Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Communicating With Your Professors

What to ask when the assignment doesn’t speak for itself

By Travis Willmore

Say you have a paper due for class. Any class. You’ve read the assignment repeatedly, you’ve dissected the professor’s verbal instructions word by word, and you still wish you had a clearer picture of what’s expected. That’s when it pays to make use of your professor’s office hours. Instructors make it easy to do this—they mention right on the syllabus when they’re available, and they make it a point to be extra helpful to students who have the initiative to seek them out. Their services are also easily accessible by email or phone, generally listed on the syllabus as well.

When is it best to take advantage of these services? Just about any time, especially if you need clarification on any of the following issues about your paper:

Should your paper prove a point or just convey information? If you’re writing about a controversial issue, should you simply present the various points the view or should you choose one and try to support it?

Should the paper make direct use of outside sources? Is there a best way to cite them? Different academic fields have different standards for this. Your instructor can tell you if there are citation standards specific to your field, and where to find guidelines on them.

Some professors give more specific directions on formatting than others. If they don’t indicate a preference for double- or single-spacing, this might be a good thing to ask about—so you know whether the four-page paper you’ve been assigned needs to be the length you thought, or twice as long. An instructor’s preferences on font sizes and page margins also play a big role in determining just how long that “four-page paper” actually has to be.

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