A Field Guide To Professors You'll Get In College

by Lara Rutherford-Morrison

If you’re heading off to college in the fall, you are about to encounter the varied, fascinating species that dominates the college landscape: The professor. Academia attracts brilliant, diverse, often strange people, which only makes sense given what it takes to become a professor: These are people who have devoted their careers to knowledge and study, people who find their respective academic subjects — from religious studies to particle physics — so fascinating that they decided to devote many years to getting an advanced degree and becoming experts in extremely specialized topics, and they continue to research and teach those topics throughout their lives. In a college campus filled with such people, you’re bound to find some eccentricity, but, despite the many stereotypes that exist about professors, in reality, they are just as complex and human as everyone else. That said, there are certain professorial qualities that you’re bound to meet at various points in your college career, and I’ve boiled them down into this handy guide just for you.

You should go into college with the awareness that your professors will be very different from your high school teachers, simply because they do a different job. At many colleges and universities (especially large ones), teaching undergrads is only one aspect of professors’ work. Most also have research commitments, graduate students to advise, administrative responsibilities, and other committee work to do. Professors are not there to discipline students, check in on them when they miss class, or make sure they pass.

At any college or university, you’re sure to have some fantastic profs and some who are more difficult to work with. Regardless of why kind you have, you should do your best to have good relationships with your profoessors. Doing so will help you to have a positive experience in class, and you’ll be very glad you built up that good will when you eventually need recommendations for studying abroad programs, internships, or graduate school. Usually, all it takes to make a professor happy is to show up to class prepared and ready to be engaged and respectful. Most are also glad to have students stop by in office hours to introduce themselves or ask questions about the course.

Hit it, profs!

1. The absent-minded professor.

The absent-minded professor is a long-running cliché, but it’s an accurate one. You’ll have many professors who are very focused, present, and practical, but I guarantee you’ll have at least one who is absolutely brilliant and articulate when it comes to his or her research topic, and kind of a mess when it comes to everything else. This type of professor will give fascinating lectures, while being clearly six months overdue for a haircut, or will be able to keep track of a complex line of research, while continually losing his or her keys. Supposedly, Albert Einstein was prone to fits of absent-mindedness, so at least this prof is in good company.

2. The old school one.

Not necessarily old in years, the old-school professor is a traditionalist. He or she is not a fan of all the new fangled technology that’s filling many classrooms: He or she says “No” to Power Point presentations and regards clickers as purely evil. The old school prof gets by fine with handwritten notes, a lectern, and a chalkboard, thank you very much.

3. The one who blows your mind.

In college, you’ll have good professors, and then you’ll have ones who take your whole worldview, spin it around, and change the way you think about the universe. You’ll leave class feeling like you’re looking around you with new, strange lenses on, and you will love it.

4. The one who can literally read your mind.

He promises to use his power for good.

5. The one who DGAF

In my experience, most professors really do care about their students and put a lot of work into making their classes rewarding and valuable. But there’s always going to be one prof you meet who Just. Does. Not. Care. For whatever reason, this professor is only going through the motions of teaching, and just barely at that. This prof may be hard to get hold of, and may be unclear about expectations and assignments. If you have this type of a professor in a class in which you also have a T.A., it’s a good idea to become that T.A.’s best friend. He or she will be able to give you the feedback and instruction that you’re lacking from the prof.

6. The one who seems scary, but isn’t.

A lot of professors can seem really intimidating at first, but when you actually get to know many of them, they turn out to be giving, warm people who want to help you succeed. A professor who seems forbidding in front of the whole class will often seem more approachable one-on-one, so don’t be afraid to get to office hours to get advice or feedback about the course. Chances are, the experience will be a lot less frightening than you imagined it would be.

7. The one who seems scary, and is actually scary.

Like I said, most profs aren’t scary when you actually get to know them a little bit, but there’s always the exception to the rule. Some of the profs who seem terrifying on the first day will still seem terrifying by the end of the course. Just do your best to keep your nose to the grindstone and get through it.

8. The one who collects priceless artifacts and fights Nazis during summer vacation.

Why, hello there, Dr. Jones.

9. The hot one.

Of course, you respect all of your professors for their intellects, but at some point in college you will inevitably find yourself liking a professor for more than his or her mind. You’re only human, after all, and there’s nothing wrong with taking in a little eye candy as you’re taking notes. That said, don’t hit on your professors. Really, just don’t.

(Also, if you think that I’m simply looking for excuses to add pictures of Harrison Ford circa 1981 to this post … you are correct.)

10. The peacock professor.

Again, most professors really do want their students to learn what they need to know, but once in a while you’ll get a specimen I like to call the “Peacock.” This professor tends to view his or her class as the “Professor Me Show” and has fun regaling students with anecdotes and jokes, but doesn't actually, you know, teach very much. These lectures can be very entertaining, but you’ll find yourself walking out of class, thinking, “Wait … what were we supposed to learn today?”

11. The one who did it in the library with the revolver

But can you prove it?!

12. The one who treats you as an intellectual equal.

All professors should treat you like the fully-fledged adult you are, but you’ll have a few professors who really treat you as an intellectual peer. These professors will take what you have to say seriously, and will respond with more than “correct” or “incorrect.” They will move beyond a simple question/response dynamic and instead have an actual conversation with you about the relative merits of Keats and Shelley, or whether Pluto should count as a planet, or whatever topic interests you both. For me, these kinds of dialogues, in which professors really seemed interested in what I had to say, were some of the most validating experiences I had in college.

13. The one who is so far away that you can’t see him or her.

Some very large universities hold courses in giant auditoriums. Your professor will be a tiny speck far in the distance, like a planet that occasionally passes Earth closely enough to be seen by the naked eye. Try bringing a telescope to class.

14. The one who can turn into a cat.

I would take her class in a second.

15. The hard ass.

This professor demands a lot of his or her students, and holds high, uncompromising standards for their performance. This professor can be intimidating and challenging, but his or her classes may be some of the most rewarding you take while at university. You may struggle to meet this professor’s expectations, but you’ll be extremely proud of your work when you do.

16. The adjunct.

A lot of undergrads aren’t particularly aware of the hierarchical structure of universities, of who is above whom in terms of rank, salary, and power, but you can rest assured, adjuncts are at the bottom. Adjuncts are contract instructors, brought into teach classes to undergrads on a class-by-class basis. The academic job market is terrible right now, with too many PhDs being awarded for an ever-dwindling number of tenure track jobs. Thus, many adjuncts are very qualified scholars who are working in these temporary positions because they aren’t able to get one of the few available permanent jobs. They tend to get very low pay for a lot of work, with no benefits and no job security. (If this sounds like an appalling system, you’re absolutely right). There are a lot of fantastic, dedicated adjuncts out there, but don’t be surprised if many of them also seem stressed out and overworked.

17. The TA.

Your TA is not a professor, but he or she is someone who will have a major effect on your experiences in class. For the uninitiated, teaching assistants (or TAs) are graduate students who pay for some of all of their tuition by teaching undergrads. Some TAs work as assistants for professors of large lectures; In these cases, TAs will probably be teaching your discussion sections and grading your work. For many undergrads in big classes, TAs are the main points of contact, not professors. In other cases, a more advanced grad student might be the instructor in charge of your course.

Keep in mind that your TAs are usually balancing teaching with their own coursework and research, and many are learning to teach as they go along. Some people are natural-born instructors, and others have to work harder to learn how to manage a class. As with professors, it’s always a good idea to try to develop good relationships with your TAs, as they can help you with questions about the course and give feedback on assignments. (And did I mention that they grade a lot of your work?)

18. The one who doesn’t actually exist.

He was never here.

Images: Paramount Pictures; Giphy (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10)