Laura was in the first class I ever taught as a college professor. Professors aren’t supposed to have favorite students, but I’ll admit I was drawn to her. Laura (that’s not actually her name, for obvious reasons) always arrived a little early to class and chatted with me. She was attentive during my lectures, forgiving my new professor nerves, nodding a lot, and asking questions the way truly engaged students do.
I was surprised when Laura didn’t arrive to class one Monday morning, and even more so when she didn’t attend Wednesday’s or Friday’s session. I can’t remember how long Laura was absent before she sent me an email letting me know that she had returned home and wouldn’t complete the semester. She had tried to commit suicide.
I was shocked. I wondered if I had missed signs I should have seen. Was there something I could have done to help Laura? I honestly didn’t know.
It was the first of many times I remember thinking that my years of professional experience and my formal education had not prepared me for the challenges of being a university professor.
This is the overarching theme of the book Say This, NOT That to Your Professor: 36 Talking Tips for College Success. Written by my friend, Ellen Bremen, the book is a how-to guide for students, advising them on how to effectively communicate with professors about everything from a grade they think isn’t fair to an assignment they just forgot to complete.
A key principle of Ellen’s book is that the manner in which students communicate with professors (and vice versa, to be fair) makes a measurable difference in the outcome of the exchange. As Ellen, who teaches communication at Highline Community College in Des Moines, Wash., wrote: “College is the ideal place for you to practice excellent communication. Professors are among the first people in your life you’ll interact with as an adult.”
Some of my favorite pieces of advice in the book include those regarding:
- avoiding “I” language to have more productive communication,
- addressing issues with the professor first before going to his/her superior,
- students representing their opinions only, not those of their peers,
- dealing with grades and perceptions of fairness, and
- expectations of timely, professional communication from professors (aka: We’re not always working and responding immediately).
Professors teach more than just their subjects. We teach students the professionalism necessary for them to be successful adults in the workforce. Ellen’s book provides tips for college success and practical communication techniques that will serve students long after college.
This book should be required reading in all freshman orientation courses and for all first-time faculty members. It truly will help students and faculty navigate some of their most stressful professional communications.