US Higher Education: A Cultural Introduction

An introduction to some of the basics of working, networking, and living at US colleges and universities.

Beyond quality writing and high test scores, success at the college and university level requires students to recognize the rules of the academy—to respect the cultural norms subscribed to by colleges and universities. Some of these rules are found throughout American culture, well beyond the walls of educational institutions; others are specific to educational contexts, and are meant to foster certain kinds of relationships between members of the academic community. These cultural norms run inform many of the interactions the average student experiences during his or her studies, in big and small classrooms, in one-on-one meetings, in lines of e-mail, and even in instant messages and on blogs.

This text presents some fundamental cultural conventions that may be unfamiliar to students who are starting their college or university studies in the United States. A few of the standards of US schools are identical to those found in higher education in other countries—but not all of them, particularly regarding interactions with professors and other instructors.

Look carefully at the contents of this handout below. As with any cultural norm, something you feel confident about knowing could easily turn out to be quite different, leading to complications in your academic life. This handout covers:
  • A few common norms
  • A short academic glossary
  • Forms of address
  • Maintaining lines of communication
  • E-mail and websites
  • A few things to avoid

A Few Common Norms

There are a number of values and practices that are common throughout the higher education system. A significant number of these translate (to varying degrees) to many workplaces and to the civil sector of American life. As with any kind of community, you might find that some of the traits of the academic community can be contradictory from time to time.

It’s about more than a good job. While professional status and a healthy income are important goals of many students, the instructors and curricula of the US university system place at least as much importance—if not more—on the more traditional goals of individual learning, the building of new knowledge, and the creation of an informed and well-rounded citizenry. Reflecting this, undergraduates at many institutions are required to take as many as half of their courses in fields outside of their major, and much of the work that is done in the classroom is not going to be immediately or obviously relevant to the job market.

Classrooms are often participatory. A number of undergraduate courses, particularly mandatory freshman-level courses, are conducted in spacious lectures halls where the only feasible management approach to dozens or hundreds of students is to have them listen quietly to the instructor for an hour or more. Nevertheless, a good number of the courses that you will take are much smaller than this, and quiet is NOT the preferred approach. Instructors expect students to actively participate, asking questions and offering informed opinions and even openly (but politely!) disagreeing with instructors from time to time. When students are talking actively about the subject matter of the class, instructors feel more confident that students are growing from passive recipients of information into individuals who are thinking critically and who are contributing to building knowledge. When you find yourself in such an environment, look for opportunities to speak up. Don’t be intimidated by perceived flaws in your English; instructors and students alike are interested in what’s on your mind, the kinds of ideas you have and not the accuracy of your grammar and vocabulary.

Student often collaborate. Participation happens in small groups as well as on the whole class level. Many instructors rely on small group work to break up class time, and peer review (comments from fellow students) to provide added perspectives and unique insights, and to give students practice with intellectual authority and responsibility. In moments such as these, be thoughtful about your collaborative contributions, and take your peers’ suggestions seriously.

Collaboration is limited. The emphasis turns from group work toward individual accomplishment on high stakes activities, work that constitutes a large part of a final course grade, such as term papers and exams. Other than peer review, where problems are pointed out but the writer must come up with his or her own solution, evidence that others provided answers or wrote for you will lead to severe penalties. This includes plagiarism, which means taking other written sources and using them as your own.

Diversity is a strength. This is an important cultural value in US colleges and universities, and in many parts of the country as a whole. Respect for those from other intellectual positions is a priority for many instructors, as is respect for those whose gender, race, ethnicity, age, religion, language, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic position are different. Formal institutional guidelines allow instructors to deal severely with displays of disrespect towards others in the classroom.

Having said this, there are still incidents in classrooms where an occurrence of disrespect or marginalization is overlooked. This is sometimes done even by instructors themselves. If you see such an incident or are affected by it, bring it up with the instructor after class.

A Short Academic Glossary

  • Add/drop: The time period in which students may register, or de-register, from a course. The term may also apply to relevant documents (such as an add/drop form).
  • Final: An examination (“exam”) administered at the end of a course, that usually (but not always) covers all the content of a course.
  • Mid-term: An exam conducted sometime before the end of a course. There may be more than one mid-term in a course.
  • Pass/fail: A grading option that is not based on traditional letter grades, but only a judgment of satisfactory or unsatisfactory work.
  • Pop quiz: A surprise test, usually only a few minutes long.
  • Progress report: A mid-semester notice of failing or near-failing grades.
  • Pre-writing: Activities done before writing, to help make writing easier and clearer. These include, but are by no means limited to, brainstorming, negotiating, outlining, and researching.
  • Reflective writing: Short, informal writing designed to help your thinking and and your formal writing assignments.
  • Rough draft: An early version of completed writing. Rough drafts contain much of what appears in the final draft of a writing assignment, but with grammatical and mechanical errors, and with content that will be improved in later drafts.
  • Term paper: A longer and significant piece of writing for a course, usually due in the middle of a semester or later.

Forms of Address

Instructors, advisors, and other authority figures that you encounter in the classroom and in administration all have their own preferred forms of address. A small number prefer formal titles, but many are more comfortable with the implied sense of mutual cooperation and lack of emphasis on hierarchical control that comes from using their given names (“first names”), and will feel uncomfortable if you use a title. There is no blanket standard to apply. Follow these guidelines:
  • When in doubt, ask. If the person you are speaking with doesn’t explicitly tell you their preferred form of address (although many instructors will on the first day), just say, “What should I call you?” or “How should I address you?” It’s a certain way to get it right.
  • Not all instructors are professors. Many of the instructors you will meet are graduate students who are working towards their doctoral degrees, but have not received them yet. In such cases, “professor” or “doctor” isn’t inappropriate, it’s inaccurate.
  • Who cares if she’s married or not? In recent years, women without a doctoral degree have shifted away from “Mrs.” and “Miss” toward the more generally applicable “Ms.” (pronounced “mizz”). Single men in academic and professional spheres are addressed as “Mister,” and after getting married they are still addressed as “Mister”— gender equality means that marital status is just as unimportant for women. Use “Ms.” unless the person is explicit about her preference for “Miss” or “Mrs.”
  • Titles are used only with family names. Some people will mistakenly apply a title to a given name (for example, “Ms. Nancy” for a graduate student named Nancy Krajenski). Addressing someone this way comes across as unusual, and even as a bit of a joke. Instead, use only family names (“last names”) with titles (“Ms. Krajenski”).

Maintaining Lines of Communication

Problems are inevitable. Difficulties understanding concepts that have been taught in a class, trouble finishing homework assignments, illnesses, family crises, or just taking on too much work at one time happen to everyone during their studies. The best way to start addressing such problems before your grades suffer is to talk to your instructor.

  • Stay in touch. The basic rule to apply in all situations is that communication can only help. DON’T WAIT TO TELL YOUR INSTRUCTOR. Talk to him or her as soon as possible—the earlier, the better. If you can’t talk in person, use e-mail.
  • Make use of office hours. Instructors do not interpret use of open office hours as weakness on your part—in fact, they see it quite positively, as a mark of a student who cares about his or her work and who actively confronts problems. Office hours are there for your benefit; never be shy about asking questions and getting the help you need.

E-mail and Websites

If you are reading this, there is no need to tell you about the growing importance of the Internet in the academic world. Although the Net might seem like a wild and lawless territory where anything goes, every community, academic and non-academic, has its own generally accepted rules and preferences. Here are some basics for US academic work on the Net:

Check e-mail often. Some students have not relied heavily on e-mail before college or university, and were able to check it infrequently. While you are a college or university student (and well beyond, in the professional world), e-mail will quickly be a much more significant mode of communication. For instructors and adminstrators alike, e-mail is a primary form of communication that they use often, and they expect their addressees to read and respond rapidly. If you are not checking your e-mail that often, get into the habit of reading it much more, at least three times a day.

Use your university e-mail address. It’s easier for university personnel to send things to your university account than to outside accounts. More importantly, having that institution name in your address (“”) is much more impressive and professional than having a domain name that anyone could get (like Hotmail or Yahoo!)—it shows that you are an insider, that you belong.

Use the subject line for the subject of your e-mail. People get a lot of e-mail these days, and the best way they have for managing it is by reading the subject line; if it’s obviously an important subject, they will read it sooner and respond sooner. Get into the habit of clearly and succinctly writing subject lines for all your messages. Here are a couple of examples:
History essay question
Tomorrow's class
Laboratory materials requirements

Saying “Hi” might be friendly, but it doesn’t tell the reader anything. There’s no need to put your name in the subject line (“This is John”) since the e-mail address will clearly have part of your name, or you will sign your name at the end of the message. Just leaving the subject line blank is often a good way to have the reader IGNORE your e-mail.

Use standard writing conventions when e-mailing university personnel. It looks professional, it looks like you care, and it’s easier to read. Avoid informal instant messaging-like spellings and abbreviations (for example, write “You are,” not “U R”), and capitalize where appropriate (for example, the first person singular pronoun “I” is never lower case). Use punctuation appropriately.

Your website represents YOU, whether you want it to or not. Many colleges and universities provide server space for their students to create their own home pages. Technically, you are free to post (almost) anything and everything you want to post. You may, however, want to be more selective about doing so. Instructors and employers often Google individual names, in order to learn more about that person—and a lot of people have lost good job opportunities due to websites that feature personal characteristics that are “cool” or “wild” to friends, but are antithetical to a professional persona. Ask yourself, “Do I want my boss to see this?”

A Few Things to Avoid
  • Don’t lavish gifts. There is no expectation whatsoever on the part of instructors that they will receive gifts of any sort. If, however, you are inspired to give an instructor a token of your gratitude, do not give money or anything of economic value. In other words, keep it small and very cheap. Anything larger than that might be interpreted by others as bribery.
  • Don’t lavish praise. Plain language is preferable, especially in personal communications. When you communicate with your instructors, avoid words that exaggerate their position like “sir” or “esteemed.”
  • Don’t fixate on grades. Of course, grades are a vital part of your academic work and getting a job afterward. Grades, however, are only a symptom of deeper underlying performance. If you are concerned about your grades in a class, don’t ask the instructor how you can raise the grade; it’s better to ask about the weaknesses in your work, and strategies for dealing with those weaknesses. Once that is addressed, the grade will take care of itself. If you are unhappy with a grade, under no circumstances should you ask an instructor to revise it just because you want or need a higher grade. Instead, talk about specifics in your work that deserve more credit.
  • Don’t be late. Instructors by and large have very little tolerance for it.
  • No cell phones. Turn off your cell phone (or put it on vibrate) and don’t look at it during class times or in one-on-one conferences.
  • No need to ask to go to the bathroom. You’re an adult; just go. If you want to leave for some other reason, though, it’s a good idea to explicitly excuse yourself.

Remember that many universities maintain centers and/or offices dedicated to international students. Some of these student centers are autonomous, but some of them work through the office of the dean of students. In addition, many universities maintain tutoring centers, which are also helpful in addressing the needs of international students. These organizations exist to help you, so use them if you have questions. People who work in these places enjoy helping students adjust to their new lives in their schools away from home.

This resource was written for The Owl at Purdue by Tony Cimasko, and last edited by Allen Brizee on August 24th.

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