How to Engage Your Professor

I sat there in silence. I don’t even remember how the topic came up in an American History class. “The Bible just has the books Emperor Constantine wanted in, after cutting out several others he didn’t like, such as the ones featuring women more prominently.” After a pause she added, “I know what you’re thinking. That’s not what my mom and dad told me!” Looking back, I regret not having the wit to respond with, “You’re right, my mother didn’t teach me that, because she taught me actual history, and not whatever fiction she read on the internet.” But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The moment passed without any comments, and the class soon moved back on topic to colonial American History. I knew it wasn’t quite right, but I didn’t know enough or think quickly enough to question it on the spot. Given the awkward silence, apparently neither did anyone else.

There are quite a few lessons I learned from this brief moment. The specific objection about Constantine and the Bible I’ll cover next time. For now, we’re going to look at the best ways to handle this kind of situation

1. Question them, if you can.

If you can be a bit quick on your feet, speak up and get them to clarify the statement. While a witty retort like my imaginary moment sounds fun, it’s neither helpful nor very gracious. Instead, ask them how they know that is true? Are there sources to back it up? Show a genuine interest. She was probably right that most of the students had never heard about the construction of the Bible.

In the event they are more aggressive and try to single you out as the ignorant religious fundamentalist in the class, you have the advantage of simply being a student asking questions to learn. This is a school after all. If she has some truth to share, great. If she doesn’t, you might be able to expose that and help your classmates, as well as the professor, to be more careful about taking trite statements at face value. 

2. Do your homework.

Not the class homework, though that would probably be a good idea too if you want to find some favor with the professor. If you come up against an issue you don’t fully understand, or know enough to Engage, don’t just let it go. Look it up, do some reading, maybe even role play the conversation. As I was going home that night, I was bouncing around ways to handle that situation and questions to ask if the topic came up again. When you botch one encounter, be ready for the next one. 

3. Know your audience, and choose your battles

In many circumstances, it is good to engage the professor and call them out. In this case however, even if I had been ready, I could have ultimately done more harm than good. The topic was already far away from where the class was supposed to be and asking questions would only take it further away. Know your audience and carefully pick your battles. If you’re in a three-hour long night class where everyone just wants to finish up and go home, starting a theological debate might not be the best way to model Christ’s love and mercy.

What I ended up doing was talking with the professor after the next class, with a few questions I had after researching. It went well, and she openly admitted that ancient history is really not her area of expertise, and she may have been wrong. The downside of this approach is it is private, leaving no answer for the rest of the class. The upside is you are more likely to get a deep and gracious conversation when it’s one on one, and not you confronting a professor at their podium. This can build a relationship, which can lead to further valuable conversations, as it did for me.

Engaging professors is scary. I’m pretty sure I was not the only Christian in that room waiting through the awkward silence. Thankfully it doesn’t have to be complicated. A little bit of grace and curiosity can go a long way. If you mix in some quick thinking and prepared questions, you should have everything you need to engage effectively. If they say something you know is false, Engage them. But, as always, do so with gentleness and respect.

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