10 Things Your College Professor Won’t Tell You

The most important bits of information from your instructors may be the things left unsaid.

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Everyone is into transparency these days. You would think you would know all there is to know when you get a college syllabus filled with course rules, policies, learning objectives, grading procedures, even snow policy. Boy, would you be wrong. The important stuff is what the prof will never tell you. Here are 10 examples:

1. "Think you're bored? I'm spending most of this lecture thinking about what I'm going to have for lunch." It might surprise you to know that some of your professors are even more bored than you are. Imagine having to teach Physics for Poets for the 20th time—with 300 students who are only taking it to avoid having to take a real science course. Of course, you could help break the tedium by asking an interesting question or making a good comment. But why would you want to do that, since you could just as well sit back and enjoy watching the paint dry?

2. "Our TA's have never taught before and, in fact, basically have no idea what they're doing." Especially at large state universities, where the student-faculty ratio is approaching 20 to 1, professors can't be bothered to teach the so-called "service" courses—you know, those humongous intro courses where the only thing being serviced is the mindless distribution (or gen ed or lower-division) requirements. There's an entrenched system where graduate students—who in some cases are first-year graduate students with no training in teaching—get to play "prof." It's a sort of learn-by-doing experience, at your expense.

3. "This is the third school I've taught at today, so don't expect too much." Some schools, which lack graduate students or don't have enough of them, have another way of outsourcing the teaching: adjuncts. These are teachers who don't have a permanent job and in many cases are paid about a third of what regular faculty get. As a result, they often have to teach part time at two or three colleges. Office hours, individual study with students, career advising ... fuggetaboutit. Gotta get to the other college across town.

4. "I've got about six minutes to read your paper, and then it's on to the next." Even regular faculty members get huge stacks of papers to read: two or three sections of Ethics and the Professions, 30 or 40 students each, and, really, could one budget more than 10 minutes per paper? Of course, you could take advantage of the situation by writing a really spiffy thesis sentence, answering the question head-on starting from the very first sentence of the paper, and make sure your paper has direction and each point furthers your argument.

5. "Blew off the day before spring break? That'll cost you." Professors really want you to come to class. They want you to learn the material, and, more important, they feel really cruddy when only 10 students shown up the day before spring break. (Hey, they'd like to be off skiing, too.) Some not-so-nice professors decide to stick it to the students: Come test time, they include one essay question specifically targeting the class that 80 percent of the students blew off. That'll teach 'em.

6. "I know an A student when I see one—and you're no A student." Professors often lock horns with students who see an A student staring back at them every time they glance into the mirror but nevertheless got a B-plus. Before coming to howl at the professor about this grave injustice, why not read the comments and consider the possibility that someone else might have written a better paper than you? It could happen.

7. "Grandma died? Right on time." It is a continual mystery to professors why grandparents always die around midterms, paper due dates, and finals. And never during spring break. Must be the weather.

8. "I give extensions—and exceptions to just about any rule—if you ask really nicely." Most profs want to seem really tough at the outset; after all, it's a pain for them when papers trickle in whenever the students get around to it. That's why professors announce draconian rules like a half-grade penalty for each day the work is late. But underneath the tough-guy (or tough-gal) exteriors, most professors are softies. Ask them really nicely and offer up a brief but minimally plausible excuse, and you're more likely than not to get a few days' extension, or just about any consideration (within reason) you want.

9. "No, I won't know what'll be on the final til I photocopy the exam I've been giving for the last 10 years." Many students spend large amounts of time trying to figure out what's going to be on the test. Little do they realize that, in many cases, the info is there for the looking. Sample exams, copies of old exams, study guides, hints dropped by the TA in section, and questions gone over by the prof in review sessions are often exact road maps of what's going to be on the test. Don't stare a gift horse in the mouth.

10. "This would be a great field to major in—if you don't mind lifetime unemployment." Even the most curmudgeonly professors are warmed by the sight of students who actually want to follow in the their footsteps. That's why profs are almost always bubbling over about how great their field is and how great a choice it would be for your major. What they don't tell you is that only the top 0.0003 percent of the students in that field will end up with the jobs dangled so enticingly before them. Tip? Ask someone who's completing that major how his or her job search is really going. Or ask the undergrad adviser what percentage of the people with advanced degrees actually land a job in that field. Hey, forewarned is forewarned. 

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