3 things students ask that drive journalism professors nuts (and how to ask them in a much better way)

Journalism is a funny field when it comes to grades, classes and more. As a professor, I often find that when I talk to instructors in other fields, I’m speaking Greek in terms of the value of grades or how best to work with students to improve. However, among journalism profs, I’m like Briar Rabbit in the briar patch. In short, we’re all weird.

To help make sense of that weirdness when it comes to these issues, I talked to colleagues and drew from my own experiences with students to come up with today’s post: Three things students say that drive professors nuts, why those things drive us nuts and how better to ask the questions to get at what you really want to know without driving us nuts. Think of this post as a lesson in interviewing mixed with an intervention:


  1. “I didn’t make it to class. Did I miss anything important?”
    (A runner-up/close cousin: “I can’t keep up with your class because (fill in the name of some extracurricular activity) is taking up all my time and that’s important.”)

    WHY THIS DRIVES US NUTS: Think about what you essentially asked: “Was this class a colossal waste of time or did you manage to say something that I should give a crap about? If so, can you just boil down that two-hour lecture for me in a couple sentence in an email. Thanks!”

    Professors for the most part think that what they are trying to tell you is, in fact, important. This is particularly true in journalism because for most people who are in those classes, this is the field you are going into. It would be like a medical student asking, “Hey, I missed your lecture on the cardiovascular system today. Is that going to be important going forward?” Granted, some lectures are more or less important, but asking this question in this way assumes your professor might actually say, “Nah, I just stood at the front of the room and BS-ed for two hours. Whatever you did was probably a better use of your time.”

    HOW TO DEAL WITH THIS BETTER: First, don’t look to the professor to bail you out of missing a class. Most courses have an online roster of classmates you can bug for notes. Bother them first before you fess up to blowing off class because you DVR-ed “The Bachelor” or something. Second, if nobody’s ponying up to help you, go through and read the assigned readings for the day. (Theoretically, you should have already done this. As a practical matter, I know that this almost never happens. A kid once showed up in week 10 of my class with his textbook still shrink wrapped.) Then, ask if you can meet with the professor to talk about the readings and better understand how they apply to the lecture. Yes, it’s more work, but it saves you from being remembered as “Oh, you’re the student who couldn’t be bothered to show up.” It’s a much safer way to go about this especially when worrying about how well you’re doing in this class. Which brings us to…

  2. “What’s my grade in this class?”
    (Runner-ups include “I need an A in this class. Why aren’t I getting one?” “Grades are important to me.”)

    WHY THIS DRIVES US NUTS: I always told students if they wanted to be the student I liked least, they should come to my office every day before class and ask me EXACTLY what their grade in the class was. I don’t speak for every professor or every situation, but I do know that of the people I asked in journalism told me that grades are among the least important things in education.
    Only once in 20 years of teaching college did any student ever come back to me and tell me that anyone at a job interview asked about that person’s grade-point average. According to the student, it was some a-hole they just hired about six months earlier who asked it like a challenge to the student’s manhood: “Yeah? What’s YOUR GPA, huh?”

    Also, it feels shallow. It’s like the whole reason you are there is to procure a single end (your grade) and you really don’t care about anything else. Think about it this way, how would you feel if you just met someone who told you  “I’m very interested in becoming your friend because I know you are quite wealthy.” Eeesh… |

    If all you care about is the grade, you miss out on the core elements of the class that will help you get better at this, get a job and improve your skills. Truth be told, the best students I’ve had were the C students, as they tended to screw something up and then spend a lot of time trying to figure out WHY they screwed it up and how not to do it again. (It also didn’t hurt that they were basically living in the newsroom or the on-campus PR firm instead of keeping up with classwork, but still…)

    HOW TO DEAL WITH THIS BETTER: The core of your question has a glimmer of hope and goodness in there: What will make me a top-notch journalist? If you can redirect your question to that end, you will have a much more productive encounter with your professor. Focus on things like “learning” and “understanding” and “improving” during your discussion on this topic: “I wasn’t happy with how I did on my last assignment. Can you offer me suggestions on how to improve XYZ about my writing?” or “I’m having trouble understanding why I’m not doing as well as I would like to in this class. Can we talk about things I can do to improve?”
    The idea here is that if you work toward the improvement of the work you are doing and the development of the skills, the grades will follow. Or as they said in the Karate Kid: The points will come. Focus on applying your skills like we talked about:

  3. I’m going into (Advertising, PR, News, TV etc.)! Why do I need to know any of this?

    WHY THIS DRIVES US NUTS: This statement presupposes an awful lot that will make your professor really want to grab a shovel and start practicing an alibi.

    First, it presupposes that you, having been in the field for somewhere between zero and three months, know more about the field than the professor, who has likely been working in or around the field for all of his/her life. In other words, you just told your instructor, “I know what you should be teaching and you aren’t doing this. Can you up your game a bit?”

    Second, in most cases, it’s the way in which the question comes across. As Winston Churchill famously noted, “Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.” This approach lacks any semblance of tact.

    HOW TO DEAL WITH THIS BETTER: The underlying assumption in your frustration with having to take this class (or more likely than not, not doing as well at this as you think you should be doing) has merit. I would wager all the money in my pocket against a pack of Juicy Fruit gum that any professor you say this to has probably said something similar back in his/her college career. It didn’t go over any better, I assure you.

    The “why” aspect is important, as the more you feel connected to the concepts of the class, the more likely you will buy into them and the harder you will work to get better at them. Asking this question isn’t bad, it’s just how you approach it that will make for a better or worse experience.
    In most cases, as we argue in both books, journalism teaches you transferable skills. In other words, even if you can’t see how something applies directly to your field of interest, it probably does and you’ll be better off for learning it. Even more, you’ll likely be able to use that skill in multiple fields going forward as you move from job to job or field to field.

    Start by asking for a meeting with the instructor or stop by during office hours. You will almost always find that face-to-face meetings work better than emails. Then, try something like this: “I know I’m having difficulty in the class and one of the things I’m struggling with is seeing how what I’m doing will make me better at (Ad, PR, news etc.). Can you help me better understand this?”

    This approach does three basic things: 1) Cuts out the whining of the original approach. 2) Demonstrates some introspection on your part and 3) Caters to the ego of your instructor, seeking help from this all-knowing bastion of cross-disciplinary information.

As with all advice, it won’t work all the time or with every person you encounter. However, it’s probably got a better chance of success than any of the original statements listed here, so what do you have to lose?

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