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Book Review: Say This, NOT That to Your Professor

Have you ever had trouble figuring out why you received a particular grade on a project? Or maybe you missed a critical assignment and didn't know how you could get back on track? A new book titled Say This, NOT That to Your Professor, from Ellen Bremen (aka The Chatty Professor) aims to help students communicate these and other concerns with their professors in more efficient and effective ways.

Bremen's presentation is conversational and based on her more than 14 years of experience as a communications studies professor. Through her perspective, as an instructor working directly with individual learners to overcome communication challenges, she informs both students and teachers through real-world situations that depict both "sides" of the conversation – reminding us throughout that students and instructors are in fact on the same side. The goal for students is to "discover the right words to improve your grades, manage your classes, and build communication skills for life."

36 Talking Tips for College Success

The book opens with a scenario in which an advisor asks a student who is having trouble in class, "So what have you told the professor about this?" And the student replies, "Nothing. I don't know what to say." Most of us have at one point or another felt this way as a learner – in trouble, but helpless to do anything about it. Bremen confronts this head-on, explaining that there is something we can do – we can communicate. It requires initiative and a positive approach, but "isn't this your education?" It's worth the time and effort required to develop the skills necessary to have productive conversations with faculty members.

This how-to guide is comprised of two sections: 1) Class Issues Your Professor Won't Discuss With You (But Wishes Someone Would) and 2) Class Issues Your Professor Won't Discuss With You (And May Not Want You to Know), and each chapter addresses a specific issue, such as Extra Credit, Apologizing, and Responding to Your Professor's Emails. Bremen provides 36 instances in which you might not be sure what to say to your professor, or how to approach him or her with your concerns, thoughts, and questions. 

Each issue/chapter presentation includes a description of the situation in which the issue might take place, specific "ask yourself this" guidance to consider before contacting your instructor, and suggested wording to get you started when you do make contact. Through these examples, Bremen covers a wealth of related topics, such as conflict management, course and program policies, and FERPA.

What about online students?

While focused primarily on the traditional student and instructor relationship in the face-to-face classroom, this book is relevant for those engaged in an online environment as well. The recommendations are applicable to all types of learners, but Bremen devotes a seven-chapter series to "Dealing with Email, Social Media, and Technology," which is particularly important for those who rely on these avenues for most or all of the communication taking place in their courses.

From avoiding the use of "textspeak" to connecting with faculty members though social media, these recomendations encourage students to not only have realistic expectations for digital communication, but also practice the required skills – ones that enhance professional relationship building with instructors and transfer to future workplace scenarios. Here is an example from the "Sloppy, Casual, or Unrelated Emails" chapter:

  • What you might do: Fail to spell-check or grammar-check your emails; use too casual a tone in your emails; or send your professor crazy chain letters, promotions, or jokes via email.
  • Ask yourself this: What stops me from editing/reviewing my emails before sending them? Am I too rushed? Unsure of proper grammar/punctuation use? … Does my email sound like something I'd send to a friend or family member? Is this email related to my class in any way?
  • Think this: I deserve to have my email represent me properly. … I can be friendly without getting too personal or casual. … If I think the content relates to my prof or the class in some way, I can let the prof know what I want to send and ask if he minds. That's better than the risk of offending him.
  • Say this: Dear Professor, I hope you had a good weekend. I have debated if I was actually going to send these to you so early, but ultimately came to the conclusion that it really can't hurt. : ) Please let me know if I need to change anything or if I'm way off base in what you expect from this assignment. Thanks. [Student name]

This section also provides a list of ways in which email communication in particular should be professionally presented (e.g., don't forget subject line, close with "thank you" or "respectfully," and identify yourself in a signature.)

Think of Say This, NOT That to Your Professor as a resource manual. Access when you need it to inform your approach to addressing a specific concern in your course with your instructor. When used effectively, this guide could help you build the skills and confidence required for successful communication, even at a distance.

Join the Conversation!

I first "met" the author via Twitter after she received an award for teaching innovation from The Sloan Consortium. You can also connect with her on Twitter, @ChattyProf, and join the "Say This Not That" conversation via social media using the hashtag: #STNT.

What are the most difficult conversations for you to have with your instructors? How have you successfully used technology to connect with your professors? Share your thoughts and recommendations with us here.