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Ask and Be Careful What You Tell

October 2, 2009

It’s the end of the first week of the quarter and professors’ impressions of students’ seriousness of purpose are beginning to form, so this is a good time to remind you that it’s important to let your teachers know if you’re unsure about something related to a course. Are you wondering when an assignment is due or how long it should be? Do you need to know if you can get an extension of a due date when your computer crashes and you lose your work? Are you struggling with a course and need help? Do you want to know if it will affect your grade if you miss class to go to your sister’s wedding? Are you clueless about a particular requirement? Are you unable to locate a text? Whatever you’re wondering about, ask, and ask ahead of time whenever possible. Although asking for forgiveness instead of permission is a useful strategy for some kinds of jobs, school is generally not the place to employ this approach.

It is your responsibility to ask for help when you don’t understand and to remind yourself when work needs to be done. It’s also your responsibility to tell your teachers ahead of time if there is some reason you know you won’t be in class or won’t be handing your work in on time or something else that might potentially affect your success. Of course, the unexpected happens; you should still communicate with your instructors as soon as possible so that they understand that you aren’t just blowing off class. I worry when my students don’t hand in work when it’s due or don’t come to class because I know how easy it is to get behind.

Here are actual student comments that I’ve saved over the years. I keep them in my “not fun” file:

“You didn’t remind us last week that our projects were due, so I figured we could have extra time.” (These were projects that students had been working on all quarter and the due date was on the schedule and referenced in the syllabus multiple times.)

“The syllabus doesn’t say we have to think.” (This was from a student who handed in a research paper with no research, just disorganized ramblings with a vague reference to a McDonald’s website as the source of his information.)

“I thought that Columbus Day was a school holiday.” (The syllabus clearly showed a class scheduled that day, but the student said he thought that I had made a mistake.)

“I didn’t think it would matter if I missed the first week of class, so I decided to extend spring break since I was having so much fun.” (Really. Someone actually emailed me this at the end of the first week, saying also that she hoped that I could meet with her to go over the syllabus and assignments.)

“I’m calling from the grocery store. I just realized that we probably have class this afternoon, but I totally forgot. I can be there around 6:30 if you can stay to catch me up.” (This was week seven of the quarter and we’d been meeting every week. Class ended at 4:20.)

“My mother and my girlfriend read my paper and they don’t agree with you that it needs to be rewritten.” (This student went on to tell me that his mother said that only college professors worry about spelling and punctuation.)

From a note attached to a final project handed in the last day of class: “I know this is supposed to be a paper, but I think you’ll enjoy this video. It’s a little over an hour and it strays a bit from the assignment, but I didn’t have time to edit it.” (I didn’t have time to watch it either.)

From a note handed in on a day a major paper was due: “My work will be late because I decided to go to the beach instead. Since you tell us to take time for ourselves, I knew this would be okay.” (No, it isn’t. Planning in time for yourself is very different from ignoring your responsibilities as a student.)

Ask questions. Negotiate if you need extra time or some other adjustment to requirements. (Note: If you need accommodations because of a documented disability, let your instructors know and work with them by providing specific information about the kinds of adjustments that will help you be successful.) If you have a hidden disability of some kind, like needing to stand up and lean against the wall during a lecture because of a bad back, let the instructor know.

Whatever it is you need to communicate, do it early, clearly, and considerately. Don’t put it off.

What else can you do to communicate your seriousness of purpose in a class?

The problem with communication. . .is the illusion that it has been accomplished.
• George Bernard Shaw

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