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Advice for newby professors

Posted by Robin Abrahams  August 11, 2008 07:04 AM

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As the run-up to the school year begins, professors everywhere are preparing their syllabi. If you're a new--or even not-so-new--professor, here are a few rules I always included that made classroom management much easier.

1. I do not accept calls, e-mails, or office visits during 24 hours before an exam or paper/project is due. I was a very accessible professor and more than willing to review material with students, look at first drafts of papers, and the like. But I discovered that if I didn't impose a lockdown the day before exams or due dates, students would e-mail me questions at 1 in the morning and then stay up all night expecting to hear from me. Going incommunicado for a day before forced the students to organize their time better, and communicated my boundaries to them clearly.

2. Don't come to office hours empty-handed. Students had to bring their notes if they wanted to review material, or a draft or outline if they wanted to talk about their own projects with me. For one thing, I wanted evidence that they'd done some work, at least, in grappling with the material, and weren't just coming in like a blank slate for me to write on. And for another, it can be hard to talk about anything--especially someone else's writing--in purely hypothetical terms. Much better for you to sit down together over an outline to ensure that you are, literally, on the same page. (Obviously this rule didn't apply if students just wanted to stop by to chat, or discuss post-college plans.)

3. E-mail is considered professional communication and will be assessed as such when calculating your grade. Bad e-mail manners prejudiced me against students, so I figured I may as well alert them to that fact. Plus, learning how to communicate appropriately via e-mail would be important to them in their future careers. You do not send an e-mail to your boss that reads, "Plz explain taht thing u said in teh staff meeting beettr? It wasnt clear. thxbye."

4. Act like you care. Yes, I put this down as an actual grade requirement, right up there with exams and papers and projects. Because, let's face it, it is a grade requirement. Just like it's a job or relationship or overall life requirement. Putting it on the syllabus just made it explicit. I was careful to tell them that they didn't actually have to care--I have no interest in controlling their minds. They were free to be completely bored by the class; there are many worthwhile things in the world that I find boring, too. But when in class or any dealings with me, they had to be attentive, prompt, responsive, and demonstrate a desire for mastery and a pleasant countenance. Which like good e-mail etiquette, preparing for meetings, and giving people adequate advance time, are skills that would do them well in the workplace, too.

The first time I put that on the syllabus I thought students would be irritated by it, but as it turned out I think they were both relieved and amused that someone finally came straight out and said it.

The Angry Professor has an interesting post about her grading system--the formula she gives her students for how grades will be calculated (95-100 = A, 90-94 = A-, and so on) is a couple of points lower than the actual computation she uses. I've never done that, but she makes a good case for it, albeit somewhat sarcastically:

So suppose you tell the students they need 91% or better for an A, 81% or better for a B, etc. It is important to maintain this fiction throughout the quarter/semester. If the student shows up during your office hours and asks you how well he is doing (and you feel so inclined), compute his grade, make a big show of pulling out the syllabus and looking up the scale, and tell him that you're very sorry but it looks like, with a 70% going into the final, you see no way that he could do better than a C as a final grade, and only then if he works very hard and aces the final. The student will leave in tears, and sit in the front row staring at you with puppy-dog eyes for the remaining two days of class.

When it comes time for determining final grades, toss that syllabus in the trash. Pull out your double-super-secret scale which differs from the syllabus in that the grade boundaries are at least a point or two below the boundaries in the syllabus. Puppy-dog eyes, who studied his ass off and aced the final, gets a B-! Imagine how happy he is!

But here's the best part: Suppose your cutoff for a D- is 57, and Lori Loser finishes up with a 56.99. Guess what she gets? An F. You don't have to agonize about it and she doesn't ever know that she was only .01 percentage points from a D-. A computer can assign the final grades for you and you can walk away without wasting precious minutes of your life struggling with the decision to bump her up or not.

College teachers and students, what classroom practices have you found to be especially helpful? (I'll be soliciting comments from elementary, middle-, and high-school teachers, parents, and students for a big "Back to School" feature in the first week of September, so your time will come--or you can e-mail me if there's something you want to get off your chest right now.)

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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6 comments so far...
  1. I always included a list of criteria that had to be met before I would consider writing a letter of recommendation. Mine were about: the minimum grade (A-); the maximum time that could elapse after the end of the class (6 months unless it was an update of an already written letter); the type of interactions (personal enough that I could include very specific examples to illustrate their wonderfulness); and maybe one or two others I'm now forgetting. I included in each criterion a careful explanation of why I would be unable to write a helpful letter if that criterion was not met. I also had them write their own essay describing what they were most proud of about their performance in my class, which gave me a nice place to start on the writing of the individualized comments ("She is justifiably proud of ...").

    Posted by AGSG August 11, 08 10:43 AM
  1. I was permitting students to email their assignments to me. The problem is that I still printed them out to grade them. When you have 30 students in a class and 20 email their assignments then you have 20 assignments to print and 20 emails to send a "I got it" response to. Now I tell students that an assignment or paper that is sent via email is automatically treated as a late assignment. Putting this on the syllabus has saved me a lot of time. For first draft papers I have students save electronic copies to a folder that they have set up for them on a network drive and I do electronic comments. The students prefer that to my handwritten comments (maybe they are trying to tell me something about my handwriting?).

    Posted by Lisa August 11, 08 02:21 PM
  1. Honestly, the most helpful thing I've found is when professors put everything on Electronic Reserve or weren't picky about which edition of the text you bought. Seriously, I just spent 160 dollars on THREE books....for 2 classes. And I have 2 more classes to buy books for.

    I also liked the psych professors who had a cognitive background, their grades always added up to more than 100% because they recognized that not everyone learns the same way and not everyone can be tested in the same way.

    Robin says: Yes, I ALWAYS tried to reduce textbook cost for students when I taught! The price of textbooks is outrageous, and most of them are not of a quality that justifies it.

    Posted by Veronica August 11, 08 02:27 PM
  1. One more thing, if a professor is going to make the class buy books he/she has written, the books better be award-winning and the best ever in the field. Other than that, students are just reading the same opinions/theories that get lectured in class without any alternative or opposing viewpoint. I once had a political science professor have my class buy 2 or 3 books written by him....

    Posted by Veronica August 11, 08 11:00 PM
  1. Thanks for the link to Angry Professor's posting. But now you've really touched a nerve -- or perhaps I'm just hyperventillating at the thought of facing the student hordes after a sabbatical traveling (I like everything about teaching except grading, really). During the first 7-10 years of teaching, the worst part of my year was the first weeks of January when about 15% of a 100-person class would come to argue about why a higher grade was deserved. I remember in the early 1990s changing a grade simply because I reasoned, "Who am I to dictate that Nazhin has to go back to Iran and submit to an arranged marriage?"

    Ten years later I'm unmoved by such arguments -- loss of financial aid, parents will kill them, my tests were unfair, they studied so hard, whatever, its just not my problem.

    Sometimes I ask students: what percent of the class should get an A or an A-? They suspect a trick is coming and get nervous, and refuse to say. But they're in my office demanding an A, so I require them to tell me. (I won't accept "you can't decide a percent, 100% should get an A if their work deserves it.) So the student may say, 50% of the class should get an A. And they I tell them (honestly), that I would have to give 70% (or whatever it is in their case) of the class an A in order to give them one.

    Or: they say, "35% of the class should get an A." And I say, good guess, because 35% of this class got an A (that is my typical A rate). But you're not in the top 35%.

    Over the last decade, two things vastly reduced grade-complaint hell week. I figured out Angry Prof's technique ...AND with the internet, students can see their grade broken down on a point system (because we have web sites like courseinfo). In the past, students came to my office to find out how their final grade had been calculated. So imagine the student who is upset because she received a B+. She goes to the websites and sees all the points she .earned during the semester and calculates that her grade is ....oops, only a B! So she can't very easily complain because I might figure out that her B+ is a mistake!

    I call that: Professors Strike Back!

    Posted by Traveling Psychologist / Professor August 11, 08 11:31 PM
  1. A lot of this post touched a nerve for me, which has to do with the fact that not all students' brains work the same.
    Basically, as I read each point they all make sense on the surface, and I totally understand them from the professor's point of view. I especially like the idea of realizing that something is affecting your impression of students anyway, so you might as well make it explicit (this pleases my not-very-good-at-reading-people/between-the-lines brain very much).
    Yet each one set off alarm bells all over the place about how they would impact a student with learning disabilities and/or mental illness such as depression. While I would hope that every professor would try to be aware of these issues and be willing to cooperate with academic accommodations requested through appropriate official channels, the sad and frustrating truth is that this is not always the case. So I just feel the need to say: please try to remember that sometimes there is more going on than you might realize.

    One student's not caring may be another's depression. One student's annoying last minute badgering may be another's truly paralyzing inability to complete their paper without knowing exactly what was meant by a particular sentence in the assignment, that yes, they just noticed could be read three different ways, even though, yes, they've read the sheet ten times already. One student's "haven't touched pen-to-paper nor finger-to-keyboard 'cuz I didn't feel like it" may be another student's "really, truly cannot figure out how to phrase the many, many thoughts whirling around in my head like a tornado until I've had an interactive conversation with someone who knows where I'm trying to go with it."

    I realize posts like this by their nature focus on generalities, I just felt the need to put this out there.

    Posted by monkey August 12, 08 03:03 PM
About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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