In last Sunday's New York Times, 9 academic luminaries provided advice to first year college students.
To summarize the advice: find out who the best teachers are; take a writing course (even though some are not well taught); learn to summarize complex information and state your own opinion; read classic works of literature; do not act bored in class or ask annoying questions; do ask good questions; play to your strengths; seek out intellectually adventurous students; be an activist (this is the best time of your life to get arrested for a Cause); don't just take courses that will relate directly to your post-graduation job; read the newspaper every day; talk to janitors, security personnel, other staff members (and thank them); be open to new intellectual adventures that might lead to exciting discoveries; and know that things might not work out like you expect (and that's OK and maybe even very good).
That's a lot of (mostly) good advice, from cosmic (the world is your oyster) to mundane (don't sigh loudly more than a few times in any one class).
When considering advice to give a first year college student, we tend to think about the amazing possibilities that await them. We want them to have the excellent academic adventure that many of us had.
This general optimism may, however, be sprinkled with a bit of cynicism. For example, in the NYT piece, one educator warns that if you act like you are interested in a class, you will have to "..ignore the looks of scorn and amusement on the faces of [your classmates]." I actually don't see much of this myself: if a student asks good questions in class, the other students seem to be appreciative of this, even in my giga-classes for non-majors. The looks of scorn tend to be reserved for those who ask a huge number of not-so-good (and perhaps strange) questions.
I like to think that I am a mostly positive, optimistic person, but at the same time I am certainly not a stranger to cynicism. For example, I snorted when I read the advice to be an activist in college. As a college student, I found that my involvement with various Causes left me deeply suspicious of many seemingly well intentioned organizations.
But back to the advice. My own advice falls into two categories: (1) cosmic: think, read, write, talk, argue, think again, enjoy using your mind; and (2) practical: go to class, pay attention, do careful and thoughtful work, create opportunities for yourself.
I know that is asking a lot, but it is my most sincere wish for all students.
10 years ago