(Me at office hours with one of my heroes, Anis Mojgani)
You’ve been blogging up a storm! San Francisco sounds beautiful and your job sounds AMAZING. I love hearing about all the magic going on in your life. Including those boss leather pants. Mostly the boss leather pants, actually. But yeah, the beautiful view of the city from your apartment, your adorable roommate, and that you get to choose the clothes for fashion shows doesn’t sound so bad either.
The first day of school was perfect, but I wanted to talk to you about one of my goals for this semester: office hours. In this stage in our friendship, you are aware of my authority-induced-social-anxiety. I failed to give volunteer Santa a hot chocolate I got him because I was too shy. Last semester, before I went to my favorite professor’s office hours every week to ask questions about my favorite subject, I had to stand outside and count to sixty while taking deep breaths, and even then I had to promise myself I would get some chocolate afterwards.
While many of my professors at UT have been nothing but kind and supportive, even in response to my high-pitched and rushed questions, there are many who would much rather be doing research or other work than spending time talking to nervous undergraduates. Which, I mean, I understand. My first semester of college, I went to talk to my psychology professor about the advantages and disadvantages of getting a psychology degree over a neurobiology/neuroscience degree. She had just gotten some bad news. Her blatant unhappiness coupled with my nervousness meant that I was completely unintelligible and nearly in tears by the end of the consultation. I have since thought in depth about how to improve my demeanor in office hours or in other situations where I feel intimidated.
Make sure you know what your professors do. Many of the professors at UT have summaries of their research online, and a quick google search never hurt anyone. This way, you have something to talk about other than yourself. Make sure you have a quality introduction planned, especially if you’re in a big class and there’s a chance that the professor has no idea who you are. For example: “Hi, I am E. I am a sophomore getting my degree in neurobiology and writing with a psychology minor. I am interning in the writing center and taking an EMT course in addition to my regular studies.” There are any number of things from that introduction that may resonate with a professor. Building rapport is the key here. I have found it helpful to bring professors some small, casual gift, like a hot chocolate. This makes them smile and keeps you from feeling like a sponge of their time. Look, you have something to offer them! I am going to meet with one of my old TAs (the great Joe Hanson of It’s Okay to Be Smart) so I can pick his brain about how he got to write for Wired magazine (one of my personal ambitions), whether or not graduate school is worth the time and money, and just generally how I can be more like him. Professors are obligated to at least be there to see you because you are paying them, but Joe has agreed to hang out with me out of the goodness of his heart. I have been scouring his videos to make sure I have plenty of conversation topics planned out, and during my research I came across a beautiful speech about special snowflake syndrome at the end of this video. I’m going to make a blank notebook or poster out of the speech somehow. It’s going to be awesome.
Remember, even though it might make you feel better to bring a small gift, most people want to help you. Especially professors. Their research may keep them busy, but building relationships with students is at least in their top three priorities (or they wouldn’t have become professors). Some rare asshats may dislike you right off the bat, but if you start off the conversation with hot chocolate and asking them about their research, you may even overcome a bad first impression. If you can’t, it’s in your best interest to switch classes. College is an investment of time and money, and there is no way you are getting the most out of your investment if you are not taking advantage of being in the vicinity of some of the best minds out there. Work to get the professor talking and make yourself feel as much at ease as possible. They’re just people, and all people like to talk about themselves.
You can ask many people for advice, not just your professors. I send regular fanmail to my favorite authors and bloggers, and sometimes they write me back (see Joe Hanson). Many of my heroes have made appearances at BookPeople, the local bookstore. I follow them on twitter so I can keep up-to-date. That’s how I got to talk to Anis Mojgani.
You probably think I’m ridiculous, P, because talking to people has always been your forte, but it’s a struggle for me and I have to continue to improve. If anyone has any advice for me, I would be happy to receive it (unless it’s “don’t be so neurotic” because I’ve tried that). In the meantime, I will continue practicing.
Love love love,