Pet Rocks, Pet Peeves, and Pet Advice

So, I discovered that one of my pet peeves is when some self-involved colleague presumes to speak for me and all “professors” while dishing out advice to students that is both hostile and counterproductive.

Maybe we’d talk to our pet rocks like they’re not thinking, feeling adults. “Don’t move pet rock;” “don’t engage me unless you’re absolutely sure that you have no alternative;” and “don’t, under any circumstances, offend my delicate sensibilities.”  I’m not sure that our pet rocks would appreciate our condescension.  And, I’m certain that our students don’t appreciate it.

Students are, well, students. They make mistakes. They’re often young. They’re also interested in learning and us. They come to university to better their lives and to explore the world. It seems, to me, that it is counterproductive for us to start our conversations with students (whom we’ve not met) with advice that starts with the world “don’t.” Why not try something more constructive?

Also, I am so over the “woe is me” writing that too often characterizes the professoriate’s blogging. I’d love to see more pieces that describe the joys of being a professor, or at least spins our relation to universities, students, and society positively. I can’t imagine a better career, even on its worst days (which reveals how much of a dork I am.) Even if I have a bit too much Pangloss in me, I like it when I see university faculties move the conversation forward, rather than backward. So, l’m going to springboard from this scholars pet peeves, do an inverse somersault and, one-by-one, offer the positive advice I’d give pertaining to that same point. I’m also spending 60 minutes at this.  I hope my effort inspires someone somewhere to be more positive, and also suggests to students how they can be more successful at university, and beyond.

1. Build a community through respect and civility.  Hey students, we professors have created an interesting dilemma for you. In the modern university, many (though not all) of us insist on more informality (in our dress, address, and style of engagement.)  Our mixed messages can make it difficult for you to figure out how to address us, especially in professional correspondence.  Some time ago, the custom was to call you (as the student) Mr. Smith or Ms. Smith and for you to address us as Dr. or professor. At that time, we also wrote formal letters (on letterhead, all the time.) Our society’s move toward first names, the 1960s, the emergence of the Interwebs, and texting have all transformed how we work together. So, here’s a gentle suggestion that might provide a path through this conundrum. But, first, please recognize that there is a power relationship at work in universities (despite how your professors sometimes behave.)  In your correspondence with your professors, colleagues, and university, it might help to be a bit more formal. Write using good grammar and complete sentences. It will help you put your best self forward and offend the fewest folks. Also, it helps to remember that such simple shows of respect can go a long way toward building a positive relationship with everyone around you.

Toward this end, every semester, I ask my students to join me in creating a community of learners in which we respect and engage one another. As with correspondence, civility and respect are key.

This simple respect and courtesy is advice that can be used going forward in your career and life. It can even help you figure out what to wear when your professor invites you over to dinner. Well, maybe not.

2. If you’re absent, please please ask what you missed. If you miss class, please drop me a note. I care about your learning. I want to help you get as much out of my course as possible. Please engage me and I can be sure to do that. By the way, it helps to observe rule 1 and be courteous and thoughtful in making your request. But, really, I’d prefer a “what did I miss” general question to no question at all.  However, if you ask, “what did I miss,” don’t be surprise if I respond, “What didn’t you miss?  Yesterday was just the most important class period of the semester. My best performance ever. Do the reading and come see me.”

3. If you need to leave early, please do. I know you’re busy. So am I. Let’s respect one another on that. If you have somewhere to go, feel free to leave five minutes or ten minutes early. Please, as as simple courtesy (rule 1), share with me that you’re leaving early.

4. Ask questions. Questions are the basis of learning, so ask away. The syllabus is our course guide and will help you to navigate the semester. But, I want you to ask questions.  Like your other professors, I’d be happy to meet before or after class and during office hours to discuss.

5. I’m going to comment on your writing, sometimes with lots of marks. This goes without saying. Life is full of successes, failures, and advice. It is my job to help you become a better writer. I’ll do that job, to the best of my ability. But, I also promise that I’ll not offer gratuitous comments on your writing just to prove to myself that I’m smart or to assert my authority over you. The point isn’t my comments, but improving your writing.

6. Grades count, but I wish they were emphasized less. Grading sucks. But, I’m required to give grades, and I’m ok with that.  I’d prefer if you were motivated by intrinsic interest in the subject matter of my class or simply loved learning. However, I understand that fifteen-plus years of schooling and high-stakes testing have taught you that grades and test scores matter more than learning. Also, you’ve no doubt noticed that institutions of higher learning keep (maybe venerate) grades. Heck we demand them for admission to undergraduate and graduate school.

So it does not surprise me that when your professors tell you that you shouldn’t focus on grades, you know better.  And, yes, most of us know (or should know) that you’re stressed about them. Nonetheless, please realize that it is also true that the more deeply you are engage the materials presented in your courses, the better your grades will be.

7. Please format your papers and assignments properly Quite honestly, it is easier for me to grade your work if it is clearly and simply formatted. I grade lots of papers and it simply makes it easier for me to work my way through them if the margins and font sizes are as I ask. I know this is selfish, but I’m sorry.

With that said I should note that paying attention to these details will help you in your future life, because (after all) details matter. However, I’m also aware that nearly every professor asks for different requirements (formatting, citation, length, and even writing style) based on their discipline. Its confusing. I know. But, please help me out on this one.

8. Develop a voice and write often. If I can impart one lesson to students it is this:  Don’t write like your professors do in the books and journals that you’ve been assigned in class. Professors think they’re good writers, but they’re not necessarily models of brilliant communication. Don’t get me wrong. Some professors are billiant writers. Some aren’t, and even the mediocre writers (like me) are usually capable wordsmiths.  No indeed. T he problem is that our academic disciplines have strange rules that sometimes twist our talents into contorted shapes.  Also, most weren’t formally trained as writers. To the degree that we learned to write, we did so through writing–and lots of it. And, that is my advice here. Write. Lots and lots.

By the way, I”m aware that this seems to run counter to item 5 above about my commenting on your writing.  If that’s what you’re thinking, well you’d be correct.

That is why I’m advising you to write as much as possible. Produce unadorned prose. Write simple sentences. Write using clear and precise subjects and verbs.  Try to find your voice and develop a perspective. Engage me and my colleagues in helping you to do this. Writing is a powerful tool; writing is a form of thinking. Use your courses to write all the time, and to develop this skill (sometimes in spite of me and my colleagues.)

9. I want you to learn. One of the most difficult things about knowledge is to recognize that we construct it–as individuals, members of learning communities, and members of societies. If I can help you to understand this, then we can explore lots of really cool ideas together. And, we can begin to distinguish between evidence and argument, and how evidence is deployed to make arguments. Once you have this down, it is possible that you’ll become Keanu Reeves–or at least like Neo in the Matrix, transforming reality as you go. Or, maybe the world will become a more interesting place. Either way, this one would be a win for both of us.

10. College is a tremendous opportunity. At no other time in your life will you be able to engage ideas and learning as a full-time activity. Enjoy college and let me help you discover more about yourself and/or the rather extraordinary universe in which we live.

11. Ask for the list of “dos” from your professors. As a final thought, let me note that when your professors treat you like an inmate in a penal institution by giving you long lists that start with “don’t,” ask them to give you affirmative lists of “dos.” Tell them you want positive reinforcement because it improves learning. Tell them you want your professors to open up the world and not close it off. Tell them you’d like them to start with the assumption you’re engaged and interested in learning.

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