• GradHacker

    A Blog from GradHacker and MATRIX: The Center for Humane Arts, Letters and Social Sciences Online


The Lesson of the Difficult Professor

Figuring out your professor's expectations early in a course can often save you time, stress, and anxiety later on.

March 6, 2019

Elizabeth Dunn is a Ph.D. student in Information Science at the University of North Texas. She works for Tarleton State University in Stephenville,Texas, in the College of Graduate Studies, and also as an adjunct faculty instructor for Tarleton’s College of Business Administration.

Recently, a friend of mine came to me for some advice. She was struggling to meet the expectations of her professor in an online class. She was taking extra care to spend time on her assignments, read and attempt to interpret his expectations through the assignment instructions and the syllabus, and was turning things in on time. However, her grades continued to disappoint her and his sparse and curt feedback left her feeling deflated. “What can I do?” she asked in desperation, noting that the semester clock was ticking. I suggested that she contact the instructor and express her concerns, but most importantly her desire to succeed in his course.

I saw her the other day and she greeted me with excitement. “It worked!” she said. Since we last spoke, she had engaged in a candid conversation with her professor about his expectations and her goal to be successful in his class. He had shared some advice. Thus, she did some things differently and her grades were improving. Better yet, she was enthused about what she was learning. The extra effort and uncomfortable conversation had turned the tide of the class for her, ultimately making a difference in the outcome. As we know, the outcome of a class is eternal on transcripts.

Sometimes it can be uncomfortable to reach out to a professor about a difficulty that you are having. This is especially true in an online class, where the online setting can feel very cold and transactional, and particularly if the instructor is slow to respond or seems intimidating. When faced with a difficult professor or class, the immediate reaction is to feel at war - instructor versus student - as if a good grade is something to acquire through battle. Actually, earning a good grade is more of a collaboration between student and instructor. Learning to maneuver teaching styles and adapt to expectations is a valuable skill in both graduate school and in your career. While sometimes you might get a professor who is a genuine jerk, this is rare. Here are some ways I’ve found to work with a “difficult” professor:

Communication is key. People don’t talk to each other enough, in my opinion (I mean really communicate, not just talking at someone). Studies show that most of us are terribly inefficient communicators - only listening to about 45 percent of what we hear! This stat decreases when our emotions get involved, like when we are upset about a grade or desperately confused. Particularly in an online environment, it is quite easy to build resentment toward a person that you don’t know and have never met (your professor). If you are lost about what to do and what your professor expects, just ask! As an adjunct instructor, I encourage my students to ask questions, and as a student, my professors can expect questions from me. Conversations that you don’t want to have are difficult to initiate but often the most rewarding.

Work smarter (or maybe harder). No one wants to hear that, but grad school is hard. Sometimes, reading the syllabus or assignment instructions is just a starting point to understanding the professor’s expectations. During my MBA, I took an online accounting class. From the first assignment, I found myself hopelessly lost and struggling. My regular effort wasn’t enough. The course was required, so I had to figure out a way to get through the class without tanking my GPA. I decided to join in on the optional Wednesday evening Collaborate chats, meet with my professor in person to ask questions, and even go to the accounting lab for help several days a week. I had to go the extra mile to get through the course with an acceptable grade. My point is that sometimes graduate school requires that you dig deeper than you’re used to doing. Ask questions. Get clarification of expectations. Get up a little earlier and read a little more. Meet your professor face-to-face or have a phone call with them! These efforts will help.

Embrace the suck. The military uses this phrase to describe acceptance for something that is uncomfortable. Learning what it takes to accept a challenging situation and work toward a solution like starting an awkward conversation about your lackluster grades, adapting to the expectations of a difficult professor, or persevering through a lengthy analysis is sometimes the lesson itself. I cringe when I hear people say that they will “never use this again” in reference to something they are assigned to do. Most of the time, they say that because they can’t see the big picture. Sometimes the lesson is bigger than learning to solve for n. John Dewey said, “Education is not preparation for life; education is life itself.” People learn by doing, but that doesn’t limit the lesson to the task.

Each time you have a new professor, you will have to learn and quickly adapt to his or her expectations. It’s not always easy to comprehend what exactly the instructor expects. However, with better communication, harder and smarter work, and the ability to see the big picture, you’ll be better at navigating the challenges of a difficult professor. Inevitably, life will not only deliver to you a professor with arduous expectations, but also challenging supervisors, colleagues, or customers. Improving your ability to navigate expectations is a skill that benefits beyond the walls of the classroom.

[Image by Pixabay user geralt,and used under a Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication.]


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top