What baffled me, and what still baffles me, is the amount of students–in senior level courses, mind you—who act paralyzed when the professor asks, “any questions?” Perhaps other students fear reinforces this, and they all sit, afraid that the professor will chew their head off, or worse, they’ll look like an idiot, or even worse their peers will chide them.
I spent a lot of time in college with my hand raised, probably to an irritating amount for my fellow students.
But that didn’t bother me.
Quickly I realized that the people in my chemistry course were not going to pay my bills. I realized that, in the mostly vacant auditorium that I should be asking ever question that comes into my head. I can guarantee you that the questions that you’re wanting to ask are the same ones your peers want to ask as well. It may take a dose of bravery, but becoming comfortable with asking questions is incredibly important. Professors want to engage you. If they seem angry, it’s because they’re not getting the kind of reaction they hoped for. Here are some tips to help win over you’re next instructor
1. Get over the fear
Finding a way to swallow your fear will help you immensely. Perhaps this is instilled in us at an early age or, or maybe it happens in high school, but students hate asking questions. And especially when we start attending college and Mr. Smith becomes Dr. Smith, the screws tighten.
But professors aren’t scary. They’re incredibly intelligent and passionate about what they do, but they’re not scary. What students interpret as stand-offishness coming from the professor actually comes from a hurt place. Imagine if a whole group of people appeared utterly uninterested in something you had poured your life into? You’d probably feel a little sore too.
Don’t think of professors as these intimidating figures, but just as people. I think you’ll find that if you treat them as people (but with a bit more respect) that you’ll find that their incredibly nice and fascinating to talk to.
2. Sit in front
Often times on these lists you see this suggestion. It’s a mainstay since I was in school, and it’s true even now. Being in the front row allows the professor to learn your face and your name. This goes double for the classes held in giant lecture halls. In a sea of hundreds faces, you want to be the one
face that he or she knows and can remember the name of.
3. Lead a conversation
If you want to talk about a specific about your work, or about a topic inside or outside the lesson, bring it up. Some of the best discussions in class tangentially relate to the current conversation. If you have something that you find interesting or have passion for, don’t be afraid to bring up something. Your professor will understand if you can draw a comparison or a reason to why you brought it up.
QUICK WARNING: Do not lead a conversation that pertains only to your personal life. This is a territory I cannot follow you into—there have been many times where a professor has cut off a
student (even me) because the topic strayed too much into the love life, family life, or even sex life of a student. Things get awkward fast and you don’t want to be that guy or girl. No one does. It salts the mood and it clams everyone up quicker than you can say bivalve.
4. Attend office hours
Judging by all the bored academics I follow on twitter, office hour visits are few and far between. These hours are set up so you—yes you!—can visit and ask questions, bring something up, or just get to know your professor. They’re people just like you.
And the topic they’re teaching, they not only get paid to teach it, they also get paid to study. It didn’t hit me until later that professors are fiercely passionate about the things they study, to a point of giddiness. Pro-tip: If you ask your professor about their dissertation and can keep up a cogent, inquisitive discussion, you’ll have that professor asking you to join him or her for coffee.
5. Talk to your professor after class
In especially surly classes, try talking to the professor after class. I once had 2 classes in a row in the same room, and the professor would often be asked to leave because she and I would talk well into the time that the next class started.
Some of my best conversations with professors happened after class. Riding the high of a successful—or unsuccessful—class can lead to an incredibly important bull session with your professor. Even if they have somewhere to be, they’ll be happy to walk and talk with you most days. Having this kind of talk with your professors will often put them in a better mood. I went from a student who hardly talked in class, to a student who could completely riff off of what the professor said.