Posted on 27-12-2009
Filed Under (How Professors Think) by Anita Kelly

I received this question from a student right before Christmas:

“Hi Professor Kelly! I have a question. I want to do undergraduate research this summer with a particular professor in the Theology department. I had a class with him in the fall that I really loved, but because it was a lecture course, he only really knows my name and just a little bit about my writing style. I feel a little strange asking him since he hardly knows me (also I know he is very busy and intimidatingly important), and beyond that, I really just don’t even know how to approach him. What can/should I say? How is this conversation supposed to go?”

Dear Anonymous Student,

My advice about getting a professor to agree to take you on as an undergraduate research assistant is similar to my advice to students who want a professor to take them on as a graduate advisee. The key is to express your knowledge of his research when you meet with him. Explain why working with him matches your own research interests so well. Thus, you will need to have read at least a couple of his recent or major papers.

If you can demonstrate your knowledge of his research and how you could fit into his research program, these efforts are likely to increase your chances of his accepting you as a research assistant. This is because professors love students who share their research interests. And they love students who have done their homework.

Don’t be shy about approaching this professor. Your interest will be flattering, and he might be very happy to find someone like you who is willing to work in the summer. Please let us know how your meeting goes!

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Posted on 17-12-2009
Filed Under (Appropriate behavior) by Anita Kelly

This week Sarah wrote:

“I have a question for you about the appropriateness of thanking your professors at the end of a semester. Every once in a while, I feel so strongly about a professor that I want to thank them in an email or letter. I have had a few professors who have really gone out of their way to help me out. When this happens, and the end of the semester comes, it feels so unnatural not to send them a thank you letter. At the same time, it feels slightly unethical to me to send a professor a thank you note or email whenever my grade is not yet determined. I fear that they will feel pressured to give me a grade higher than I deserve. I also fear my professor will perceive my gratitude as an attempt to get a better grade. Do you think that thank you letters are appropriate, and if so, how can I write one in a way that my professor won’t perceive it to be an attempt to obtain a higher grade?”

Dear Sarah,

A solution is to send the thank-you letter after your grade has been submitted. But don’t worry if you send it a little early. We professors very much appreciate the sweet letters that students sometimes send us at the end of the term. We don’t see it as ingratiation. You can be as extreme as you want in your appreciation, which goes a long way to make your professor feel good and want to help students even more.

Thank you for your question for all of us to read! –Anita

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Posted on 13-12-2009
Filed Under (Appropriate behavior) by Anita Kelly

The semester is over. Is it okay to ask that single instructor you’ve been hankering for all semester out for a drink or to dinner?

Uh, no. One reason is that instructors are bound by the ethical rules laid out by the American Psychological Association or their employers to avoid dual roles. As long as you are still a student and the instructor is still employed at the same university, you will necessarily become involved in a dual role if you get romantically involved with your instructor. A relationship could cost your instructor his or her job.

This doesn’t mean that your instructor won’t be tempted by your interest. Instructors develop crushes on their students, too, but they are the ones responsible for saying “no”.

Sometimes we professors forget that most college students find repulsive the idea of dating anybody over 30. As a 19-year-old undergraduate at Northwestern, I was creeped out when immediately after the semester ended, a professor offered to bake me one of his “famous apple pies” to be shared at his apartment.

So, you will just have to wait until you graduate to ask out that instructor. But by then, you will probably have moved on to somebody a bit more appealing from your own classmates. Just like that itch you never scratch, your interest will likely go away on its own.

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Posted on 10-12-2009
Filed Under (Conflicts over grades) by Anita Kelly

A few years ago, a hardworking student in my personality course got a D. Her mother sent me a letter explaining that an accident during her daughter’s birth had caused her to have difficulty taking multiple choice tests. She asked me to change the grade to a C- so that her daughter could maintain eligibility for her sport.

I found that very, very sad. But I didn’t change the grade. The mom contacted the dean’s office to complain about me. I still didn’t change the grade. The reason is that it wouldn’t have been fair to the rest of the class.

If you see a professor about a grade that you think was somehow unfair, here’s what I recommend that you do. Email the professor to see if you can meet to discuss your grade. When you meet with the professor, explain why you believe you deserve a higher grade. Make your argument so that the professor can increase your grade while still being fair to the rest of the class.

Once and only once did I change a grade in my seminar for a student. She told me that a change from her B- to a B would allow her to graduate with honors. However, that’s not why I changed her grade. I changed it because I had told all the students at the beginning of the semester that if they were between two grades and had performed relatively higher in their oral, as compared with their written, participation then they would get the higher grade. I felt that her oral participation had been slightly better than her papers. This allowed me to be consistent across all the students in the class when I changed her grade.

So the bottom line is make your argument so that your teacher can change your grade while staying consistent and fair to the rest of the class. Oh, and don’t get your parents involved. Professors automatically push back when parents try to influence us. 

Please post your experiences and let students know about your successful or unsuccessful attempts to get a grade changed.

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Posted on 06-12-2009
Filed Under (How Professors Think) by Anita Kelly

Sometimes students insult their professors even when they have the best intentions. Last week, a student requested that I supervise her research but wrote “from the psychology website it did not appear as though you are currently doing research here at Notre Dame.” Her comment reminds me a little of when acquaintances I haven’t seen in a while ask, “So are you still teaching?”

I know, these comments are innocent and should be totally fine to say to a professor. But see if you think that after you answer the following question from the Test of Social Intelligence in the Classroom that I developed for my new The Clever Student book.

How is a typical professor’s time divided at a major university?

a. 50-60% teaching, 30-40% research, and 10-20% service.

b. 50-60% research, 30-40% teaching, and 10-20% service.

c. 50-60% service 30-40% teaching, and 10-20% research.

d. 50-60% research, 30-40% service, and 10-20% teaching.

The correct answer is b. That’s why this student’s comment about my not conducting research was problematic. She did not take the time to see what research I am doing (my vita with recent publications is right on the website). Also, she was suggesting that it looks like I’m not doing my job.

If you want understand your professors better, keep in mind that they are primarily there to conduct research.

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Posted on 04-12-2009
Filed Under (Overcoming barriers) by Anita Kelly

On the way home from kindergarten last week, my daughter Jade complained, “Muriel says that her mommy is prettier than my mommy.”

My first thought was, of course, competitive. “Who is that prettier mommy?” “What does she look like?” And then, “It’s too bad that I’m not prettier for my daughter.”

My second thought was more constructive, “How can I make this a good learning experience for Jade?” So I said, “Which is more important, to be pretty or to be smart?” Without hesitation, 4-year-old Jade responded, “To be smart!”

What does all of this have to do with you as you prepare for your final exams and try to keep from getting the latest flu strain wiping out your dorm? If you are like many college women, you struggle with not feeling adequate about your face or body. You barely appreciate how smart you are and how far that can take you in life. These worries can put a huge dent in your learning.  

If you are dealing with an eating disorder or constantly feeling bad about your looks, please see a counselor at your university. Eating disorders can be treated successfully. Act now so that you can put your energy in developing your potential for advancing science, starting a business, heading a corporation, or whatever you want to do with your life. Later, you won’t have any regrets about having wasted your college years. (Besides, being powerful and successful is downright sexy!)

p.s. I showed this post to a particularly Clever student from my personality class. She reminded me that what men say about our attractiveness can keep us mired in thinking about our looks. For example, 2 weeks ago at a poker session at the Horseshoe casino, a regular player said, “See the woman at that table, Anita? She is the most beautiful woman who has ever been in this room.” I smiled inside thinking that I must look like part of the woodwork to this guy.

But instead of checking out this superior woman, I quite naturally starting talking about how gorgeous my own husband is. I discovered that the conversation turned to this man’s own insecurities. That was a pretty nice trick that I wish I had been Clever enough to use in college.

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Posted on 02-12-2009
Filed Under (Appropriate behavior) by Anita Kelly

Today a student sweetly pointed out that I had spot on my sweater. I thanked her and slunk from my office to the restroom to rub it off.

Thinking about it now, I realize that as a student I would have been too mortified to tell any professor that he had a spot on his shirt, spinach in his teeth, or his zipper down. No way.

But things have changed a lot in 20 years. Students have much more informal relationships with their professors. Many students think it’s perfectly okay to leave to take a phone call or bathroom break at any time during a lecture, even from the front row. The problem is not that they are taking a break. The problem is that their professors are likely to become furious and see those breaks as disrespectful, disruptive behavior.

What do you think? Is it okay to leave the class unexcused any time you want?

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Posted on 01-12-2009
Filed Under (Applying to Graduate School) by Anita Kelly

Every fall, I get emails from undergraduates I’ve never met. They ask if I am taking a new graduate student for next year. It’s a difficult question because I never really know whether I can take a new graduate student. It depends on how excellent the students are who match my interests. It also depends on whether other faculty who have priority over me in choosing a student decide that they want to take a student from that year’s applicant pool. Usually the faculty who have priority are newer hires or faculty with grant dollars to fund a graduate student.

Today I asked my colleagues in our clinical program here at Notre Dame how they feel about being asked whether they are taking a new graduate student. The newer faculty were emphatic: They like being contacted (via email) by interested prospective graduate students. They especially like being contacted by students who have read their work and indicate an interest in conducting research on the same topic.

So, your answer to the question, “Are you taking a new graduate student for next year?” is likely to be, “Maybe.” This is true even from faculty who have priority in choosing students. However, it’s still a good idea to reach out to faculty for the purpose of demonstrating that you know about and are interested in their research. You might even discover that some faculty will say, “No.” This will save you the trouble of mentioning them in your statement of intent or of applying to that school at all.

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