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Ten things to never ask/tell your professor: Sheila Squillante offers best practices to make the most of your college experience.

August 31, 2011 \pm\31 2:32 pm

In honor of the new school year and the fresh crop of faces that will smile up at many of us this week, here is a document I would like to hand to all my new students.[1]  Oh, but I probably won’t. A little too cheeky, maybe (but boy did it feel good to write!).

1. Did I miss anything important when I was absent?

The answer to this question, regardless of the class or the material, is always YES. Your professor spends her life teaching this stuff because she believes strongly in its importance. You may not share this belief at the outset, or even at the end of the semester, but for the duration of the class, you’d best fake it. Further, she has spent hours choosing books, prepping lecture notes, creating discussion questions and in-class assignments for the class you just missed, and you, by asking this, have basically told her that you have no respect for her time and effort.  Not cool.

2. I have a big Chemistry/Sociology/History exam/paper/presentation coming up, so I’m going to have to miss this class so I can study.

Listen, you have a number of allowed absences in any course you take. Just take them and keep the reason to yourself. Your professor is well aware that you have other classes, and that some of those classes are more specific to your major. It doesn’t matter. While you are in his class, you need to treat it (at least outwardly), as if it is your top priority.

3.  Is it okay if I miss class to attend this other function related to some other class?

See #2 above.

4. I am late/I was absent/I am sleeping on the desk because of my fraternity/sorority/THON activities.

Nope, nope and nope. Again, see #2.

5. I am late/I was absent/I am sleeping on the desk because I am suffering from a massive hangover.

Your professor is well aware–BELIEVE ME–that she is teaching at the #1 party school in the country.[2] It might be shocking to learn, but this fact is not a point of pride for everyone in the Penn State community. Plus, you are probably not old enough to legally drink, now are you?

6.  Are the textbooks really required? Can I use this other, older edition that has different page numbers and chapter headings and which does not include the anthology that  I found on half.com/borrowed from my roommate?

Yes and no. Simple as that.

7. I really kind of hate poetry writing/statistics/economics/badminton, but this class fulfills a requirement, so…

I want you to think back to your childhood now. Do you remember that Dr. Seuss classic, Green Eggs and Ham? Do you remember the adamancy with which the persnickety protagonist insists that he does not LIKE green eggs and ham? “You don’t like it, so you say. Try it, try it and you may! Try it and you may, I say!” College is about increasing and expanding your knowledge. Open yourself up to experience and you may surprise yourself with new pleasures and delights. Thank you, thank you, Sam I Am.

8. This book/poem/movie/speaker was weird/stupid.

These words are like cul-de-sacs—they go around and around and nowhere fast. What does “weird” mean, anyway? Weird as compared to what? Who? Develop a language of critical appraisal that will help you express yourself when faced with something you don’t immediately understand.

9. This Pulitzer Prize/National Book Award-winning/globally anthologized author is a total hack. 

Yeah, no.  You might not enjoy their writing style, or object on some other level to their body of work, but let’s be a little humble here, shall we? Yes, everyone can always improve their writing—even the superstars of the literary world—but we are in a college-level writing course andthey are in the New Yorker.  Okay? Okay.

10. This book/poem/movie didn’t catch my attention…so I didn’t read it.

In your own life, outside of the classroom, you are welcome to put down the book or poem or whatever after the first line or sentence or paragraph because it doesn’t “catch your attention.” I do not recommend thisI think it’s a bad way to live a lifebut you are within your rights to do so. However, in a classroom, this sort of thing is tantamount to treason. You signed on by staying past the first class and your professor has assigned whatever it is that has bored you silly for a very good reason. Try to figure out what that reason might be. Here’s the truth: you are NOT going to like everything you are asked to read in college. You will sometimes feel bored, irritated, even angered by what you read. But when that happens, ask yourself WHY you are feeling this way. What are you responding to? Is it really the text? Does it touch on an uncomfortable theme or present some argument with which you disagree? Is it written in a style you find difficult? Or maybe it’s not the text at all. Maybe you are just hungry. Or heartbroken. Or sleepy. Whatever the case, put the book down and go get a sandwich. Take a walk. Call your mom. Take a nap. Then come BACK to the text and try again.  Still bored? Lather, rinse, repeat until you have something thoughtful, even if it is critical, to say. Your professor will not take it personally if you intelligently criticize her favorite essay or poem. She WANTS you to develop tastes and interests all your own. That is one of the best lessons you can learn while you are here, and I hope to help you learn it well!

[1] All questions are real and have been posed to me more than once in my teaching career. Originally published on Facebook as a Note, January 6, 2011.

[2] This party school ranking, unscientific as it is, has since dropped to #7 (DN).

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