How to outwit college professors ?

Interview with Dr John Janovy author of the book Outwitting College Professors

1. Are college professors all that easy to outwit?

Well, yes, but you'll probably discover, too late, of course, that if a student really tries to outwit them, that effort ends up making those students into much more successful college students. I didn't want to give away that secret!

2. What can you tell us about outwitting the professor when it comes to the exams?

Exams are really difficult. My best advice is to actually go see the prof after the first exam if you don't do as well on that test as you want to do. Ask for specific study advice ('What are the best techniques for actually studying physics?' 'What kind of study habits did you adopt when you were working on your PhD in history?') Those kinds of questions have two functions: first, they flatter the prof (always a good idea!), and second, they might actually produce some good advice. But in general, improving one's performance on exams is always a matter of acquiring a large repertoire of study skills, study techniques, and developing reading skills. But even then, you can only get up to a certain limit. I could never, for example, ace exams in nuclear physics, but once I learned the tricks, I did spectacular in any subject that required language skills.

3. How does the professor reveal him or herself? There must be hints, right?

The biggest, and most misunderstood, hint involves ego. Male profs give it away in a hurry, as do males in general. If this prof turns out to be ego-driven, stroke that ego big time, but in a way that doesn't compromise your own ethical standards. There are a whole lot of simple phrases ('That's a nice looking tie.' 'How did the conference go?' etc.) that work like a charm. Males are actually pretty transparent in this regard, but a student has to get beyond the fear of male profs in order to see this kind of weakness in them. The first thing to look for in a female is protection; if she is protective of herself, her personal space, her professional reputation, careful about what she says (VERY careful), not wanting to make a mistake, etc., then anyone who (1) respects that personal space, and (2) looks for times and places where she accepts an intrusion, is ahead of the game. Unfortunately, most of this kind of 'reading' ability comes from experience. Advice? Practice on your friends, your parents, your grandparents, people at work, etc.

4. You mention that guys use bad grammar more than women? What gets on your nerves most?

Use of the wrong verb forms, especially of the verb 'to be.' 'I have went' is an absolute NO!! Also, in e-mail' failure to use correct grammar (spelling, capitalization, punctuation, etc.) If your prof accepts e-mail, then it is an absolute necessity to be grammatically perfect in whatever you send to that individual.

5. What other ways can the student outwit the professor?

I'm really waiting for some student response before getting to that question. I honestly believe that most of the really untried opportunities for outwitting involve social occasions, and in these cases, unless a student has really (and I do mean REALLY!) studied, and tried to master, social skills ,then he/she is at a disadvantage. Also, the simple (actually not so simple!) skill of knowing how to run a meeting can make a major impression on any prof who is an adviser to a student group of which you (the student) are president.

6. What suggestions in the book might students balk at trying? Not cool enough?

A lot of students are simply afraid of people in positions of authority, or afraid of people outside their peer group. Nothing in life works, no advice, no help, nothing, if you are afraid of someone else, especially someone in a position of authority. Profs generally are not armed, or dangerous. A student simply has to get over the problem of being afraid. It's okay to practice on other adults (parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc.), especially in terms of Big Talk. As for the suggestions in the book, I'd say that the social interactions are by far the most challenging for most students. A lot of young people do very well with peers, but struggle with non-peers, especially in a social setting. Get over it social skills, especially when they involve people you would not normally associate with, pay off big time in the work place. Also, respectful interactions with individuals of the opposite gender are important. My advice would be to practice on your significant other (if of the opposite gender!); practice listening, practice treating that person as an equal, etc. Learn to be gender-neutral with profs and everyone else in the work place; such skills will pay off.

7. What was the most inventive thing that a student of yours employed to outwit you?

I can't really think of a 'most inventive' thing; almost everything that I can remember being tried is in that book. Most of it works; but most of it also contributes to student success, and that is the subversive part of the book.

8. Getting good grades is the goal, but is it the only one?

Absolutely not, at least in the mind of the prof, although students almost always think otherwise. What you really want is that Silver Bullet letter of recommendation , or other kinds of doors opened. For example, I tell my pre-med students: you have MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) scores, transcript, letters of recommendation, and interviews to get into med school; nothing will override truly bad MCAT scores, but bad letters and a stumbling interview will override good MCAT scores. I honestly believe that same principle holds in life. You want opportunities and options out of college, and you want the skills to get that first promotion after the first job. In general, the skills for the first promotion are more important than those for getting the first job.

9. Have students in your classes ever admitted using your book on you?

They haven't admitted using it, but they've admitted reading it, and one fraternity even put a link to it (when it was free as a pdf) up on their house web site. The only truly obvious case was when a student showed up in my office this fall with a University of Oklahoma sweatshirt on. I kidded him about it (I'm an OU alum) and he admitted wearing it on purpose, knowing I was an OU alum. We had a good laugh, and I will indeed remember his name. It also helped that he was an 'A' student.

10. Is there anything else you would like to share?

Not a whole lot, other than the observation that at large public universities, the interactions between students and faculty members have seemingly become distant and formal. It's been since the early 1970s (Vietnam War days) since I've seen students and faculty members sitting over in the union, drinking coffee, and talking Big Talk. This is a sad situation in American higher education. Students and faculty have an obligation to talk to one another, to interact with one another intellectually and socially, and to learn from one another how to make this world a better place to live in. I always say to those honors students hell bent on getting through the university quickly and getting on to some profession, that 'you have four or five years to be a real college student; you have 40 or 50 years to be something else. There is no cheaper time to go exploring, take a chance, or make a mistake, than those college student years.'

John Janovy