When does giving an apple turn into getting coffee?

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Features Editor, Madeline McInnis, examines the relationship rules and essential etiquette for professor/student relationships 

Photo by Garrison Oosterhof

Starting high school, my biggest fear was losing my footing and falling down the forum stairs in the main hall. Starting university, my biggest fear was, well, falling into a sea of students and never really finding my footing at all.

I was friends with some of my high school teachers, and I liked the feeling of being known around the school, even to teachers that I’d never had a class with. That was all behind me when I stepped into my first day of class in Bricker Academic three years ago.

Professors were intimidating. From a professor that asked me to switch classes (yikes) to another I dropped on my very first day because I didn’t think I was smart enough to keep up with him (double yikes), starting to get to know my professors was the first barrier to really fitting in at Laurier.

“We expect students to be more independent in their learning and motivation for learning and doing well in the course,” said Matthew Smith, professor and chair in Laurier’s department of biology and a course instructor for BI110 in September.

“Referring to somebody as ‘professor’ indicates that you are respectful of their position, indicates that you get that they are your instructor, and it’s a safe territory because it doesn’t assume they have a PhD or not have a PhD. You’re safe.”

Like it or not, you will have to get used to your professors very quickly, but I promise it’s not as scary as it seems right now.

Though you’re a wash in a sea of students, your professors will likely be some of the most interesting people you meet in your life.

“The whole point of university, in my eyes, is that we’re trying to prepare you for the real world,” said Sobia Iqbal, the other of the course instructors for BI110 this fall.

The real world may not be on your radar yet, as you likely have at least four years ahead of you, but it’s never too early to start thinking about your future — that’s why we’re all here anyways, right?

But taking that leap and facing the rest of your life is way easier said than done. Coming from high school, it can be difficult to navigate this new battleground of information and professionalism — so where do you start?

“Boundaries can be very hard to navigate sometimes when you’re a prof because you really care about your students and you want to get to know them, but at the same time you have a lot of students. You don’t want to set up this kind of situation where other students are thinking that you like some students better than others,” said Eileen Wood, one of the professors for PS101 this semester.

“You want to be fair, you want to be unbiased and you want to be open.”

Sometimes, you’ll really click with one of your professors. These are people that know a lot about the things that you’re hopefully pretty interested in if you’re taking their course, and you’ll quickly discover that they’re interesting people outside of academics too. They have families, hobbies and other community involvement that you really want to know more about.

Is it appropriate to ask them about it? Perhaps if they open up to you about it first. Is it appropriate to ask them to talk about them in a less formal setting? That’s really up for debate.

“I typically wouldn’t [get coffee with first year students] until they really get to know me, and generally that’s not as cool for me. Upper years much more so because you see them in classes and you may have met them two or three times,” said Wood.

All of the professors echoed a similar sentiment and stressed that they genuinely enjoy meeting their students, but would only want to be with them in an informal setting, like grabbing your favourite hot beverage, when they know the students a bit better, either in upper years, as graduate students or as alumni, depending on which professors you’re talking to.

How you make those strong connections that can lead to coffee meetings in future years, however, so it is impotant to make a good impression now.

One thing that everyone noted when I talked to them, so obviously a common issue that you’ll want to avoid, was email etiquette.

Unless you just have a quick question on material, your professor likely won’t have time to answer it after class, so most of the time you’ll be emailing for your communication. And, think of the reason you’re here, you want to keep it classy.

In particular, the professors stressed the introduction of the email as an indicator for professionalism right out of the gate.

“Referring to somebody as ‘professor’ indicates that you are respectful of their position, indicates that you get that they are your instructor, and it’s a safe territory because it doesn’t assume they have a PhD or not have a PhD. You’re safe,” said Sofy Carayannopoulos, a professor in the faculty of business and economics and one of the professors of BU111 this fall.

“I don’t like the ‘hey Sobia, when’s the due date’,” Iqbal said through laughter.

“I don’t know what course you’re talking about, I don’t know which of my courses you’re in. Just try to keep a professional relationship, in a sense.”

“It seems like a trivial thing, but it can really go a long way,” Smith added. “One thing that students don’t always think of … is that while they have one instructor to email or contact for a course, the instructor has, in our case, 800 or so students contacting them.”

As for social media, all of the professors I talked to either didn’t use social media at all or didn’t like the idea of adding students on LinkedIn or Facebook until after the course has finished, if even at all.

The office will be the main point of contact too. Wood even leaves a whiteboard on her office door, for example, so students can say that they’ve dropped by if they don’t want to call or send an email, even when she’s not actually there.

Keeping things professional is essential while you’re learning under someone else.

As for the infamous Spotted at Laurier account, the professors were divided. The general takeaway I got from them was that it can be fun and you can have fun with it, but don’t use it in a negative way that will reflect on your degree when you graduate. It’s public, after all, and it’s not just Laurier students that follow the page.

Furthermore, Carayannopoulos stressed that if you have an issue with a course, you should go to the professor to get the answer to your questions rather than relying on the student body. Professors can’t fix the things that are wrong without knowing about them directly and they often won’t see the complaints lodged on Spotted.

All in all, the takeaway here is that your professors really care about your success, but you have to care too. If you need a reference letter, they better know your name from your face. They can’t be your best friend that you invite to Phil’s after a midterm.

As Smith said, you can be friendly without being friends. You may grow to be friends over the years, but you should be looking primarily to your peers for that kind of fulfillment.

Treat your professors like you would your boss and you’ll be in a safe zone.

“Independent doesn’t mean that you’re on you’re totally on your own and you can never ask anyone for help,” Smith said.

If you are looking for help, there are plenty of people you can reach out to. The professors stressed that you don’t always have to reach out to them individually if you are struggling — you can go to your teaching or lab assistant or one of the resources on campus to help with your specific needs, whether that be personal or academic.

“[Students] don’t always have to come to me. But still reach out to those who would best know the answer,” Carayannopoulos encouraged.

Finally, something that was stressed more than anything in all of my interview with these professors was that office hours are absolutely the very first place you should stop in if you have a question, comment or concern.

This is a specific time that every professor has set aside to help you out and you don’t need to worry about that fine line of professionalism that comes from asking for coffee, for instance.

Professors will sit alone in their office for a lot of the time, especially at the beginning of the semester, so if you want to make friends or stand out, simply dropping by will likely be enough to do just that.

“Maybe they could grab a friend and come with them to see me … that’s actually a bit of a pet peeve, or something I feel badly about, is when students are afraid to come to my office and talk to me,” Carayannopoulos said.

“They can try grabbing someone else that they know, ask the question for that person, and maybe come with them to my office to verify that, truly, I don’t bite, I’m not fearsome, and that it’s not a big deal to ask the professor.”

The office will be the main point of contact too. Wood even leaves a whiteboard on her office door, for example, so students can say that they’ve dropped by if they don’t want to call or send an email, even when she’s not actually there.

Professors will each have their own office hours and you can meet them for yourself there, and I promise they won’t bite.

Three years down the line, I’ll take classes with professors who know who I am before we’ve met. That may just be a benefit of being in a smaller department, but it also shows how working hard, asking questions, and simply showing up to events can get you recognized.

Trust me, you’ll need those professor recommendations sooner or later and these years will fly.

They’re fun, they’re funny, and they’re great human beings. Be professional, be courteous, and please, for everyone’s sanity, start your emails with a formal greeting.

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