Tuesday, August 20, 2013

For new students at Random University

I'm often asked what I do for a living.  I reply that I teach the very young, college freshmen; it's kindergarten with beer.  Well, it's that time of year again, when the local universities and colleges drag the professors away from their summer-time relaxation -- okay, so not everyone thinks doing research is relaxing, but then again, they're not professors -- to instruct yet another crop of fresh faced 18-year-olds.

Recently, on LinkedIn, the person in charge of alumni relations asked the past graduates -- yes, La Professora also attended the university where she is now torturing students -- to give future graduates some advice.  Here was mine:

Never try to cram for more than 20 minutes at a time-- that's as much short term memory the average human has.  Once you hit 20 minutes, get up, stretch, get a snack, do something else for 5 minutes so that your brain can shift the information from short term to long term memory.  Then it's back to the books for another 20 minutes.

Don't use highlighters on your text books, that just changes the color of the page and you'll end up reading the whole thing again before an exam.  Use the margin to write a quick note on the key points of the paragraph.  If you do that, you're more likely to remember the information when reviewing for an exam.

Always get to know your professor -- you'll need letters of recommendation some day and you really don't want one from someone who doesn't really know you.

If you're a transfer student, use Assist.org to know what transferred for which requirement.  The best way to get Admissions and Records to process your transcripts is to apply for graduation, so do that as soon as you've hit 90 units.

Advising can come from your major department, but be sure to ask fellow students which instructor provides the best advising. 

Always get information in writing, especially from the administration.  If someone in A&R or Counseling says X, politely ask them if they could write that down so that you'll be able to remember later that you're to do X.  That way if anyone asks, who told you to do X, you're to do Y, you can whip out your written instructions.  It then becomes their problem, not yours.

Don't pick a major just because someone or some magazine says that's the wave of the future.  No one knows what career will be hot in 10 years, but everyone knows that if you do what makes you happiest, you'll find a way to make money at it.  By the by, studies have shown that so much emphasis on the STEM majors has created a glut of STEM graduates, and those high demand jobs are no longer out there at the levels that had been predicted 10 years ago. 

No one "can't do Math".  Studies on the learning of math skills have found that it depends more on who the instructor is/was than the student.  If you had a crummy instructor in elementary school math, chances are that you think you "can't do Math".  Everyone can, you just need to find an instructor who can teach it -- again, ask fellow students whom they'd recommend, but avoid any instructor who is labelled "easy". 

"Easy" instructors might be good for your GPA in the short term, but if you need the information for other courses, you'll just be hurting your ability to pass courses in the longer run.  On the same lines, don't be afraid of taking courses with instructors whom your fellow students have labelled "Hard, but you'll learn a lot".  In the end, your GPA only counts if you're planning on going to graduate school -- I've never had an employer ask what my GPA in college was, but they did ask for proof that I could do the job well.

Learn to write well.  Use the resources on campus to help you learn how to write well.  This goes for the students in Business and Engineering just as much as the ones in the Humanities.  You might have instructors who only care that you put the correct words / concepts in your essays without regard to grammar or syntax, but in the end, your employability will be enhanced if you can write in a way that makes the words / concepts flow in a comprehensible way.

Enjoy your time at the university -- never again will you have an opportunity to truly explore your interests.  Join clubs, go bowling in the Student Union, meet random people in the cafeteria, take classes that are so completely different from what you're majoring in -- you never know what might lead to that divine spark that changes your perspective / major / life.

Take 2 units of P.E..  Too many students find that they haven't officially gotten their degree after graduation because they didn't take P.E..

Get at least one Study Buddy per course -- they will save your butt at some point.

That was it -- mostly because of the character limit -- but that was plenty.

As for "kindergarten with beer", trust me, the university really is:  First time away from Mommy; not entirely sure how the whole school thing works; would rather have naptime and snacktime than reading; and very little actual studying gets done.  I'm sure that if you really thought about it, you'll find further analogies.

Now I must finish up the syllabi, and prepare the instruments of student torture.  Bwaaaaahahahaa!

Monday, June 10, 2013

Randomly Commencing

Well, it's that time of the year again -- finals, grades, commencement.  While I've gotten the usual amount of post-grade whining, I've also gotten to see another batch of students graduate and head out to their future endeavors.

Our university isn't the type to attract the really big names, the JK Rowling and the Steve Jobs of the world, for its graduations and convocations but it has its share of ambassadors, politicians and entrepreneurs.  The department has had local and state leaders, and some have been actually good speakers.

Like my colleagues, I've always enjoyed the department convocations that featured the students by giving each 30 seconds to thank whomever helped them through their years at the university.  Once in a while, the student committee in charge of organizing convocation chooses a speaker instead.  Some speakers have been good, some have been lackluster, and one or two have been rude.

This year's PoliSci graduates had a speaker, a good one, who spoke to them and their families, rather than the usual "I'm so great, that's why you invited me to speak, and if you're as lucky or well-connected as I am, you too will be so great."  In the decades that I've been involved in academia, I've heard all sorts of keynote, convocation and commencement speeches -- even given one or two myself -- so I should know what makes for a good speech.

What makes for a good commencement speech is straightforward, and the list of Dos and Don'ts is simple.

Don't talk about yourself.  That's already been done by the person who introduced you.  Face it, the event isn't about you, and years from now most won't remember who spoke.  The only reason I remember that the ambassador to India spoke at my undergraduate graduation is my friend Jaime stood up and heckled the guy.  You'll note that I didn't state the name of the ambassador, and that's because I don't remember who he was.  I did remember Jaime because graduation is about family and friends -- not the speaker.

Do make it relevant.  So you're a famous police procedurals mystery writer giving a convocation speech to students who have just completed four or five years of Criminal Justice courses, that doesn't mean you should talk about the writing process, or how you once in their shoes -- see above advice.  You should talk about how they will use the skills and knowledge in their future pursuits.  Just avoid the "You will go out and change the world" platitudes; go instead for the "Small acts have an impact" type of theme.

Don't wing it.  Yes, there are some really good speakers out there who seem to speak extemporaneously, but they are really, really good at what they do, and they never actually show up unprepared.  Even the best of them usually have a small note card with the main points written down.  This year's PoliSci convocation speaker told me that he had written down three words to remind himself of what he wanted to cover.

Do stick to three main points.  This true for both spoken and written work.  This bit of advice I got from a professor when I was in graduate school.  Seems anything less than that provides too little information, and anything more than that would bore the audience silly.  You want what you have to say to be memorable, but not for being boring.

Don't go over the time allotted.  You've been given 10 or 20 minutes, and going over by a minute or two can be forgiven, but anything more than makes you a pompous ass.  Yes, graduations involve pomp and circumstance, but it's the students' day, not yours.  In all likelihood, the parents have made dinner reservations and will be looking at the program to figure out how much longer before the family can celebrate their kid's achievement with food and presents.  Your speech should not interfere with their plans.

Do feel free to give a reality check, but do it in a way that doesn't belittle the audience, but with light humor or profound imagery.  My favorites are David McCullough's "You Are Not Special" commencement speech and David Foster Wallance's 2005 commencement speech, called "This Is Water":

In the end, it's not the speech that matters.  Nor is it the degree that the graduates may or may not have earned.  It's about what they do with what they've heard both in and out of the classroom.  I tell my students that elementary, junior and high schools made them good citizens, that it's my job to make them thinking voters, but in the end it's up to them to be thoughtful.  We must all remember that we are not special, that it's not about us as individuals but about us as society, and that reality, even the banal kind, is about making conscious choices.

You may now commence with your summer vacation, and remember to enjoy the water and to wear sunscreen.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Adding Codes Randomly

The wonders of modern communications have only grown since the last time La Professora addressed the issue of contacting professors, back in 2007, but student etiquette hasn't improved with them. 

The Spring semester began at the end of January and the economic situation being what it is, courses in public colleges and universities are hard to come by; so students are scrambling to find courses to full out their schedule.  Thus the email have come flying, plentiful and fast.  In the last week alone, I've received enough requests for add codes to fill a whole new course section.

The emails fall into a number of categories.

The first category is of emails sent by students who have spammed all the professors in hopes that one or two will respond with a, "Yeah, there's room in the course, here's an add code", at which point the student decides whether or not the course is interesting enough to be worth enrolling.  To those, I say come to class, see if it's a good fit, and then ask for an add code afterward.  Amazing how many students who "must have" the course never show up.

The second category involves the students who think lying to the instructor will get them what they want.  "I'm graduating this semester, and this is the only class I can take that will complete the ______ requirement."  What the students don't get is all that is verifiable. Yes, when the course is full I will give an add code to a student who's in that situation, but only if the student truly is in that situation.

The third category is made up of emails begging for an add code within 24 hours of the deadline to add.  I sometimes wonder about those students.  In all probability, if they're waiting until the last minute to add the course, they probably will be asking for last minute extensions on their term papers. I'm not saying that in college I did all my essays weeks in advance, but I did know that waiting to the last few hours does nothing for the quality of the work and asking for an extension at the point better come with a darn good reason why.

The fourth category irritates simply because the students assume they are the only one searching for open courses.  This involves variations on "The computer system shows that there's a spot open in your course and I want to take it."  I'm sorry but that slot was taken by the student who came by my office to ask in person for the add code and that student hasn't had a chance to use it yet.  Again, see my rant on why asking in person is better than on the phone or via email.

The fifth category is one that deserves its own hall of shame: the email that just asks for an add code without giving any pertinent information.  The following is the worst example I've seen in ages, in that it falls into the third, fourth and fifth categories:
"Hello, this is (name removed to protect the foolish), it shows that u have open space but was not able to register. can i please get add code? Thank You"
As I teach at both the college and the university in town, and multiple courses at one of them, I have no idea what course add code I should give this person.  Perhaps one for the Counseling office's Time Management course.

Don't even get me started on the text 'speak'.  Last week I had a student ask if she could drop off her homework at "UR" office.  No, I emailed back, as I don't know where the "UR" office is, I'd rather she turn it in to my office.  Of course, I'd really prefer that she show up to class and turn it in then, but I can't have everything.

The point of all this is quite simple:  before you email your professors, make sure that your email (a) does not fall into one of the above categories and (b) is actually intelligible in the proper, grammatically correct English sense.  Consider this a vicarious learning experience; after all, that is what college is supposed to offer.
Image Source: http://lifehacker.com/5930614/one-simple-trick-to-reduce-email-overload-for-everyone