Students Should Interview Professors Before Taking Their Classes

Interviews held with students before the start of classes leave professors with a healthy dose of vulnerability, writes Nicolaus Mills of Sarah Lawrence College.

NYO_Education_interview_finalFor myself and virtually everyone I knew in college, the first days of classes were filled with apprehension. We never knew what our professors were really going to be like. All we had to go on was their reputations and what they wrote in the course catalog.

That’s still true for most students, but at the college where I teach we’ve found a way around this problem. In the week before classes, my colleagues are interviewed by prospective students. These meetings are typically one-on-one encounters.

Such an approach to the start of the school year suits the small college where I have spent most of my career, but it’s an approach that could be adapted—with group meetings, for example—to any school interested in giving its students a more informed say in the courses they choose.

Such a practice doesn’t even have to cost extra if it’s built into the college calendar. All it requires is faculty willing to put in more time with students and administrators who think beyond what will improve their college’s ranking in U. S. News & World Report.

The interviews are not a one-way street. I often question the students who come to my office. On occasion, I even advise them against studying with me. This year I told a senior who was doing an internship with an online magazine that I thought taking my writing course and doing her internship would give her too many deadlines to meet. She agreed.

But the real deciders in these interviews are the students. They are the ones who figure out whether a course and teacher are right for them.

In the 10 or 15 minutes an interview takes, students don’t get an in-depth knowledge of those of us who will teach them, but they can see how open we are to their ideas.

The result is a shift in power that never fails to shock people hearing about it for the first time. Even my liberal friends worry that my college’s interview system turns students into customers and teachers into salesmen.

That’s a danger, but not, I think, a serious one. If they take my course or that of another professor, students aren’t buying a product they can show off. They are choosing a kind of knowledge they imagine will be important in their careers and lives.

In the 10 or 15 minutes an interview takes, students don’t get an in-depth knowledge of those of us who will teach them, but they can see how open we are to their ideas and whether we have taken the trouble to produce a syllabus that we can defend.

Students naturally make misjudgments during the interview process. A professor who is personally appealing may have an advantage over a plainspoken one. But I find that students don’t as a rule go for flash. They have a good sense of what will nourish them intellectually.

The hardest seminar to get into in my literature department is taught by an octogenarian colleague with an extremely long reading list. Students apply in droves, anxious to meet the challenge his seminar poses.

When I think back on my college experience, I can still name the courses I would never have taken if I had met the professor in advance. I would, I am sure, have been initially much more shy during the interview process than my students are today, but I imagine with practice I would have improved.

When friends say I am being naïve about the judge-your-professor message these interviews convey, I remind them that the rest of the academic year quickly kicks in. During the coming months, I’m the one who decides the authors my course covers and the grades my students get.

The interviews my colleagues and I hold before the start of classes simply make the academic process less one sided and leave professors with a healthy dose of vulnerability . It’s not possible to talk about how and what you teach without being reminded of your shortcomings.

Nicolaus Mills is a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, N.Y.  His most recent book is Every Army Man Is with You: The Cadets Who Won the 1964 Army-Navy Game, Fought in Vietnam, and Came Home Forever Changed. Students Should Interview Professors Before Taking Their Classes