What your college professors really, really want to tell you

By Josh Kruger
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Aug. 27, 2014

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Welcome—or welcome back—to Philadelphia, America’s future! Surely, you’ve enjoyed a victorious summer making copies during your internship or discovering the cosmetic limits of spray tanning. Even at this late summer hour, though, there’s still time to prepare for your new year here in the city; after all, it’s never too late to prepare to do the right thing.

For college students, of course, the “right thing” varies, and people’s perception of priorities and what’s right will depend on their role in the overall higher learning scheme. Your dorm-mate just wants you to give a heads-up if you’ve another young adult in your single bed, and your parents want you to make the most of their money by actually going to class (hey, call them once in a while, why don’t you?)

Then there’s your instructors. Many are old. Some are young. Some are hot. Some are not. But have you ever asked them what they actually want from—or think of—you?

Tom Waidzunas is an associate professor of sociology at Temple University. He says that despite the tiresome trope of young people having a “sense of entitlement,” he’s found that most students are human beings just like everyone else. In fact, he wishes students would actually have more demands: about office hours. “I wish students had more of a sense of entitlement about coming to office hours [and using me as a resource for engagement],” says Waidzunas.

That type of dialogue and communication helps foster education both in and outside the classroom. “I like when students critically engage with the course and participate respectfully in discussion,” he explains, “both talking and listening to others. The best students take responsibility to exercise their right to learn, question the assumptions of the course material and are open to examining their own assumptions.”

Waidzunas’ colleague, associate professor Dustin Kidd, agrees. “It bugs me when students have the misconception that learning is an individual experience,” Kidd insists, concurring with Waidzunas that learning is an interactive, organic process. “I’d rather facilitate an environment where my students learn from each other than one where each student simply internalizes whatever I say.”

Retired science professor Dawn Munro, a veteran of teaching within the Ivy League and at prestigious universities abroad, was more direct. “With undergraduates, thinking is not always a strength,” she laughs. She seems to be enjoying the freedom of, and candor that comes along with, retirement. “Many seem, at times, to view college as an opportunity to party out of sight with parents. Hangovers, ‘not enough time’ to read, an inability or unwillingness to read background texts, playing with cellphones during lectures,” she pauses, seemingly winding up for her glib analysis. “After all, texting is a priority!”

Kidd doesn’t view technology as inherently problematic but very possibly annoying. After all, he likes to incorporate multimedia into the classroom. The author of the book Pop Culture Freaks, Kidd uses social media as a means to interact and learn about—you guessed it—pop culture and interactivity. It’s a double-edged sword, though, this Internet and texting age. “I use a lot of multimedia sources in my classroom since I teach about media,” Kidd explains, “and students seem to like that a lot. But sometimes, some students see that as an opportunity to check out and focus on something else: texting, talking.” He pauses and almost stage-whispers: “That drives me insane.”

It’s not just about paying attention, though. It’s also about keeping it real and not bullshitting your way through a class. Munro says it’s easy to tell if someone hasn’t done the reading. “On one occasion,” she says, “I invited a guy to come up and help me with the lesson and to do an outline on the white board. He winged it. I then asked the other students if they agreed with him, and he ended up looking like the ass that he was being,” Munro laughs, her light Scottish lilt taking away the seeming harshness of her statement and replacing it with good-natured jibing.

“Very few people were nodding their heads or agreeing with [the student who didn’t do the reading] because they had done the reading.” Munro stresses that reading source material is important as staying awake during class.

“I’ve sometimes encountered vigorous snoring on occasion,” she says, thinking about the implications of her observation, “but maybe that was down to the quality of my presentation.” To remedy scholastic snoozefests, Munro says she just starts dialing up the volume until it works. “I’m soft spoken, so when they sleep, I have to speak louder.”

Kidd says it’s important to prioritize your life as a new, bona fide adult. “If a major family emergency happens, please don’t come to me asking permission to miss class. Just go home! We can work things out when your situation is resolved,” he insists.

Less amusing than snoring in class, making a horse’s ass out of yourself, or asking permissiong to go to the hospital is plagiarism. On many campuses, it can ruin your academic career. Everyone agrees that it’s easy to catch and a terrible idea.

“I can definitely tell when a student has plagiarized a paper,” asserts Kidd. “Students often don’t realize how unique their voices are. Across a semester of in-call conversations and short writing assignments, I get a very strong sense of what each student ‘sounds’ like in print. When the voice changes, I immediately run a phrase through Google. Every time I’ve had the impulse to do so, I’ve found a source that was plagiarized.”

Waidzunas matter-of-factly agrees. “Plagiarism is never a good idea.”

Oh, and be friendly to your professors, too. “I’m always amazed at how often students ignore me when they pass me on campus,” Kidd observes. “Then, when I say hi and use their name, they seem shocked that I know who they are. My biggest classrooms aren’t that big! I can see you! I know what you look like!” So say hello for god’s sake.

But above all else, college is about learning and growing. Despite her direct analysis of what not to do, Munro loves teaching and learning. “I get a great kick out of it, watching how people love to learn. I’m retired, and I’ve never stopped learning.”

“Finding balance between personal growth and learning is key,” Waidzunas adds. “Build a diverse social network in college as part of learning.”

Kidd agrees. “Work hard, be human, know your priorities. In addition to being students, [folks on campus] are also often working, having relationships, playing sports, pursuing hobbies. Everything in its place! But,” he adds, “there better be a place for my class, or you should withdraw.” 

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