Susan LaMoreaux: Making friends with professors

Thursday, September 17, 2015 - 7:06pm

As I sometimes tell people, I like everything — I’ve only had a couple of classes in my two years so far at Michigan that I truly didn’t enjoy. I think this comes out of my wide-reaching interests. Each semester I’m looking to learn as much as I can, both inside and outside of the classroom, and I want to let my professors know that I’m engaged on this deep and sincere level. I’m truly paying attention during their lectures because I’m coming to class in order to take away something I didn’t know before. So a normal day for me means that, as class ends and everyone rushes out the door en masse, I instead make my way down the aisle to the front of the room.

“Hi,” I’ll tell the professor when I get up to the podium. “I really enjoyed your lecture. And I wanted to let you know, it reminded me of something I heard on the radio the other day…”

It can be that simple. A few words are all it takes to begin to build a friendship that can last long after the final exam. For me, these relationships have meant spending time in a professor’s office to practice German or meeting for coffee to talk about academic goals. A couple of my professors have also approached me about working for them over the summer, and hired me to compile materials that would be integrated into an existing syllabus. Such possibilities are out there, but in each new class and semester, I have to once again make the effort to build a relationship. I want to be someone my professors will get to know by name, not because I’m trying to kiss up, but because I’m truly interested in and drawn to the subject matter that they’re teaching.

University President Mark Schlissel spoke about getting to know your professors in a recent interview with WEMU’s Lisa Barry. “Even though this is a big school, one of the pleasant things about the culture here is the faculty truly love to teach,” Schlissel said. “Part of the reason they come to the University of Michigan is because of the caliber of students we attract.”

Outside of such a context, it can be scary to go up and talk to a professor — I’ll be the first one to say that — but it pays to build a relationship that can last. After the semester comes to a close, Elizabeth Goodenough, a lecturer in the Arts and Ideas in the Humanities program, sometimes hires students as research assistants or writes letters of recommendation, and finds that students often come back into their teachers’ lives, sometimes a decade later.  

Ann Arbor is a fairly small town, and I’ve run into former professors at the grocery store or walking their dog in the neighborhood. It’s a good feeling when both of us can remember the other’s name. And that starts now, when you go to office hours, when you send an e-mail asking for clarification of the materials, when you linger for a minute after class and chat about the weather as you pack your things. Let them know what you liked and where you lost interest or, as the case may be, found yourself offended. And see where the conversation goes from there. Your professors come here to teach and you come to learn; you might have more in common than you realize.

Susan LaMoreaux can be reached at susanpl@umich.edu.