Understanding Your Professor

Picture the black-and-white Disney movie starring Fred MacMurray: The old absent-minded professor, beloved inventor of Flubber, wearing a shabby cardigan and dreaming up endless new, amusing contraptions in his garage out behind the house.

Or, picture the old MGM movie of your choice, featuring the classic professor—also beloved, he's easy to spot, with his horn-rimmed glasses and tweed jacket with the leather patches at the elbows. He's rather fussy, graying at the temples, and his favorite thing to do is hang out in his book-lined study (in coat and tie, of course), absorbed in The Origin of Species or some other light reading, as the grandfather clock slowly ticks the evening away.

Now get out the big magnet and erase this videotape. Today's professors defy typecasting. They may wear tweed jackets or spandex biking shorts. Their personalities may run the gamut from austere ("should have joined the family mortuary business") to fried ("the sixties were so cool") to wacky ("star of the karaoke lounge at the Ramada Inn on highway 50"). They may have Ollie North military buzz cuts, Richard Simmons perms, Shirley MacLaine pixie bangs, Gilligan bowl cuts, or Michael Jackson—well, that strings-over-the-face thing that he does. But there is one thing professors do have in common: They've all worked hard to win their position on the faculty.

You're probably going to respect most of your professors; some of them you may even adore and look back on one day with great nostalgia. A few of them, for one reason or another, you may come to dread.

But keep your eye on the ball; remember what you're here for. Your main concern shouldn't be whether you like the professor, but whether you can learn from him or her. Here's something you might hear: "Well, yes, I did get a D in calculus. I just didn't like my teacher." That is so feeble! Instead of a plausible explanation, it sounds more like a lame excuse coming from a whiny brat who bombed the course because he or she either couldn't cut it or just didn't try hard enough. You probably don't want (we hope!) to sound like that.

We actually witnessed the following scene: Chad's mother was at a family reunion when the subject of college grades came up. Some of her sisters and cousins bragged about their children's grades; but Chad's mother, who had absolutely no reason to brag on this subject, tried to put the best face on her son's dismal academic record. "Chad's so smart," she began. Family members sighed and rolled their eyes; they had heard about Chad's "brilliance" ad nauseam for the last seventeen years. "He just refuses to apply himself in a class unless he respects the professor," she insisted. "If he has no respect for the teacher, he won't lift a finger."

Is this something to brag about? That Chad is some misunderstood genius and not, in fact, just a misfit of barely mediocre intelligence who acts obnoxious and superior to camouflage what is probably a staggering inferiority complex? We think not.

Our point here is this: Your work in college will be easier and far more pleasant if you and your professors get along. Therefore, it's a wise move on your part, and good personal politics, to find out something about this diverse group of men and women you're going to be dealing with for the next four years.

Hierarchy

There's a hierarchy in academics, just like there is in the military. You can get a big clue as to the status of your professor in the college pecking order—length of service, scholarly and professional achievement—by his or her rank (it should be in the course catalog; it also could be in the school phone book).

On the lowest rung, like military privates, are instructors or lecturers (translation: no job security, a temporary position at best, they need to move up the ladder real quick).

Next are the lieutenants—assistant professors. This is where new Ph.D.s often begin (traditionally, it's a bigger vote of confidence to start someone out here than as an instructor); they still have a way to go to prove themselves, but they've got more time to do it.

After a typical "window" of about four to seven years, assistant professors who have done well (or who have somehow convinced colleagues and deans that they've done well) may be promoted to the rank of associate professor.

Eventually, some of these, who now rank as the rough equivalent of majors in the army, will be promoted to full professor or, as it's officially called, professor. They're colonels, or even generals, now.

Some institutions honor their most distinguished faculty members with "super ranks," which signify an endowed position and a higher salary. If you see someone listed as "University Professor of Economics," or "Truman Langdon Professor of Chemistry," you can assume that this person is golden in the university's eyes; that he or she has brought the institution special prestige and is being rewarded for it. (Helpful translations for this could be "please don't leave our faculty and take your big grant with you." Or, "You're the only one on the faculty who's publishing anything. Please stay here and make us look good.")

At the other end of the scale (no benefits, slave labor) are part-time faculty called AIs (assistant instructors) or, more commonly, TAs (teaching assistants). For the most part, these are advanced graduate students who are getting classroom teaching experience and financial support while they're working on their doctorates. (Which means they're expected to do a lot of work grading and preparing lectures, while, at the same time, they're supposed to be taking classes and working on an awesome thesis that will get them a full-time, paying job on some faculty somewhere.)

Many undergraduate classes, especially at the freshman level, are taught by TAs, and if you attend a large university, you'll almost certainly encounter several of them during your first year or two. This is not necessarily bad; TAs are often effective and caring teachers, and many undergraduates actually prefer them to some of the full-time faculty, who are older and perhaps more remote.

Etiquette

You can't go wrong by saying "professor." It's the proper form of address at all levels. (Don't call your teacher "Associate Professor Jones," even if that is her actual rank.) You're also safe in referring to Mr. Smith, your history teacher, as "Doctor Smith," even if you're not sure whether he has his Ph.D. You'll rarely be corrected, even if you're wrong, for conferring a doctorate on somebody. TAs frequently prefer to be called by their first names, but wait for them to say so; it's their call. Otherwise, address them as "Mr." or "Ms."

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