Have you ever gotten an assignment from a professor, planned out when you would begin it, and sat down at your freshly-cleaned desk with your laptop, a drink, and a healthy snack, only to find that you don’t understand the instructions?
This happens to everyone at some point. Sometimes professors’ instructions are vague (perhaps purposefully so); sometimes their prompts are multi-faceted and open-ended; sometimes the assignment is separate from the class material and therefore difficult to begin working on. Whatever the reason, writing assignments can be murky to navigate. So what should be your first resource (besides The Writing Center)? Your professor.
Talking to your professor can be intimidating, but the reasons why it can be intimidating are the same reasons why it can also be helpful. Your professor has an advanced degree and years of experience in their field. Their job is to be a resource. Also, your professor is the one reading and grading the assignment. They came up with it. They know what they’re asking you to do.
So how should you go about contacting them for help? The answer is professionally, honestly, and sooner rather than later! Some professors have their preferred method of contact listed on their syllabi; usually this will be their office hours. If not, they probably prefer to communicate by email.
When you attend office hours, come prepared with specific questions about your assignment. What is it that you understand, and what is it that you don’t? Is a particular instruction confusing or vague? Are you uncertain about what the assignment is referring to? If your questions are numerous or don’t fall within the scope of what is covered in class, consider asking your professor for resources you can use to help you with the assignment (for example, The Writing Center often refers writers to the Purdue O.W.L. for help with citations!). If office hours don’t fit into your schedule, then try email—again including specific questions about the assignment.
If you are able, it may even be best to draft your assignment (perhaps with help from The Writing Center) and then show it to your professor (well in advance) for feedback. You can find out what you’ve done right and what you need to improve upon—and besides, it shows effort!
Here at The Writing Center, we’re happy to help you break down your assignment, draft your writing, and contact your professor. After all, communicating is what we do! So don’t put off your next assignment because you don’t understand—get started today. (link to writing center website there)
-Sarah, peer tutor