A Word From Your Friendly Neighborhood Peer Academic Advisor

As I spend more time reading the professorial blogosphere, I find myself more frequently tempted to comment on academic questions I, as a college junior, am far underqualified to have an opinion about. I may be awfully opinionated, but you should probably listen to the professionals if you actually want to learn anything useful about life in the academy. That said, though, I was just barely, bureaucratically ineligible from becoming a peer academic adviser for freshmen in my college this year, and I have plenty of thoughts about what I did right and wrong in my first two years of university that may be worth sharing with my now-nonexistent advisees.

In the spirit of Historiann’s recent post about undergrad satisfaction and regrets, Tenured Radical’s advice to faculty academic advisors (no, I still don’t know whether “advisors” or “advisers” is correct, so I’m using both), and the multiple letters I’ve already gotten this summer from frosh and sophomores who want some advice on choosing classes; and in order to offer a more constructive tone than that of my whiny distribution requirements post of a couple weeks ago, I offer here some thoughts directed at first- and second-year university students trying to navigate a new academic world. These thoughts are probably better-suited to academically serious students for whom college is more about learning and intellectual development than it is about anything else (not to say that’s what college has to be; some students feel that way and some don’t), but I don’t see why it shouldn’t apply to anyone concerned about making the right choices and learning to decipher academia.

Listen to the experts. As Tenured Radical indicated in her post, the online rumor-mill is of limited use in determining which classes to take, especially if you’re looking for good classes and not just easy or fun ones. But many’s the time I’ve ignored the advice of a professor or grad student who knew me, knew the person teaching the class, and knew that I wouldn’t find the professor or the material a good fit for me. Work on politely phrasing questions such that you can ask a professor not what she thinks of her colleague’s teaching, but whether her colleague’s class would be a good fit for you. And if she says it wouldn’t, pay good attention to that recommendation.

Keep an eye out for professors’ names. Often I’ll ask frosh who’s teaching a particular class, and they’ll say they’ve forgotten the professor’s name. But a class taught by a fantastic professor, even if its topic is outside your immediate area of interest, is a better use of your time than a class in your area of interest taught by an unremarkable professor, and so it’s advisable to remember those names. This is where listening to the experts comes in, as some sources on who the best professors are will be more reliable than others. If you’re torn between the professor and the subject matter, take the professor every time. And be aware that a lot of different people teach, e.g., Victorian literature, or the American history survey, or SOC 101, and you might want to wait to take the class until the best professor is teaching it.

Be careful about what you can handle. Starker than the social divide between undergrads and “sketchy” grad students is the divide between the humanities and the sciences. If you’re a humanities major like me, you probably grew up thinking that as a “humanities person,” you couldn’t possibly be any good at math or science. You may have picked your first semester’s courses thinking that since your SAT math score was on the low side, you couldn’t possibly handle a college-level quantitative class, and so you decided to sign up for the easiest quantitative class in the whole university, a computer science class whose syllabus explained quite clearly that it was going to repeat a lot of material you’d already learned in high-school computer science. (This may or may not have happened to me.) That syllabus, dear frosh, is a good indication that you’re not going to learn anything from the class, and that you should consider taking one which will teach some new concepts.

This is not to say, however, that you need to choose the most challenging thing in all areas outside the ones in which you’re confident. To fulfill my lab science requirement, I took physical anthropology and environmental science: not taxing in the same way university-level physics or chemistry is, but nevertheless useful, interesting, and well-taught, and therefore not a waste of time. If, when you’re honest with yourself, it seems that it would take more work to pass intro physics than it would to get an A in your required departmental seminar, it’s probably best to leave yourself the time to get the A in your required departmental seminar.

Plan ahead. It’s probably just a tad neurotic to make a plan for what you’re going to take every semester for the next four years (which is not to say that I haven’t done it…), but you’ll find that it will benefit you to think farther ahead than the next semester. By the time you’re halfway through college, the number of course slots you have left will start to look increasingly finite (especially if, like me, you’re planning on a semester abroad), and you’ll find yourself having to make difficult choices between queer theory and colonial American history, or suddenly realizing that the course you’ve wanted to take since you sent in your matriculation forms is only offered in one of your four years. It might be worth looking through the course catalog, making a list of all the classes you feel as if you can’t possibly graduate without taking, and keeping an eye out for those titles every semester.

Start a new language. Obviously if you’re an engineer or premed or have three majors this is more tricky, but college is really the best time in your life to start a language you missed when you were young, and I regret only continuing the ones I began in junior high and high school. You may want to think about which new language will help you most in your future areas of academic or professional interest, but studying a language for which you can’t see any possible “use” is still worth it, and is “useful” for its own sake; I really regret chickening out of starting ancient Greek. Which brings me to my next point:

College doesn’t have to be vocational school. College students seem increasingly to be thinking of their bachelor’s degrees as discipline-specific professional credentials which will prepare them for specific career paths, or which just sound vocational (first-years of the world, academic economics is not the same thing as business or accounting!). There’s nothing inherently wrong in this, but you should know that there’s no reason to feel pressured to study something “useful” or something which has the same name as a profession. Not only can you certainly have any kind of successful professional life with an undergrad degree in any field, but studying what you love is important in and of itself. You should figure out which classes you enjoy the most and find most intellectually stimulating, and then continue to take those classes. You’ve got enough time to develop a career—right now, it’s time to learn how to think, and how to love to think.

This goes doubly for grad-school-bound kids. Just because you’re majoring in a not-usually-vocational subject doesn’t mean you can’t make it vocational by locking yourself into a path focused solely on grad school admissions and on making preparations to succeed in the professional world of academia. Your professors can advise you on what you need to do now to be prepared for grad school (and indeed whether you should apply at all), but it doesn’t hurt to distinguish undergrad from the rest of your life. Your undergraduate thesis is not a dissertation, your A- in a departmental seminar will not sabotage your chances of getting into a top program, and trying out courses across the curriculum won’t prevent you from being good at your intended field of study. You’ve got 5-10 years in grad school to become a specialist and to lose sleep over the job market; undergrad is not the right time.

Try out possible majors early. If your system is like the one at my school and you have to declare a major the spring of your sophomore year, you’ll probably want to take introductory/survey lectures in a variety of different departments your first few semesters. In terms of figuring out what you want to learn about for the next few years and possibly longer, doing this kind of exploration is more important than knocking out core-curriculum requirements just for the sake of knocking out requirements. While I regret some choices I made in my requirement-juggling, pushing the philosophy and science requirements till junior and senior years in order to try out sociology and English was not one of them. By taking sociology early on, I avoided making a terrible mistake when I discovered that I actually don’t like data; by taking English early on, I found a second home which has enriched my study of history in countless ways. And, indeed, don’t just stick to intro classes: by making time in my freshman-year schedule for an upper-division history course, I came in through a back door which got me much more enthusiastic about the discipline than subsequent more intro-level courses have.

However, there’s no need to take this selection process too seriously: your undergrad major does not determine the rest of your life. As per the comments about vocational education above, your undergrad major will probably have very little impact on what you do as an adult, even if you’re grad-school-bound. I know so many academics who have changed fields, it’s not funny—so study what you want to study right now, and let the rest follow.

Be skeptical about all-freshman programs. Your university is probably selling you a line about the “first-year experience,” and about how rewarding taking a freshman seminar would be, but I’ll be frank: a class entirely populated by first-years isn’t going to challenge you very much. This is not to say that just because you’re an academically serious student you’ll be better at college than everyone else in the class, but taking a lot of all-freshmen classes, while less scary than being in classes with mostly older students, can limit your opportunities to seek out mentors among the older undergrads and grad students who, in my experience, will make the difference in your undergraduate education.

The bright side of special small classes for first-years, particularly if you’re in a field or at a university which doesn’t otherwise offer a lot of small seminars, is that they can get you in contact with faculty early on, which is much harder to achieve in intro lectures with hundreds of students. I became a research assistant for the professor of the freshman seminar I took my first spring. Helping him do archival research and organize his primary sources that summer not only convinced me I wanted to be a historian and, practically speaking, taught me a lot more about research skills than I’d gotten in my classes so far; it also gave me a lasting mentor on the faculty. Such opportunities are not to be sneezed at, and can be worth 12-15 weeks of not learning a whole lot from your classmates.

Only compare yourself to yourself. In my first year I wasted hours sobbing to myself about whether my comments in class discussion were as clever as my prep school-educated classmates’, or whether I deserved to be at Princeton even though I couldn’t reference as many post-structuralists in casual conversation as some of my more pretentious classmates could. But I’ve learned not to worry: when professors evaluate your work, they’re not doing so on the basis of how frequently you can name-drop Lacan. As a first- or second-year, you cannot expect yourself to be as well-versed in disciplinary methodology or jargon as older students who have been in your department for a couple years and have done a lot more work in the discipline. Just make sure that you’re consistently putting in the most effort and turning in the best work that you can sanely manage, ignore the students who are obviously just bullshitting, and allow the ones who really know what they’re talking about to teach you how to talk the talk of a budding historian, or whatever it is you should happen to be.

Have fun, but carefully. For the academically serious student, a creative non-fiction writing workshop is a good “fun” class, and a worthwhile addition to your schedule. A 450-person children’s literature lecture largely populated by jocky fraternity and sorority members who spend the entire lecture talking about their upcoming rager may be more frustrating than “fun.” (I’ve done both.) It’s not wise to take only the most challenging classes, especially if you’re taking more than the required number of courses/credits; you’ll burn out. An arts class in which you turn in a painting or a performance can be a much-needed change from a barrage of 8-10-page analytic essays. But “easy” and “fun” are very different things. You’ll regret “easy” halfway through the semester when you’re in discussion section, no one’s done enough of the reading to have a conversation, everyone’s checking Facebook on their phones, and the poor instructor has long since given up holding the entire class’s attention. You’ll find yourself wanting to check Facebook, too, and let me tell you: it’s all downhill from there. If you’re uncertain about whether a class will be “easy” or “fun,” ask for advice.

And the moral of the story is…

Talk to adults. When you start college, you’re still a kid. You think the way you were taught to think in high school; you’re unused to making decisions (whether academic or otherwise) for yourself; unless you’re an academic brat, you’re probably unfamiliar with the arcanities of academic culture. Obviously, this is not your fault; it’s just the way things are, and at times academia can be a bit too impenetrable for its own good. But your next four years will be a lot more pleasant if you can crack the system, and it’s faculty and staff members, graduate students, and older undergrads who can help you make this transition both to adulthood and to an academic community. If you’re an academically serious student, regardless of whether you want to spend your life in academia, I can guarantee you that your life will be changed and your worldview will be opened if you allow your path to cross with those of older friend-mentors. Visit office hours. Accept dinner, lunch, and coffee invitations. (In my first year, I declined a coffee invitation from a grad student. I was shy and hadn’t yet figured out the social rules of meeting people for coffee, and that he was being friendly, not creepy. He could have been my friend, and I regret it to this day.) If you go to the sort of school where grown-ups eat in your dining hall and grad students and faculty members live in your residential system, sit down at their tables or knock on their doors. (If you don’t go to this kind of university, it’s certainly more difficult to meet grown-ups, but I’m given to understand it’s not impossible.) Ask them about your courses, but also talk to them about the books you’re reading, the things you’ve seen in the news, the brave new world you’re just beginning to puzzle through. Ask them about their work: you might discover a new area of interest. It’s not every four years that you’ll get the chance to live in a community populated by people in all different stages of life and intellectual development, and this is the most valuable thing you can get out of college. It certainly has made all the difference to my undergraduate education.

In fact, I think Tenured Radical’s academic-advising post made this point most effectively:

Needless to say, I made some spectacular errors in that first two years and had some great successes, all of which had to do with the opportunities and pitfalls of a large university. Would things have been different with a more attentive advisor? I doubt it. It wasn’t until, entirely by accident, I fell in with a group of graduate students and became invested in being regarded as — not a good student, but scholarly — that things straightened out for me.

This is actually the story of my life, so I feel qualified to endorse the strategy of seeking out mentors and not worrying too much about whether you’ve correctly distinguished one core requirement from another. Focus on having the time of your intellectual life and allowing your world to be opened and changed, and the rest will follow.

And dear readers, if you have any of your own advice for the Class of 2014, do leave it in the comments!

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