Heather Cox Richardson
Please remember that your professors are human and it’s hard work to stand in front of a hundred pairs of eyes and talk for an hour. In the last decade, students seem more and more to regard us as if we’re behind a screen, and seem to think they can talk, read, sleep, or just stare at us glassy-eyed without it having any effect on our performance. This is a shared enterprise. It’s hard to lecture to an apparently disinterested sea of eyes. If you don’t think a lecture hall is intimidating, take a minute after class some day to stand behind the podium and look at all those seats. Then imagine holding the attention of everyone in those seats for an hour, two days a week. Wouldn’t it be easier if the people there seemed interested? You don’t have to act like you’re watching U2, but do try to make it clear your heart hasn’t actually stopped beating.
Please don’t let the anonymity of a large classroom make you feel like you can use an evaluation form to be vicious. While you can walk away from that form, remember that your teacher is going to live with whatever you say on it for the rest of his or her career. Your bile, spilled on a page, can devastate a junior professor, while even older scholars would rather not have the chair, the members of the personnel committee, and the dean (all of whom read our evaluations), read commentary on our personal attractiveness, our choice in clothing, or on what professions would suit us better. Criticize when it’s appropriate, yes, but do so constructively. It doesn’t hurt to mention things that have gone particularly well, too.
Remember that for many history professors their university jobs dictate that only about a third of time and energy should go into teaching (although it always takes way more time and effort than that!). We have significant responsibilities outside of the classroom. We’re supposed to sit on the committees that keep the university running, as well as to manage national and international scholarly and educational projects. In addition to teaching and what is called “service,” we’re also supposed to maintain a prominent profile as scholars and writers. These three parts of our professional lives mean that we are usually trying to manage three different kinds of schedules, as well as three different kinds of work, all of which take place in widely different locations and settings. If we cannot meet you at a time you think is convenient, it is not because we’re being jerks, but because, for example, we have to be in another city that week to help evaluate a university. We will try to make things convenient for you, but please do remember that we have other professional commitments.
Finally, you might want to Google your professors to see what they do outside the classroom. You will probably see that your school has an extraordinary faculty. You might find that your school has national leaders in nanotechnology and sports medicine; or Pulitzer Prize winners and consultants to the State Department. Go meet these people, talk to them, work with them. When an extraordinarily famous professor agreed to work with a friend of ours on her undergraduate thesis, we were shocked. “How did you get HIM?” we demanded. “I just went and asked,” she answered. “He says no one ever asks him to do anything anymore because he’s too famous, and he misses students.” A professor can’t work with every one who asks, but it’s certainly worth talking to someone whose work you admire.