The College Student’s Field Guide to North American Professors

How to identify and handle these nine dangerous species of professor.

By Mark Stenberg, University of Texas at Austin


One day, robots will grade student performance using an algorithm that avoids all subjective bias.

They will score essays and projects with the same calculated logic that Scantron machines use for multiple-choice questions today. Every grade will be exactly what the student deserves, reflecting only the test-taker’s grasp of the subject being taught.

Until then though, the opinions, circumstances and personalities of college professors will continue to inadvertently affect students’ grades. Unfortunately, many of these biases are unpreventable: a hungry professor hastily reviewing a paper in order to get to lunch, or a recently divorced professor bitterly reading an essay on Shakespeare’s love sonnets. No amount of precaution or student effort can stop these from happening. As a result, learning to succeed in a world devoid of karmic equality becomes one of college’s most important lessons.

However, some biases can be predicted. With a trained eye, professors prone to certain behavioral patterns can be identified and managed. This list provides instructions for spotting these professors in their natural habitats, as well as tips for handling the eccentricities of several of the most common professorial species. For every teacher whose unknowable personal hatred of puns has sunk your essay from the Title-us Andronicus, there’s another for whom a well-timed pinewood derby anecdote will guarantee an “A.”

See a calculus professor wilding out at a football game? Strike up a conversation with him in class next week. Drop one well-researched comment about the quarterback’s pathetic noodle-arm and he might just overlook the difference between your take-home test’s incorrect math and correct final answers. With the correct application, The College Student’s Field Guide to North American Professors will be your key to academic success.

1. Progressive Hippy Professor

Attributes: Will consider the class a failure unless they’ve made your worldview more liberal

Weaknesses: Incredibly gullible and exceedingly willing to interpret any action as movement of student toward progress

How to Handle: Be present in class and participate in all discussions, but remain constantly unconvinced. Take pains to ensure that your unconvinced is distinctly different than your close-minded. If necessary, say, “I’m trying to be open-minded, but I’m just not convinced.” Find yourself neither the most liberal nor the most conservative in the class, and routinely defend both points of view.

Constantly—and I can’t stress this enough—constantly make it a point to the professor that you want to understand them. The professor needs to really believe that you’re sincerely trying to believe. Also important: never visit their office hours—individual attention will erode your mask of ambivalence.

Then, with mere days remaining in the class, make your first and only visit to their office hours. There you must recite a practiced but authentic-sounding epiphany, preferably one “brought on” by something the professor says mid-discussion, increasing the sense of sudden understanding. After that, an “A” will follow no matter what else happens in the class.

2. Unintelligible Foreign Professor

Attributes: Makes learning all but impossible

Weaknesses: Incredibly out of touch with society

How to Handle: Ideally, try suggesting alternative assignments for yourself, stressing the progressive nature of your ideas with feigned enthusiasm. Your weird American ideas may disorient the professor, causing him to accede to your request out of confusion.

More than likely he or she will rebuff the idea, leading to option number two: abandon the professor and develop as close of a relationship as possible with the TAs. As close as possible. Burrow your way into their life so inextricably that removing you would destroy them, like a parasite on a host.

Transcribe their notes, think of gift ideas for their anniversary, imitate them to call their parents, be responsible for their medical care: they have to be literally unable to live without you. You essentially want to be Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy or Kathy Bates in Misery. Start as a caretaker and confidant but then gradually leverage your power into an unhealthy dependence.

Then, come crunch time, suddenly remove yourself from their life and watch them flail and gasp without you. Right before their lives have fallen into irreparable disrepair, offer your services again in exchange for a favor.

3. Boring Professor Who Doesn’t Post Their Slides

Attributes: Forces attendance and then lulls attendees into sleep—a classic one-two punch

Weaknesses: Susceptible to group efforts

How to Handle: The incredibly boring professor who doesn’t post his slides is one of the greatest villains in the professorial circuit. Disregarding any obligation to make learning enjoyable, these professors drone on monotonously, pacing and gesturing with boring hand movements about boring topics in boring ways.

Since slides aren’t online, students have to go to class. But the lack of mental stimuli sedates students’ minds, rewarding the effort of attendance with a pleasant but note-less 48-minute nap. Fortunately, it takes just a bit of teamwork to outsmart the system. Develop a group and have one member attend and remain awake during class, using whatever means necessary to remain alert.

Then take notes in class that can be shared digitally. The sacrificial lamb rotates through the group, with everyone attending class once every two weeks. In the end, the group gets maximal note output with minimal time input. Another victory of technology over work ethic!

4. Incredibly Charismatic but Demanding Professor

Attributes: Holds students accountable for studying and learning—what the!

Weaknesses: Vulnerable to flattery

How to Handle: The appropriate strategy for this military assault is known as a war of attrition, a phrase I ironically learned from an incredibly charismatic but demanding professor. Talk about your own worst enemy, eh, Professor Stoff?

Take advantage of the professor’s intelligence by taking copious notes and sprinkling in sporadic nods, but know that the real results come from wearing him down during the one-on-one gab sessions. Innocuous questions about the professor’s undergrad career soon sprout into personal life questions, which eventually blossom into stories that start with, “You know, I’ve never told a student this before.”

Ideally, the relationship comes to closely resemble a Harry Potter/Professor Slughorn dynamic. Over time you become like a son or daughter to the professor, and they couldn’t possibly fail their own flesh and blood!

5. Slacker Professor

Attributes: Unpredictable, volatile and emotional—a wild animal

Weaknesses: Constant desire for affirmation

How to Handle: Don’t be fooled: slacker professors are the human equivalent to the hypnotic cobra or beautiful poisonous frog. Their enticing nature is their greatest weapon. These professors feel slighted by the system for any of a dozen reasons.

Often the university track has betrayed them or their scholastic peers fail to respect them. Occasionally—and this is the most dangerous of them all—they want to be the cool professor. The cool professor wants the students to know that they think tests are stupid too, so no tests! And homework? Who needs it!

But lost amid the cheering of the classroom is the assignment of some arbitrary, impossible final project. It’s in this crucial assignment where the professor’s characteristic rogue side will flare up. All too comfortably, the class slips into the disarming ease of Biology for Non-Science Majors or Modernist Literature, only to find themselves ripped to shreds at the end of the year.

The professor will validate his actions by convincing himself he’s taught a life lesson more valuable than the class. “You shouldn’t have waited till the last minute,” he’ll say, “Links I send to semester finals aren’t always going to work.”

The only defense is a constant onslaught of empathy to the teacher’s cause: they don’t get paid enough, Brecht is underappreciated and school shouldn’t be about test scores. If they think you’re their ally, you might have a chance at escaping the coming GPA genocide. Still, your best option is to transfer classes the moment the professor suggests that a class vote determine the syllabus.

6. Graduate Student Teacher

Attributes: A dangerous combination of fresh idealism and youthful energy

Weaknesses: Fear of failure

How to Handle: Graduate student teachers may act nonchalant but at their core lies a very complex fear: they are nerds and nerds love school. But, if they are bad teachers then they disgrace the very institution to which they have sworn their lives.

Nothing chills them to the bone quite like an unanswered question lingering in the air or a lack of volunteers to read the first passage. They carve time out of their schedule for office hours because that time is so critical for students to really get at the foundation of the issues being discussed in class.

But when no one shows up, they begin to panic. After all, they’re only a few years older than you are—they don’t have any idea what they’re doing. What if they were never meant to be teachers? What if this was all just a big mistake? What if their dad was right when he said that studying Early Modern English after the Great Vowel Shift was a bad idea?

Their panic is your cue. Once you see the fear in their eyes, ease in with just a little participation and gradually increase your involvement, taking care to avoid overwatering their sapling optimism. If they’re desperate enough, raising your hand and contributing will guarantee an “A,” their old apartment and a place in their wedding. They’ll chalk up your contributions to their teaching skills, thinking that they might not be so bad at this teaching thing after all!

7. Mom Professor

Attributes: Your final grade depends solely on the strength of your personal relationship to her

Weaknesses: She loves you

How to Handle: Go for the jugular: forget your old mom—this is your new mom now. Make it a priority to give this matronly moose an emotional muffin and you’re guaranteed a good grade. The more you let her into your life the more eloquent her future letters of recommendation become.

Attend office hours and immediately derail any academic conversation by discussing your goals and hobbies, even just what you did over the weekend. She just needs to know that she’s someone you trust. She knows that college can be hard and that if you ever need anything you shouldn’t hesitate to ask.

Soon, she’ll confide in you about academia, her personal life and even other students. This opens up the possibility of blackmail, but that’ll be unnecessary given the maternal love blinding her to your poor academic performance.

8. Foreign Language Professor Whose Language You’re Butchering

Attributes: Will constantly hate your terrible accent and pronunciations, considering your every word an insult to their life’s work

Weaknesses: Has given up

How to Handle: Unless you’re that loathed student who already knows the language and is taking the class for an easy grade, you’re doomed. There’s literally no way to win.

Although most language professors hate their students, the phenomenon is most extreme with French professors and teachers of less popular languages such as Serbian or Telugu, which students often take ironically. These professors have devoted their lives to studying a language, working their way to the top of the academic ladder through years of intense labor, and you just pronounced “bon soir” as “bone swore.”

Your only chance of survival is downcast eyes and an air of shame, constantly apologizing for your mispronunciations while paradoxically speaking as little as possible. You are a dog in a cage trying to look pitiful in order to get adopted. The sadder you act the better your chances. Think for no second that you will ever win the professor’s admiration, instead focusing on earning their pity and hopefully the mercy of a good grade.

9. The Legitimately Eccentric Professor

Attributes: Most likely not good at teaching

Weaknesses: Doesn’t care that much about teaching

How to Handle: First, these professors are rare and should be treasured if encountered. Professors that contrive eccentricity are abundant on college campuses and are unavoidable, but the honest-to-goodness really weird people who occasionally fall into teaching positions—they are tiny little miracles.

These professors forget to show up for classes, teach outside so they can smoke, wear sunglasses indoors, mandate class meditation, take their shirts off in class, disagree with textbooks and mutter to themselves during lecture. They are why you go to college. What they lack in teaching skills, they make up for in actual knowledge.

If you’re able to pry some of that intelligence from their cluttered mind then all the better. Honestly though, just take in the experience. If you ever come across one of these academic unicorns it’s better than an “A.”