Learning Beyond the Classroom: Talk to your Instructors

I wandered down back stairwells and corridors with flickering overhead lights in a forgotten wing of the old university building. I found the room. It could easily have been a dungeon cell or a monk’s chamber, not an academic office. I walked in and saw Mike, the teaching assistant in my introductory religion course, sitting behind a metal desk.It was the start of my first year in university.
I went to see Mike because of a piece of advice from my orientation for first-year students. The leader of my orientation group had stressed the importance of meeting with professors and TAs. Especially at a large university, students can feel like a number.
This perception becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when students do not take steps to ensure that their instructors know them as more than an anonymous face in an auditorium.
It seems obvious that professors and TAs are there to help you grasp the material, do well on your assignments and succeed in the course. Like so many resources available to students at a college or university, though, instructors are often under-utilised. 
When I became a TA and then an instructor, I sat in a tiny, windowless basement office just like Mike’s, this time on the other side of the metal desk. Many office hours passed without any attendees, and many low marks could have been avoided through a simple discussion to review a thesis statement, discuss what sources to consult or go over an outline.
It’s imperative to start researching, outlining and writing early. Accordingly, you should talk to your professor or TA as early as possible. I often had a line of students outside my door days before an assignment was due. If a student’s thesis was weak, shining a light on the topic from a different angle and restructuring the essay accordingly was difficult to accomplish in a day or two. If a student’s bibliography was inadequate for the complexity of the subject, there was only so much a student could read and absorb in a few days. Consulting with your instructor at the beginning of the process will help ensure that you set off in the right direction. If you can’t attend office hours, request an appointment or send an email with some ideas and a request for comments.

An instructor who has seen your development as a student can do more to help you, both in a given course and beyond. I sometimes get requests for letters of recommendation from students who took one of my courses four years ago. I barely recognise their names and don’t remember anything about their work. I always advise them to ask an instructor who knows them better and can speak to their specific strengths and potential. Students who never interacted with their instructors, especially in large courses without tutorials, end up with vague, generic letters that hardly help their applications stand out.
These are some examples of the practical side of being more than a name on a roster in your teachers’ eyes. Quantifiable benefits are hardly the only reason to forge a personal connection, though.
When I first sought out Mike in that labyrinthine basement, I wasn’t working on an assignment and there was nothing in the course material that I needed to clarify. In that situation, what’s the point of going to office hours? What should you talk about?
University is one of the few opportunities in life to pick the brain of interesting, accomplished people about—with apologies to Douglas Adams—life, the universe, and everything. You’ll find that professors can be more casual and discursive outside of a formal lecture. Some of the scholars and books that became foundational to my intellectual development were recommended to me in free-flowing discussions during office hours. In my fourth year, I often visited a geography professor and rarely left his office without my arms overflowing with books that he’d lent me.
The learning experience isn’t limited to the classroom.
I give this advice from a selfish perspective as well. I wouldn’t have become a teacher if I didn’t enjoy talking to students. I learned a lot from my students—their interests, ideas, perspectives and life experiences—and continue to do so. And it’s not just me. This commitment to forging meaningful, reciprocal relationships with students informs EssayJack at every level. In an interview conducted after winning a teaching award, EssayJack’s co-founder and CEO, Dr. Lindy Ledohowski, said: “I have had excellent teachers and professors in the past who I remember as inspirations, but to be honest, most often I find that my students inspire my teaching. In responding to the surprises and individual questions and personalities, I find my greatest pedagogical inspiration.”  
So go visit your professors and TAs. It’s lonely in those basement cells.

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