The Importance of Reaching Out to Professors

Last weekend, I had the experience that every liberal arts college website boasts about: being invited to a professor’s home for dinner. When I was touring the Claremont Colleges in my senior year of high school, my tour guides never failed to mention how accessible their faculty were. They spoke highly of their interactions with professors in spaces outside of the classroom and even claimed that they had gotten meals with a select few.

As a natural skeptic of institutions and their claims, I was sure this admissions rhetoric was exaggerated. How accessible were faculty at these colleges really?

It turns out that my skepticism was completely misplaced. The dinner at this professor’s house ended up being the highlight of my year. I sat on a couch, clutching a delicious plate of Indian food that reminded me of home, talking uninhibitedly with peers and the professor about social justice, coalition-building, and our own diasporic identities.

We talked intensely, switching from topic to topic with an energy that was simply inimitable in the typical college classroom. That night, I discovered the immense value of engaging with professors in informal settings, outside of the walls of the classroom and mediated through an environment that falls outside the institution’s reach.

When I arrived at Scripps College, I was ready to take advantage of the close proximity I had to my professors. I told myself I would go to office hours every week, even if I felt confident about the material. This, of course, was one of the many overly ambitious goals I had during my first semester.

In reality, I attended my professors’ office hours only a handful of times during the course of this year. Half of those times, the meetings were required as part of the revision process in my Writing 50 class at Scripps. The majority of my classes tended to be literature-based, and I felt that I had valuable comments to make only if they pertained to an essay or major assignment. After all, I was not a science student who needed to better understand a biological process or a math student who wanted to practice polynomial equations.  

I felt anxious about talking to my professors about the class material if I had nothing concrete to show them or talk about. Moreover, I thought I was probably wasting their time if I did not have specific questions about the texts we were reading.

At the time, I had not realized just how accessible my professors were. Indeed, as students at the 5Cs, we are privileged to have full access to professors who are experts in their fields. While our peers at larger research universities sit in cavernous lecture halls filled with upward of 500 people, we are fortunate enough to have small, seminar-style classes where we can discuss material with our peers and our professor.

Whereas students at larger universities are also encouraged to reach out to TAs before contacting their professors, we can learn from scholars who have spent their entire careers studying a particular text or concept.

Our professors also serve the important role of providing more personal guidance during the course of our college careers. According to a survey conducted by Gallup, the most important element for college graduates’ long-term success is “emotional support: [the] feeling that they [have] a professor who [makes] them excited about learning, [cares] about them as a person, and… encourage[s] them to pursue their goals.” Indeed, my favorite professors at the 5Cs have not only been brilliant facilitators in the classroom, but also real people that cared about my co-curricular involvement and my ambitions after college.

A Gallup survey found that “fewer than three in 10 strongly agree the professors at their alma mater cared about them as a person (27 percent). And only about 2 in 10 strongly agree they had a mentor who encouraged their goals and dreams (22 percent).”

The survey raises the question of whether our institutions are simply spaces we inhabit for four years to get a bachelor’s degree or whether they are genuinely spaces of academic growth and development. Although the onus is on professors to make themselves available as mentors, to some extent, this distinction is ours to control.

In a consortium that places 100 percent of its focus and resources on undergraduate teaching, it is our responsibility to take full advantage of our environments during our four years. This means going to office hours to express how excited you are about a particular text or to talk about an article that you read outside of class that relates to the material.

If our task as students is to constantly interrogate texts and ideas, we should reach out to professors that are experts in this very interrogation. If college really is supposed to prepare us for “the real world,” we must take it upon ourselves to forge meaningful, organic relationships with our professors that extend past the limits of the classroom and the institution.

Tiara Sharma SC '20 is from Boston, Massachussetts. She plans on majoring in English and maybe Philosophy.