Friday, October 26, 2007

One Instructor's Set of Guidelines For Walking the College Tightrope Without Dropping Your Books or Beer.

I love how students seem to assume that professors never had to struggle through college, or that we don't know what it is like to transition from high school to adulthood on our own in a brand new world. No, my young friends, the difference is that we were GOOD at college, so good in fact that we stayed here. You, on the other hand, seem to be not so good. Ignorance of the system, however, is not all right; it's a weakness that a student must overcome. In that spirit, I offer some advice from one person who was great at college (and who didn’t have to sacrifice the more earthly alcoholic and social pleasures to do so):

  1. College is all about adaptation. Pay attention to the style of instruction your professor uses. If they are close readers, approach readings and assignments by asking "what are the nuts and bolts here, and how do they work?" If your professor emphasizes discussion, read with an eye towards the questions that this particular reading poses. This will make you both a more successful and more efficient reader.

  2. Time allocation is key. If a particular subject is difficult or just plain uninteresting, it's going to take more time to prepare for class than if you are in tune with the material. This means you can’t avoid painful required classes and then lump them into a single semester--a recipe for disaster. Instead, balance challenging classes with those that you have more of a knack for or interest in.

  3. A little goodwill goes a long way. You are not too cool for school--this is a toxic attitude and will generate animosity in your prof, meaning that when you screw up, they won't feel like taking the considerable trouble to be flexible. Participating in class, on the other hand, generates a great deal of goodwill. We are constantly looking for students who interact positively with us, and if you find yourself in a tough spot, we will be more favorably disposed to helping you.

  4. Empathize with your professor. The common complaint that a professor "thinks this is the only class I have" also goes the other way: students make the mistake of thinking that they each individually dictate the terms of the class. We can't teach 20 different students in individual ways during a single class--we're human beings! This also means that you have to use the golden rule when dealing with your prof and treat them the way you would want to be treated. If you wouldn't want them emailing you at midnight asking you to do something for them the next day, then you shouldn't either. If you wouldn't like them zoning out or falling asleep when you talk to them, then maybe you should be alert in class. And as you would ask that they respect your privacy, you should respect theirs. Much of the complaints here at RYS stem from the frustration that this mutual relationship is ignored by students.

  5. By and large, colleges are not vocational in nature. Just because you will not use a particular skill in your work life (and keep in mind that what you want to do at 18 may change radically) doesn't mean it isn't interesting or worthwhile. Think about yourself not as a future employee of X, and instead as a person with broad horizons, who has the potential to do and be many different things--because this is how your professor sees his or her students, for the most part.

  6. If you screw up (and you will, we all have), be prepared for the worst but hope for the best. If you communicate to your professor that you take responsibility for your actions but would like any help they might be able to provide, you will be astounded by how willing they are to give that help. If, on the other hand, you assume that they are obligated to give you second and third chances, you will find that assumption quickly disproven. Professors, by and large, become good judges of character through years of interaction with students. They can tell when a screw-up is an honest mistake and an aberration, and when it is part of a larger pattern of behavior.
There are a lot of other pieces of advice or guidelines that my colleagues here could offer, but consider this a start. Remember that we have in some cases decades of experience "being in college" while new students have very little indeed. The less you wear your ignorance as a badge of honor, the more you will be able to have your beer and drink it too.