My College:
Dear Adina

How Do I Encourage My Student to Reach Out to Professors?

Adina Glickman


Dear Adina,

How do you get your college student to go out of their comfort zone and reach out to their professors and foster relationships with them?


Dear Parent,

So many professors I’ve talked to over the years feel very sad that more students don’t come to office hours.

Students don’t realize how refreshing and enlivening their “student energy” can be, and what a pleasure it is for teachers to converse with the curious, uninitiated and possibly future members of their scholarly brethren! And yet students are over there hiding in the shadows, cultivating many myths that deter them from reaching out and connecting on a human level with the humans who are teaching them.

Here are some myths many students have about what their professors are thinking.

1. When class is over, the teaching is complete.

Actually, many faculty like teaching because they like talking about what they love. Show up for office hours and give them a reason to wax poetic on the things that matter to them. Let them shine their light of enthusiasm on you!

2. We’ve seen and heard every idea already.

Professors count on students to bring their unique viewpoints and ideas into the academic dialogue. Discussion around these ideas yields tomorrow’s new sociological applications, scientific discoveries, political solutions, etc. Your “silly idea” might be the crisp clear question that opens a new line of inquiry and gets your professor (and the whole class) thinking about the subject in a fresh way.

3. When a student asks a question, we know it means they haven’t been listening to our lectures.

Au contraire! Student questions mean you’re thinking beyond the lecture. They like that. And it means you’re awake.

4. After class, all we want to do is get back to our lives or our own projects.

Being a teacher usually means you have a basic appreciation and need for human contact. If all teachers get to do is look out at a sea of faces (or Zoom screens) all day and never get to actually connect with any of you, their lives are much less interesting.

5. My friendly demeanor grants you permission to put your feet on my desk without asking.

Professors deserve and expect your respect. Sign up for appointments ahead of time if possible. Come with specific questions and be thinking about what you want to talk about. If you’re just coming to make contact, think about what it is you want to get from your time together. They know you might some day want a letter of recommendation from them for grad school (or an internship, fellowship or scholarship application), but don’t assume they'll want to do that for you if you haven't put an effort into forming a real connection.

So I suggest your student prepare for a conversation with a professor in one of several ways:

  • Look at their faculty page and see what they’re into, either in their research or in their lives or hobbies. If something looks interesting, ask about that. It’s fine to say, “I saw you like taking your dogs for hikes on your faculty page. What kind of dog do you have? I really miss ours, she’s a black lab.”
  • Review your class notes or your reading, and even if you don’t have a question about something you didn't understand, pick something else that seemed new or interesting to you and talk about that. You can say something like, “When you were talking about the aerodynamics of modern airplanes, it got me thinking about whether we’ll ever be able to get humans to fly as gracefully as birds.”
  • It’s totally fine to be transparent and say, “I’m kinda awkward talking to people, so please bear with me. But I really want to connect with all my teachers, so thanks for taking the time to let me talk with you."

And finally, about getting out of the comfort zone. It might be a good time to recall some other uncomfortable things your student has experienced and have them remember the whole picture, not just the time of discomfort.

You can help them see that, for example, when they were twelve years old and you had them go up to the deli counter to get change for a $10 they didn’t collapse into tears. They tolerated the discomfort and then it went away and they felt all big and bad after fulfilling their mission!

If they’ve never had the opportunity to do something uncomfortable at such a small scale, practice. All manner of tolerable discomforts and successful missions await!

Yours,

Adina Signature

Have a question? Ask Adina

Adina Glickman is the founder of Affinity Coaching, which offers academic, life and career coaching to young adults. She is the former director of learning strategies at Stanford University and is the co-founder and director of the Academic Resilience Consortium, an association of faculty, staff and students dedicated to understanding and promoting student resilience. Learn more at adinaglickman.com.

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