Professors: Get to Know ‘Em Because They Own You


Well..not quite but I am not so far off. You will find out for yourself, of course, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a little information about who these, professors are before you cross the thresholds of their classrooms?

The following  is the prelude to a series of posts that will discuss the five general personality types of instructors you are likely to encounter in your stay in your new college homeland.   Going from high school to college is like traveling from the United States to Europe; not only are there fundamental differences that characterize the continent as a whole, but each country has its own customs, culture, and laws. In keeping with this analogy, each classroom you enter is a land unto itself.

A New Land with New Rulers

So, what do you need to know to be a successful immigrant in your new home? The first thing you need do is learn as much as possible about your new rulers as possible. To be sure, you will get a sense of whom you are dealing with when you get his or her feedback on your first assignment, or if you experiment with generally unwise activities such as skipping class or surfing the web during lectures. It is possible–and highly desirable–to pick up clues as to who these folks are before you even set eyes on them.

How is this possible, you ask? A good place to start is understanding the official categories of professors found in your school. Not personality types, mind you, but the hierarchial structure these professors occupy. If you understand their respective places in the “pecking order,” it will give you considerable insight into your future interactions with them based on that tidbit alone.  And so, from lowest rung to highest we have:

Adjuncts/Assistant Professors

Ah, the newbies. These guys and gals are not tenured–which in case you don’t know the importance of that, means that they have not become permanent members of the faculty yet. As with all professor types, there are both advantages and disadvantages to you the student. They are likely to be enthusiastic about their new jobs, and are eager to establish themselves as worthy candidates for tenure. The downside is that they probably won’t know much more about department guidelines and procedures than you do, which can be frustrating as a new “tourist” trying to navigate your way through uncharted territory.

Associate Professors

These scholars have likely published two or more works, serve on committees and probably know the ropes, so to speak. They too are untenured, which brings with it the same advantages that come with their less proven counterparts, the adjuncts.

Full Professors

Okay–these people are tenured–which in academe means they are pretty well made in the shade. Now that they are firmly established at the school, they are often heavily invested in other more scholarly pursuits–namely research. Sometimes, members of this group can be so occupied with their work outside of school that their teaching takes a back seat. The flipside is that you have real pros here, and they can be of great use to you as advisors or guides.

Professors Emeritus

This is a general designation; the terms “Presidential Professor” or “Scholar in Residence” are roughly equivilent. Another clue is anyone deemed a recipient of a fellowship or grant. These individuals sit at the top of the heap. They are masters of their fields. How can that not be a good thing for you as a student? Indeed,  it very well may be a good thing, but also keep in mind that a good number of these luminaries may be close to calling it quits career-wise. For every one professor that wants to go out on top of his game, there is one who is content to coast until their “surprise” retirement party. It is anyone’s guess which type will be teaching the Shakespearean Plays as Clarions of Social Change course you have your eye on.

As should be evident, the most volitilty personality and teaching wise normally comes from the two extremes of the professor hierarchy. While you have not an ounce of  control over this, you do have some choice as to who your professors will be. Before you enroll in your courses, check the professors out on the department web pages to see what their occupational status is. As a new student, it is probably unwise to book all of your classes with adjuncts who may be unable to offer you the guidance you may need during your first terms. Conversely, if all of your professors are above the associate level, you may not get the benefits that come with folks with less dusty credentials.

What you should aim for here, particulary in your first year, is a mix of newer and established instructors that together, give you a variety of teaching styles, expertise, and perspectives.