Communicating with Faculty
In the course of the academic year, many students experience unexpected events, illnesses, or challenges that temporarily prevent them from being fully engaged in their classes. In these situations, the best thing you can do is talk to your professors.
Your professors are deeply invested in your learning and care about your success. While they might not need to know every detail about the situation(s) that you might be facing, telling your professors that something is interfering with your performance will not only give them a chance to work with you to make a plan, but will help them connect you to other resources at Reed or in the Portland area which could be helpful to you. Keep in mind that Reed is a community, and you don’t need to confront challenging situations alone!
General tips for starting a conversation with your faculty
- Send your professor(s) an email or visit their office hours to let them know that something is going on. You can also schedule an appointment to talk outside of office hours.
- You may want to refer to the situation discreetly: terms and phrases like “medical reasons,” “unexpected personal/family situation,” or “on-going health needs” can give your professor a general sense of the issue without you having to go into detail.
- If you know that you are going to miss class, let your professor know beforehand.
- When you meet with your professor, ask if they will work with you to create a plan to keep up with course reading and assignments.
- Continue to communicate and update your professor. Don’t go into hiding if you can’t meet extended deadlines; keep the channels of communication open so that you can adjust your plan in consult with your professor.
Here’s an example of what an email to get the conversation started might look like:
Dear Joan (or Professor Smith, depending on how your professor signs her email),
I wanted to let you know that I won’t be able to attend your class (name) on (day) because of (“an unexpected family crisis” / “on-going health issues”, etc.). I’m sorry to miss class; could we meet to talk about the situation? I would like to ask for your help making a plan to catch up on the work as best as possible.
Can we set up a time to meet?Thank you,
Talking with faculty about specific situations
Because so much of a Reed education happens in conference discussion, professors will be rightly concerned if you are missing class and not communicating with them.
When you talk to your professors about missed classes, don’t assume that they are going to be able to cover the material with you privately (some may, but most will not). Ask them for suggestions on how to make up lab work, get the material you missed, and/or which readings to prioritize. A classmate may be willing to share their notes or talk over material with you, or a tutor for the course could help you review.
If you are coming up on a due date and you know you are not going to make it, tell your professor early, rather than simply not turn something in. Be honest and upfront about why you are unable to submit a paper or problem set. Keep it simple, saying or writing something like: “Dear Joan, I’m sorry but I’m not going to be able to turn in the assignment on Friday because ____________.” It is reasonable to ask for an extension on the due date if you were prevented from working on the assignment by reasons beyond your control.
Talking in conference
Some students find it difficult to talk in conference for a variety of reasons: they are more introverted than others, they find the pace or tone of the conversation challenging, they find it difficult to track the flow of the conversation, etc. Talking to your professor privately about how to get involved in the conversation is often useful; professors have seen a lot of different conversational styles in their time as teachers, and are able to offer many creative ways to help you speak in class.
You may want to clarify for yourself why you find it difficult to participate in conference before going to speak to your professor; the clearer and more specific you can be about your reason, the more likely they are to be able to come up with a plan to help you. If you have some ideas for things that might be helpful, such as being called on or letting your professor know before class starts what topics you’d like to comment on, it’s good to bring those up in your discussion. Ask if the professor would be able to help you implement those strategies. Don’t be surprised if your professor suggests modifications to your ideas, as they are trying to balance the needs of all their students and be fair to everyone, while also helping you as much as possible.
Each semester, some students aren’t able to finish all the work for a course by the end of the term, frequently for reasons beyond their control. If the student has been in good standing in the class for the majority of the term (assignments turned in on time, earning a satisfactory grade overall), it is possible for the professor to grant time beyond the end of the semester to complete the remaining work.
If you feel that you might be in a position to request an incomplete, ask your professor to meet. Letting them know beforehand that you want to discuss the possibility of an incomplete will give them a chance to prepare for the meeting. You’ll want to find out exactly what work they expect you to do, what date they would want it submitted by, and how they would want it submitted (by email or on paper?). You may also want to ask them for help in coming up with a plan for completing the work and/or to find out what kind of support (if any) they can offer along the way.
When professors assign an incomplete, they also assign a default grade. If you don’t complete the remaining work by the set deadline, your grade becomes the default grade. You may want to ask your professor what the default grade would be in order to make an informed decision about whether to prioritize resolving the difficult situation and/or completing the coursework.
Need more help?
The following people at Reed can provide coaching support for talking with faculty: