Knock or Not?



Knock or not?

A case in negotiating with Professors




You expected it all. The sweating, the shaking, perhaps even the urge to flee. This is a high-pressure situation. And any way you trip up may have distorting consequences on that A-clad image of your transcript come May. Welcome to Ground 0, first week of classes post-shopping week, and a true semester looming ahead past the barrier of one interaction…

You have a meeting with a Professor in one minute, and a very simple request to make: a piece of guidance, sign-off on course selection, petition to enroll in their class, permission to miss a midterm for your national tournament or big production. We’ve all been there. Be it low stakes or concentration-changing, those fateful one-on-one meetings with our Professors hold the potential to change the course of our lives at Harvard. But why are they always so unsatisfying?

Why do we feel ill at ease in the presence of those which we feel intimate enough to share a sleeping space with: Thursday afternoon lecture? Why is their sweetness and understanding disposition more discouraging than not to our comfortable presence in their offices?

Well, it is simple enough. We are asked to cross the crater of informality separating us from them in one decisive step, notwithstanding the immense void of a commonality which inhabits its depths. It is no feeling of inferiority that rings the bell of anxiety, rather a sense that there is little to “connect with’’ or “be open about’’ with Professors in those prescripted spaces of their offices and departmental hallways.

Sitting, but how again?, in front of them. Somehow concurrently walking as they head towards their next class, but how do you talk when climbing stairs? Sharing qualms about a concentration requirement, but why do they keep staring at the line of Concentrators waiting outside for an advisory hold lift?

None of it is voluntary. Our thoughts are racing and our words only express half our desires. So, how can I be authentic when professors make me feel rushed, as if my pasty words bogged down their precious world-important time? How can I feel less boring, when they seem not to reflect that passion which I hold for myriad menial things? Can my words be good enough, when some just seem to misunderstand my inchoate utterings?  

All the while, whirling thoughts detract from that which I have come to seek in the first place: a best alternative to a negotiated agreement. Perhaps negotiation isn’t the best lens to perceive these human interactions, but it resembles most the reality of what neither party willfully renders stressful for the other. 

So, let us imagine a Professor: the antagonist (despite their kind intentions). The negotiation space: a foreign and august desk across the room, or a shifting flurry of corridors and stairs. The difficulty in translating private intent: that immense rift between your lived experience and theirs. The goal: that expected informality which will lead you to fully articulate what you came in for.

To blast that heavy cloud which reeks of awkward interactions and unfulfilling conversations, let us unlock a few vents into good practices for negotiation and clear the airspace obscuring your fateful encounters with advisers, TF’s, ADUS’ and Professors:

  • Minimum two parties. This means: understand and respect the other. Professors do have a life. They are adults whom we can learn to understand. Their teaching is their way of life and much about themselves, we already know simply by listening to them week in, week out.
  • Predetermined goals: make a list. Just don’t forget what it is you came in to talk about.
  • Expecting an outcome: brace yourself for the possibles and come ready with contingency plans. Be quick to assess what consequences a certain outcome may have on your semester and don’t let questions fly by without being asked. Professors may not know how their suggestions can impact other spheres of your life. 
  • Resolution and Cons: often times, reality is more complicated than conceived. This involves work, which involves courage. 
  • Parties willing to modify their positions: rest assured that even strongly held positions can fracture or be bent. This is true first for yourself, and then for the Professor. 
  • Parties should understand the purpose of negotiation: let it not escape any party’s mind that the words imparted by Professors will at the very least guide your experiential paradigms for the next three months.

Now, of course there are exceptions to this scenario: the random coffee break, the warmly decorated office with posh couches, the really welcoming Professor. Just remember that there is always a way to feel more at home when stepping into a Professor’s space, especially when you are surprised by an environment which purports a lack of deferentiality, yet doesn’t achieve it for any party.

Ana Luiza Nicolae ‘22 ( writes Forum for the Indy.