Professor offers tips to new college students on how to talk to teachers

Ellen Bremen wrote “Say This, Not That to Your Professor”
credit Ellen Bremen

Note: This story originally appeared in the Aug. 8, 2012, issue of the Austin American-Statesman

Ellen Bremen wants college students to talk to their professors. A professor at Highline Community College in Des Moines, Wash., Bremen has seen and heard a lot in her 14 years of teaching at colleges and universities.

Four years into her career, the communications studies professor decided a book needed to be written about communicating with professors. Now, 10 years later, “Say This, Not That to Your Professor, ” is out and has inspired a blog at, a Facebook page and a Twitter account.

The book uses real examples of what students have said and done in the classroom, in emails and during office hours. With each example, Bremen gives suggestions on more effective ways to communicate.

She addresses distracting classroom behaviors, grade comparing among peers, work ethic, procrastination, emailing a professor and dealing with conflicts with a professor, among other topics.

Ellen Bremen wrote “Say This, Not That to Your Professor”
credit Ellen Bremen

She’s seen students struggling with interpersonal communication, and she says it’s getting worse each year as they become more comfortable texting, tweeting and Facebooking rather than talking one-on-one.

“Parents and grandparents are caving, ” she says. Bremen will hear from them, “I can’t get my kids to talk to me unless I text them.”

As this new generation of college students arrives on campus, many don’t know how to be their own advocates, she says, because their parents have done that for them.

“They don’t even know they should be proactive with a professor, ” she says. “They don’t realize college is there to help you.”

Her best tips for students:

Don’t make excuses. A professor doesn’t care why you have to leave early, come late, miss class or turn in assignments late. An advance warning is nice if it comes with a proactive statement such as, “I’m going to miss next Thursday, but I have already read the chapter for that day and completed the assignment. Can I call you if I have more questions?”

Be proactive early. Need a certain grade to make your scholarship? Talk with the professor in the early weeks of class and ask what you will need to do to make that grade. Many professors also will read drafts of papers and give suggestions, if done in advance.

Turning in work late is better than not turning in any work at all. Most professors will include in the class syllabus the way late work will be handled, but if it’s not addressed, students should ask.

Be respectful of professors‘ time. Don’t expect a professor to email you right back on a Saturday afternoon. Professors also might tell you on the syllabus or on the first day of class what their response time to emails might be.

Office hours are there to be used. Professors want you to talk to them. Most professors‘ contracts require them to make themselves available to you. You also can email them or call them to set up a time outside office hours.

Don’t like your grade? You have resources. Talk to the professor in a professional way first; then you can go to a department head.

Be respectful in the way you talk to your professor. Some professors don’t mind being called by their first names; others think it’s disrespectful. You should find out how your professor wants to be addressed.

The relationship you build with your professor can help long after class ends. It’s good training for the relationship you will later have as an employee with your boss. Professors also can cut through red tape if you need a class but can’t get it or need access to school resources. They also often have ties to your future career and can help with references or alerting you to jobs.

“I wish this book was handed to every single student walking in, ” Bremen says. “It’s a lesson in interpersonal communication.”

Author: Nicole Villalpando

Nicole Villalpando writes about families in the Raising Austin blog and the Raising Austin column on Saturdays. She also offers a weekly and monthly family calendar at She tweets at @raisingaustin.

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