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What Your Professors Expect

In social situations, most people assume that everyone else understands all of the "rules," and they usually don't even realize that they are assuming anything at all. Your professors and classmates are likely to act in ways that only make sense if you understand the assumptions they are making, and what they expect to happen. Here are a few basic ideas that you should keep in mind:

Why Won't These People Shut Up?

  • In small classes (or "seminars"), it is expected that you will speak up and participate in the discussion. Asking questions of your professor, raising objections to points made by other students or by the instructor, and even some drama, are all normal. When you participate in class actively, you are showing what you can do, and this will make a favorable impression. It is not rude!
  • It is rude to interrupt others while they are speaking, to be abusive of others, to yell, and to openly suggest that others are ignorant or stupid, though all these things do happen.
  • In lecture-based classes, the opportunity for open discussion will be more limited, and in very large lectures, the students will probably not participate at all. Generally speaking, the larger the class is, the less student participation is expected, and the smaller the class, the more student participation is expected.

Is This Place For Real?

  • America is, in general, an informal country. To some extent, excessive formality borders on being rude, as it may indicate insincerity or snobbishness. This can be seen in the American classroom, where students and even teachers often dress informally, and use informal language. This does not mean that your teachers or fellow students are not serious about what they are doing!
  • Americans also claim to be democratic, and so distinctions between groups are, on the surface, generally minimal. However, it is still expected that when students approach faculty, they will do so with a certain level of respect. Nonetheless, people often behave as if there was no great difference between students and teachers. Different faculty will feel differently about this. Some older teachers will be offended by the kind informal interaction that many younger teachers insist on. You can learn a great deal about how to act by paying attention to how others act in the first few class sessions. It is generally safer to be too formal than too casual, but you may prevent yourself from fully experiencing the "American-ness" of your education here if you remain formal throughout your years as a student here.

What About My Grade?

  • Many American professors value cleverness, creativity, and a spirited intelligence much more than the ability to memorize content. Tests are often designed to test the ability to solve novel problems using concepts from the course; and sometimes tests are designed to punish those who have simply memorized the material. This is not always the case, of course! Many of your teachers will be content if you can simply remember the most important points that have been covered in the class. Be prepared to do both - remember the material, and solve problems creatively.
  • Students are usually evaluated based on several factors: class attendance, participation, tests, and papers. Depending on the type of class, other work may be counted toward your grade: laboratory work (including record-keeping), art projects, computer programs you have written, etc.

But What If I'm in Trouble?

  • In many American colleges, you get an exception made to some rule or grading factor if you have a good reason. For instance, if you become very ill and miss an exam, your professor may agree to let you re-take it, or make some other arrangement with you. This is usually up to the teacher to decide.
  • Administrators also can make exceptions, though there is usually more paperwork involved. If you feel that some rule or requirement should be waived in your case, there may be a "petition" or other form that you can submit, in order to have an exception made in your case. For example, you may be a professional programmer without a degree who is returning to school. Instead of just taking a required introductory programming class, you may file a petition requesting that the class requirement be waived for you, because of the knowledge reflected in your work record. In fact, if you are persistent, you can accomplish a lot through the use of petitions and other appeals. The only limit is your imagination. This can be a valuable tactic for surviving the difficult process of getting a degree in a foreign country in an unfamiliar language.

And Remember...

  • If you don't ask questions, you won't get answers. Ask!
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