Tuesday, 12 February 2013

Annoyance Avoidance

It comes as no surprise that (according to my unscientific poll) the two most-disliked questions that students ask professors are:

Did I miss anything (important)? and Is this going to be on the test? (and variation thereof)

And yet, clearly students want to know the answers to these questions. Is there a way for students to get the desired information and avoid annoying their instructor?

Probably not. At least, not without doing a bit of work first.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I highly recommend that students take whatever steps they possibly can to answer the first question on their own, and then approach their instructor with specific questions about the material. If a student comes to me and says "I missed class last Tuesday but I have read the relevant chapter in the textbook, looked at the review material you posted online, and read [my classmate's] notes that s/he took in class that day, and I just have a few questions..", I am totally happy to answer those questions.

For question #2 and its ilk ("Do we need to know...?"), a similar approach of asking specific questions about course material may be the way to go; that is, by asking substantive questions that show some thought. I realize that is not the same as asking whether something is on a test, but I think that a thoughtful approach to question-asking might result, in some cases, in the gleaning of information such as "I don't expect you to know that particular topic in that much detail" or "Yes, that's an extremely important topic". But again, some work (by the student) is required to get to that type of conversation.

As I was reading the comments and assembling the polls, it occurred to me that some of the items listed used to bother me more than they do now. Am I mellowing with age? In particular, I don't mind the "Is this going to be on the test?" question as much as I used to. It is a familiar and routine part of the teaching experience, and I am happy to roll with it and give a sincere answer, particularly to intro-level students (less so with majors). However, I have not yet achieved a happy coexistence with the first question, perhaps because that one bruises my delicate professorial ego and the second question does not.

In terms of the other items in the List of Annoyances, it is clear that the issue of greetings in e-mails and in person is a minefield. I think it would be very useful if new-student orientations provided guidance on this, as there is huge variation from institution to institution. There is also variation within institutions and we can't expect our intro-course (non-major) students to know the culture of our department/unit. It is probably a good idea, therefore, if students start with the most formal mode of greeting ("Dear Professor X" in e-mail; "Professor X" in conversation) and see if they can pick up on any clues whether it is OK to be more informal. It is probably always a bad idea to refer to men as "Professor" and women as "Mrs/Ms/Miss/firstname" by default.

Professors can also help with this: In the first day of class in my intro-level courses, I specifically discuss the topic of how I want to be addressed.

But now I would like to explore this topic of mellowing-with-age a bit more, not with a poll but just with a request for comments. If you have been teaching for at least a few years: as you survey the list of Annoying Questions (and maybe others not listed), think about whether your feelings about these questions have changed with time. This question does not apply to anyone who has never been annoyed by any of these questions, ever, but for the rest of us: has your annoyance level (whatever that is) decreased, increased, or stayed the same with time?

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