College Advice from a Professor’s Spouse

Two inflatable penguins kissing on a table on roof top.

My wife is a college professor. That means, in addition to being married to a very smart person, I also get to hear lots of tips and tricks about how to do well in college – particularly this last year with my wife doing office hours from home on video from her office just outside our kitchen. So as a service to all those headed off to college in the fall (including our oldest nephew), students already working to complete degrees, and to all the professors and instructors out there, I thought I’d offer a few pieces of college advice I’ve picked up as a professor’s spouse. I’m also blending in a few things I learned getting my own degree and from working professionally with colleges on a regular basis (basically, if you don’t like anything in here, blame me not my wife).

The first two are so painfully obvious I hate to have to tell them to people:

  1. Read the syllabus.
    I mean actually read it, not just look at the words (although that is a start). 95% of the time the professor will literally tell you exactly what you need to do to get an A; or if you’re smart and lazy it lays out how to coast to a C. Heck sometimes they even give you extra credit just for showing signs of reading it because they know most of your classmates won’t bother.
  2. Read all the instructions.
    Your professors want you to succeed. Their lives are better when you do good work. They like seeing students learn and grading good work. So for each assignment they give you instructions about what you need to do to get a good grade. Read and follow those instructions.

Okay now for the advice that’s not so obvious and may be harder to follow.

You earn grades, you aren’t given grades.

Your grade should reflect the work you produce in that course, in that semester, for that professor. You aren’t entitled to a good grade unless you do good work by the standards set for everyone in the class. If that’s not happening – well I’ll get to that in a minute. But don’t confuse a hard assignment, or a professor with high standards as a lack of fairness. Grades are fair as long as the professor holds everyone in the course to the same standards.

Also remember professors should not lower their standards just because you are majoring in another subject. Your philosophy grade should reflect your philosophy course performance even if you are a math major (and vice versa for the philosophy majors). Complaining that the assignment is unfair because you don’t write clearly is the wrong way to move forward – ask for help writing better when you need it.

Complain to your friends, not to your professors.

As I just said: yes, sometimes an assignment is hard. Yes, some professors make it hard to earn A’s. Sometimes you stay up all night, work so hard it physically hurts, and your paper earns a D. These are all great things to complain about to your friends, on your own time, in your dorm or apartment. I did in college, so did my wife, and all our college friends – that’s part of college and the learning process.

DO NOT:

  • Complain to your professor that the assignment was too hard.
  • Stand in the hallway outside their office and rail at the injustice of it all.
  • Complain to your other professors.
  • Rant on social media about how it was hard to study cause you were really drunk. (Seriously, professors can see the stuff you post on the school Facebook page – stop it! Aren’t you all supposed to use other platforms these days anyway?!?)

Remember that your professor knows how all your classmates performed. They may know some of your classmates started that paper two weeks ago, asked for advice along the way, and earned an A. They already know if an assignment was actually too hard (it does happen) and almost certainly took that into account when assigning grades.

Hard work and good work are not the same thing.

That paper you stayed up all night writing was probably hard to complete on time, and not your best work. Just because it was hard to do, doesn’t mean you did it well. In your non-college life this is most obvious in things like physical engineering and computer programming. If your phone’s app crashes all the time, it’s bad. If the bridge falls over, no one cares if the engineer was up all night checking their math. It’s also true on standard college work like papers and art projects – if your picture is overexposed or your paper poorly written the outcome was bad and the grade you earn should reflect that reality.

Ask for help – do not demand special treatment.

Most of the people doing classroom instruction in most colleges like helping students succeed (research professors can different – although not all, and you shouldn’t assume they don’t care). They have office hours so you can easily find them to ask questions. This is not so you can easily yell about your grades. Professors do not take well to being yelled at, threatened, and generally treated as if they are supposed to “give” you anything. Remember, you are not an education customer and the professors do not work for you. Never tell a professor you pay their salary; you don’t, and saying it won’t help matters.

Professors all know how to ace their classes. They should, they designed the class after all. Professors understand all the material they are teaching you (even if you don’t feel like it sometimes) that’s how they earned those advanced degrees – probably at a deeper level than you realize exists. If you are confused or struggling they are the best source of help around. They are good at this stuff – give them a chance to help you get there too.

Exceptions can, and sometimes will, be made.

Sometimes a professor they might cut you a break or offer extra help if you ask. But these favors should be asked for rarely and very carefully. Try to understand what you’re really asking them to do for you. Exceptions for you might be deemed unfair to others in the course and have to be explained to a dean. Changes in deadlines, taking incompletes, and other accommodations may require the professor to do extra unpaid work.

When I was in college I wanted to leave early one semester, to attend an international conference. Of my four courses that semester three had open-book exams or projects – so I just finished those before the deadline. The fourth was a Government course with a traditional exam. The professor was excited about the event, so he was willing to let me take the exam early.

That exception required him to trust me not to share details or to write a second exam just for me – neither are trivial requests. If I had asked to take an incomplete, so I could finish late instead of early, I would have been asking him to do even more work. Often that kind of extra work goes unpaid.

I didn’t have a lot of interruptions, and my exception was for an opportunity, not outside interference. I know not everyone is so lucky, and you may have good cause for asking for exceptions to course rules more often. But if you find yourself asking for those exceptions more than once a year, consider talking with your advisor or the school’s academic success center. Asking for too many favors is either a sign you’re expecting special treatment or need support finding a better overall life balance.

Note: Many schools offer some form of hardship accommodations for health challenges and other major life disruptions. Using those when you need them is not asking for a favor. Those are policies meant to help you succeed, not exceptions to the rules of a course. Check your student handbook when things are easy to understand how that works in case something goes really wrong.

Your classmates lie – a lot – so you have to prove you are different.

That syllabus I told you to read (seriously most important thing here – read it), is probably long and boring. Filled with classroom policies, honor codes, assignments, deadlines, and more. When I was in college they were 2-3 pages and nearly all about the assignments. My wife’s, and her colleagues’, have grown from there into a 10 page tome of policy. They hate it. You can also hate it. You should blame every classmate who goes to a dean arguing over a loophole they think they found. Expect that a new rule is written every time you hear another student say some silly thing to justify obviously bad behavior – particularly if sounds unfair to you and then works for them.

Every one of those rules you see probably has a specific former student to blame. Your professors would love to save time and energy by going back to having a 2 pager of assignments and deadlines. Trust me, they sit on my back porch and lament about it – while sharing suggestions about how to describe how often it’s okay to pee during an exam or whatever thing has come up this time.

Exam Tip: pee before the exam. If you cannot regularly go 90 minutes without a bathroom break, and don’t know why, check with a medical professional. After you do that, read the syllabus and student handbook again to check for policies on medical accommodations.

Yes, you may need to prove your loved one died.

If this happens to you, first and foremost, I’m sorry. Your professors are sorry too – even if they don’t show it in front of you. But students lie about this all the time. It goes in and out of fashion as the lie of choice, but it’s always around. It’s called Dead Grandmother Syndrome. There are actual studies on it (even if entertainingly written, it uses real data). That’s why your college has an actual procedure to report the death of a loved one.

My wife’s colleagues all have stories about assignments that were due just before a break that caused a wave of ill-health and death in student families. I think my wife’s record is 5 grandparents with one paper – her record is not very high. If an assignment is due the Wednesday before Thanksgiving or the day before Spring Break, a single paper might wipe out a dozen grandparents (usually grandmothers – see references above). Those people who wanted to leave for vacation a day early are why, when your life actually sucks, your professor may remind you to complete your school’s process.

That said, if you build up trust with you professors by being a reliable and good student, they will probably try to help you first and worry about the paperwork later.

Learn your college’s grade appeal process.

While we’re one the topic of policy let’s talk about times there are actual problems. Sometimes your professor is a jerk and is unfair. This is genuinely pretty rare, but it does happen and it’s bad when it does. Your college has a process for this. I don’t know what that process is, but it’s there and it’s probably in your student manual. Look it up it. Follow it. I can promise you it does not involve your parents calling anyone at the college – if that’s part of your (or their) plan, start again.

If your professor crosses lines beyond being unfair with grades, at least in the U.S., your college is required to have a policy for that as well. But it will be easier to deal with the process if you have support. Go see a professor you like and trust and ask for help. If you don’t have a professor you are comfortable with check to see if the school has a student advocate, or try calling the counseling center to see if they can point you in the right direction (and consider if their direct services might be useful as well). Those are serious situations, and you deserve more help and support than I can offer here.

Professors make mistakes.

Professors, being humans (this fact seems to surprise students when we see them in public), make mistakes (this fact surprises no one). When you think a professor made an actual mistake, don’t be a jerk about it.

During my first programming course in college I got a notice in my mailbox announcing that because I’d failed the first test I should drop the class and change majors. I was pissed. In no small part because I had been disappointed in the B- I’d earned on that test – not what I wanted but a long way from failing. I could have stormed over to the professor’s office and raised my voice to demand justice. Or I could have gone to the department chair and insisted he intervene on my behalf.

Instead, I waited until scheduled office hours, and went to talk calmly with the professor about the situation. I took the test with me – which had “B-” written in his (not my) handwriting on it. I started the conversation by pulling out the exam and handing it to him. He looked at it, cursed at himself, and noticed the off-by-one error in his grade book. He then apologized and offered me a job.

If I’d gone charging in I fully expect I would have gotten my grade fixed, but I would not have gotten a job (I also became his dog sitter so I got free food and laundry service every time he traveled for the next three years because I wasn’t a jerk). And he would have remembered me being a jerk about a simple mistake in every course I took from him until I graduated (there were several). Instead he liked having me in class, which is never a bad thing.

Your professors are nice people.

Seriously, when there aren’t world-wide pandemics they come to my house all the time. I meet them at parties and conferences. We have a good time together.

I’m not saying this just because I am married to one. Sure sometimes they get a little too into their subjects, or lack some social graces, and yes they hold power over your grades. But in the end they are just people like everyone else.

Take them seriously. Listen to what they have to say. Read their syllabi. But don’t lose track of the fact they are person, with a life off campus, a family, hobbies, struggles, and all the rest of it. Ask them open ended questions before or after class and you might learn a few extra things worth knowing.

Good luck and work hard!

There are plenty of other things you need to do to get through college, and lots of other advice to read. But hopefully these tips will help you along the way.  Good luck this year. Hopefully it goes at least a little better than last year did (for all of us).

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