Before my English professor launched into his lecture on the first day of class last September, he stepped back from the podium and said, “Look, guys. You’re not as far apart from your professors as you think. When we’re talking with you, we feel a lot closer to you in age than you realize.” He encouraged us to drop into his office any time and to call him Bill. Or Billy, if we felt so inclined.
Yeah, right, I thought. Just because you wear blue jeans to class and are hip enough to spend a whole lecture analyzing the sex scenes in D.H. Lawrence doesn’t mean I’ll ever get up the nerve to stop by your office hours for chitchat. And as to your name, I think I’ll stick to Professor Long-Unpronounceable-Eastern-European-Surname, thank you.
I’m sure there are kids in my class who do call him Bill. I imagine they swing by his office hours every week and exchange high-fives.
Actually, I’m not sure how English types greet each other. Maybe they pull their dog-eared Milton paperbacks out of their back pockets and delicately slap them together, then sit down for an hour of sparkling but relaxed conversation.
These are the same kids who hang around at the end of Master’s Teas to charm famous guests with perceptive questions while the rest of us steal a pocketful of biscotti from the snack table and slink off. These are the kids you see walking in late to your seminar — laughing and talking with the professor. When they graduate, these kids will have more than a folder stuffed with glowing recommendation letters — they’ll have real relationships with some of the most accomplished and interesting university personalities in the world.
Then again, there’s nothing wrong with being one of the anonymous rabble that never exchanges a personal word with the professor the entire semester. Who could blame us? Yale professors are famously unapproachable, what with their intimidating laser pointers, their fleets of TA toadies, and the way they insist on wearing spiked Kaiser helmets and monocles to class.
I miss the days when teachers wore necklaces bejeweled with miniature wooden apples and chalkboards and babysat the class pet guinea pig over the holidays. Now our teachers wear suits and ties, have bibliographies the length of small-town phone directories, and lecture at “symposia” and “round-table discussions” in newly remodeled stadium-seating classrooms in the Law School.
It’s easy to find yourself asking: Does my SAT score really qualify me to talk to this person?
The ability to get to know a professor beyond the classroom is an enviable talent. Like whistling through your front teeth or making a good omelet, it may not be an essential survival skill — but you are better off if you know how.
I’m not talking about learning to be a better sycophant. The real skill is getting over your own insecurities and learning how to talk to professors as human beings, not academic deities.
When you stop by during office hours, you have to prove yourself. The pressure is especially high if you know the professor only by taking his lecture class, where you’re one of a sea of dozing faces. Here in his office, your first seven words will forever brand you Genius Pupil or Idiot.
Better start drafting those talking points. Tuck in your shirt and get that flake of broccoli calzone out from between your front teeth, you fool.
It can be easy to forget that no matter how stupid your questions are — or even if you have no questions at all and just want to talk — you’re not wasting a professor’s time. Yale hires them to be here for students. It is their job to write us recommendations, give us advice on life after Yale, and be there for every question — brilliant or brainless, on-subject or random.
Overcoming fear of the famous professor doesn’t have to be so hard. Remember that even the grayest, wisest, most published Sterling professor emeritus was once a lowly teaching assistant. He was once skinny and wore a trendy black turtleneck and gel in his hair. Instead of delivering heart-pounding lectures, he was once nervously asking his section, “So, um, what did everyone think of the book?”
Or you can follow the traditional advice and imagine your professor naked, but I think my suggestion is more comforting, less horrifying, and less likely to lead to inappropriate doodling on your midterm.
Professors can help mitigate their intimidating facades by wearing Hawaiian shirts and flip-flops, at least during office hours. And why do they have to call it “office hours” anyway? That sounds so formal. How about “groove time with Professor Jones” or “hour of talking about, like, you know, whatever”?
But you only get comfortable with something by doing it. Every course should mandate at least two one-on-one office hour meetings per student so that we’re forced to get acquainted with our professors, at least for 20 minutes. Maybe professors could start off each course with a short biography of themselves — to give us something to talk about besides German expressionism and the sublime.
We got into Yale because admissions officers were convinced we are the kind of kids who will take advantage of this university’s incredible resources — resources besides the elevator at Payne Whitney gym or the library’s paging service. Get to know the men and women behind the podium.
It’s good to see you, Professor Bill. Let’s rap.
Molly Worthen is a senior in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column appears regularly on alternate Wednesdays.