Monday, October 18, 2010

Everything is Important

Last week I was asked a classic student question that is surely among the most hated by the professors of the world:

Did I miss anything important?

Does anyone ever answer "No"?

If the answer really is no, then either I am not doing my job well or I am being sarcastic. It is unusual for me to pass up a chance at sarcasm, but I typically don't find it satisfying in this particular circumstance, so I said:

Yes.

The student waited for me to elaborate, and I waited for him to ask a follow-up question, even though I didn't want to hear his follow-up question. I out-waited him. He asked:

Like what?

I gave the classic professor response: I am not going to repeat my lecture for you, despite the numerous important points in it. Get the notes from someone who was in class, look at the image file I posted, look at the review questions I posted, read the relevant part of the textbook, then if you have any questions about the material covered, let me know etc.

That is: You do some work first and then I will help you if you have a question about the class topics.

My questions to you, readers, are:

- Does anyone have a good response to this question? I would define good as not rude but, at the same time, sending the semi-friendly message that the question is perhaps inappropriate and would be better if phrased another way or, better yet, not asked at all.

- Don't students know how obnoxious this question is? Don't more senior student pass along valuable information to new students to help prevent the latter from such grievous errors? Or at the very least, doesn't the university provide some information about do's and don'ts of dealing with professors? What are those students doing during their freshman orientations when they are all standing in circles on campus lawns and clucking like chickens? In between the bonding games, couldn't someone say "Hey, here's something you really need to know: If you miss all or part of a class, never ask the professor if you missed something *important*. It hurts their feelings, and some of them get angry."

But maybe, just maybe, if no one ever asked me this question anymore, I would miss it. I'm not saying it is an important question, just that it is a classic question for a reason. It would be like if no one ever asked me what was going to be on the quiz. Or if a faculty meeting were canceled because no one had anything important to say. That is, unimaginably weird.

50 comments:

Maggie said...

There is an excellent answer to this question, and it is here:
http://www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry/wayman/poem5.htm

Hypatia's Ghost said...

As a grad student TA, I quite often explain to my students how to approach professors and how to communicate with professors, because I know that it's something that they don't know how to do, and that they aren't equipped to figure out on their own. I think they have a hard time empathizing with a professor's position, and given that they're all fresh and new to Academia, that makes sense.

I didn't know how to approach professors like this when I was an undergrad, mainly because of the gulf separating us. It's hard to see your professors as humans when you are an undergrad.

In answer to your first question: maybe something like "I know that you probably don't mean it this way, but the way you have phrased this question comes across poorly. You have just asked me if the presentation of material that I spent my time preparing and delivering contained anything at all important. Why would I have spent my time on it if it were not important? Did you mean something more like, 'how do you recommend I catch up to what I missed in class the day that I was absent?'" Maybe probe their question a little more and try and get at what they're asking. They might just be asking if you announced a due date or a test date, rather than if the lecture contained important ideas.

I once had to tell an honor's student, as delicately as I could, that saying to our professor that she "doesn't get C's!" and demanding an explanation was horribly rude, and putting her on the bad side of a powerful faculty member. I finally just told her she had a bad attitude; she got red in the face, and then suddenly calmed down. She apologized to the professor the next class period. Sometimes being blunt is okay.

SB said...

When students pose that question, I am guessing that 99% of the time they really mean either:

"Did I miss anything that won't be posted in the [regular] notes?"

"Did I miss out on any tips on how to succeed on the exam?"


An example of "something important" a student might be anxious about having missed would be a rescheduled exam, a description of testable material, etc. Some professors announce tips like these in class, but don't post them online, which is why some students like to double-check, although I agree that there are more tactful ways to do it than implying that all the other course material is "unimportant"

If I felt like being extra nice, I would answer along the lines of... "We cover important concepts in every class, and this one was no different. However, you can catch up fully by reading the online notes and/or textbook"

Anonymous said...

I think it's nice to summarize in a few sentences what happened last class. In a calculus class, the answer might be "We went over some examples of trigonometric integrals, and introduced trig substitutions, and did some examples of those. The lecture corresponded roughly to sections 6.3 and 6.4 of the book. But it's really best if you get the notes from someone who attended."

Amanda said...

Students don't tell others this, and the university doesn't either. I think when some people ask this, what they're really asking is, Did we move on to a new topic, or are we still explaining what we did in the previous lecture for the people who aren't getting it? or rather, can I go to the next lecture and play catch up gradually, or does the next lecture actually build on the one i missed? I think they're trying to ask how to catch up and how to prepare without quite knowing the words to use to get their true intention across.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Everything is not important. If everyone agreed on what is important in a course, one textbook per subject would be enough. Maybe you mean "everything is important to you", or "everything is important for the purposes of your course", but that's not the same thing, and it's not true of my courses, either.

For example, I devoted one entire class in my classical mechanics course to the Henon-Heiles system, which is not even mentioned in many textbooks. I think it is an important part of the history of the subject, and plotting the surfaces of section on a computer (doing in seconds what must have taken Henon and Heiles months) is certainly entertaining, but I don't think a student who missed that class would have faced problems with the rest of the course! (I had already talked about the essential ideas using other systems, like the driven pendulum.)

So I would answer saying "These are the things I did today that will be required later in the course, and these are things that I did that I believe are required knowledge for physicists, and these are the things I did for entertainment." And usually not all three categories in the same lecture.

muddled grad student said...

How about - "maybe. What do you consider important?"

I don't know if it's an appropriate response for a Prof., but its a pretty good response when a student asks another. Often some of these people only want to know if the Prof. mentioned something about a deadline or what would be asked in the quiz/exam and not the actual course content itself.

Alternatively "Yes, all of it"

Anonymous said...

I think there are a couple things that factor into this question. First, in high school kids ask this question, but there the answer is often actually "no".

Second, I know I asked this (before being kindly told it was rude - probably by my professor), but what I actually meant was "were there any administrative announcements (homework, test, etc) or particular points you stressed (that wouldn't be apparent from me reading the notes, the book, and doing the homework)?"

Margaret L said...

The most recent time I was asked this, it occurred to me that maybe they are really asking, "Was there a pop quiz? Did you announce that the date of the test has changed? Anything like that?"

If so, this is a much less unreasonable question. In the future I think I'll answer with something like, "No pop quizzes or anything, I don't do that," or "Important announcements are always posted on the class website."

(If they really did mean "Tell me the content of the lecture," then I'll be torturing them by making them say so more explicitly. So, win-win.)

Karla said...

There's a wonderful poem addressing this very question, "Did I miss anything?", found at http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/013.html . My favorite lines include

Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
a shaft of light suddenly descended and an angel
or other heavenly being appeared
and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
to attain divine wisdom in this life

and

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?

Anonymous said...

Maybe the students didn't mean it intentionally. I've done it once but in my case I just wanted to know if I had anything particular to take note of on top of the rest of the course...

johnr said...

You could hand them a copy of the Tom Wayman poem "Did I Miss Anything?"

http://www.library.utoronto.ca/canpoetry/wayman/poem5.htm

Anonymous said...

"Yes, but you didn't lose any points by missing class. Yet."

Followed by the standard, "Get notes from a classmate and/or check Blackboard, and be sure to let me know if you have any questions about what you missed."

ChemProf said...

My irritating version of this sort of thing is "So do we JUST have to know....." regarding understanding about a particular topic. And "can I get a copy of the handout from last Monday because I missed class". Oh, and "Do you have my exam with you for me to see, because I wasn't here last week when you gave them back" (to which I irritatedly say "if you wish to see your exam you will have to come to my office hour.")

And finally, not quite as annoying, is "will we have a quiz on Tuesday?" - when ALL Tuesdays are supposed to be potential quiz days.

AAAAAACKKKK!

LizardBreath said...

As a poorly academically socialized undergrad, I asked that question once -- I'd missed a week of classes with an illness, and wasn't sure how to catch up beyond doing the reading (it was long enough ago that nothing was online). I sort of knew it was wrong, but I didn't really know what else to do other than ask the professor. And no, orientation didn't involve any explanation of how to interact with professors on this sort of thing. (Not that I shouldn't have figured it out on my own, but undergrad years are when you pick up that sort of socialization, right?)

Um, maybe a canned version of this post would be a good answer: "Go do the reading from the syllabus and look over the handouts, and if anything is still confusing you after that, come ask me about that particular topic." That should be enough to tip off a reasonably attentive student that the initial question was wrong and they shouldn't ask like that again.

Dr. Bad Ass said...

REad this poem on the first day of class:
http://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/013.html

Anonymous said...

I cut this off preemptively by including an "email" section in my syllabus that contains a list of questions that I will not respond to. "Did we do anything important today" is on the list, along with "When is the exam?" and "What is on the quiz?". Basically any question that arises from having missed a class, except for specific questions about course content.

sarcozona said...

As a student that's missed many classes due to a chronic illness, I've definitely asked that question, but I learned quickly to modify it. What I actually meant by that question was "Did you make an announcement about a quiz/test/assignment that I wouldn't know about otherwise?" or "Did I miss one of the big conceptual lectures?" If I missed one of the big conceptual lectures, I needed to do the reading NOW and set aside time to go to office hours. If it was a "details" lecture, it could usually wait a bit and was almost certainly something I could teach myself.

Candid Engineer said...

If you want them to know it's a retarded question, why not just ask them back- "Do you think you missed something important?" It might be telling to hear their answer!

Female Science Professor said...

It's not as if I want to discourage communication with students, but I think they should first check the review materials and announcements that I post online after every class and/or check with another student before asking me a question like this. Then, if they have questions about the material, I am happy to help them with that. I do tell them this (and write it down, in case someone misses a class), but some clearly don't think it is important information.

I think this issue goes beyond that of professors being cranky about the wording of this question. It's also about teaching students how to find the information they need without asking someone else to do this for them (in an inappropriate way), or at least encouraging them to do this in cases when they should know well how to get the information.

Anonymous said...

I hate the "is this going to be on the test" question more than this one.

For the "did I miss anything important" question I give the students the benefit of the doubt that they mean important announcements.

Anonymous said...

You could do what I do with my two year old and ask them to restate their question properly: "What would be a polite way of saying that?" Gets the message across that they need to get a clue, and also gets them to ask what they are really getting at. Hopefully they will learn a little quicker than a toddler.

Heidi said...

I am sorry, but I think it is very arrogant to assume that there should (or is) a special way to interact with professors. Or that young people need to learn somewhere during their college time how to speak to/interact with professors. That places them in ivory towers, is that what you want?

It all comes down to respect. But respect between people. At all levels. There is no need to place professors above this, really not. I do agree it is a ridiculous question, not showing up for class due to whatever reason, and then asking "did I miss anything important?". But it is without respect to whomever taught that class, may it be a professor, may it be another student.

On the other hand, I never thought of the explanation of this phrase as Margaret L wrote it. She may be right!

But, stop writing (all of you who did) that there is a way of treating/talking with/to professors. When I was a grad student, I taught students, and it was as annoying and respectless to me as it would have been to a professor (f.e. asking me if they could just get a passing grade but not writing the report "just because they did not feel like it"). Likewise, I am currently trying to teach someone a method I have used for years, and he is a total newbie. From postdoc to postdoc. The postdoc I am teaching,however, just does how he likes and does not take into account what I tell him. I am trying to convey my knowledge, I am telling him the little tricks that make it work. But he ignores them. That annoys me, especially when he keeps coming to me asking why it does not work. If I then tell him that he did not do it exactly as I showed him, he tells me he thinks it is not necessary to do it like that.

It all comes down to respect. From one person to another person. The title professor does not matter in this.

Edward said...

You could give him a pop quiz to see if he missed anything important.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, I suppose what most students are saying is in fact "did you discuss any content other than that listed on the syllabus," but that seems to them to be a rather strange question to open conversation with. Some profs do shuffle topics a lot, and/or spontaneously decide to go more in depth into a topic due to the needs of the class.

Still, students should be reminded to self reflect. If someone walked into a conversation that had been going on for 10 minutes then asked, "Did I miss anything important?" wouldn't they find that rude?

Kim said...

I find that question (and the related "what did we do in class last time") frustrating, in part because it usually means that the student hasn't looked at the syllabus since it was handed out. (Students who have looked at the syllabus tend to ask more specific questions, like "are we still talking about X.") Also, although I know what I planned to talk about, I don't always remember interesting tangents that result from student questions (and when I read exam answers, I often discover that those tangents were helpful for understanding the topic).

As for how I handle it - it's pretty much what FSP does. Sometimes I also look at them like they've just asked an incredibly bizarre question (not on purpose, but just because I never know how to answer). Somewhere along the line, students seem to learn that more specific questions result in more helpful answers - my juniors tend to ask better questions (and to talk to their friends before they talk to me).

FSGrad said...

Since many others have already translated the student-speak ('were there administrative announcements that I missed?'), I will just point out that in my experience, it is a rare class that is actually on track with the syllabus come midterms, let alone later in the semester, so just reading the syllabus is not always enough to figure out what content was missed.

Or maybe my professors just talk more than average.

aceon said...

Heidi- I take your point about people needing to be respectful in all of their interactions regardless of rank or title. That said, I do think it's helpful for students to think about how to interact with professors in particular. For many of them it is their first real professional relationship - and that is something that many of them don't recognize. They err in treating us like their parents or their friends, neither of which is appropriate. I don't want or need a special professor category of behavior (and I don't think anyone else posting here does either) but I do want to be one of the first entries in the professional category of interaction.

Anonymous said...

Jeez, calm down people. News flash: many students don't find the material in your course important or even interesting. Should they all? Perhaps, but that's a high bar to set for yourself as a teacher. The larger the class you teach, the more of these there will be. There will always be students for whom a class exists just to be suffered through, and to them what's important is what's on the test. And in the context of this question, that means material on the test that's not in the book.

Don't take it so personally.

EliRabett said...

Since Eli's friend posts his lecture notes on line, that question only occurs about tests (don't give quizzes either)

Anonymous said...

"There will always be students for whom a class exists just to be suffered through, and to them what's important is what's on the test. And in the context of this question, that means material on the test that's not in the book."

Good for them. They should probably attend class then. Or get the notes from a friend. I'm certainly not going to reply to a student with a rehash of my lecture condensed into an email. Then again, I also don't split my lecture material into "stuff I'm testing on" and "stuff I'm saying just to hear myself talk". Everything is testable.

Anonymous said...

i was also going to post the Wayman poem. I like that answer so much that I put a link to it in my syllabus for a few years.

Rahul Siddharthan said...

Wow, so much anger. (Wayman actually says that he is "quite out of control with anger and hate".)

Perhaps some of you are in the wrong career.

From my student days, I remember some teachers who treated us with respect, and some who treated us as adversaries. Guess which ones we respected in turn. And, indeed, guess which ones we learned more from.

In fact there was a strong correlation between the adversarial attitude of the professors and their lack of knowledge. Professors who actually had a grasp of their subject had no need to be confrontational. We went to listen to them, and felt free to ask questions.

I don't have a very good idea how my students rate me, but I know that almost all absenteeism tends to be for illness. I view that positively. If students chose to absent themselves casually (this has happened in the past), I'd question my methods, not their commitment.

And I view "did I miss anything"? as a sign of interest, certainly not as a sign of aggression!

Bagelsan said...

It sounds like "did I miss anything important?" falls in with "so, come here often?" or "nice weather we're having, isn't it?" as one of those awkward oh-crap-I'm-trying-to-start-a-conversation-now-please-have-mercy openers that no one should ever use but lots of people do. :p

Anonymous said...

This is sort of a rehash of what others have said, but the question of "importance" comes from things that are graded. Lectures exist only to help you get grades, but the *grades* are the important part. So, yeah, they're asking about administrative announcements, homework pass-backs, pop quizzes, test reschedules, or anything else that has to do with grades. What you talk about in class isn't actually important, because they have a textbook and are totally bad-ass googlers (they think), so they can figure it out on their own. And you should know all this to be true, because you're a teacher, and therefore grading things is your primary goal. The lectures only fill time between self-directed activities. (This is also why they get pissy about having to mess with TA's in large classes. Dude, prof, you can't even *grade* things? What else do you *do*?) As someone on the young end of the faculty spectrum, I can definitely tell you that this is exactly the kind of academic experience high school prepared me for 10 years ago, so I can only imagine what it's like now.

But no, I've never asked that question, because I was always too desirous to be without confrontation to bother, though I thought it many times as an undergrad. :)

And as for Anonymous on 10/18 @ 11:55 (talking about joining a conversation late and asking if you missed anything important), no. I would absolutely not consider that rude. That sounds like a perfectly normal conversation arrival statement to me. Or maybe I just shoot the sh*t more than most. :)

Kim said...

After a productive discussion with a student yesterday, I thought of something else.

It's easier to give a helpful answer to a more specific question. The question may be "did I miss any announcements or handouts," but it could also be "is there any way I make up the work that we did in class" or "I don't remember where to find the notes that you post; could you help me find them." (My student yesterday knew she was going to miss a lab; because she was specific about her questions, I was able to explain how she could do the work without giving a contagious disease to the rest of the class.)

Asking the right question is important.

mathgirl said...

I agree with those of you who say that professors and students must treat each other with respect.

I find the question

"Did I miss anything important?"

disrespectful as it states that there are classes in which there is nothing important. Therefore, I don't see why the professor should reply to this question in a respectful manner.

Tim said...

@mathgirl.

Basically you are saying: no respect from student --> no respect in return. What will the student learn?

this is aggressive thinking and wrong. You should teach the student respect by giving it.

Besides, what is the prof's problem. If you are offended by this question, which i don't understand in the first place because the student just wants to know if they missed something, and please own up to the fact that some of your classes are utterly boring lol, just say NO and be done.

CaT said...

Tim!
i am glad you were not one of my students, surely i would have been very annoyed by you...!!
i think quite some people (including me) expect some kind of "respect" when teaching someone else.
once a student said: but we are paying tuition and i just dont like this course..!

mathgirl said...

@Tim

All I'm saying is that if I'm asked that question, with that phrasing, I (as a professor) don't feel any obligation to be respectful. I may choose to be respectful (which I always do), however, this is my choice, since the student started the conversation with a disrespectful question.

Students interested in learning ask much more concrete questions.

Anonymous said...

It is possible to get lectures recorded these days, you know.

AnonProf said...

Hmm. I've never tried this, but when a student asks "Did I miss anything important?", I wonder what would happen if you answered "Well, it was important to me!" with a big grin. Would they catch on? Hmm, I'll have to try that sometime.

P.S. In more seriousness: for some reason I rarely get this question. I wonder if it's a combination of student sheepishness (not wanting to look bad in front of the prof), possibly combined with the fact that I provide lecture notes with detailed notes on everything I did in every lecture, so students who missed lecture can crib off them. Who knows? I'll just count myself as a lucky one.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

Anonymous said "It is possible to get lectures recorded these days, you know."

Yes, it is. At my campus it costs $75/hour just for the recording (no editing, no streaming server, ...). With the usual course having 35 lecture hours, that comes to $2625. Making it available to students would probably cost another $1000. Recording all classes would increase the instructional budget by 30% or more. Since budgets are being cut, that really translates to reducing the number of courses offered--just so students can skip class?

Having a video camera in the classroom also affects the class dynamic, as many students are afraid to ask questions that might be recorded and seen by others. Some faculty are also uncomfortable working in front of a camera. Classrooms set up for filming are often very difficult to work in, with limited whiteboard space and no room to pace.

R.B. said...

I'm not in academia (just in an academic library) but I think it's about students needing to know the difference between a casual and a formal relationship. You don't talk/email your professor the same way you would a friend, with a, "Hey! What's up!" as the greeting. I agree with @Aceon about it being their first professional relationship, so they can try to learn something before their careless attitude gets them denied at a job interview!

What is wrong with respecting your teachers? Not setting them up on high, but just being civil? Why is that being criticized?

Anonymous said...

Guess what. It all comes back to common sense. It has nothing to do with professional or not. It just has to do with being respectful. In a shop, at work, in the subway, towards each other.
Some people call that Emotional Intelligence. Some might not possess it.
Yet, it has nothing to do with regarding a professor differently than any other person. Treating each other with respect. And knowing how to behave towards different kind of people. Yes, that means not talking to people you do not know like they are your friends. That does remain regardless of age.

Common sense.

Otherwise, there are tons of books written about etiquette.

Anonymous said...

Yes, that means not talking to people you do not know like they are your friends. That does remain regardless of age.

Or profession (I forgot to add that).

That means also treating the people who deliver packages to the lab with respect, or the people cleaning the lab. I often see otherwise. (But now I might divert the discussion too much). Although exactly this triggered my response. Too often I see that some people with a "high" IQ think that their IQ imposes respect from others. Brrr. I can't stand that. But that is just a personal frustration.

gasstationwithoutpumps said...

R.B. said "I think it's about students needing to know the difference between a casual and a formal relationship. You don't talk/email your professor the same way you would a friend, with a, "Hey! What's up!" as the greeting."

Anonymous said "Yes, that means not talking to people you do not know like they are your friends. That does remain regardless of age."

I have no problem with students talking to me as if I were a friend, nor with a greeting of "Hey! What's up!" It is common here on the Left Coast for professional relationships to be much more informal than in other parts of the country.

I would not be bothered by the informality of a student asking if anything important were covered, just the cluelessness of the assumption that most of the lecture was unimportant. I'm given to blunt speech and would be likely to use a sarcastic rejoinders: "It's all important to me", "No, nothing any faculty does is important to students who skip classes", "What do you think is important?", ...

I've never had the opportunity to use any of those. Students generally ask me much more specific questions, like whether they can still turn in an overdue assignment. "Important" things like homework assignments, due dates, and list of topics covered are all on the web page. I do get to use "It's on the web page" a fair amount.

Anonymous said...

I was a mean and nasty teacher. I taught those huge 400-500 student general education lectures, and the rule was, if you miss a class, you may ask your colleague for notes and you may come to office hours. At office hours, the material will be briefly summarized for you both verbally and on the chalkboard, and you will be directed to further reading--if and only if you come prepared and read the text and the website to know what we are talking about.

All the resulting "did I miss anything important" questions came from students with one foot out the door who were too busy for either office hours, office appointments or email. I always told them no, nothing very important. The other students, who were respectfully, diligently sitting in my office taking notes from the chalkboard, were horrified: "We went over XYZ for like the whole hour! That's going to be on the exam!" Yep. But it's not the end of the world if you get it wrong on the exam, either; the real shock seemed to be that the world (and specifically my world) did not revolve around their crummy B-. You can imagine how popular I was with the pre-meds.

Rocket said...

One time I actually did reply, "No, just the usual drivel." The student turned red and got quiet, and then didn't approach me for the rest of the semester. I felt kind of bad about that, and never did it again.

ILEAD India said...

A teacher should not get annoyed at the slightest instance. If a student misses out in something important, a teacher should give some time to it. However, it is also the responsibility of the students to listen to the teacher with full attention. Anyway,it was a nice post. Thanks.