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Talk to your professors

ways and means

Starting school at a place like Duke was intimidating last semester. Duke is a place where serious things get done by serious people. Classes would be taught by imperial professors, people with years of esoteric study under their belt. Within a few weeks, however, I came to realize this was a poor image of Duke.

For one thing, professors do not wear regal robes or walk with their heads turned away from students. In fact, many of them are—surprisingly enough—human! My fear of approaching them with my naive questions was abated (but not cured) and my sense of alienation was reduced.

Last semester, I roamed between professors’ offices to ask questions. Some of these were about career paths: a professor of pharmacology spoke to me about pursuing a neuroscience education; a professor of English discussed creative writing with me; a law professor took the time to discuss legal academia with a freshman. The thing that stood out to me about these experiences was that I wasn’t in classes with any of these academics—being associated with Duke (and showing interest in their fields) was enough for them to speak with me, even for a short time.

It is true that Duke is where serious people do serious things; the problem with my image was the idea of professors being too aloof to interact with students. In reality, the professoriate at Duke is personable and wants to engage with students (especially when students reach out). 

Take this past week, for instance. By happenstance, I walked past Professor Ferraro’s office during his office hours. I had been in his class last year, which let me know that his open door signaled him holding office hours. Of course, I already knew Professor Ferraro from the last semester, but I was struck that even this (somewhat) impromptu discussion was enough to engage us for almost an hour. Much of the energy in the room came from his own openness and desire to talk with undergraduates. Ferraro may be an outlier, given that his room is very much designed to entice and trap students in its aura. Still, I believe his general spirit of charitable discussion is found in most Duke professors.

We have a lot to gain from being at Duke. We are surrounded by resources for personal projects, opportunities for service work (like DukeEngage), centers of innovative research, and extremely intelligent peers. We are also, however, surrounded by academics whose experiences are not usually accessible outside the academy. From graduate students beginning their exploration of a field to professors who have shaped entire disciplines, Duke puts us in direct contact with these experts. The caveat, of course, is that we must have the initiative to use these connections.

Duke offers plenty of opportunities to meet faculty. For one, the FLUNCH program is a simple reason to reach out to a professor. Many departments hold faculty/student gatherings and post faculty office hours on their websites. Imagine the wasted hours of teaching (and learning) that pass every day that a professor holds office hours where no one attends. Students shouldn’t, of course, always be running from one office to another; I doubt that would ever be a problem. 

What I can tell from my first semester is that the problem is the extreme inverse: very few students regularly engage professors outside of class. And often these engagements are made by juniors or seniors trying to dive into a specific field. While this is good, I fear that younger students are not using the chance to speak with professors in their exploration of fields.

One might fear that undergraduates flooding the office hours of professors may hurt their ability to help their students. First, I appreciate your faith in the persuasiveness of my article. Secondly, this is virtually impossible. One problem I have heard that STEM students have with talking to professors outside of class is a lack of material to cover; unlike humanities students who can bother their English professors about Catholicity, what questions do students ask their statistics professor? Besides asking for help on the class material, discussing the state of the field and specific research of the professor can be worthwhile investments. How often can you learn about the state of data sciences as a discipline from an expert at a leading research university? The easiest solution to the problem of not having questions is to look into a professor’s field of expertise. At some point, questions must arise—otherwise, there wouldn’t be research in that field.

There are very few excuses, I feel, to not reach out to professors. Talk to professors you’ve taken classes with—push them on the content of the class, on the content of their lectures. Talk to professors you’ve heard of—ask them about their field, about their writings, about their experiences. Talk to professors who teach in a field you will never study—maybe they will show you its value.

Akshaj Turebylu is a Trinity first-year. His column, ways and means, runs on alternate Wednesdays.