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I started teaching my fall courses a few weeks ago, and while I'm pretty happy with this semester's students overall, way too many of them seem to have missed that class freshman year in how to get professors to say yes to your requests, not call on you when you're unprepared, and give you the benefit of the doubt on grades. (Well, it should be a required class for first-year students.)

I always think that most of this stuff is basic common sense, but since I have lots of otherwise sensible students who don't seem to know it - and since there seem to be a lot of Kossacks in academe, one way or another -  I'm going to write it down here.

If anyone asks, you didn't hear it from me.

"Lie to me. I promise I'll believe." - Sheryl Crow

Teaching is all about ego. I'm just like every other professor: In order to get up in front of a group and put on a good performance, I have to convince myself that you came to college specifically to take my class. Intellectually, I know this probably isn't true, but emotionally I'm going to cling to it. Don't disillusion me. That means if you have to miss a class, don't tell me you skipped it for a project in another class (meaning that class is clearly more important to you than mine), or to meet with a professor in your major.  When you're in my class, act like you care. Act like you're paying a lot of money for this class (which, presumably, you are). But don't overact. Unlike dealing with Republicans, with professors there is such a thing as laying it on too thick.

Along the same lines, Don't ask me to go out of my way for you unless you're making a positive contribution to my class. I teach popular classes, which means I get a lot of people asking to overenroll every semester - more than I could possibly let in. Most of them tell me how my class is the only one that fits in their schedules, or that they won't graduate if I don't let them in. A few of them tell me how much they're dying to take a science fiction class, or how a roommate took my fantasy class and really loved it. Want to guess which ones I let into the class? If I think you really want to be there and are going to enjoy the class and make it easier for me to teach, I'll let you in every time. If you don't know anything about a professor, it takes two minutes on to look up the pertinent details. (That site has made it almost impossible for me to chase people out of my classes, since word's gotten out that I try to chase people out, but it also means I get a much higher percentage of students who know what a difficult course they're getting into and really want to be in my classes, so I'm pretty happy overall. But I still won't actually go and look at what's been written about me, even if I know it's mostly positive.)

For much the same reason, Stay involved in the class. If you're shy, get over it. Everyone else is scared to talk, too. Regardless of whether it's a 10-person seminar or a 300-person lecture, you need to be a participant. There may only be a few people in the class who talk, but be sure you're one of them. (Don't talk just for the sake of talking, and don't suck up to the professor, but find a way to make your voice heard.) If you make my life easier by helping to keep the discussion flowing I'll notice it and appreciate it. If you usually have something to say, I'm not likely to call on you if you're clearly under the weather, or don't want to talk that day. Staying involved won't get you a better grade than you deserve on a paper, but I won't be grumpy when I'm grading your paper either, if you know what I mean. And it's a lot easier to fail someone who's just a name on a roster than a person with a face and personality attached.

Probably my biggest pet peeve: Don't tell me your paper sucks. Invariably when a class hands in a paper, a couple of people will walk up to me and tell me how awful their papers are because they didn't really understand the question, or they broke up with their sigificant other, or they had three exams back to back, or something. I have no idea why you would want me prejudiced against your paper before I start reading it. Are you worried that I won't be able to figure out it's bad on my own? Sometimes papers written under stress are pretty good, and if you had that rough a night, you're probably not a great judge of your own writing right now. So just keep your mouth shut and hand the thing in. If there were problems that destroyed your grade, either tell me about them before the paper is due or after I hand it back.

Two small but related points

Buy a stapler, or at least steal some paper clips from somewhere. Don't hand in one of those papers held together with some sort of elaborate origami.

If you don't understand the queastion, don't you think that's something you should be asking me about before the paper's due? I'm the king of doing things at the last minute so I'll never hold procrastinating against you, but if you're going to wait until then, you'd better be sure you know what you're talking about.

Communicate with me outside of class as well. Don't be a nuisance or a stalker, but come by my office hours at some point with a question, or email or IM me occasionally. If it's a question related to one of my books or the topic I teach, that's great. If you're intellectually engaged in the kind of stuff I do, don't expect me to know that telepathically. If there's a nagging question about one of the readings that you didn't want to bring up in class, then ask me. Don't be a cipher; remind me that you have a personality. (If you don't have a personality, borrow one from a roommate and remember to bring it to class every time.)

I don't care that you don't have enough time. A frequently heard complaint: "Each of my professors assigned me all the reading I could possibly do and I have five classes; I can't possibly keep up." Welcome to the adult world. A little piece of news: You will never again in your life have enough time to do everything you want to and do it right. It won't be any different when you're trying to juggle multiple jobs, family, and social life. Learn how to deal with it now. College is the time to learn what corners you can cut and what you can't. If you don't have time to do all the reading, what percent can you do and still get the gist of the material? What classes do you need to read every word, and what classes can you skim? Can you make up for some of the understanding you're not getting from the reading by being an active participant in class? You can't cut back too far on sleep without paying a price. There isn't more time, so you can no longer tell yourself "I would have done a better job if I had more time." If you had more time, you would have slept longer. You just need to learn to do a great job in the time you have. (In practice, the "I don't have enough time" excuse is lame anyway. It doesn't take any longer to write an A paper than a D paper, and if I give the D writer more time, I won't get a better paper; nine times out of ten I'll just get a longer D paper.)

Everyone has one crisis a semester. Plan for it. Be ready when things go horribly wrong so you can fix them. If you're an involved student and that crisis hits, I'm a lot more likely to give you a break (especially if you've earned it by making my life easier). If you haven't had a word to say all semester and come to me for an extension, I'm going to be more skeptical than if I know you've been on the ball all semester. And if I do give you a break, follow break etiquette:

Make sure you limit yourself to one crisis a semester. More than that is playing on my credulity. It's one thing to give a break because of a fluke, but another to give one to someone whose life is a constant state of crisis.

Act like you genuinely appreciate what I'm doing, and that it's really allowing you to learn and grow as a student. I feel a little guilty about relaxing my standards, even in a good cause, and it helps if I can see concrete results. Thank me again at the end of the semester - it will encourage me to give some other disaster-prone student a break.

Pay attention to boundaries. I get close to a lot of students and I have an informal style, but I'm your professor, not your friend. You can be my friend after you graduate; until then, the best I can do is mentor. Just about every professor has been approached inappropriately, and with the exception of a small (I hope) percentage of skeevy professor types, we're all pretty wary: It's the sort of thing where even a rumor can cost me my job. So even if you think no one else on campus will understand and appreciate the literary symbolism of the new tattoo covering your back, please don't try to take your shirt off in my office. (Yeah, that one happened to me... it was a Tolkien-related tattoo and I teach fantasy.) What seems like an innocent gesture to you may look different by the time my department chair hears about it.

I hope this doesn't come across as too snarky. I love teaching and get to teach subjects I really enjoy. But I also think there's a certain level of common sense college survival skills that too many people don't grasp until it's too late.

The next episode in the Kossack's Guide to Publishing should be up late Thursday night. This week's episode is on ideas, and I'm hoping to start tackling publishing contracts and negotiating in the next few weeks.

Originally posted to Swordsmith on Tue Sep 19, 2006 at 09:44 PM PDT.

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