Sunday, November 28, 2010

75 tips for college students

The other night I got one of those emails from unknown students which just starts "Hey" and continues with some request (usually to be admitted to one of my oversubscribed classes). My immediate reaction is to ignore (that was my wife's advice) but this time I just decided to do something different. I wrote back explaining the over-subscription situation, and finished with this "By the way, you might want to address people you haven't met more formally in future: I don't find it irritating but many will" (which is a lie, I do find it irritating, but there's no need to tell her that). My original version had more verbiage in it, but my 14 year old (whose missives to teachers are like business letters) told me to take it out on the grounds that "she'll never do it again, but she'll be scared to meet you".

I was prompted to do this by Andrew Roberts' book The Thinking Student's Guide to College: 75 Tips for Getting a Better Education(see tip 53). The central idea of the book is that students need a map of how to get the most out of college, and that lots of them arrive not understanding key things. Why not just make it explicit for her?

In fact I don't currently have a copy of the book, because each copy I get goes to the next high school senior who walks through the door (which an alarming number of them seem to be doing these days). As suggested by this, 75 Tips would be a great Christmas present for the college-bound high school seniors and college freshmen of your acquaintance.

Roberts divides the book into 9 sections -- an explanation of how universities work; tips for choosing a college (upshot  - don't make such a meal of it, you'll like wherever you go pretty much); tips on choosing classes (including the sensible tip not to take more than a couple of classes with any professor -- because most of us have at most 2 classes worth of learning to impart) and on choosing a major; tips on being successful (including the excellent advice, too often neglected, to study with other people); on interacting with professors (don't address then in your first email with a "hey", go to their office hours (I always tell students this, and they say they have had experiences of being distinctly not wanted, and relax when I point out that if he really wants to get rid of you you can leave and he won't remember you), also, get to know at least one professor reasonably well, which, I should say, is brilliant advice but not entirely easy to follow at a place like mine); what to do with your extra-curricular time; whether and when to go to graduate school; and a final section explaining how professors behave and what incentives they are responding to (they want to research not teach, and teach graduate students not undergraduates -- a friend who recently graduated from an Ivy-ish institution told me that in his address to them on the first day of freshman year the Provost just told them that they should know that Professors would have no interest in them).

The tips are each easily digestible -- if you can't read the book you should maybe postpone going to college. My guess is that it will be read by parents more than students, but especially parents whose experience of college is 5 years or less (or none) would do well to read it to guide their offspring. But even those of us who know the college world well will only give at most half these tips to their kids, partly because some won't occur to us, and partly because others ("don't address a professor with "hey" in your first email to them) seem blindingly obvious. Apparently not.

I should probably disclose that the author sent me the manuscript completely out of the blue a couple of years ago (I've never met him) and I almost instantly gave him a good number of comments on it. There's one thing that I regret: the phrases "rape" or "sexual assault" don't appear in the index, and if I were giving comments now I would press him hard to discuss sexual violence on campus. But I was much less aware of the issue then than I thankfully am now.

By the way, the student in question did reply, almost immediately. She said "Dear Professor Brighouse, thanks for the tip, I will utilise it in future. Hopefully I'll be able to learn more from you in your class" which showed a willingness to learn and a slight cheekiness that I rather appreciated. Maybe I should give her the book. I have been very close to only a few undergraduates in my career, though I try harder these days (and my increasingly elderly demeanor seems to induce trust). I forwarded the exchange (stripped of the name etc) to a current undergraduate who is one of the handful whom I've known, and has known me, best (very well indeed), knowing she'd laugh, because after 4 years and numerous detailed email and personal conversations she simply can't bring herself to address, or even refer to, me as anything other than Professor Brighouse.

Crossposted at Crooked Timber


  1. '...the phrases "rape" or "sexual assault" appear in the index...'

    There's a 'don't' missing from this sentence.

  2. Harry: Just Kindled it (8.27!). I'll be interested to hear more about us from the student POV.

  3. Harry, just read it and agreed with almost all of his advice.

    The intriguing thing is the book's premise: The modern university is designed, half intentionally and half inadvertently, not to provide undergraduates with a quality education, so you have to "fashion" your own. I think this would be a fascinating book for a faculty (or faculty/admin) reading circle, focusing on how we might reverse engineer a better advice based on his advice!


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