Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Richardson's Rules of Order, Part IIIc: Appropriate Behavior in College Classrooms

Heather Cox Richardson

Heather Cox Richardson follows up earlier posts with more advice to undergrad history majors. See previous posts below for more Richardson's Rules of Order.


Address your professors formally—“Dear Professor Liu,”—unless they tell you to do otherwise. Keep your messages short, unless the professor has indicated that s/he is willing to have longer discussions over email (I am, by the way). While email messages are more relaxed than other forms of communication, don’t use “Yo,” or baby talk, IM abbreviations, or inappropriate slang. The informality of email doesn’t mean you should write to your instructor as if s/he was a roommate.

It is not appropriate for your parents to make requests on your behalf over email.

Everyone writes messages in anger or frustration that should never be sent. If you have written such a message, store it in your “drafts” folder for at least a day before you hit the “send” button. Then reread it and reconsider whether or not it is appropriate. You will save yourself considerable embarrassment.

If a professor emails you about something, answer.


Do not sit quietly all semester in conditions that make it impossible for you to learn. If you cannot hear when you sit in the front of the classroom, tell the professor. If the room is too dark for you to take notes, speak up. If there is someone in the class of whom you are afraid or with whom you cannot work on a team for personal reasons, tell the professor. If you cannot understand the TA’s accent, tell the professor. All of these situations can be remedied. Do not stop coming to class and then try to justify a failing grade at the end of the semester by complaining of poor conditions.

If your problem with the class is more substantive, consider first whether there is anything you can do to remedy it. Are you unable to finish the reading? Ask yourself first whether or not the amount of reading is appropriate. For a college history course 100-400 pages a week is reasonable. If the professor is assigning 2,000 pages per week, there is a problem with the course. But if s\he is assigning fewer than 300 pages, the problem is yours. Do you need to budget more time to read? That’s your problem. Perhaps, though, what you need is more guidance about how to read for a history class. In that case, go to the teacher and lay out the problem: “I can’t seem to make it through the reading and I know it’s not an inappropriately large amount. Can you help me figure out how to get through it more efficiently?”

Do not try to tell the professor that you know how to teach the class better than s/he does. “I’ve never heard of a class that assigns 300 pages a week!” is going to get you nowhere. Similarly, complaints that “this course goes too fast,” or “you cover too much material,” are only going to work if it is the first time the professor has taught the class. If it has been taught before and gotten positive reviews, it’s unlikely that your complaint is going to sound like anything other than whining. That being said, if you are an obviously good student who is involved in the class, and you tell a professor that a specific point wasn’t clear or was rushed, s/he will probably thank you for the feedback and remedy the problem.

Do not try to make your point by claiming that students in another section of the class don’t have to do such work, unless it is absolutely certain that a TA is acting in ways of which the professor has no knowledge, simply canceling class and telling the students s/he’ll give them all “A”s if they keep quiet, for example; or showing an established pattern of discriminatory statements in class. Professors supervise their TAs, and most have an excellent sense of what is going on in a section. “My roommate is in another section and her TA gave out all the exam questions!” isn’t going to fly without hard evidence.

See other Richardson's Rules of Order

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