The Connection Shift Part I: Get to Know Faculty, Even (and Especially) If You’re Shy

Some years after I became a college administrator, I invited a good friend, Donna Johnson to lead a workshop for incoming college students with whom I worked at my university. Donna and I served together on the executive board of a national engineering student organization when we were students.

At this point when I extended the invitation, Donna was a practicing chemical engineer but she also had developed a novel learning approach that guaranteed straight A’s if it were followed explicitly. She wrote a book that I highly recommend by the same title. The Guaranteed 4.0 system is widely acclaimed and well known, particularly among progressive engineering colleges with large minority populations and a proactive student affairs administration.

Visit Your Professor Once a Week

While the students resisted some of the steps that were difficult to put into practice, many of her strategies were extremely worthwhile. One step, in particular was her recommendation to visit your professor at least once per week during office hours.

As she made this suggestion during the seminar, I had two immediate reactions. The first was a deep-seeded, visceral one. The thought of going to see a professor on a one-on-one or a one-on-many basis struck fear in me as a student, and that recommendation, even as an adult didn’t sit well. For you see, I am an introvert and a little shy by nature. Introverts draw energy from being alone. When in groups, introverts can be gregarious and engaging as I had learned to be, but the social interactions drain us. These characteristics are the polar opposites of extroverts, who are energized by social interactions. (Susan Cain’s new book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking is an excellent treatment of this subject.) Not only do I by default prefer to be alone, the thought of going to see a professor momentarily raised my anxiety level during the seminar even though I worked side-by-side with faculty as a college administrator. My reaction to Donna’s admonition surprised me, almost as a retroactive emotional response of an adult who encountered something that triggered the memory of a childhood trauma.

Better Relationships with Faculty is Linked to Increased Confidence

After I got over that initial reaction during the seminar, the second thought I had was to reflect on how often I intentionally went to see a professor. The few occasions during my undergraduate years (many more frequently in graduate school) were in courses that I happened to also thoroughly enjoy and in which I did remarkably well. Was it a coincidence that the classes I enjoyed the most and in which I did well were also those in which I got to know the professor well? No.

I remember my large calculus class during the second semester of my freshman year where my professor was also my recitation instructor, so I got to see him five days a week (three days for lecture, and two for recitation). He saw promise in me and suggested that I consider majoring in mathematics. What an endorsement! I felt I could do no wrong in that class and indeed I did extremely well. I ended up majoring in engineering. Still, to this day, when I reflect on that class 30 years later, I have warm thoughts about it, not just because I enjoyed the subject, but because of the special relationship I had with the professor.

In my own research, I discovered that students who were most confident in their academic ability also had strong relationships with faculty. It makes sense that there is a connection between the two, academic confidence and faculty engagement. First, faculty provide you with an important source of self-efficacy (confidence) by way of their judgment of your abilities, good or bad. Hearing an affirming statement about your abilities (“Have you considered graduate school?”, “You write very well.”) from a faculty member boosts your confidence, and makes you want to work harder in the class. I didn’t want to let him down. By building a strong relationship with your faculty outside of class, you increase the likelihood that those affirmative interactions will occur.

Greater Confidence Increases your Boldness

But the correlation I discovered in my research between faculty engagement and confidence could work in the other direction as well. If you are more confident in your ability, you are more likely to ask questions in class or otherwise just approach your professor. If you’re not confident, unless you are confronted like I was in the hallway by my freshman chemistry professor, your natural tendency may be to avoid the professor like the plague because most students are intimidated, at least at first. So the key is to drum up enough confidence to approach your professor the first time. If the interaction goes well, and it usually does, then it makes the second and subsequent approaches much easier.

Over time, you develop a professional relationship with someone who will appreciate your curiosity and reward you with extra readings, research and internship opportunities, or just the benefit of the doubt if you end up on “the bubble” between two grades (for example, an A or a B) while grading your tests or papers. An economics professor during my junior year suggested I apply for the Marshall Scholarship (and that’s only because we missed the deadline to apply for the more prestigious Rhodes Scholarship). Sometimes, a professor may see him or herself in you and become intentional about investing more of their time mentoring you. The best mentors are those that select you!

Set a Goal: Get To Know Well One Professor Each Semester

Harvard Kennedy School Professor Richard Light challenges his freshmen advisees to develop strong relationships with at least one professor each semester, deep enough that he or she could write a detailed and informative recommendation. By the end of the college experience the graduate would have eight faculty members who can write a graduate school recommendation, whether or not they choose to go to graduate school. Knowing you well enough to write a compelling recommendation is a proxy for the strength of your intellectual relationship. Even if you only achieve half of Professor Light’s goal of eight, then with four faculty who know you well, you are still getting a rich college experience.

Tips on Getting to Know Your Professors Better

So, how do you engage your faculty? I answer this question as that introverted person (me) to whom I introduced you, recognizing that for many of you, approaching faculty may not be as easy as it is for others. Here are a few tips:

  • Visit your professor or TA at least once a week.
  • Visit your professor early in the semester, before any work is graded to get acquainted and to get a big-picture view of the course.
  • Bring a friend to meet with the professor if you need a boost of confidence.
  • Before visiting your professor, go with questions in mind and study the professor’s bio to see if you can make a personal connection (i.e., geography, hobby).
  • Utilize his or her scheduled office hours.
  • Sparingly utilize the professor’s “Board time” before or after class to ask quick, clarifying questions while the instructor is preparing the blackboard or whiteboard.
  • Never miss an exam review.
  • Seek opportunities to conduct research with faculty.

Building strong relationships with faculty increase the likelihood of confidence-building affirmative interactions. Don’t shy away. They’re there because you’re there!

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