How Not To Be A Dick To Your College Professor

We don't get paid nearly as much as you think we do.
Amanda Berthelot
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We don't get paid nearly as much as you think we do.

When I tell people what I do, they are usually impressed. Sometimes, however, they give me a look that consists of slightly raised eyebrows and a forced straight face. I recognize it. It is a “better you than me” look.

Once I was at a conference, looking through the program of panels for the day, and I saw one advertised as explaining “How to avoid teaching the dreaded freshman composition class” -- which, if you haven’t guessed by now, is my exact job. I love what I do, but I understand why some people don’t want to do it.

There are a few reasons, starting with the fact that most people, by the time they get terminal degrees in their field, expect to be qualified to teach what they want to teach, and comp is usually not it. The major issue, however, is the students’ attitudes. This is not a class that is taken for the fun of it, so the people in my classes range from 18-year-olds who are grumpy to learn that college involves work, to young parents who don’t have time for, well, anything. As much as I am teaching writing, I am teaching my students how to conduct themselves in a college classroom, and that is often hard work.

It’s back to school time, and I have found myself wishing, as I often do, that my new students could have the benefit of understanding how their professors see their behavior in the classroom. I figure some of you here at xoJane have gone back to school with me, so in the interest of making this as smooth a semester as possible for all of us, I recommend keeping the following things in mind whenever you’re in class:

Don’t tell my students, but I get a little nervous on the first day too.

Don’t tell my students, but I get a little nervous on the first day too.

1. We don't get paid nearly as much as you think we do.

“Damn, you make bank, don’t you? Do you make bank?” I was asked in one of my classes (by students who were particularly interested in my personal life) last year. We grew up being taught that the more education you have, the more money you make, so if I’m teaching college, I must be well educated and therefore making lots of money, right? Right? Well, no, not really.

As higher education becomes more and more expensive and colleges end up spending more and more money on things like making their dorms look pretty and keeping their gyms well-stocked, one place where costs don’t really get raised that much is teacher salaries. The vast majority of your professors, especially for intro-level classes, are probably adjuncts, which means they are hired on a contract basis, rather than full- or even part-time.

What does this mean for you? Well, for one thing, if I don’t get your papers back to you right away, or am slow in responding to email, it’s probably less that I don’t care and more that I’m negotiating between this and my other two jobs. Try to be patient and brief.

2. You don’t actually have to be here.

The reason we teach college and not high school or below is because we want to teach adults (no matter how many times I refer to my students as “my kids”). As adults, I expect you to recognize the fact that you’re making a conscious choice to be in my class every week, even if it’s a general ed requirement and you can’t graduate without it. It is not actually my responsibility to make sure you’re where you’re supposed to be and doing what you’re supposed to do in the same way it was your high school teachers’ responsibility. I can’t send you to the principal’s office or call your mom when you misbehave, so I’d honestly rather you skip my class than show up and refuse to do the work. 

3. You don't have to like the assignments, but not complaining about them to my face would be nice.

If you hate the reading I give you, that’s a bummer, but I’m not actually going to make an exception for you. If you don’t want to write my essay, there is pretty much nothing I can do besides offer you a failing grade instead. If you come to me with a viable alternative, say, an essay on the same text but with a different prompt -- not “Can I write fanfiction instead?" -- I might be willing to consider that, but venting to me about how much you hate the assignments I’m giving you isn’t doing either of us any good. It’s wasting my time (see point 1) and honestly making me feel kind of crummy.

4. Everything is easier for both of us if you find a way to get excited.

If you want to write a bitter invective against everything I’ve had you read this semester, fine. If you want to turn your literary analysis essay into an anti-capitalist rant, please do. By all means, explain to the class how your "Grey’s Anatomy" fanfiction relates to what we’re talking about, if that’s your jam and you can make an interesting point with it.

I will tell you a secret: when you’re bored, I, too, am bored. It gets old babbling in front of a classroom for two hours with no one listening, and when you don’t want to write the paper I’ve given you, I almost certainly don’t want to read it. If you can find an angle from which you’ll find the classwork interesting, maybe we’ll both have more fun.

5. We know all the tricks.

I was imperceptibly pulling in my margins and increasing the size of my commas not so long ago too. I will call you out when you lift an entire paragraph from the reading without a citation. I get a little bit cranky when I can see that you’re trying to trick me. That makes me feel like you view me as an antagonist, which is unfortunate, because…

6. We want you to get good grades.

Seriously. I get really excited when a student who has been struggling all semester starts getting A's. It’s extremely satisfying to look at somebody’s work and feel like I’ve made a difference in how much they know and what they can do. If I am giving you a bad grade, it’s not because I hate you and want to see you fail; it’s because I think you can do better, and I want to see you achieve that. Or, it’s because somebody else worked harder, accomplished more, and I didn’t think it was fair to give them the same grade as you.

Either way, I am on your team. I want to see you succeed almost as much as you want to succeed, and I do not benefit in any way if you don’t. So let me be on your team, and by me, I mean whoever’s giving you grades, whether that’s in continuing ed, grad school, or your freshman comp class. Take responsibility for your own actions, and let me help you when I can. This is not a lesson I learned until well into graduate school, and trust me, I wish I’d known it sooner.