Communicating with Professors

Posted by W. Caleb McDaniel on September 4, 2012

The best parts of my college experience were the relationships I built with individual professors. In my very first semester, for example, I took an introductory logic course with Colin Allen, now at Indiana University. I loved the logic, but even more important for my development as a student were the conversations I had with Allen outside of class, on topics ranging from science to computer programming to the philosophy of religion.

I still remember vividly the night, only a few weeks into my college career, when Allen suggested we grab a sandwich at Subway to continue a conversation that had spilled outside into the hall after class. I had something else to do that night and had to decline, but that openness to communication meant everything to me. It gave me the confidence to correspond with him by email on matters mundane and serious. And most of all, it meant that I approached future relationships with faculty unafraid to start conversations and express my views.

I hope every undergraduate can have similar experiences, but my experience on the other side of the desk, as it were, suggests that they are rarer than they need to be. Sometimes this is because students don’t approach faculty in the first place, limiting their engagement to whatever they get as part of the general class population. Other times it is because some easy mistakes lead to miscommunications or awkward first impressions that create static on the line between student and professor.

This semester I prepared a brief presentation for undergraduates on “How to Communicate with Professors,” hoping to head off common problems and demystify the process. My hope is that by getting brass tacks out of the way, the sort of conversations that meant so much to me as an undergraduate will be more comfortable for the students I know.

You can view the slideshow for the presentation and get the source code if you wish, or you can also look at my Storify page containing advice gathered from Twitter on this topic. Thanks to all those who offered their advice and turned out for the presentation.

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