I’m sure any of my readers who teach college students today would not be surprised that I have said the title of this post to multiple students this semester. Teaching at an elite university, I’m surprised at how little preparation my students seem to have for interacting with faculty, staff, and administrators. And this year, as classes come to a close, I’ve started to wonder: whose job is it to teach the “hidden curriculum” — the professional life skills students should leave college with and will prepare them to be good team players, bosses, and students? I think for the past few years I’ve ignored my responsibility when it comes to teaching these skills to students because, for lack of a better way to put it, when they ask me for extensions with big puppy-dog eyes, I have trouble saying “No, in a job environment you would have to ask much earlier and explain why you need an extension and even then you might not get it.” I think my approach isn’t serving the students in the long run.
What I think is interesting about the issue of teaching college students professionalism is that it cuts across class. Although I can imagine that first-generation students struggle with knowing how to approach faculty members (see a beautiful article and video about the first-generation experience here), I find that my students who come from privileged backgrounds (parents with graduate degrees or private school education) are quite lacking in professional skills. And it seems students forget these skills the longer they are in college; my first-year students rarely ask for extensions or make excuses, but I find juniors really lose all sense of organization when midterms come around and feel overwhelmed every year.
My idea? College orientation should focus on professionalism for first-years: how does one address a faculty member? what is appropriate email etiquette? And these skills should be reinforced for upperclassmen with a short workshop. Interestingly, when I mentioned this idea to a fellow college, she told me that Columbia law school has a required unit on professionalism that must be completed to graduate. I think this is an amazing way to anchor a series of events for college students (see also, a course description and this event description).
What would I like students to know? I list some ideas below in no particular order, based on interactions I’ve had since becoming an assistant professor.
Email etiquette. Your emails should contain a greeting and a closing. The first time you write to an instructor, your greeting should refer to your instructor via their title or at least their full name if you are unsure of the title. Do not expect to get a response to your email within 24 hours. If you have not heard back in a week, email again. The shorter your email, the more likely the response will be quick. Do not email an instructor to discuss a grade on an assignment, exam, or class; instead ask to meet and discuss the grade in person to avoid using inappropriately strong language (and to learn more about the context used to grade).
Meeting in person. Do not walk into a professor’s office when it is not office hours, take a seat, and/or close the door. If you want to close to door to meet, ask first and say something like “I would like to discuss something sensitive with you.” Be prepared for the professor to say he/she would like the door to remain open.
Know that professors read everything you write on exams. Think about the content of what you doodle on exams; I had a recent one with a gun on it that had just been fired. Also don’t write “this question was very unfair” on an exam or assignment – instead ask to meet the professor to discuss the question.
Be prepared. Come to class and meetings with a professor prepared. If you are allowed to use a calculator on an exam, bring it, and be prepared for there not to be extras. Come to meetings with a notebook and working pen/pencil for taking notes. My favorite excuse this semester from a student who was unprepared for class: “Sorry, I have another class before this and that’s why I don’t have my notes.” I still don’t know what that means.
Anticipate which weeks will be difficult for you. At the beginning of the semester, put dates of your exams and assignments in a calendar and anticipate when you will have difficult weeks. Then talk to professors about ways to manage your work, and be prepared to simply start working on things earlier. Upperclassmen, this is not your first rodeo; you should have mechanisms to cope with a week full of midterms.
Ask, don’t tell. If you ask for an extension, ask, and do not be surprised if your request is denied.
Be polite. If you have a question during lecture, ask it. It is disruptive for you to whisper the question to your neighbor instead. And professors notice when students repeatedly have a bad attitude about assignments or tests; keep it together and complain to your friends on your own time.
Stay in touch after you leave. If you get a letter of recommendation – say thank you, and tell the folks who wrote letters what the outcome was. We want to celebrate with you and want to help if you need to reapply.
Be willing to have the “breakup talk”. If you decide you don’t want to pursue independent study with a professor who’s been meeting with you, tell them. There is nothing wrong with this at all!
And, like all those commencement speeches say, wear sunscreen.
What else would you add?