Asking for Help

Part Three of a series for the Writing Blog by Patrick, a former mentor.

Do you know how big a dearth there is of Simpsons clips and screen shots online? It’s bizarre– you’d expect every moment of their 35 years to be chronicled in pictures, like they are in my brain. Nope, only about fifteen clips in English and thirty in Spanish, so I’ll have to be flexible about which extended metaphors I use. What I wanted to use was Marge’s resume (“Homemaker: 1980–present”), but since a description of a joke is a poor substitutes, here’s McGarnagle:

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*Editor’s note: The number of Simpsons clips available online seems to be diminishing even as you read this.  If you’re unfamiliar with the reference, it shouldn’t be to hard to find a friend to recount the Billy/McGarnagle scene for you.

See, Billy didn’t want to ask for help. He figured sure, maybe down the line I should tell McGarnagle, but not now. He had his own motivating factor—fear—and you’ll have a variety of your own: pride, faith in your ideal student, underestimation of your overwhelming need to procrastinate, shyness. But in the end Billy didn’t let fear get in his way. McGarnagle got results, and so should we all. Let me explain.

As a proud, bad, shy student I never went to professors’ office hours, and I never sought their help in comprehending the material, completing the assignments, or anything else. Since I knew that I wasn’t performing at peak capacity, I figured that asking for help was inessential before I found out just how much I could understand on my own. I also never had any questions for professors—I wasn’t slow on the pick-up, I was just behind in my readings, and I didn’t want to show my ignorance. Finally, I’ve never really understood how professor-student relationships work, and what questions you’re supposed to ask them—I wanted to stay in contact with my favorite professor after he left Wesleyan, so I asked him to read one of my stories, which is probably the last thing he wanted to do in his free time.

First things first: professors are required to have office hours, and they’re required to meet with students, so it’s never a matter of wasting their time. Most of them are very friendly too, and are happy to help you work through your awkwardness until you arrive at the substantive questions you had prepared. Some of them are very unfriendly—I had one tell me at the end of a meeting, “An email would have sufficed.”

Doesn’t matter, don’t take it personally. Lookit, most classes grade for participation. Participation is all about linking your name with memories of you speaking. Speaking in front of a class is difficult for a shy person to do, especially if you haven’t done the readings (and especially if, like me, you’re judgmental, and bitter about your lack of participation, and hold most comments against the people who made them). Speaking one-on-one with a professor eliminates the judging ears of your peers (actually mostly indifferent), the need to compete with others who are trying to participate, and the need to eloquently compose your thoughts immediately. It also personalizes you to the professor (helpful come grading and getting noticed in class; absolutely necessary when seeking a thesis advisor or recommendations), and lets them know what you’re struggling with (then they’ll know it in grading your essays and exams), and that’s all gravy on top of that fact that you’ll leave the session with a better understanding of what you were struggling with. If you don’t have any questions because you’re behind, draw on the lectures and/or do enough reading to come up with a question, any substantive question. Again, most professors will be very nice about it, and you’ll get results. If they’re not and you end up like Billy, well, all the benefits of personalizing yourself remain despite that professor’s demeanor, and at least it forced you to frame a question around something you didn’t understand.

This has all been regarding general comprehension stuff, the work of being in classes from week to week. But what of the substantive stuff? The papers and exams that determine most of your grades, and that you always put off to the last minute? How do you ask for help with those? Well, I will deal with it in my next post: the perils of last-minute work.


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