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What to Say to Your Professor

Alumna puts 10 years of teaching experience into new advice book for college students.
People  |  Mar 5, 2013  |  By Diane Russell
Alumna Ellen Levine Bremen offer communication tips to college students in her newest book.

Her student's frustration was clear to Ellen Levine Bremen. The young woman had come to Bremen, her advisor at their Georgia community college, to talk about an issue with another faculty member. Bremen urged the student to talk directly to the faculty member.

But as the student walked away, Bremen realized the young woman was not going to take the advice and was equally -- if not more -- frustrated than when she had arrived.

What more, Bremen wondered, could she have done to help?

Words, Bremen realized. She could have helped the student come up with the words for having that conversation with the faculty member.

Bremen has supplied to the nation's college students those words and more through her book Say This, NOT That to Your Professor: 36 Talking Tips for College Success (Pearson Education 2012). The book has been well received, leading to articles in USA Today, for instance.

Bremen, '98 BS Education, '00 MA Communication Studies, wrote the book after 10 years of teaching college students and taking note -- often literally -- of the difficulties many had talking to their professors. She currently teaches communication studies at Seattle's Highline Community College.

It's little wonder many students have trouble talking to their professors, she says. Face-to-face interaction for this generation of college students can be limited.

"My students tell me how they communicate with friends and even family, and it's often not face-to-face," Bremen says. They text. They tweet. They communicate through Facebook.

"And then you plunk them in an environment that is face-to-face and expect them to conduct themselves professionally and assertively," she says. "No wonder it is so difficult for some of them."

Bremen's book gives students words they can use in common interactions with professors.

For instance when you have been absent and want to inquire about what you missed in class, you should NEVER say, "Did I miss anything important yesterday?"

That implies that there are some days that nothing the professor says is important, she points out.

And while you're not saying that, don't add to the insult by asking, "Can you go over everything I missed?"

That makes it seem as if you want to place the burden of your absence on the instructor rather than on yourself.

"Anything you can do to take responsibility before approaching the professor is best," Bremen advises. "Look at the syllabus. Take a look at the work you missed. Be proactive."

Then go to the professor and say something such as, "I know you went over chapter six in class. I've read it and I have two questions."

"My book gives students the right words to use in situations they will likely face at some point," Bremen says. "Students can use the scripts or paraphrase them. Either way, I want them to feel more confident and competent."

Learn more from Ellen Levine Bremen at her blog, The Chatty Professor.