YOUR PROFS & OTHER STAFF
If you have just entered university you are what is called an Undergraduate student. This means that you are aiming to complete a Bachelor’s degree. There may be other students at your institution called Graduate Students. These are individuals who are seeking to complete a Masters or PhD (Philosophy Doctor).
The most significant individuals in your new life as an undergrad are your professors. These come in many different varieties. Many of your professors will have a PhD. This means that they have typically spent 4-6 years in university after completing a Bachelors degree and they have been granted the highest award that a university can offer: a doctor of philosophy. That does not mean they have studied philosophy, their PhD could be in anthropology, biology, chemistry, engineering, English, political science, physics, or philosophy. However tradition dictates that their degree is called doctor of philosophy.
If they have earned their PhD that means that they have earned the right to be called “doctor” and many of your profs appreciate it if you use that title before their surname. I for one enjoy being called “Dr. Tsuji” although many of your profs would also appreciate “Professor” before their surname. In most cases it will not hurt if you use the more honorific Doctor or Professor when you meet them for the first time or if you need to write them an email. They may then say “Please call me Sam” or “I don’t have a PhD” but at least you will have expressed respect for their position.
Within the ranks of professors moving from lowest to highest there are Assistant Professors, Associate Professors, and Full Professors. Normally, it takes many years for your professors to move through these ranks and usually their rank is in recognition of their research and publication record. Sometimes, Full Professors can have hundreds journal articles to their credit or many books or other publications. Most universities do not place a huge emphasis on quality of teaching as a criterion for professional advancement so the Full Professor at the front of your class may not have the most engaging delivery but you can generally be assured that they know their stuff; they will have a very deep knowledge about their area of specialty. In addition to the rank of Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor universities will usually grant tenure to professors after they have proven their abilities for 5 to 7 years. Tenure is a designation that is intended to ensure academic freedom. It means that a tenured faculty member cannot be fired without very good reasons and only very rarely for beliefs or statements they make. Unfortunately, it is possible that after being granted tenure faculty can become somewhat complacent and stop trying quite so much.
If you are in your first year at a university or college it is quite possible that the professor at the front of your classroom is not a professor at all. Increasingly, universities are hiring part-time faculty to teach large first-year courses. While your professor may still have a PhD it is possible that they are only teaching a few courses on contract. Alternately they may be part of a special “teaching track” at your university or they may even be a graduate student who is teaching one or two courses while they complete their studies. Why is this important? It helps to know who you are dealing with in your courses. Is your professor a world famous intellect? Or a busy graduate student trying to complete their own studies? Or a contract instructor who teaches at 4 different universities trying to make ends meet? It also helps to know if you are one of twenty students they are dealing with this semester or one of one thousand.
One sad reality of many of your professors is that they will have had very little experience outside of a university environment. Academia demands a high degree of devotion to research and publication so the people who end up teaching at a university have typically stayed in university from their bachelor’s degree through their PhD and then stayed on. Thus, your professors may be a little out of touch in terms of what jobs outside of academia are all about.
The other people you may encounter in any given course are the Teaching Assistants or Laboratory Assistants. Both groups are usually either graduate students or upper-year undergraduates who are being paid a modest sum to get some teaching experience for their resume. They may not know quite as much as your professors but they are often far more enthusiastic and certainly more approachable. In any case it doesn’t hurt to get to know your TA’s or Lab Assistants because they will often get tasked with marking your papers. Certainly many of your questions about the course and your evaluations in that course are best directed to them first.
Higher up in the food chain above your professors are people with titles like “Chair” or “Director” or “Dean” or “Provost”. In most cases you will not have to deal with these people unless you have been accused of cheating or unless you have been nominated for some kind of honour. Overall, these people are generally professors who have been selected to take on more administrative responsibilities in your school. While they may still teach and do research in most cases you will have very little interaction with them.
More frequently you may deal with non-teaching staff who are responsible for most of the administrative machinery of a university. These may include the people in the Admissions Office who are responsible for your admittance or the Registrar’s Office who are responsible for your quasi-legal contractual involvement with the university. (Think tuition fees.) There are also many support staff in individual departments who support your professors and help with the administrative side of teaching such as the assignment to specific classrooms or scheduling or things like that. There are also usually groups responsible for helping students more generally with their course work. These departments can include groups that may help you get time extensions for exams because you have a learning difference. Others might provide workshops on improving writing skills, better utilization of the library, or honing your study skills.
One key group of individuals you want to get to know are the administrative staff who may have the title “academic advisor” or sometimes “student affairs”. These are non-teaching staff who probably know your school’s rules and regulations better than anyone else and who are only too happy to provide advice on the courses you’re interested in. Sometimes these people belong to a particular department (such as Geology or Mathematics or Sociology) and sometimes they are part of a centralized group. Get to know who these people are at your university and utilize their knowledge to help yourself.
You may have discovered in high school that there are a great many different people who helped to provide you with your education. Even though you may not know the precise way a particular department or function may be able to help you now, please do not make enemies of them in case you need them in the future.
Almost all your professors are human. As humans we generally like to be liked. However, in most cases professors do not need to be liked in order to succeed! Let me explain. Most universities have a Teaching Evaluation process in which students have an opportunity to rate their professors and provide feedback to them. Unfortunately, except in very extreme cases where a professor may be absolutely horrible or an absolute superstar, your evaluation of them doesn’t carry much weight. That is because (as mentioned earlier) the skill of teaching plays second fiddle to research for most professors. Therefore if your professor is only very mediocre in the classroom but a research star they can generally advance and be considered for promotion up the Associate and Full professor ladder. There is also a general acceptance of the idea that evaluations of both minorities and female professors are lower than white males. The final reason is that most of your professors recall at least one of their teachers who was unpleasant and who had a disagreeable presence in the classroom but who nonetheless had a huge impact on their learning. You might even recall a teacher like that from your own high school career.
One consequence of this situation is that although most of your professors want you to succeed it really does not matter to them if you do not. Unless 100% of students in a class fail or 100% of them get A+ university administrators (the ones who oversee your professors) are relatively indifferent to the grades that students get in a particular class. This is obviously a big difference from what you might be accustomed to in high school where your teachers would have done as much as possible to get you through. If you fail in university your professors will just view you as one of many who didn’t have the grit or determination or smarts. That is why as an adult in university the onus is on you to succeed and why I believe that this Chapter 0 is such an important resource. Unless you understand that it is your responsibility to do well then you may be very unpleasantly surprised if or when you do poorly.
Want to know more?
Wikipedia. “University”. Retrieved June 25 2020 from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University Read the Wikipedia entry. You are going to be spending quite a bit of money and time on university, why not understand what it’s all about?
Your university. Although there is considerable variation, try looking up the organization of your university. Most will describe the upper ranks (Chancellor, President, Provost, etc.) quite well, in most cases the lower ranks may be more difficult to discern. Nonetheless, understanding the structure of your school is a useful exercise.