Its the time of year for giving well-meaning advice to new college students, so I picked out two articles that I thought worth discussing:Luke McKinney gives 7 Tips for Not Screwing Up College, which was commented on by Grace at Cost of College. (If you’re only going to read one of them, Luke’s is funnier, but Grace’s is shorter.)
The seven pieces of advice are
- It’s Not About Getting a Degree, It’s About Becoming a Person
- Work Beyond the Course
- Take Up a Martial Art
- Try Everything
- Level Up Your Social Life
- Choose a Subject You Care About
- Don’t Do Anything Easy
I can sympathize with the intent of all the advice, but “Try everything” and “Level up your social life” are only good advice for some people. There are many college students trying to do too many things (and so doing none of them well enough to get much out of them) and who are spending far too much time on their social lives. College is the easiest time of your life to develop friendships, and it is worth spending some time on that, but not all your time, as some students seem to.
The martial art that Luke suggests is aikido, because of the emphasis it puts on ukemi (falling practice). I agree that learning to fall without getting hurt is a very useful skill, and much more likely to save you major injury than any of the other skills taught in martial arts classes. Aikido’s emphasis on defending oneself by avoiding getting hit, rather than by blocking blows or punching and kicking back, is also a good metaphor for living the rest of your life. The one downside to aikido: it can be hard on the knees. That’s usually not a problem for youngsters, but it can become a problem for people who do aikido all their lives. (Disclaimer: I started aikido in grad school and did it for many years, but as I got into middle age I kept having to take a year or two off to let my knees recover. It’s been about a decade since I last trained.)
In a rather different vein is 10 Questions You Should Never Ask Your Professor, by Jill Rooney, Ph.D. I’ve never liked the phrase “There are no stupid questions”—in part because it seems to beg the continuation “… only stupid people,” which is the opposite of what people usually intend when they say it.
There are stupid questions, and Jill Rooney lists 10 that she thinks are stupid (or at least very clumsily worded).
- Did we do anything important when I was out?
Everything we do in the class is important. Or perhaps nothing is. You can ask if there were any new assignments or changes of schedule, but don’t expect professors to have the same idea of what is important that you have. And don’t ask professors to repeat their classes for you, just because you couldn’t make it to class.
- Why do we have to learn this?
I spend a lot of time trying to figure out what stuff to include in a class and what stuff to exclude (take a look at the 60 blog posts I’ve written about designing a circuits course, for example). Don’t expect a quick response. If you don’t want to learn what we have to teach, change courses, change majors, or change universities.
- Do we need the book?
This is actually a good question, if it isn’t already explicit on the syllabus. The standard at our university is to list required and recommended reading separately. If it is on the syllabus, expect an RTFM response.
- How much work do we have to do in this class?
The standard on our campus is 3.5 hours a week in class plus 10–12 hours a week outside of class. I teach engineering classes, and we try to follow the standard. Let me know if you as a class are spending much more or much less than that, and I’ll try to adjust the course.
- When will final grades be posted?
Generally within a few hours of my getting the grading done. Now go away and let me do the grading. (Actually, I get very few students bugging me about grading, because I try to be on time. Only students who took incompletes and took forever to finish the work have to wait—I hate having to grade stuff 6 months later, and the students have already shown a lack of interest in timeliness.
- How many footnotes/sources do I need?
Footnotes are your grandmother’s way of doing citations and are not suitable for modern publication. You need to cite every source whose information you use, because claiming someone else’s work as your own is the academic sin (we call it plagiarism). You need to read enough different sources to provide the level of depth and breadth that the assignment calls for. Need a number? How many sources have you read already? OK, you need a lot more than that.
- Do we need to know this for the exam?
If the only reason you are taking the class is to pass the exam, you are in the wrong class. I don’t often give exams, but give assignments that require you to think for much longer than an exam. Anything we do or say in class may be important at some future time.
- Do you have a stapler?
Yes, it is in my office, and it will stay there.
- Can I leave early?/Is it OK if I go to my club meeting?
I’ve never had a student ask for permission to leave early. I have had students tell me (generally apologetically) at the beginning of class that they would need to leave early because of an unavoidable conflict (for example, child care closing early that day). It is a stupid question to ask, but politely informing the faculty member before class that you will have to leave early (and then sitting near the door so that the exit is not a big production) is polite.
- Are you sure you that’s right?
Actually, I encourage students to point out my mistakes. Unlike Jill Rooney, Ph.D., I do make mistakes, even in class. Also, my ego is not so fragile that I need to cover up my mistakes or disguise them as “academic debate”.
Note that none of these stupid questions are about the material of the course. Questions to clear up misunderstandings about the material of the course are almost always appropriate. I teach best when I have good feedback from students—some of my best classes have been responses to spur of the moment questions asked in class that were not at all what I was planning to talk about that day.