Freshmen: Wondering About Textbooks & What To Call Your Prof? Just Ask!

Posted by on Aug 28, 2012 in Communicating with Professors, General, General College Success/Responses to Other College Entities | 13 comments

Say my name, say my name... Dr., Mrs., or Tom? You could just ask your prof and you'll know.

I think I’m going to pop an artery by the time I go back to school in late September.

I already wrote about five college success tips that you don’t have to take. This was in response to college success advice that concerned me… remember?

Now I’m seeing article after article of even more success tips for freshmen (and students in general) that I find incredibly overcomplicated.


Because the advice tells students what they should do six ways from Sunday… research this, look up that. The advice so rarely tells students to simply talk to people… to just ask questions!

Should I be surprised?

This piece in USA Today College about “what makes today’s college freshmen tick” revealed some unsurprising, but troubling news (at least to me): That freshmen could average 241 social media friends but have trouble communicating in person (you fall off your chair yet?) and that they would rather text a friend down the block instead of go visit that person.

Is it a coincidence that I’m seeing article after article telling students what to do to succeed in college, rather than what to say? (Okay–disclosure–I knew this already because this premise is how I sold my book as an untapped subject in the college success market).

What does it matter? I’m on my communication revolution, after all. So, of course, I’m going to light my “getting you to talk” torch, wonderful student.

I’m going to turn the advice around, giving you the words I want you to ask in these first weeks to succeed! This post will be short and sweet; one section has multiple parts. Here goes:

Question 1: What should I call my professor?

Sure, you could look up the prof’s name on the syllabus, the college website, Facebook, or hire a private investigator. You could also wait to see how the prof refers to himself/herself in class. You know what? You can also say either privately or by raising your hand, “How would you like me/us to address you? I’d like to call you by the correct name and make sure I’m pronouncing your name correctly.” Your prof is going to appreciate you being so conscientious and you’ll get the answer straight from the source. No need to do any extra research when you can create this quick personal connection that will make a great first impression.

Question 2: Should I get the textbook for my class and where?

Heck, yes! Your textbook is an important component of your course, so don’t think you can get through without it. If you can’t afford the book from your college bookstore (for the price of a used car or whatever they are charging), then go to your prof and try these questions:

-“Professor, do we need the newest edition of the book?” Students don’t need the newest edition of my text and the older editions can be found for as little as $10-$20 online, so students have told me.

-“Professor, I am wondering if you are in contact with any former students who might still have their textbooks?” Guess what? Many of us still have access to the e-mail lists of former students within course management systems. We won’t make a deal go down (because we’d have to wear a trench coat—ha ha), but many of us may shoot an e-mail telling former students, “Hey, if you still have your old textbook, come to my class at such-and-such time, there may be some students who are interested in buying.” We may also know about exchange lists that the college has.

-“Professor, do you keep copies of your book on reserve in the library?” Some of us do! Granted, you may have to use the book only in the library and it might be a total pain in the tushy, but to save money, maybe that’s okay with you.

Question 3: What’s the real difference between the A- and the B+?

I am reading this over and over again from various advice sources and my stomach churns every time. With complete respect, even the host on the KING-5 segment that I was just on sort of alluded to it: That if professors see that you’re really trying, they might give you that little extra help if you’re between an A- and a B+. Students, I just can’t say this enough: Never, ever, ever, ever bank on the idea that just because you’ve been in the professor’s space/face that you’re going to get that nudge toward a better grade.

The bottom line is that your work should always be the determining factor in your grade, so find out what your work needs to look like to get you there. Say, “If I’m between grades, such as an A- and a B+, can we meet to talk about where my work is falling short and how I can bring my grade up?”

I bet I’ll be following up with other college success advice that I think needs a communication twist very soon. In the meantime, will you help my arteries?

Please read the advice that you’re seeing out there and use it as a prompt to help you ask smart questions and start conversations with others.

This is what college is all about!



  1. awesome tips! i was wondering how to approach my professor by email about a new edition textbook that costs way more than i think is necessary, these are great questions to ask! thanks again.

    • Hi, Amina,
      You are SO not alone. Many, many students are in this predicament and then just end up either buying the book and not being able to afford it, or not buying the book, or sharing the book with someone else (not a bad idea, but could get inconvenient). Even one past edition book could be half the cost or less and, honestly, the content may not change by all that much. Many profs will allow an older edition without a problem–just ask!


  2. Instructors could glean insight from this entry for their own practices – address these questions up front so your students don’t have to wonder, assume, or stress about these issues.

    Everyone should address this up front and let students know how they would prefer to be addressed – this seems like such a “no-brainer” – please take a few minutes to introduce yourself!

    We know that our students are on budgets; if there is an earlier edition of the text that is acceptable to use, or if students can rent the book or get access it online or in course reserves for free, we should let them know. If we require a textbook for the course, it should be critically important. Many of us can recall the frustration of purchasing numerous pricey textbooks that were never really utilized in the course or did not add much value to what was already being presented. It’s ok to use a textbook, but it should be selected and integrated into the course thoughtfully (and not because we’ve just always done it that way).

    We should also be extremely candid about what grades represent in our class, because, let’s be honest – they mean something a little different in every class. What do they reflect in yours? – effort, retained information, achievement, creativity? Will you allow students to try-try again or are grades a one-shot opportunity? Let them know – it will make things easier for both you and your students.

    Thanks for the post, Ellen – I hope as many instructors read this as students!

    • Hi, Jamie,

      Wow, you have offered up words of gold and truth there. Last night, I was a guest for the sixth or seventh time (I’ve lost count) on Women’s View radio. We had call after call from students who are just starting college, meeting their profs, and terrified of them! Some students actually said that profs they encountered were cold, making it seem like they didn’t want to be in the classroom, or acting like they didn’t want the STUDENTS to be there! I’m thinking maybe those profs weren’t saying, “Hey, you can call me Professor Joe.” :-) I have to surmise that some of this information you are suggesting should be transparent just is not… at least from some of the profs out there. I totally agree with you: We should be transparent. So many of us are not, and that is a problem.

      I have been away from teaching for a year working on my book and a grant. You are reminding me to take a fresh peek at my own syllabus and how I am communicating! I loved these ideas and I’m going to tweet your comment robustly :-) .

      Thank you!!!

  3. Right on! Love this – basic, easy things any undergrad can do. Everyone listen to Ellen!

    • Awww… thank you. I agree with Jamie, too. I need to re-look about my syllabus and make sure I’m being as transparent as I want to be!


  4. Most blogs are from young guys, who want to earn money or who have got a little bit too much of self confidence and want to teach uninteressting stuff, not so this blog. This one is really useful and offers some information. I’m an exchange student and i didn’t know that you don’t allways have to work with the newest version of a book. In my home country the professors are kinda stern.

    • Hello,

      I appreciate that very much. Many students have told me the same thing–that their profs in their home countries are stern. Of course, you find stern profs in the United States, as well :-) . But, yes, of course… check on the older book edition because you might be surprised!


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  7. Freshmen: Wondering About Textbooks & What To Call Your Prof?
    Just Ask! really proven your insights in this kind of topic.

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