Say This, NOT That to Your Professor: 36 Talking Tips for College Success

Say This, NOT That to Your Professor: 36 Talking Tips for College Success

by Ellen Bremen
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Say This, NOT That to Your Professor: 36 Talking Tips for College Success

Say This, NOT That to Your Professor: 36 Talking Tips for College Success is dedicated to the student-professor relationship and to giving students the exact words they need to competently and confidently deal with challenging classroom situations. The text teaches readers to communicate professionally and gives insight into issues that play a critical role in their college experiences.

Topics include communicating to overcome grade confusion, or to achieve a grade goal, appropriately challenging a professor in class, earning extra credit, and properly using social media and e-mail. The text also covers relationship-building with a professor, using office hours, and asking for a letter of recommendation. Finally, readers will learn self-advocacy strategies for challenging situations not typically discussed such as boring or easy classes, receiving timely feedback, and what to do when the whole class fails.

Say This, NOT That to Your Professor gives students advice and talking points they can immediately apply to their classroom situation. Each chapter of this 2nd edition also features an industry professional’s perspective detailing how the classroom situations might play out in the workplace. The book pairs with any college course, and is ideal for any course on college success, first-year experience programs, communication, English as a second language, and international orientation courses.

Ellen Bremen holds degrees in both communication studies and post-secondary education from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is 15 year tenured faculty in the Communication Studies Department at Highline College in Des Moines, Washington. She is a past recipient of the Sloan Consortium's Excellence in Online Teaching and Learning Award. Professor Bremen has also been recognized by the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development and the National Council of Instructional Administrators for teaching innovation. She has contributed to titles with McGraw-Hill, Pearson Education, Oxford University Press, and Cengage Learning.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781935254683
Publication date: 04/25/2012
Pages: 270
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.70(d)
Age Range: 16 Years

About the Author

A 14-year classroom veteran, Ellen Bremen is tenured faculty in the Communication Studies department at Highline Community College. Ellen is a professor who stops at nothing to help students strengthen their communication skills: Peanut butter and jelly to illustrate problematic messages, pipe cleaners to teach communication models, and Post-it notes to reduce speaking anxiety. Not surprisingly, Ellen has received national recognition for teaching innovation by the Sloan-Consortium (2011), the National Institute for Staff and Organizational Development and the National Council of Instructional Administrators (2003). Ellen blogs weekly as The Chatty Professor (, she speaks to college audiences through Samara Lectures, and is an insanely active tweeter (@chattyprof). Ellen lives in Seattle with her husband, daughter, and son.

Why is This Professor Willing to Talk?
It's simple: I started to see students, like yourself, unknowingly sabotage their education when a simple conversation could have helped their academic standing so much. Instead, students either dealt with class-related issues in a completely clueless way ("Can I turn in this paper late?" -- Me: "Sure, if I can let 27 other people turn it in late, too.") or, they just wouldn't say anything at all... which was even worse. Then, the problem never resolved, and grades suffered. Believe me, my colleagues all over the country report the same issues.

What's the bigger problem? When students fumble their words, most profs won't sit down later with the student and say, "Hey, this is how the communication should have gone down." I'll admit, even as a Communication prof, I was guilty of this, too! Why? Because a term has only so many weeks. Profs have to be swift problem solvers for students, and then we have to move on to the next issue. Also, many profs don't believe their job is to teach students communication.

I decided it was time to change all that and write the very first book in the college success genre to deal with this relationship that students will deal with every single day!

Students, college is the ideal place for you to practice excellent communication, and professors are among the first people in your life you'll interact with as an adult. And guess what? You don't text with them. You don't Facebook with them (even if you Facebook about them). You need to deal with most issues face-to-face and sometimes via e-mail.

My goal is to give you inside tips on how to interact so your professors will respond in a positive manner. I want you to learn what goes on behind the scenes of your classes so you can create opportunities, rather than fumble over excuses. I want you to confidently and properly stand up for yourself when you're concerned about your classes or grades. The result? Improved relationships with your profs, a stronger learning experience, and most of all, better grades.

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Read an Excerpt


1. Parents Handling Your Problems

What You Might Think:

Mom talked to my teachers in high school when I had problems. I'll let her continue doing her good work.

What Your Professor Thinks:

Your parents have no business taking care of your business in college.

The Real Story

"My professor writes nasty feedback on my papers. It feels like he's attacking me!"

Beck, one of my advisees, sat in my office, angry at his professor and even more freaked out that he might not make it through his class.

"What kinds of things does he say?" I asked.

"Things like, 'Did you not understand this source wasn't credible?'"

I could hardly blame Beck for his reaction. Who would want feedback with that kind of tone?

"I want to drop that class!" Beck said, hitting about a five in volume — noteworthy for a typically quiet guy.

If Beck withdrew, he would not receive a refund. It was already midterm. And let's be real: we can't just run away from difficult people. Unfortunately, they are everywhere.

"Why not talk to the professor? Schedule a meeting and discuss what's bothering you," I suggested.

Beck looked at me like he'd rather have surgery without anesthesia.

"You can say, 'Professor, I appreciate your thoughts about my work, but I'm struggling with your written comments. They sound very critical of me as a person, rather than the writing. I'm nervous about turning other work in. Can I have some specific instructions on how to improve?'"

"I can't do that," Beck muttered. "I don't like arguments."

"Listen," I said. "You have to tell your professor you aren't comfortable. You deserve feedback that makes sense and doesn't make you feel this way. Think about when you're dealing with a boss. If your boss is always nasty to you, you'd figure out how to deal with it so you could do a good job, right? This professor may not realize how his comments are coming across."

Beck reluctantly agreed to make an appointment with the professor and then follow up with me. However, Beck didn't show up to his professor's office.

His mother did.

First, she called me. "Mrs. Bremen, Beck is having big trouble with one of his professors," she snapped. "This guy is treating Beck like he doesn't do anything right! I need to see this jerk and find out why he's putting down my kid."

"I'm sorry," I said. "Legally, I can't discuss this situation with you."

"What do you mean?" she growled. "That's crazy. I am paying good money for this education. I have a right to know what's going on with my kid!"

The Backstory

Are you surprised that I used the word "legally"? I'm not a lawyer, nor do I play one on TV or Netflix. But I do know about the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 (FERPA), a law enabling students to keep their education a private matter once they hit age eighteen.

Legally, your professors can't discuss anything you're doing in college with your parents without your permission. The only exception to this law is if you sign paperwork with the registrar's office giving Mom and Dad freedom to see your educational records or speak to your professors.

Throwing a party in your head right now? Think this law is a great idea? It is! But only if you're willing to undertake the responsibility that the FERPA law gives you. In college, you are your own voice. You take care of your own business.

I realize this may be a shift for you. It's a shift for your parents, too. If Beck's mother called his teacher every time his pencil broke, suddenly "letting" him take care of his college-related affairs won't be an easy transition. I get it: my kids are twelve and seven, and except for the fact that I work at a college, I can't imagine the day that parent-teacher or student-led conferences — and full access to my children's educational records — end!

Yet I would want to know that I'm not wasting my money on my kids' college education. I would want to know if my daughter or son is snoozing in bed rather than sitting (or sleeping!) in class. I would also want to know if my kids are struggling. Once they get into college, though, it's technically (and legally) not my affair.

Putting my professor cap back on, here's my take: at school, I want you to have confidence to drive your education and your communication with professors. At home, I want you to keep your parents on your academic team. You're going to need their support as you are having these important conversations at school and advocating for yourself.

Ask Yourself This:

Did another adult handle issues for me in high school? Did they do this because I wanted them to? How did their intervention make me feel? Relieved? Thankful? Irresponsible? Incapable?

Did I ever go to teachers to solve my own problems? What was the best experience I had doing this? The worst?

How did I feel taking care of a problem myself? Confident? Motivated? If the situation didn't resolve in my favor, how important is that situation now that I'm in college?

Think This:

If I'm used to my parents handling things for me in high school, I'll get used to handling things myself.

If I'm already doing that, then I know I can do it in college.

It is totally understandable that you may not want to deal with your professors. Just remember, this isn't a job. You won't get fired if your professor doesn't like what you have to say. Handle yourself professionally and appropriately (which is why you're reading this book!) and you won't get kicked out, you won't fail, and your professor won't bite you. If the situation doesn't resolve, you have the option of talking to people who are higher up.

Not That:

I'm going to drop this class because I can't stand this professor!

You may choose to drop a class here or there, but you don't want to make it a regular habit. Dropping classes can throw off your graduation timeline, and it's expensive, depending on when you withdraw. And what if you don't like the next professor? Will you drop the next class, too? You'll learn far more by staying in a challenging situation and overcoming it than by running away. Give yourself the chance to gain that experience and the confidence that you'll feel from getting through it.

I'm going to sign the damned FER-whatever paper so my parents can tell that guy off!

Come on! This is college, and you are an adult! Fight your own battles. Your parents don't step into your arguments with your boyfriend, girlfriend, or best friend, do they? Believe in yourself. Use your good words to represent yourself. Regardless of the outcome, you'll gain skills every time you try.

Say This:

Do what Beck should have done — make an appointment with the professor and say:

Thank you for seeing me today, Professor Frodo. When I read the comments you make on my papers, I feel like you are attacking my work. I am having a hard time focusing on improvement when the comments seem so harsh. Can I have specific feedback about my work so I can improve?

Use this strategy to deal with any other issue where you feel like the professor is talking down to you. Hopefully, you'll rarely, if ever, have to deal with something like this. But sometimes an unintended tone comes out, or the professor may just have a personality that doesn't click with yours. You may feel like the professor doesn't like you (and don't ask them if they do).

The truth is that your professor doesn't have to like you. You don't have to like them either. "Like" is a bonus in the student– professor relationship, and more often than not, you'll probably have it. But the only relationship you need with your professor is one of fairness in instruction and grading. If you don't get that, you can also say:

I'm sensing that you are frustrated with me or my work. I want to do my best in this class. Can you give me specific advice about something I should be doing differently to improve what I'm turning in?

Not That:

You must not like me very much.

I must be a total screwup. I can't do anything right in this class.

You're a real jerk. You don't care about your students' feelings.

Acting angry or like a victim will not get your message across. Instead, ask questions, use "I" language, and focus on getting the feedback that you need and deserve.

The End Note

Wondering what happened with Beck? He missed a huge opportunity to advocate for himself. When he allowed his mother to step in after our conversation, I wondered at what point he would take responsibility for his education and forge these critical working relationships with his professors.

I'll share another angle on a similar situation: Mary was a struggling student of mine. She skipped class, didn't follow through on assignments or studying, and she repeatedly fell apart on promises to her parents that she would do better.

Mary did sign FERPA paperwork giving her parents access to her educational records, but it didn't seem to matter. The only benefit Mary's parents had was that they could find out directly how poorly Mary was doing. Not surprisingly, Mary ended up on academic probation several times, ultimately requiring a hearing.

Unlike Beck, Mary did not opt to have her parents attend the hearing. I wasn't expecting her rationale, either: "If my parents came, I wouldn't take it seriously. I needed this to happen and I needed to go on my own." Mary ultimately turned things around for herself. Independence at that academic hearing was a clear first step.

Follow Mary's lead. If you do, you'll likely have a more productive relationship with your professors, you'll know what your professor expects from you (superimportant for your success!), and you'll start to believe in yourself that you can handle conflicts. This is a good thing, because conflict is everywhere.

Bottom line: college has no PTA. You've joined the SPA: the Student–Professor Association.

You hold the meetings.

You set the agendas.

You gain the academic and personal benefits that last you a lifetime.

The Career Note

A 2012 study cited in the Wall Street Journal stated that 11 percent of college graduates involve their parents in the interviewing process. Here's an interviewer's take on this practice:

I had one mother contact me. I politely told her to have her son call to discuss the position, that I wouldn't discuss anything with her. She was a little surprised when I told her I hadn't received his resume. He had told her he already applied for the position. The woman's son called me about two hours later.

I certainly did not have very high expectations for the candidate, but I was interested in him since we were desperately trying to find someone for that particular position. He interviewed well on the phone so I called her in for a panel interview. But, really, students show that they are responsible if they seek out and apply for a position on their own.

Theresa, healthcare


Talking to Parents about Failure

What You Might Think:

I can't tell my parents that I failed this term. They'll go crazy (kick me out of the house, think I'm a failure in life, cry, scream at me, etc.).

What Your Professor Thinks:

You need people who care about you on your academic team. Talk to them.

What Your Parent/Concerned Person Thinks:

I may be extremely angry, disappointed, devastated, etc., but ultimately, I care and I want to know what's going on with you so we can figure it out.

The Real Story

"I messed up. My parents want to see my grades, and I can't let them. I failed, and I'm not living up to their expectations. I tried. What can I say to not make them more mad at me? I hate feeling like a failure to them."

"I've been dangerously depressed, and I just let myself fail an entire quarter's worth of classes. I didn't understand the impact it would have on my financial aid and tried not to think about how it would affect my GPA. I might have to pay back my loans, and I may have lost them for good. I can't tell my parents about this. They will be devastated."

I wish e-mails like these were fake, but they aren't. They are from real students terrified to disclose their academic standing to their families. Students fear hurting, disappointing, or causing financial harm to whomever is supporting their education (parents, guardians, grandparents, or other interested parties).

I don't need to add more "Real Story" here. The painful emails speak for themselves. Let's jump into solutions.

The Backstory

Let me start by saying that I am a parent. Both my kids struggle in school. I could very well be in your parents' shoes one day:

my own kids might be afraid to tell me about their grades. So let's just say that I am sensitive to this situation from both sides.

That said, in the last chapter I told you that your parents shouldn't be doing school business for you. I meant that. But remember when I said that you still need your parents behind the scenes on your academic team? I meant that, too!

In the e-mail examples, the word "fail" came up several times. Quite often, the habits that lead to failure become a pattern: too little studying, too much socializing and procrastination, too little help in enough time for it to, well, help.

Parents go nuts seeing their kids repeat mistakes. Therefore, if you fear that your parents will go off on you for poor grades, they may feel frustrated about unproductive habits working against you. Their anger likely also stems from feeling helpless. Really, motivation, effort, time management, and self-advocacy are ultimately up to you. Your parents can make recommendations, but they can't put the work ethic into you.

You might be thinking, "But my bad grades aren't my fault. The professor was (insert: too boring, too strict, too whatever)." This may be true, but from your parents' perspective, they expect that you will take care of issues with your professor — or seek their guidance (or someone's guidance) to do so.

Because your parents know you and your habits — for better or worse — your communication strategy must reveal a proactive, immediate plan for tangible change. So, before you confront your parents to deliver bad news, not to mention steel yourself for "the lecture" that you'll get and may deserve, take these "pre-steps" to change the conversation:

First, talk to current professors about your grades. Send an e-mail to set an appointment and save a copy of the e-mail (I'll explain why in a moment).

Later chapters in this book will give you the words for those specific grade conversations. Your main goals are to come clean about your grades with the folks from whom you are earning them and to receive answers about how those grades happened.

Say that you know you've failed or that you are failing and discuss how you contributed to the failure ("I should have come to you sooner" is a good catch-all statement if you feel that the problem wasn't necessarily on your end). Make it clear that you want to change the outcome for the rest of the term, or for next term.

After speaking with the professor, visit your school's counseling office. You need more people on your academic team. Failure is incredibly stressful. Your college's counseling office can support you with issues that may be hindering your success. Grab a pamphlet from the counseling office and keep that with you.

Finally, figure out what other resources you can use at your college to change the outcome for next time: tutoring center, writing center, librarian support — anything.

Once you've done these things, and only after you've done them, then it's time to talk to your parents. Many students know that their parents have heard it all before, and part of the fear is that anything they say won't be believed anyway. This is why you have to show that you've taken concrete steps to create change. You've done this by expanding your support team and speaking to the prof to hatch a new plan.

I genuinely believe if you show your parents a different approach to solve the problem, they will see a different side of you and may become less upset. The key is that you actually have to follow through on the conversations you have. You don't want to lose your parents' trust further by saying you'll keep working with your prof or the counseling center, tutoring center, etc., and then not doing it.

Ask Yourself This:

What is the worst that will happen if I am honest with my parents about my struggles? Even if they are upset, would my parents rather know what's going on than be kept in the dark? What will happen if I keep this information from them for a long time and they find out?

Think This:

By creating a plan and using my support systems, on and off campus, I can turn this situation around. If I'm honest with my parents and honest with myself, I have a chance to do things differently.

Not That:

My parents will hate me because I've failed and I won't ever be able to recover.

Failure in college is recoverable. Even if you lose financial aid and have to take out a loan or find a way to pay for school, the situation can turn around. I'm not saying alternate paths will be easy, but they are possible. And, once your parents see that you're taking new steps, you'll earn their trust that you are serious about school.


Excerpted from "Say This Not That To Your Professor"
by .
Copyright © 2017 Ellen Bremen.
Excerpted by permission of Cognella, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Section 1: Class Issues Your Professor Won't Discuss With You (But Wishes Someone Would)



Chapter 1. Parents Handling Your Problems

Classroom Behavior/Your Peers

Chapter 2. Class Jokers

Chapter 3. What Other Students Think and Feel

Chapter 4. Distracting Classroom Behavior (Texting!)


Chapter 5. Comparing Grades With Others

Chapter 6. "Getting" Grades and Working "Hard" for Your Grades

Chapter 7. A Zero Grade

Chapter 8. Getting the Grade You Need

Chapter 9. Passing a Course After Absences

Chapter 10. A Do-Over

Chapter 11. Extra Credit

Chapter 12. Finding Out What's on the Test

Managing Your Assignments/Schedule

Chapter 13. Your Work Ethic

Chapter 14. Asking for Help or a Review (Early!)

Chapter 15. Procrastination

Chapter 16. Late Work

Chapter 17. Conflict with Work in Other Classes

Chapter 18. Leaving Early or Arriving Late

Chapter 19. Going Over What You Missed

Chapter 20. Figuring Out if You Missed Something "Important"

Chapter 21. Apologizing

Dealing With E-mail/Social Media/Technology

Chapter 22. Frequent E-mailing

Chapter 23. Your E-mail Address

Chapter 24. Sending Angry E-mails

Chapter 25. Sloppy, Casual, or Unrelated E-mails

Chapter 26. Responding to Your Professor's E-mails

Chapter 27. Using Facebook/Twitter

Chapter 28. Laptop Use in Class

Section 2: Class Issues Your Professor Won't Discuss With You (And May Not Want You to Know)

Chapter 29. Receiving Timely Feedback That Makes Sense

Chapter 30. Challenging a Professor

Chapter 31. Going Higher

Chapter 32. Professor Evaluations

Chapter 33. Teaching Style

Chapter 34. Accessing Your Professor In and Out of Class

Chapter 35. Learning About a Professor Ahead of Time

Chapter 36. Failure of the Entire Class

About the Author


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