By Julieta Rodriguez
Recently, I have started filling out my Master’s applications, and it made me think about how little contact I’ve had with professors in my four and a half years of university. I was asked for two references to enter graduate school, and quickly realized that my choices were very limited—after all, the people I’ve had the most contact with have been my TAs. They’re the ones who know my work and my writing style, my strengths and weaknesses, and my grades.
So I thought, how can I ask a professor for a good recommendation letter if most of them barely know who I am?
I don’t mean to say that professors are to blame for this—I mean, they do hold office hours, and most of them try to encourage students to meet with them and email them with any questions or concerns.
However, most professors hold one or two office hours per week, and when they do encourage us to meet with them, only have time to do so for about half an hour. While it’s understandable that they’re busy, I think this is the reason why most students don’t care about their educations. We all know that we have to go through the system to get a piece of paper that shows we’re qualified for whatever job we’re after, but few people actually go to school to learn.
I only decided that I actually care about doing well in school sometime in the last year. With classrooms being so huge, I always felt completely anonymous—no doubt, a feeling that almost all (if not all) students have in their first few years of university. This meant that I was too nervous to participate during lectures, and even more so to meet with my professors one-on-one. It’s easy to feel like your education doesn’t matter when you stop being ‘Julieta’ and you start being ‘0861562’ in a class of 300.
Further, it is rare for students to seek out real help with their writing or coursework. In English and Philosophy, we’re constantly expected to improve our writing, but it’s often difficult to discern exactly what it is that we must improve; no doubt this is true of other programs. The problem is the lack of attention to the needs of individual students’ strengths and weaknesses.
I think that in my first few years of university, a lot of my hesitation in visiting professors during their office hours or meeting with them about improving my writing came from the fact that somewhere in my mind I knew that if I was a number without a face or name, at least I wouldn’t feel so embarrassed if I did poorly on an essay or assignment—after all, I didn’t want to look like an idiot in front of people with PhDs.
This brings me back to the unapproachability of professors. I think a lot of us are so intimidated by the person teaching us, that we are too afraid to seek help. This was certainly true for me—and for that reason, my writing only drastically improved in the past year and a half along with my marks. Before that, I more often than not felt completely discouraged.
How can I want to continue school if my professors don’t even know my name? If they don’t really have the time to sit down with me for as long as it takes and help me refine my writing?
We all hear professors tell us not to be afraid to speak to them during office hours or to make appointments, but then again, we know that if every student in every class were to follow that advice, professors would have no time for anything else.
In a sense, then, that request always seems half-hearted because we all know that there aren’t enough hours in the day for a professor to meet with every single student, in every single one of their classes, about every single assignment, test, project, exam, etc. so they cannot possibly mean it when they urge us all to see them or email them anytime we need help.
How are we, then, to improve our skills? How can we become more invested in our own educations without the undivided attention of our instructors?
I wish I could say I’ve found the answers, but short of having professors run all tutorials, or have all first, second, and third year classes be like fourth year seminars, there doesn’t seem to be a viable solution.