Attention all college students: Your professors, like all other people on the planet, form impressions about you based upon your behavior. And yes, we may sometimes talk about the worst of you with each other, shaking our heads in disbelief. We may wonder about your ability to become productive working adults and contributing members of society.
But it gives us no greater joy than to see you thrive and to play a small role in helping you succeed.
If, however, you are determined to annoy your professors this academic term, here are a few tips. And just in case you’d like to avoid making yourself look like a donkey’s hind end, I've included a few ideas about how you might want to act instead. By the way, these bits of advice will also serve you well in your interactions with current and future employers, bosses, co-workers, classmates, and others.
I’ve also included my own classroom policies so that any of my students can know exactly where I stand. Fellow professors, feel free to copy, paste, or otherwise claim any of this that might be helpful to you. Or add your comments below. Or disregard this altogether.
So, students, to annoy your professors this semester …
1. Get too casual with them. Address them by their first names without their prior permission or use an incorrect title when communicating with them either in person or in writing. For example, call them “Mr.,” “Ms.,” or “Mrs.” when he or she has a Ph.D. Better yet, just go with “Bob” or “Hey.” This is a fantastic way to get off on the wrong foot with your professors.
To avoid annoying your professors, err on the side of formality instead of informality. If your professor has “Ph.D.” or “Dr.” listed in reference to him or herself on his or her syllabus, website, or other course materials, use “Dr.” In all other cases of doubt, just ask. Your professor will likely find it impressive that you cared enough to find out.
My policy. On the first day of class, I explicitly discuss with students “what you should call me.” They have four choices: Dr. Baran, Professor Baran, Dr. B., or Professor B. I’ve found that this accomplishes two goals. First, it lets them know what’s appropriate. Second, I’ve found that students are more likely to initiate conversations with you if they have an exact script of how to start that conversation.
2. Send them unprofessional e-mails. This one is quite easy to do, and it takes very little time. Simply send your professor an e-mail that (a) lacks an appropriate subject line, (b) has no salutation or refers to him or her in an inappropriately casual way, (c) uses poor grammar, (d), doesn’t completely describe your question or problem, (e) doesn’t include your first and last name at the end after a proper closing, or (f) any combination of the above. To make your e-mail even more annoying, you could send it from your non-university e-mail account that you set up when you were 15, something like “bieberfever” or “ihatehomework” @ whatever.com.
To avoid annoying your professors, repeat after me, “An e-mail is not a text message. An e-mail is not a text message. An e-mail is not a text message.” Good. Knowing that a fundamental difference exists between the two mediums is a start. Use proper grammar, punctuation, and capitalization. Use your university e-mail. That helps them know that you’re actually a student, and they can verify that you’re enrolled in one of their classes. Use their preferred title (see #1 above), followed by a comma. Then, skip a line. Describe your problem or question politely. (NEVER e-mail something that you wouldn’t feel comfortable reading out loud to your professor in person.) Then, skip a line, type “Sincerely” or some other appropriate closing. Under that, type your first and last name.
Here’s an example:
From: firstname.lastname@example.org To: Baran, Benjamin Subject: Meeting availability on Sept. 12
I hope you are well. I understand that your office hours this semester are on Wednesdays from noon to 4 p.m. Unfortunately, I am scheduled to work during that time, and I have a few questions about the class.
Would you possibly be available in the morning on Thursday, Sept. 12? If not, perhaps there is another time that would work for you.
Thank you very much.
Sincerely, Jane Student
My policy. Here’s what I include in my syllabi, under the heading of “communication.” I also discuss this during the first day of class.
Your e-mails should include a subject in the subject line, a salutation (either Dr. Baran, Professor Baran, Dr. B., or Professor B.), then you should describe your question or problem completely, and you should sign your e-mail with your first and last name after an appropriate closing (such as “sincerely”). If you send me an e-mail that is not in this format, I will likely respond and request that you use proper e-mail etiquette as listed in the syllabus.
Like many of the points listed here, I describe the reason behind my policy, which is something like this: “I want you to make excellent first impressions with everyone you meet in a professional context. So we’re going to practice that in this class.” I teach in a college of business, but I think this idea applies broadly.
3. Play with your phone in class. You can do this either in the open, with your phone and hands above your desk or you can do it below the desk while staring at your crotch. Either way, your professor WILL notice. And he or she will most certainly be annoyed. You could even simply answer your phone or let it announce its presence with your catchy pop-song ringtone for a while. That’ll do the trick as well.
To avoid annoying your professors, pretend that you’re in a very important business meeting. Put your phone on silent or turn it off. Put it in your pocket, purse, or backpack so that you’re not tempted to play with it. If you have a bona fide need to monitor your personal electronic device—for example, a family member about to give birth or die—discuss this with your professor after the first day of class.
My policy. I include the following in my syllabi: “Be courteous. Please DO NOT use your cell phone during class (including text messaging and e-mail). If you use a laptop computer during class, use it appropriately (e.g., don’t go on Facebook, etc.).” I also discuss this policy during the first few class meetings. If a student violates this policy during class, I stop talking and stare at him or her until the behavior ceases.
4. Talk and giggle with your classmates during their lectures. Your professors probably won’t mind if you quickly and quietly ask a classmate for a pen. So to annoy them properly, you need to get a conversation going. You could even combine this tip with #3 above and pass your phone back and forth. That way, you can both share the hilarity of whatever inappropriate photo you saw on Facebook. And don’t worry, even if you stop your giggling and talking when your professor looks directly at you, he or she probably already noticed it and is annoyed.
To avoid annoying your professors, show some respect by paying attention and being quiet. Save your conversations with classmates for appropriate times in the class, during breaks, or outside of class entirely.
My policy. In my syllabi, I include the following in the “expectations of class members” section: “I expect all students to show respect and consideration for the instructor and other students. This course focuses on class discussion and participation. The ability to show respect and consideration is essential to creating an effective learning environment.” We then talk about what that means during the first class. If someone is being disruptive, I pause and stare at them. If it happens more than twice, I call them out in class and tell them something along the lines of “I need you to please stop talking to each other as it’s distracting to me, and it’s probably distracting to other students. Thank you.”
5. Ask them for special treatment and cite everything other than you as the cause of your woe. Sometime around the end of the academic term, tell them that you need extra time to complete the course project because you have _________ (fill in the blank with “lots of other classes,” “a full-time job,” “an undiagnosed disorder,” or some other excuse). Or tell them that for you the rules of mathematical rounding should be magically suspended to elevate your grade to the next higher level. Claim that the exam has “trick questions,” which is why you performed poorly. It couldn’t have anything to do with the fact that you never came to class and didn’t study, of course. In general, approach your professors with the belief that you are entitled to special treatment—exceptions to the rules of the syllabus, the college, and the universe. Use your imagination! After all, you are … YOU. And you’re very special.
To avoid annoying your professors, don’t ask your professors to change the rules or make exceptions for you. The only exception to this rule might be if some truly extraordinary, unexpected event happens in your life. In that case, try to have some documentation to back your story and discuss it with your professor as soon as possible. Don’t wait. And keep your options open—your professor may not have the same solution in mind as you do.
My policy. I list the following in my syllabi and discuss it—along with related issues of student responsibilities and expectations—in class:
Being able to meet deadlines is essential to your success in your career and life. The class schedule identifies the last date that assignments will be accepted. No late work will be accepted and a zero will be assigned. All assignments are due on the assigned date and time listed on the course schedule. Anything after the due date/time (even just 1 minute) will be considered late and will not be accepted without complete, verifiable, written documentation of the extraordinary event that justifies (in my judgment) why you were late. Circumstances that potentially meet these criteria include your own prolonged hospitalization or the death of an immediate family member.
Amazingly, discussing these issues openly at the beginning of the academic term has not only decreased requests for special treatment, but it also has dramatically reduced the numbers of grandmothers, second cousins, and other distant relatives of my students who have “died” around the dates of final exams.
6. Ask for a letter of recommendation when they hardly know you—or when they know you because you’re a terrible student. This one may take some bravery on your part, but it’s a wonderful way to annoy your professors. To do it right, skip class frequently, earn about a “D+” average on exams, and avoid participation in class at all costs. Then, send your professor an inappropriate e-mail (see #1 above) and demand for a letter of recommendation to be delivered to you in less than 24 hours.
To avoid annoying your professors, only ask for letters of recommendation from professors who know you well. Ideally, earn a high grade in their class. And being a good class participant can’t hurt either. If you’ve accomplished these steps, notify your professor at least four weeks prior to the due date for the letter and provide as many details about the letter requirements as possible.
My policy. Although I don’t currently have a policy about letters of recommendation in my syllabi, I’m considering including one in the future. When approached by students, I typically tell them that I normally only do letters of recommendation for students whom I’ve had for more than one class or otherwise have gotten to know well. I will often require the student to meet with me privately to discuss the letter and its purpose. In addition, asking for the student’s résumé can help in the process.
7. Tell them that you really need a certain grade. Directly after the first class or during the professor’s first office hours, explain to him or her how you will absolutely need an “A” in this class in order to get into graduate school, maintain athletic eligibility, or some other reason. He or she will love to hear this.
To avoid annoying your professors, realize that you’ll get the grade that you earn. Don’t talk about grades with your professors unless there’s some confusion or you think there was a mistake of some kind. Work hard in the class.
My policy. You will get the grade you earn. Period.
8. Don’t read their syllabi. The syllabus is full of all kinds of helpful information for you regarding the class. Professors often spend quite a bit of time ensuring it’s accurate and trying to make it useful. But if you ignore it, you can annoy your professors by asking them all kinds of questions to which the syllabus has the answers. Ask these questions in class, in the hallway, during office hours, via e-mail, or by phone. It’s up to you!
To avoid annoying your professors, read the syllabus. Then read it again. Then, if you have questions about the class, check the syllabus to see if it has the answer. It probably does.
My policy. I review the syllabus thoroughly during the first class period. I also create a graded quiz for online classes that require students to dig answers out of the syllabus. That way, there’s at least some level of common understanding at the beginning of the course. When students ask questions that clearly could have been answered by reviewing the syllabus, I politely invite them to read it again. If questions still remain, I gladly answer them.
9. Show up late or leave early without an explanation. Here’s another easy one—just waltz in or waltz out of the classroom after the class starts or before it’s adjourned. Make some noise with your bag and kick your chair a few times for effect. And start talking on the phone during your transit.
To avoid annoying your professors, arrive five minutes prior to the start of class. Don’t leave until the class is clearly finished. And don’t start packing your things early either.
My policy. I make a promise with all of my classes that I will always start right on time and that the class will always end at or before the time it’s supposed to end. I am unwavering in my commitment to this principle. In return, I request that students respect everyone else in the class by showing up on time and waiting until it’s concluded to leave.
10. Don’t participate in class discussions at all, or dominate all discussions. For this one, you can choose one of two extremes. On one end, you can choose to give your entire class the silent treatment. Just sit there. Say nothing. On the other end of the spectrum, you can raise your hand every two minutes, blurt out your thoughts to every question posed to the class, or pontificate at length about every issue. Either way, you’ll be sure to annoy your professor.
To avoid annoying your professors, participate in class by asking questions, volunteering your thoughts, and offering your perspective. But if you find that you’re talking significantly more than everyone else in the class, that’s probably not a good thing. Let someone else share the “stage” for a minute. This is a fine balance, but it’s one that will serve you well in group interactions of all types throughout your life.
My policy. Mutual respect is a fundamental principle in my classrooms. We talk about what that means with regard to class participation, and we discuss the two extremes. Somewhere in the middle, for most students, is just about right.
In addition to the points listed above, numerous other methods surely exist for annoying your professors. But with some effort and attention to detail, these 10 ways should help you immensely in becoming “that student,” dreaded and talked about by professors across campus. Or, if you prefer, you can avoid these common pitfalls and develop inspiring, developmental relationships with your professors. Either way, you’re in the driver’s seat.
And maybe realizing that is half the battle.