On Campus

How do I get the most from the student-professor relationship?

Jeff Rybak advises know what you want, be interested—and don’t ignore the janitor

Does that loud student in class who is always asking questions about books you’ve never heard of annoy you? Are you that student? Ever wonder if sucking up to the professor actually helps?

Maclean’s spoke with Jeff Rybak, author of the recently released book What’s Wrong With University: and how to make it work for you anyways, to find out more about how to manage relationships with professors. Rybak graduated in 2006 from the University of Toronto Scarborough. In his role in student politics he counselled students on how to deal with many aspects of university life.

Maclean’s: First of all, how do you define an “effective relationship” with a professor?

Jeff Rybak: An effective relationship is when you get what you need. That’s different for different students. Some students never deal with their professor unless they have a problem and that has to work for some people because the system is premised on that. If there are 500 students in a class, then obviously the system is built on the assumption that most of them will never interact directly with their faculty.

If you don’t feel like you have a deep relationship with your professors, especially in early years, that’s not necessarily a problem. But at all times you need to be sure that you are reasonably respectful and professional because you never know what is going to happen. It’s just like any other business community: you never know when you are going to need somebody.

It’s okay if they don’t necessarily know who you are, but you don’t want them to remember you for being an idiot.

You need to identify what you want out of university. Obviously professors are a huge part of that institution. Once you know what you want, it will be easy to identify an appropriate relationship with a professor.

M: Should students try to get to know their professors better?

JR: Not every professor. If you are interested in graduate school, absolutely. When you have identified an area that you are interested in pursuing further—and it needs to be something more specific than just English—and there is a professor that is working on that, you want to make sure that that professor knows who you are. Talk to them more often and make sure that you are really interested in what they are doing. It is inherently flattering to a professor if you are interested in what they are working on. It’s not hard to work into a conversation.

M: How can students get the most out of their experience studying with a certain prof?

JR: It varies by different subject. The harder sciences tend to have lab work and tangible research that is going on—things that, in scientific terms, could be called “grunt work.” They need to fill a lab with undergraduate students who can do the day-to-day lab work that is not especially complex, but it is a great in. Getting into the lab is key. Every student who wants to go to medical school knows this, or should know this.

In the softer areas, no professor needs undergraduates to help with researching philosophy. So that can be tougher. Read the undergraduate journals on campus because professors are sure to be involved with reviewing them or have ideas about what is going on with them.

It’s hard sometimes, depending on the area. You can’t necessarily read a professor’s work on metalogic and expect to follow.

M: Do you think that the average undergrad student is reading their professor’s work?

JR: Hell no. Absolutely not.

If you try to be the student that you think everybody is, by doing the set of things that you think everybody is supposed to do, then you’re screwed before you start because there is no one set of things that you are supposed to do.

If you are in a philosophy class and your goal is to get into law school then, I hate to be blunt, your professor’s advanced writings on metalogic are never going to matter to you and it is pointless to pretend that you care. But what you want from that class is a strong grade. If you want to do graduate work in philosophy, then it is a completely different situation.

So most students aren’t reading it and most students don’t need to. But the students who want to get into graduate school should be.

M: Who else should students attempt to build relationships with on campus?

JR: Don’t just confine your relationships to your professors. There are a lot of professional people in a university. Although professors are the face of a campus, interact with those other people—whether it is someone in the registrar’s office or academic advising or the writing centre. It might not be a professor who is that defining person on campus, who makes things real to you. So don’t close your eyes to those opportunities.

At the same time, even if it seems like you are dealing with someone who is a functionary of some kind, don’t be a jerk. Almost anyone who works on a campus is a professional.

To use an example, the maintenance staff on campus know one hell of a lot about recycling. I know some students who are really passionate about recycling who are in programs like international development. The way that we deal with recycling is very important to them. Even the janitors can be a source of information about how the campus works.

M: I once made dinner for my philosophy prof (platonically, of course). I also got an ‘A’ in the class. What kind of relationships are inappropriate? Where’s the line?

JR: I’ll return that question with an anecdote. One university put out a pamphlet several years ago aimed at staff and faculty about how to manage relationships with students, what the line is, and what professional obligations there are. It said you could date a student in your class, but you could not grade their work. You have to turn around to a colleague and say, “Excuse me, I’m sleeping with one of my students. Could you grade this essay, please?” I’ve asked professors if they would be able to do that and they answered that it would be a little awkward, but that they could.

Because you just left high school, it is hard to realize that you are not just a kid. The stories of professors involved with graduate students are numerous. It’s a different environment. It’s like workplace dating. People tend to hook up where they work because that is where they spend all their time. It’s amazing how far a relationship can go without being technically over the line. It’s the same as in the workplace: you can date your boss, but is it a good idea?

M: Is there any benefit in being that student in class who is always asking questions and sucking up to the prof? Can’t profs just see through that?

JR: It’s hard to tell the difference between a student that is smarter than you and one that is just acting like they are. Some students do genuinely know a lot of interesting stuff. You can’t discount the idea that professors are interested in a lot of things that students talk about. It’s like any other profession: just because they have been doing this longer than you, doesn’t mean that they can’t learn from you.

If you see a professor in conversation with a student and the student is referring to random books, don’t assume that the student is being pretentious. The professor might genuinely care. More often than not, they will care about things that are less traditional.

If you are that student, it is a fine line between actually having an interesting conversation with that professor and abusing the hospitality of somebody who doesn’t know how to get rid of you.

M: Any tips on resolving conflict with professors and TAs? What about when student receives an unexpected poor mark?

JR: Sometimes you have to climb the ladder. Sometimes you will have to go to the TA first. If you are unhappy with the professor, you can go to the department chair.

My advice is always approach it from the perspective of information. Professors and TAs hate grade hounds. If you are just trying to scrape up an extra grade, it gets tiresome. At the same time, you may have gotten an unexpected grade and wonder where it came from.

If you don’t know why you got that grade, then that is a really great lead into a conversation about understanding your grade. That is the one thing that you are entitled to know. If you don’t understand your grade, you can’t be expected to learn. Ask that question if you get an unexpectedly good grade too. It’s just as useful to know what you did right as well as what you did wrong.

M: What other ways can you get extra information?

JR: A lot of students aren’t interested in what isn’t going to get them grades anyways. If I have a secret rule it is: be interested. When you actually care about what you are reading, then it is really easy to ask a question that the average student wouldn’t think to ask. But when your immediate question is “Is this going to be on the test?” chances are that you don’t have anything else to ask. If that’s all you care about, there may be nothing wrong with that. Some students are only in school to prove that they are generally competent people.

M: Is there anything else you want to add?

JR: A lot of the opportunities to go beyond the classroom are happening online. I have a professor that just got Facebook and has a discussion group for his class. I think that professors are feeling pressure because they have more students than they are used to dealing with, so a lot of stuff is moving online.

Finally, realize you’re an adult. I know that you don’t feel like it, but fake it ‘til you make it. Pretend you are an adult. Students need to be professional at university. Sometimes you have to accept that your professors are not being professional. They are just people. You might be that student who catches your prof on a really bad day and they snap. You can’t expect your professors to always be a mature.

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