The Narratives Project
With faculty and staff collaborators, we generate interactive, face-to-face curricula that motivate students to deepen their knowledge of themselves, explore their passions and personal capacities, and articulate their values and goals. During our cohort experiences, students write, talk and make videos in order to find meaning, reflect on identity, build a sense of belonging and practice leadership.
Being a First-Generation Student
Meeting With Your Professors
When you go to office hours to meet with your professors, you don't have to have a specific plan. You can talk about why you are enjoying the class and share information about yourself as a student; you can do some online investigation of the professor's research interests and ask about that research; you can inquire about out-of-the-classroom experiences that your professor might recommend for a student who's excited about his or her field.
Think of the meeting as the beginning of a professional relationship. Use these guidelines to help you gain confidence and start a productive relationship.
Prepare for the Meeting
- Adjust your schedule so that you will be able to attend office hours. Professors reserve office hours for the purpose of meeting with you, and they expect that you'll adjust your schedule in order to attend. If the hours really don't work for you (e.g., if you have another class or a lab at the same time) then email the professor, proposing a few weekday times that work.
- If you are scheduling the meeting, then use email to provide basic background about what you want to discuss, even including attachments if relevant, such as a draft of an essay, or a course schedule that you want feedback on. Let the professor know in advance if you want to discuss a personal matter or speak to him or her about learning challenges that you are experiencing.
- Don't wait to ask for help. Check in with your professors at the first signs that things are getting difficult or even if you just have questions about whether or not you are studying/preparing for class correctly. If you are particularly anxious about a course, it is fine to go talk to the professor at the very start of the semester just to let him or her know this is the case. However, it is never too late to ask about getting help.
- If there is a personal, health or disability-related concern that you need to discuss with your professor, it is useful to meet early in the semester, rather than wait until a problem arises.
- Be concrete but flexible: If you know what kind of help you need, ask for it, but be open to the professor's suggestions.
- Prepare by anticipating what you'll need to have during the meeting.
- If you are going to office hours, bring your computer and/or notebooks, and papers and/or exams for the class. If you want the professor to look at or sign something, be sure you have it with you.
- If it is a meeting with your adviser, then bring your course catalog and notes. It's a good idea to draft schedules with various options already sketched out.
- Show up on time.
- Be ready to get what you need done in fifteen minutes, especially during registration periods.
- If you have trouble remembering appointments or showing up on time, create a reminder or prompt in your online calendar or ask a friend to remind you.
- If you have trouble speaking quickly, have an outline of what you want to say and focus on the major points. Tell the professor in advance that you may need more time for the meeting, or schedule a follow-up meeting.
When You Arrive
- Wait outside of the office if another student is inside or if the door is closed. If the door is open, lightly knock and say something like, "I have a 10:00 appointment with you, are you ready for me?" or "I'm early, would you like me to wait?"
- When your professor invites you in, it's a good idea to remind him or her of your name and class section.
- Call your professor "Professor Smith" or "Professor Jones," using his or her last name instead of just saying "Professor." (It's good to wait to be invited before using his or her first name.)
- If you want to ask a professor to be your adviser, just go for it. You can say something like, "I'm ready to declare my major and I want to know if you would be my adviser."
- Avoid disputing a grade or asking for it to be changed, but do ask how you can do better, or what you can do next time.
- It's always nice to thank your professor at the end of an appointment, even if you've been told something you don't want to hear, such as "I don't give extra credit in this class."
If You Miss a Meeting
Send a short apology over email or voice mail if you miss it without notifying the professor.
To Reschedule a Meeting
If you need to reschedule a meeting, notify the professor with a short email or voice mail as soon as possible.
You have arrived at Smith with your own associations for the idea of “speaking up,” and with your own level of comfort about talking in groups. Whatever your comfort level may be, your professors will encourage you to both speak and listen during classroom discussions, because most of them believe that robust classroom discussion allows everyone in the room to learn from each other. This page includes thoughts, advice and strategies for students who would like to speak (or listen) more in class.
Some of the tips below were adapted, with permission, from The McGraw Center for Teaching and Learning at Princeton.
Understand that there are many ways to prepare.
“Talk back” to your readings. Make sure that your readings are formatted and printed in a way that allows you to talk back to them. Write notes, questions and criticisms in the margins of assigned articles. If you can’t afford to print all of the Moodle readings for a course, refer to the syllabus to get a sense of the course’s trajectory, and choose at least one article per class to print and mark up.
Create a study group. Get in touch with people from class, asking if they would like to meet to go over study questions and other course material.
Talk to your friends about what you’re learning in class. Describe some of the course content to your friends over dinner and tell them what you think.
Write to your professor. Say something like, “I tend to be quiet in class, and it’s not because I’m not engaged. I plan to speak up more this semester; I’ve made it a goal, and I want to let you know.”
Use office hours. Talk to your professor about your own goals and tell him or her about your specific learning needs. What do you want your professor to know? Do you have trouble jumping into the flow of a conversation?
Make a plan with your professor. Make a plan with your professor that you are going to come to class prepared to make the first observation or ask the first question.
Try a cognitive restructuring exercise. Designed by Smith College Professor of Psychology Patricia DiBartolo, this exercise will lead you down a thought path in order to help you start thinking differently about speaking in class.
Understand that there are many ways to contribute.
Ask for more information. “Can you say more?” “I think I know where you’re going with that, but I'm not sure.”
Explicitly link two contributions. “I see a connection between comments that two people made...”
Explicitly link a conversation point to an important theme or goal of the course. “There’s a connection between what we’re talking about here and some of the larger themes we’ve been discussing...”
Pose a question that links the topic of the day to an important theme or goal of the course. “I’m wondering how the example that we’re discussing relates to...”
Talk about why another’s idea is useful. “Your idea is really interesting because...”
Add to a point that’s been made. “I’d like to expand on what she said...”
Paraphrase and add to a point that's been made. "So the point that you're trying to make is this..."
Find a theme. "I see a theme here, based on what a few different people have said..."
Pose a cause-and-effect question. "Can you explain why if [this] then [this]?"
Show appreciation. "I really appreciate what you said, because it helped me understand this in a new way."
Respectfully disagree. "It sounds like you're saying [this], and that's interesting because [this], but I disagree because [this]."
Write to your professor. After you have spoken in class, write to thank your professor for creating a climate that made you feel comfortable speaking up. Identify why you felt comfortable; for example, it could have been because you had a chance to practice your ideas ahead of time, or because the questions were open-ended.
Outside of Class
Talk when you are with out-of-the-classroom groups or workshops. Speak up in your outside workshops or meetings and make it a goal to say something.
Go to a Jacobson Center lunchtime workshop on public speaking. You will get tips to help you speak in front of any kind of group.
Audition for a play or register for an acting class. The theater is a great place to practice your speaking skills.
Join a singing group. Harvard Business School Professor Ron Heifetz asks every graduate student in his leadership course to improvise a song in front of everyone. The idea is to practice improvising and risk-taking in front of a group.
Learn to Listen More
If you're someone who speaks a lot in class, then work on listening. Make a deal with yourself that you'll allow for 30 seconds of quiet before jumping into the conversation, and time yourself with a stopwatch.
Don't feel like you have to take care of the professor by warding off silence! Your professor will be OK. Really.
It's important to know that some students may need silence in order to gather their thoughts. When the professor asks a question and there's silence... then more silence... and you still don't jump in... pat yourself on the back. You're allowing others time to gather their thoughts, and you'll likely benefit from finally hearing the interesting ideas or questions that those quieter students will add to the conversation.
Don’t Judge Others
Don't buy into the sound-bite mentality of labeling a fellow student as "that girl." It's kind of a bullying stance, and you're above that.
Did you know that every context has its "that girl" person who talks a little too much or talks off topic? It's part of life; use college as a chance to get used to working with it.
Speaking & Culture
You probably understand that you've developed your associations to speaking up within the context of your own culture and family. This article is about the meanings that different cultures attach to the act of speaking:
Kim, H.S. & Markus, H.R. 2005, "Speech and Silence: An Analysis of the Cultural Practice of Talking," in L. Weis & M. Fine (eds), Beyond Silenced Voices: Class, Race and Gender in United States Schools. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 181–196.
The Benefits of Shyness
In "Shyness: Evolutionary Tactic?" (The New York Times, 6/25/11), writer Susan Cain argues that "we need to rethink our approach to social anxiety: to address the pain, but to respect the temperament that underlies it."
You want to write clearly, concisely and appropriately to your professors—and they want to hear from you. Email is a great way to communicate, but it’s important to remember that the tone of your email is like the body language that yo would use in a face-to-face conversation. Using the right “digital body language” helps the online conversation go smoothly so that you can start building solid professional relationships.
Sending an Email to Your Professor
Before sending an email to your professor, consider the timing and subject. Is email the right way to communicate?
- If a question can wait, it is better to ask in person (before, during or after class)?
- If you are asking for feedback on a paper, exam or other classwork, it is better to go to office hours.
- If you are asking multiple questions, it may be better to go to office hours.
- Avoid asking for information that is readily available online or that your professor has already given you (for example, in the syllabus).
- Before writing about missing a class, look on the syllabus or class Moodle site to find information on the professor’s policy about missed classes.
However, if an email is the best way for you to communicate, use it rather than not communicating at all.
Missing a Class, Test or Quiz
Your professors often appreciate your letting them know—before the fact, if it's a planned absence, or after the fact if you were ill. If it's a large class, the professor may not want you to email about missing it, unless you'll be missing a test or quiz. If you do need to miss a class, it's best to ask another student (rather than the professor) for the notes from that class.
Requesting a Letter of Recommendation
Think of this request as a two-step process:
- Ask if your professor is willing to write the letter; you can say something like, "I'm wondering whether you might be willing to write me a recommendation for..." You can also add a line that says something like, "If you do think that you'll be able to write the recommendation, then I will be sure to follow up with all necessary materials in a timely manner."
- Prepare everything your professor needs so that you can give the materials to him or her all at once. (Materials often include a resume and statement of intent.) Provide a list of all addresses and e-addresses to which a letter needs to go, and include the due date under each address.
For more tips on requesting letters of recommendation, refer to this handout from the Lazarus Center for Career Development.
How to Write the Email
- When sending an email about academic or advising matters, always use your Smith email address.
- Be sure you have the right email address for your professor.
- Identify your purpose for the email in the subject box
- When you first write to a professor, it's good to be formal: Start with "Dear Professor XX."
- Be sure to identify yourself: "This is Linda James from your Research Methods class." Include the section number if appropriate.
- Keep your message short and specific. If you have a lot to say, an in-person meeting is a better idea.
- When making a request, make sure it's written as a request and don't assume it will be granted.
- If you are attaching a file, double-check that the label is meaningful; for example, "JamesPsy192LabA" instead of "LabA."
- End with "Sincerely, Joan Doe."
- Avoid "P.S." comments, as they are easy to miss.
Before Sending the Email
- Read it over and make it shorter. How can you edit your email so that the reader is able to quickly understand what you're asking?
- Review your email again and make sure the main point comes at the beginning. You may need to cut and paste, moving your last couple of sentences so that they're first.
- Check spelling and grammar. Use spell-check if your email program has it. If it's a very substantive or important email, or if you have trouble with spelling, then you can write it in your word processing program, spell-check it, and then paste it into the email.
- Don't use slang and abbreviations. What passes as acceptable for communicating by text is not appropriate for professional or academic communications.
After You Send the Email
- Wait 24 to 48 hours (not including weekends and holidays) before following up. To follow up, you can forward your original email and say something like, "Dear Professor XX, I know that you receive many emails, and I'm not sure if you missed mine, so I'm following up. You'll find the text of the original below."
- If you need an immediate response, then try to contact the department's administrative assistant, who may be able to assist you or may know where to find your professor.
- When the professor replies, it's a good idea to acknowledge the reply and thank him or her.
Director, Reflective and Integrative Practices and The Narratives Project
413-585-4914 | email@example.com
Prior to Smith, Bacal was an editor, elementary school teacher and educational writer and consultant. Her book, Mistakes I Made at Work: 25 Influential Women Reflect On What They Got Out of Getting It Wrong (Penguin Random House, 2014), includes interviews with high-achieving women from a variety of fields.
413-585-4678 | firstname.lastname@example.org
Hampton worked for 15 years in magazine publishing in New York City before moving to Northampton in 2017. She developed her creative thinking and organizational skills through roles as a photo editor/producer and studio manager. She earned a bachelor’s in photography at Earlham College.