Crossing the Great Divide

How to approach your profs and TAs

If you want respect from your profs, be respectful and respectable.

How to approach your profs and TAs

Remember bumping into your teacher in the supermarket back in Grade 2? You thought: ‘she’s real!’ Your profs and TAs (teaching assistants) have a life just like everybody else.

Here’s the main difference between students and instructors: all profs have been students, but few students have been profs. Instructors can sympathize with the student condition, but they also know all the excuses and scams. Their grandmothers died five times in one term, too.

You’ll likely encounter all levels, from TAs through sessionals to full professors. In terms of ability, you can’t generalize. TAs usually have little experience and are preoccupied with their research, but some are stellar.

Some of the higher ranks of professors can be hopeless instructors or might resent having to teach at all; sometimes they’re fabulous — god-like and mesmerizing. But almost every post-secondary teacher at one time loved his or her field and probably still does. They’ll be disappointed if you don’t share their enthusiasm, but they want to like you, so make it easy for them.

If you want respect, be respectful and respectable. Forget the obnoxious voice-mail message, trashy email address, and “Porn Star” T-shirt. Arrive at class on time with the necessary materials and without the earbuds, eggburger and bubblegum.

Have your assignments prepared and be ready to engage. Don’t text or chat during lectures or use your laptop for irrelevancies. Even if your teachers aren’t allowed to reprove rude students, bad manners will annoy them. They’re only human, and they have power over you. (And your more mature peers, the ones who really come in handy on group projects, won’t take you seriously after seeing your drunken Facebook photos over your shoulder.)

If you’re forced to take a course you hate, one which may also be genuinely useless, don’t blame your instructor. Suck it up and/or talk to your student union.

Don’t pester your instructor with questions answered by the online or hard-copy syllabus, but do ask politely for clarification as necessary, as early in the term as possible, and not after class unless that’s encouraged.

Clarify the TA’s relationship with the prof, especially where email questions and office visits are concerned. Who handles what? What’s the preferred method of communication? Do they answer emails on weekends? Don’t expect instant replies: you may be one of several hundred students. Make your respondent’s job easier by making your query focused, concise, polite and literate.  Find a non-classmate to check it.

When attending office hours

1. Don’t be put off by a closed door.  Knock and wait.

2. Remember that your instructor has many students and may not at first know you. Introduce yourself, indicate which class you attend, and ask specific questions.

3. If you’re unhappy about a grade, don’t assume you deserve a better mark. Ask politely for an explanation.  If you can make a good case, you might win. If you’re partly to blame, admit it. Pick your battles. And don’t whine, “I totally need an A.”

4. Discuss your mental health only if the instructor has previously received a letter from counselling.  Profs generally aren’t qualified to judge or advise, and you’re putting them in an impossible position.

5. DO NOT cite high school grades or other profs’ supposed opinions of you, persuade or allow your parents to intervene, or, if you miss a class, ask “Did I miss anything?” If you want to know what instructors think of that question, Google Tom Wayman’s poem “Did I Miss Anything?” M

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