Clear Expectations: Understanding Your American Professor

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What kind of professors should you expect to have in America? ISV Magazine Correspondent Rustam Niyazov provides advice from his own experience and from education professionals on what international students can expect from professors in the States.

In seven years of studies at a higher level as an international student both in Central Asia and the U.S., I’ve had professors and instructors of all walks of life and from different parts of the world: those with impeccable Shakespearean English and those whose English, it seemed, remained from the times before Shakespeare, those who said I should not care about my grades and those who said getting good grades is the first thing I should care about, those who had so much to do as a professor that spending 20 minutes with them during office hours sounded like an alien idea (even to them), and even those whom I was scared to ask for help on a difficult course fearing to look unintelligent.  

In this sea of different personalities, cultures, and often contrasting messages an 18-year old student might feel lost without guidance at the start of their college life. In addition to their young age, some international students might be coming from a culture where a teacher is viewed as an authority, and it can be hard to overcome those barriers in communicating with their American professors who have different expectations of a student studying in U.S. colleges and universities.

What are the expectations of professors in the United States? Image courtesy of
What are the expectations of professors in the United States? Image courtesy of

So what are those expectations? Is there any formula for gaining the attention and support of your professors? How do you make sure you get the right message when you receive instructions from your American faculty? What about international faculty working at American colleges? Aren’t they dealing with the similar issues that international students might be dealing? How helpful they can be to international students?

Faculty members are a fundamental and valuable resource that enables the college to fulfill its major mission. Therefore, it is in the college’s interest to have the best possible faculty members that can provide the best possible education. Usually, American colleges and universities hire faculty from different backgrounds, including those who are versed in intercultural communication, but some colleges unconsciously or intentionally keep hiring professors of the same type  – “32 flavors, all of them vanilla,” as the saying goes.

At the same time, colleges task their international student offices with recruiting more and more international students without paying much attention to the readiness of their campuses to support these students. As Karen Fisher noted in The Chronicle of Higher Education “Retention is a growing issue as more international students come to U.S.,” “the findings do suggest that American colleges need to do a better job of dealing with the mismatch between the expectations international students have of studying in the United States and their experience once on an American campus.” In other words, communication and expectations are a two way process. “College recruiters should be upfront about academic requirements and about what it takes to succeed in an American college classroom, especially with students who come from very different educational backgrounds,” says Fisher. So what is good for domestic students, is it good for everybody? Isn’t that the question administrators should ask themselves when bringing international students to their campuses?

[quote]”…that American colleges need to do a better job of dealing with the mismatch between the expectations international students have of studying in the United States and their experience once on an American campus.” -Karen Fisher, The Chronicle of Higher Education.[/quote]

Let me bring my Central Asia experience as an example to make another point. I had an American professor who never wanted to return back to U.S. because as he said the school he worked for didn’t allow him to “think creatively” by “rejecting his best ideas” on his teaching methodology. And the experimental college in Central Asia was just a perfect place for him. In other words, what can be good in Central Asia or say South America may be not good in North America because U.S. might have a completely different legal environment than the country you come from. Things could be interpreted and are interpreted differently. Institutional or individual liability issues dictate everything else, including the expectations on your academic and even social life.

Therefore, no matter where you may be coming from be it China, India, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia or South Korea or Brazil or Pakistan, you have to get clear on the expectations of your American professors and overall of the academic life at U.S. colleges. Their expectations of students may be based on limitations set by their legal duties and responsibilities as professor and employee of a college they work for. The point is that it is good to get familiar right from the beginning how to work in the system otherwise you may lose some very precious time.

Since the purpose of this exploration was to gain insight on how international students can successfully collaborate with their American professors, for more practical information on the subject I interviewed two seasoned international student officers at two U.S. colleges.

Jamilah Moudiab, International Admission and Student Services Coordinator, Bloomfield College, New Jersey, points out:

“To assist new international students in their successful transition in the U.S., I would suggest they make full use of the professor’s office hours. Professors set aside time for this very purpose and a good professor will have ideas and suggestions for student success. They should also use the first few weeks of the semester, which coincide with the Add/Drop period, to see if their transition into the American tertiary system is being hindered by their unfamiliarity with American teaching practices. If it is, then they are allowed to drop below full-time (first semester only). International students who find themselves in this situation should strongly consider dropping the class before their morale deteriorates but I would add only after speaking to the Professor and/or Student Learning Center.”

Colleen Flynn Thapalia
Colleen Flynn Thapalia

On the other hand, Colleen Flynn Thapalia, Director of the Center for International Programs at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, New York, points out:

“Usually, professors don’t know about international student requirements for maintaining their status in the U.S.  So, they may suggest that a student withdraw from a class if he is doing poorly. But students will have to retake the course and pay for it again.”  She notes that these things happen when international students are nervous to ask their faculty advisors questions.  “Professors might think that the instructions they gave was clear,” Thapalia says, “But due to cultural differences an international student might misinterpret the feedback or the instructions.  That’s the reason we want international students take ownership of their relationships with their professors by constantly asking questions, by building trustful relationships, and by being good college citizens.”

Another issue that comes up is email communication between a professor and a student.  Students may need guidance on how to communicate via email, advises Ms. Thapalia. She cites the example of a student emailing a professor on Saturday, and expecting an instant response.  That student may be disappointed if her professor does not answer email over the weekend.  Learning to write emails to their professors that are respectful and clear is an important skill.  One tip is to formulate questions so that they are easy for a professor to answer. Also having a signature line shows professionalism and makes it easy for a professor recognize the student’s name and to respond in a timely manner. Students should also get comfortable asking instructors on how they want the students to address them.

“Some professors prefer to be called by their first name,” cautions Ms. Thapalia, “While others may not like emails that start, “Hey.” So addressing instructors as “Dr.” or “Professor” in an email may be a good idea.”

Therefore, being an international student means paving your way toward building a trustful relationship with your professors. Some of your professors won’t give you a second chance. For them the real world begins in their classroom. They want you to be proactive and do your homework. The worst thing is seeing a professor tormenting himself to death trying to explain the material all alone. Part of the job is yours. Professors expect that as international students, you bring unique points of view that can be intellectually stimulating to all the class. So do your homework, do your part of the job. As Steven Conn, a professor and director of the Public History program at Ohio State University says, “It takes two to tango… but the new partners will never learn to dance if the others keep dragging them around the dance floor, doing all the steps for them.”

international student voice magazine professors what i think i do

In other words, American professors are busy. To achieve tenure and promotion they not only teach, but also do professional work and work within the community. They write recommendation letters, do fieldwork, speak at conferences, and produce manuscripts among many other things. You will need recommendation letters when you apply for jobs, or graduate schools. And you can become part of the fieldwork. You may end up working together with a professor on research projects. In short, your instructors have the power to change your life by becoming your mentors, and guiding you through your academic life.

You never know, professors may be dealing with the same issues you’re facing, and plus they may have kids, health issues, and family problems. While some professors may be unapproachable, most of them love their job, love reading and researching, enjoy mentoring future professionals. That’s why they are where they are. And because education is not free, there are expectations. College expects something from the professor, professors from the student, students from college and professors: it’s a big circle of expectations. Who wins? When expectations are clear from all sides, everybody wins.


Rustam Niyazov photoRustam Niyazov

ISV Correspondent


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