main navigation
my pace
English Language Institute Blog

How to Talk to Your Professors at an American University

Learning a new language is so much more than studying grammar concepts, attempting to listen to a person who speaks too quickly, or trying to say “Worcestershire sauce”. There is also the necessary, but sometimes overlooked, aspect of learning about the cultural and social norms of the place from which the language you are studying comes.

Adult students speaking with professor

The professors at Pace’s English Language Institute(ELI) excel at preparing students to be linguistically competent enough to not only survive, but thrive in their matriculated university classes. However, our instructors also aim to acculturate students so they can successfully navigate the differences in academic cultural that international students encounter as they study with professors and classmates in the United States.

ELI instructors know that the ins and outs of American academic culture can be troublesome. For example, the relationships between teachers and students in the United States can be quite different from what an international student may be used to in their native country. Even in one’s own country, communicating with a professor can be a nerve-wracking task.

Professors are busy people and they can come off as unapproachable. But, believe it or not, teachers in the U.S. know that it is their job to answer students’ questions and most professors hope for, even pray for, inquisitive, motivated students who aren’t afraid to engage with them in the proper ways.

students Speaking-with-professor in the United States

As a student, it’s good to understand what’s expected of you. One of the expectations that teachers in America have, is that students will have and ask questions. We expect you to speak up in class, especially in discussions (but that’s a whole other blog post!), and we expect there might be some times when you need to see us one-on-one about your inquiries. But what’s the best way to go about getting individualized help outside of class time?

The humorous video below does an excellent job of outlining some great practices students can use when meeting with professors. However, as I watched Professor Pulitzer, the professor professional, a number of questions came up. As you watch this video, if you have any questions, feel free to ask them in the comments section of this blog post. Also, feel free to turn on the closed captions and slow down the speed of the video to better meet your listening proficiency.

This video raises a lot of questions, right!? That’s good though because we can’t get answers unless we have questions!

What I want to know is, why does Dr. Hans prefer to use his given name, or first name, as opposed to his family name, or last name (Dr. Godfrey-Guggenheim)? Is there a cultural reason for this? Could he be trying to break down formality between himself and his students so that they feel a closer connection with him? Formality in American culture can be a little more relaxed than what some non-native English speakers are used to. Or maybe, Dr. Hans has found that some students have a difficult time pronouncing his last name correctly. Is he just making the pronunciation of his name easier for his students? Could there be a more personal reason for using “Dr. Hans”? Might this be a term of endearment given to him by past students?

students in class speaking with their professorWhat do you think? Do you have any questions? More importantly, do you have any answers!? Let me know in the comments!

Professor Pulitzer also tells us that preparation work, like jotting down a few topics to help you guide the conversation and keep the meeting moving along, is necessary before a powwow with your professor. But what other preparation work can you do before you rendezvous with your teacher?

The answer to this question is as varied as the student arranging the meeting. For English language students at Pace, the ELI helps with everything from correcting problems with pronunciation to practicing and mastering common conversational phrases that a student can use during any high stakes engagement to sound more articulate and intelligent.

ELI professors even work with students to improve their conversational fluency so that, as a meeting with a professor moves into more informal territory, a student will feel confident in their ability to engage in everything from small talk and conversational banter to deep conversations on academic and non-academic topics alike. What’s you answer to this question?


How can the ELI at Pace University help you to succeed on your path to success? Please tell us in the comments below You can also visit the ELI website, contact the ELI, or apply here.

You can also listen to this blog post being read by its author, Patrick.


Word List:

  • overlooked (adj.) – to neglect to do something, to for get to do something
  • cultural and social norms (n.) – typical, normal behaviors in a society and a culture
  • competent (adj.) – able to do something well
  • matriculated (adj.) – enrolled in for credit classes
  • acculturate (v.) – to change and become accustom to a different culture
  • the ins and outs (idiom) – how things work, the specific details of how something works
  • nerve-wracking (adj.) – to cause to be nervous
  • come off (phrasal v.)– to seem
  • inquisitive (adj.) – to ask questions
  • inquiries (n. pl.) - questions
  • individualized help (n.) – personal assistance, help specific to one specific person
  • came up (phrasal v.) – to arise, to become as a result of something else
  • break down (phrasal v.) – to destroy or change the condition of something
  • has found (passive v.) – has discovered
  • a term of endearment (n. phrase) – a name or title given to a person by others who care about the person
  • jotting down (v.) – to write down
  • powwow (n.) – a meeting
  • high stakes engagement (n.) – an important meeting

WRITTEN BY PATRICK RUSSELL