The Person at the Front of the Room

I was sweating. I ran from one class to the next, and I was significantly tired from staying up the night before. I was working on an assignment that was due in a week’s time, and the other assignments from other classes were due around the same time. I was completely overwhelmed, and that probably explained away half of the sweat that spilled on my brow.

I got into class, threw my bag onto the floor, and settled in, wiping my brow. My professor walked in, ready to go to work. He was a nice enough person, we had conversations outside of class, he was friendly, but boy was he stern. The stern part of it was part bluntness (“You should have thought about that earlier!”) and part was his unrelenting drive for us to be bigger and better young people (“Come on, think! You have a brain!”). I lived in fear in that class because I so desperately did not want to get berated by him, and I also didn’t want to have him regard me as someone trying to get by. I wanted to do well in his course, and I wanted to get recognition for my efforts in the meanwhile. He was someone prominent in the field and in his department, and, course, in the minds of his students.

He began to lecture, and I as I cracked open my notebook to get to writing, I started thinking to myself, “Hey, maybe I can ask him for an extension on my project.” And immediately, I stopped. I rationalized to myself, “No, he might chide me in front of the class, and everyone will think I’m slippin’. I should just knock it out.”

This conversation repeated itself relentlessly for the remainder of the 3 hours of my seminar. I worded it and reworded it. No, sounds too sappy. No, sounds too angry/direct. Nope, sounds too passive. Need more conviction. I was exhausted at the end, taking notes and practicing my request, but I had finally convinced myself that it was time to ask. He wrapped up class, and I packed up my stuff quickly in order to make sure I caught him before he walked out the door. I started to sweat and get nervous again. Come hell or high water, it was time to find out if I could have a few extra days (or even hours would have helped) to make this project the right way it should be.

“Professor, is there any way I can get an extension on the project? I can have it done by next week.”

Deep breath.


“Okay, thanks. It’ll be ready for the deadline.”

Surprisingly, it didn’t come to mind to be extremely upset after walking up to him and asking. If anything, I was completely relieved to ask the question and get the answer. Now I knew where I stood, and I can move forward.

Need I mention I was in grad school at the time?

The reason I write this today is because I have students who are absolutely terrified to talk to their faculty members. Truth is, culturally, this is something rampant – that students don’t want to talk to faculty because of the perceptions they have of the faculty member as well as the fear that they will get shut down.

Wayne Gretzky said it best: “100 percents of the shots you don’t take don’t go in.”

Yes, I was shut down. BUT the point is that I asked. If you never ask, you’ll never know. I want to encourage students to be brave and ask – not necessarily for extensions to projects only, but to ask:

  1. What I can do to improve my learning in the course?
  2. I struggled to learn this part of the book – can you please walk me through it again?
  3. I got a poor grade on this paper – I would like to improve for future assignments, so what do you recommend?
  4. I really enjoy this class – can you recommend further reading? (hey, don’t laugh…sometimes people feel this way and that’s great!).

See, the person at the front of the room isn’t your adversary – they’re there to help you learn and introduce new topics and check your learning on those new topics, hence tests and papers. Learning how to approach faculty, I feel, is one of the top three things you will learn in college. In turn, this will help you learn how to talk to supervisors/bosses, graduate school professors, your students, supervisees, etc. This is an important skill.

So here’s my quick fast and dirty hints for talking to your professors:

  1. At the beginning of the semester, go and meet your faculty member. You will not have any grades to show for it, so there’s no stress for your meeting. Go during their office hours and say hello. Introduce yourself and tell the faculty a little about yourself, and, if you’ve pre-read the syllabus and some of the intro material, ask good questions.
  2. If you completely skipped #1 (WHY!), then go into a meeting with a professor prepared. Make a list of your questions. Put them in order of how you want them asked. DO NOT BE ASHAMED OF YOUR QUESTIONS. You have questions, ask them. You know who’s responsible for grading you? Your faculty member. They hold the key, so you should ask questions of them. It’s expected that students will have questions, so please by all means, ask away.
  3. Be concise in your questions. There is little time to dance around when there’s a line of people waiting to ask the same question. If you are going to ask for an extension, explain why you need an extension. Make it a good reason, and NO lagging does not count as a good reason.
  4. There’s no shame in “I don’t know, so can you help me understand this” and summarizing what you know about the situation. There is shame, however, in “I didn’t do the reading so I don’t get it, so tell me what I need to know.”
  5. Building a relationship with your faculty member is not only crucial to your success as a student, it’s crucial to your future. You may at some point require a letter of recommendation, and the better you know your faculty, the better they know you. Bam, better letter of rec. Don’t do it to schmooze. Do it to be a better student and to build a relationship.

Fast forward to a couple of years later, and I’m the person at the front of the room. I want students to ask me questions. To visit me during my office hours. To be inquisitive and try to learn more by dialoguing with me. It doesn’t take much to approach me, but it will take are the brave little steps you make along the way. I know that sometimes I can be intimidating – that as a teacher, people put me on a different pedestal. However, if you took the time to get to know me, and, in turn, get to know your professors, you’d learn that we are regular people.

Be brave. And ask.


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