I once had a business school colleague who wore Birkenstock sandals with black socks and shorts everyday to class. I had another who chain smoked, rarely made eye contact, and carefully scripted his lectures because he didn’t feel completely comfortable in front of groups. Not one, but two of my former colleagues have undergone sex change operations (trust me you couldn’t make that up) and another pulled tiny black lace Barbie underwear out of his pocket during a lecture– oh wait, that was me (as I hastily explained the perils of getting daughters ready for school).
If faculty seem like strange creatures, maybe it is because we have such unusual expectations of them. Here’s the deal: You have six years to prove that you have many new interesting observations backed up by data that students want to hear, editors want to publish and colleagues want to read so that they can learn from you. There are only two outcomes after six years: unemployment or promotion with a job for life. If you make the first cut, we are going to ask you to be even more interesting and secure a national reputation. If you achieve this distinction, we promote you again. If not, well we kind of consider you an under-achiever. By the way, the average project takes more than two years to complete. Eighty-five to ninety percent of papers professors submit for publication are rejected. Students expect you to be on the top of your game every class. If you need help, call. Otherwise get busy. Time is ticking.
That is your professor’s world and understanding it can help you get the most out of your time at UCF. Faculty are professional learners. It is what motivates them and it is what they value most in others. This distinction is not meant to excuse poor classroom performance, but if you want to impress a professor demonstrate that you are eager to learn–a process where you are an active partner in discovery rather than expecting them to “teach.” It is a subtle distinction, but an important one. Faculty hate it when they believe they are “spoon-feeding” students–pouring information into passive, empty heads. Questions like ” is this going to be on the test? ” drive them insane. Ask it and they will dismiss you as a lazy student not worthy of their time.
Time is a faculty member’s most valuable asset. A professor has just six years to make a name in a world that is hard to impress. That includes the time they are in class with you. Students are a professor’s legacy. The more successful students a professor has the better their reputation. But class time is short and by necessity focuses on the things that matter most to student success. Not everything a faculty member says is golden, but the answer to the question: did I miss anything important when I skipped class–will always be yes.
So now you’re thinking maybe the best strategy is to hide in the back and try not to say the wrong thing. A popular but bad idea. You came here to learn and the best education happens in those moments you get to sit on a log with a professor and talk one-on-one. So go to office hours — especially when it’s not right before a test or assignment is due. Getting to know a professor is a bit like being on a blind date– prepare, ask good questions, and listen. The best professors I had gave me new perspectives that changed the way I viewed the world. They devoted their lives to the study of a subject they believed was important and wanted to share their insights with anyone who would strike up a conversation. In sharing their ideas they hoped to change the world. It should not surprise us that unique perspectives come from unique individuals. You don’t have to wear Birkenstocks, chain-smoke, or keep Barbie underwear in your pocket—just engage, appreciate the insight and put it to good use.
Paul Jarley, Ph.D., is the dean of the UCF College of Business Administration. He blogs every week at http://www.bus.ucf.edu/dean. The following post appeared on September 5, 2012. Follow him on Twitter @pauljarley.