Writing for College Professors: What Do They Want?


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The entire concept of writing for college professors is a bit confusing. Think about it. It's not like you're writing a personal letter to a friend. You're not explaining anything new to whom you're writing. What you're doing doesn't even seem natural. Yes, you're writing one-on-one to an individual, but you're not exactly educating this individual. Your professor likely has a more comprehensive knowledge of the subject matter about which you chose to write, so why do it at all? And the truth is, you likely don't even have a full working knowledge of your subject matter. So what should your angle be when going about this sort of thing? How should you approach it and how do you do a good job?

I have a few tips for you when it comes to your college writing, but I'd first like to frame things out for you. When dealing with academics, you need to understand your role at the university. You must remember who exactly you are. In the most basic sense, you're, as mentioned previously on this forum, a junior scholar. What do scholars do? Well, they learn and research and then report back to other scholars. Now, just because someone is considered a scholar doesn't mean that they know everything there is to know. Scholars may think along the same lines as one another, but they certainly can't study all topics and all subjects. Those things are spread out among many different people. Each scholar studies his or her own section of the world. Then, when they report back, they must understand that while who they're reporting to may have some cursory knowledge of the subject, their readers are looking to be filled in with the rest of what they don't already know. These readers are busy people engaging in learning and research of their own, so they'll appreciate reading something that's targeted toward them by someone who is writing for them and not to them. And this is exactly how you should view your writing for your professors. You're a junior scholar and they're senior scholars. They don't know everything, so it's in your best interest to share what you've discovered in a compelling way that will benefit them.

We already know that your professors will likely know more than you do about a certain topic. You need to ask yourself, "Is my professor trying to learn from me or do they seek something else?" Then ask yourself what the reason is that you're in college in the first place. It's you who is trying to learn. And to do so, you need to train your mind how to reason and how to think. The goal of your professor is to teach you how to work through complex ideas. They'd like to see you deepen your knowledge through learning, research, writing, and rewriting. It's the struggle that will aid in your learning and it's understanding this purpose of writing altogether that will guide you through and help shape your decisions. Your goal in writing a paper isn't to enlighten anyone but yourself. It's the entire process that will make each and every successive paper better than the last. And to benefit from your writing, you'll need to keep a sharp focus on that writing's purpose; to learn. To learn how to critically think and how to delve deep into a topic. Pretend that you're writing for colleagues who know some, but not as much as you do. Fill them in. Explain to them the importance. Show them why. By doing this, you'll begin to realize the importance of what you'll eventually become, which is an expert.

I'll offer you a quick tip here that may prove to help you throughout your college career. When you receive an assignment, don't shy away from it. Don't groan and hide the assignment away, only to look it over closer to its due date. Review the assignment immediately and begin to develop an action plan in your mind. Become excited that you have the privilege to write for an esteemed college or university. Remember how badly you wanted to attend your school and prove to yourself that you can impress your professors with your enthusiasm. If you approach your assignments in this way, you'll only travel in one direction and that's straight to the top.


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Think for a moment what your college professor gets out of assigning you a paper. They can just as easily give a few Scantron tests per semester and be done with it. Papers take a lot of time to grade. I encourage you to sit down and read a paper that you've written. See how long it takes. Then, reread your paper as if you're going to grade it. Content, style, grammar, and all. That's going to take a lot longer. Now, multiply your paper by as many students your professor teaches every semester and again, ask yourself what the professor gets out of it. I'll tell you what. They get paid because it's their job, yes, but they also the satisfaction of enlightening his or her students. Of passing on the knowledge and wisdom of research and work ethic. Professors have many more obligations than just teaching. They also have to prepare their lessons, do research themselves, advise students, and sit on committees. When they do find the time to grade your paper, it'll likely be late at night and on the weekend. So the next time you write, write as if you understand what your professor is attempting to convey. What is it that's meant to be learned? Impress your professor and you'll be rewarded handsomely for it.

As you progress through your college career, you'll find many a different type of professor. Some will hold your hand while others will mostly leave it up to you to figure out. I can remember when I was back in college. I had professors who would explain their expectations in great detail. They'd tell us what the goals of the class were, what they expected of us, and how exactly we'd be graded. Some of them would even give us progress reports as well as various suggestions for doing the best we could in the course. Other professors would give assignments that were much more open-ended which the students would have to sort of "figure out." As students, we'd moan and groan at these types of professors because we were extremely conscientious. We wanted details. The more, the better. When we didn't get them, we'd oftentimes complain about the professor and give him or her poor reviews. We'd think they had other more important things to do or that they didn't care about the students. We'd think they were lazy or incompetent. What we didn't realize was the the professors who gave us the most freedom were doing us the biggest favor. We had as much room as we wanted to learn and discover, but few of us took advantage of the opportunity.

The type of professor I'm referring to here will likely only give a topic and length as a writing assignment. This minimalist approach is on purpose. There are a few reasons for this and they are:

1. It wasn't always like this. Back some decades ago, college professors didn't "teach" like they do today. Students were left to figure things out for themselves. So today's professors were those students who were left to learn on their own. They did well, took advantage of the opportunities afforded to them, and made the best of it. And because of all that, they excelled to the rank of university professor today. There's little chance that a student complaining today about the lack of details will have any effect on someone who's been through more trying times themselves. These professors lived through times were only lectures, exams, and papers were commonplace. It was up to them as students to learn everything else. Many hours were spent in libraries attempting to learn about a certain field or two. This type of information wasn't spoon fed to the students. Exact measurements and grading policies simply didn't exist. And the students were better because of that.

2. A student who can figure it out for him/herself and does well at that is a better student. The really good swimmers figured it out for themselves. They were forced to adapt. They learned the ins and outs of swimming. No one held their hand. When hands are held, reliance is developed and that's not what anyone attends a university for. When a student can thrive in a competitive environment where they're he or she isn't spoon fed information, it makes the student stronger and more adaptive. They develop valuable problem solving skills. When a student can't figure out how to write a good paper on their own, perhaps they're too weak to graduate at the university level.

3. Your professor is simply too good. Sometimes, professors who have been around for a very long time are so involved in their field of specialty that they have simply forgotten how to coddle the students they teach. This is all the more reason you need to step up to the plate to dig into the mind before you. Imagine being trained by Picasso. Do you really think he would sit you down and explain every detail of success to you? No. He would likely paint and yell at you for not doing as well. You'd stick with it though because you would know the value of training under such an artist. Think of your professors the same way. After all, it was you who put yourself in the situation you find yourself.

4. Independence, Scholarly innovation, sense of discovery. These things are intensely important to those professors who value academic freedom. Their goal for their students is to have them graduate enlightened, flexible, intelligent, and diversified. Their goal is not for you to merely obtain a degree. It's my guess that these types would rather have you learn how to think and fail all of your classes than to graduate with an empty mind that didn't try very hard. Any attempt to funnel these types of professors into some sort of standardized process is abhorrent to them. Recognize this and take advantage of it.

I can tell you one thing for sure - as a freshman heading into your first year at college, you'll become frustrated by the seemingly lack of caring by some of your professors. Try to avoid feeling this way. As one of my old writing professors used to tell my class, "Rise to the occasion!" Every time we'd complain, she'd tell us to "Grow up." "Succeed!" "Show me your best!" "Impress me!" I got an A in that class because I figured out her system. I put her puzzle together. She gave us very little to work from, but I slowly picked up on the clues and learned what she was looking for and what was expected of us. I learned what we needed to do to impress her. My first year at college certainly was an experience. I discovered that complacency had no place at the university. That I needed to be much more scrappy than I'd ever been in high school. I asked other students how they made it through their classes. What certain professors were like. I read books on how to success at college. I read each course syllabus. And all that I did paid off in the end. I did very well in college and I use the skills I learned there regularly today.