By Lindsey Liles
As students, we have all been in class when a professor asks a question, and the silence is so deafening you can hear the boy in the front row tapping his foot and everyone’s eyes shoot in every direction but the professor’s. We have all had moments where the screech of our alarms go off and getting out of bed for class seems an insurmountable obstacle. We have all wondered whether we should take those dreaded steps to the intimidating professor’s office, or just muddle along and deny our confusion until exam time.
These internal struggles are common to students at universities, large, small, public, and private. But how many students have tried to put themselves in the shoes of their professors? To get opinions on what makes a good student in the eyes of a professor, I contacted professors from Sewanee: the University of the South, Berkeley, Harvard, and the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.
Both professors David Laibson of Harvard and Denis Auroux of Berkeley consider intellectual curiosity an ideal student quality. Professor Virginia Craighill of Sewanee agrees, praising “intellectual engagement, curiosity, and a willingness to think differently and take intellectual risks.” Similarly, they offer insights about how to earn the respect of a professor. “Be open minded,” says professor Thupten Dorjee of the University of Arkansas, and warns students not to allow background distractions or past difficulties to become obstacles. “Be proactive,” advises Auroux. “I respect students who work hard and are more invested in learning than grades,” says Craighill, recalling a new student with a poor foundation in writing. “My comments on his first paper ran to three pages, single spaced,” she remembers. But, that student never complained about his grade, worked hard, and made huge improvements. “He earned my respect because he was here to learn,” she explains.
Now that you know that you should be ready to learn, open-minded, and curious, what about that trip to the professor’s office? All the professors agree that an office visit when you have questions is a good idea; as Dorjee says, “there is no room to be shy, especially when dealing with new knowledge.” And, a large class doesn’t mean the professor doesn’t still appreciate his individual students: Auroux holds that even in his math class of 500, he “always like[s] it when students come to office hours to ask questions about the material. It’s not only a great occasion to meet them, it’s also tremendously helpful for them to get some individual attention.” At small schools it’s easier to get to know the professors in class, but they want to see you individually too; Craighill actually invites students over to her house and expects them to come.
As many do’s as there are for students there are also some important professor pet peeves. “One of the worst,” says Auroux, is “when students suddenly come to me just before the final exam, realizing they haven’t been learning the material, turning in assignments regularly, or doing well on tests, and ask me how to make up for their poor performance and get an A in my class.” Some of his other pet peeves include failing to show up for scheduled meetings and failing to respond to e-mails. As he explains, “your professor’s time is not something you can take for granted.” Even at a large public university, Dorjee says that “a lack of attendance and concentration” is a pet peeve, and that “lack of motivation has no place in the classroom.” Nor do ringing cell phones or hiding behind laptops, says Craighill.
Despite the pitfalls of professor pet peeves, college opens a world of opportunities. For incoming freshmen especially, the first year is a blank slate. Auroux and Laibson advise freshmen to “keep your minds open and make the most of academic opportunities that await you,” and to “broadly explore your intellectual interests.” As Laibson notes, “the early college years are the best years to find out what deeply interests you.” Craighill has some practical advice: “show up, do the reading, and turn things in on time, even if they’re not perfect,” and “find ways to make your classes fun.” And finally, Laibson recognizes that it is easy for a freshman “to get lost in the pace of college,” noting that not all freshmen are prepared for the faster pace and higher workload, and to “challenge yourself, but don’t overdo it.” Dorjee advises succinctly, “be as a sponge!”
Thus, to get the most out of everything that college offers, students should be willing to work hard, be curious, open minded, and unafraid to ask questions. College professors are incredible resources both as teachers and mentors, and they care about their students more than we realize. Therefore, do the reading and break the silence. Get out of bed and go to class. Make the trip to your professor’s office. He’s been waiting on you. She wants to hear your questions. Learning is not a one way street; it is a dynamic partnership, and the professor behind that door is just waiting for you to knock.
Lindsey Liles is a senior English and Biology major at Sewanee: The University of the South. Sewanee is home to the Beta of Tennessee Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.