Friday, September 11, 2009

Dear Freshmen

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.


Anonymous said...

Two great points that summarize a whole lot.

Anonymous said...

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.

This is probably one of the most important things for a young person to learn about the world, no?

hkukbilingualidiot said...

Think and evaluate before taking actions, barricading seminar rooms don't usually make your voice heard but more likely make you a hate figure by others who really want to get to lectures.

Genomic Repairman said...

I think the freshmen need to somehow think bigger than college. I did. I chose classes that would give me a broad knowledge base and help to get me into a good grad school and not leave me sitting in perplexed in class like some witless neophyte. However it would have been nice to pick the female prof with a smoking body for COMM-101 but I had a little higher aspirations for my life. And please don't be the pain in the ass activist kid. I hated them. Just shut the fuck up, keep your head down, work hard, make a few good connections, and get the hell out of there ASAP to start your life.

John Vidale said...

I'm a uniformitarianist - it's like the rest of life.

It is a challenge to balance fun and work, one has to choose which of the infinite set of rules and requirements to ignore, and stay connected with the college support system when problems arise while establishing independence. Maybe pick a major that leads to a job.

In short, there is no single recipe for a successful college career, although the list FSP makes is important to keep in mind.

Kate said...

Actually, I found activism to be a really important part of who I became through college, and I only got more involved as I went to grad school (and I am experiencing a resurgence again as faculty). My involvement is/was largely with feminist and labor organizations. Perhaps the different experiences are with different kinds of activism?

Anonymous said...

I think kids can have it all. I still consider the time I spent painting sheets to protest draft registration, working with kids at the state school for the mentally disabled, running the dorm recycling program and even sitting down in front of Walter Mondale's car (google him), trying to get him to accept a petition, as time very well spent. The semester I spent abroad, none of which was spent studying science, was the single most important thing I did in college for shaping my world view. None of this stopped me from taking all the Biology I could fit in, and learning to love it more than anything else I studied thanks to two or three incredible teachers. But my first semester French class taken pass fail second semester senior year was also fun.

In my mind the KEY is to throw yourself head on into all kinds of learning--you'll never be as free to do that again.

Mark P

EliRabett said...

This is gonna sound strange. Take a minimum of 15 credits and a max of 16. On the low end you need to have room to drop a course without losing your full time student status and getting into trouble with student loans. On the high end you really can't handle more

? said...

Hmmm... I agree with Anonymous 9:01 am. My critical thinking skills were definitely challenged when I attended a small liberal arts university for my undergraduate studies. I'd like to think that degree of suspicion makes me a more well-rounded individual.

Anonymous said...

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.

I definitely wasted a lot of time learning this important lesson!!

Kevin said...

"Take a minimum of 15 credits and a max of 16 " is probably good advice first quarter, and maybe second. After that each student needs to adjust their load to their own pace. For some students, 20 units is still a modest load, and for others 12 is all they can handle. A lot also depends on the major. What I recommend to our majors, who take 3 5-unit courses a quarter (plus occasional 2-unit labs) is to take 2 science/engineering classes a quarter and one general education class. Spreading the general education out over 4 years makes much more sense than "getting it out of the way". Not only is it better pedagogically, but it provides useful load balancing, since few of he general education classes provide anywhere near the workload of the science and engineering classes.

Peanut said...

My husband was a high school teacher. His advice to his students is the same I give to new college freshman:

Be there.

Follow through.

Jeffrey said...

I would add "don't take a class you know will bore your brains out." If you don't like French lit, don't take any more just to be "well rounded."