from a professor. Whether you’re in a freshman lecture hall of five hundred or a senior capstone course of ten, having your professor know a little about you will always help further your cause inside the classroom and out. Over the course of a semester, something will inevitably come up which an instructor can help with. Maybe you missed class, or you couldn’t get your paper in on time, or you need clarification of an assignment or lecture. Whatever the case, it’s a bad idea to wait for a crisis to try and make a connection with your instructor. The earlier you make an ally in your professor, the more likely they’ll be sympathetic to conflicts when they arise.

But for many students, bridging the student-instructor gap is no easy task. Often, that aversion stems from the inherent dichotomy of the classroom. Teachers teach, students learn. If you’ve never done it before, the very thought of approaching a professor might be nerve-wracking. While the aversion is natural, a good student-instructor relationship simply has too many benefits to allow anxiety to get in the way: letters of recommendation are vital for graduate school; having a professor listed as a reference looks great on job applications; professors often know about or even manage job openings on campus. And all that’s not even mentioning the myriad of benefits inside the classroom.

It took me the better part of six years and two undergraduate degrees before I learned how to approach professors. It’s stressful for everyone, at first. But once I overcame those natural anxieties, I quickly began to appreciate the benefits of the relationship. The following tips are designed to help you successfully foster a relationship with your professor, and turn the person at the front of the classroom into an ally in making your time in college successful.

1. Read your instructor’s online bio. Before anything else, take the time to learn a little about your instructor. Most universities feature blurbs about their instructors which include information about their area of research and publications. Scan through what they’re passionate about, and mention it in class or private conference. Appear (or better, actually be) genuinely interested in their work and what they say. Not only is this easy conversation fodder, but your instructor will be impressed that you took the initiative to learn about them and will be more inclined to do the same about you. If meeting during office hours, tie your conversation back into the classroom.

2. Mirror their professionalism. No two instructors have the same set of standards for interacting with students. Some demand the upmost decorum while others will act like an old friend. It’s usually easy to tell which instructors expect which after a day or two of class, but the safest strategy is to assume a high level of professionalism. Show up to office hours with specific questions or concerns and leave after they’re resolved. Email with perfect grammar and etiquette. If they have a title such as doctor, use it. If your instructor lowers the level of professionalism expected, mirror them. Some professors love interacting and being affable with students, while others want to maintain the dichotomy of the student-instructor relationship. The protocol for the relationship is going to be on the instructor’s terms, so be aware and courteous of their expectations. Not every instructor is going to be your best friend, but that doesn’t mean the relationship will be any less rewarding.


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