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Advice to a Student: How to Do Better Next Term

What—in particular—did you want from your classes that you didn’t "get"?

A young man at my university wrote to me for advice; I didn't know him, but I'd met his mother at several fund-raising events.When she explained that her youngest child was having trouble during his first semester, I suggested that he get in touch with me. He did.

What follows is a version of my response to him, which I believe reflects both the problems being faced by students who don't know what's expected from them (for example, to know the name or the
position of the person from whom they are requesting assistance) and by adults in positions of authority, who even when trying our best to help young people, find ourselves providing more personal support and less institutional guidance than we'd hoped (for example, suggesting he spell a name correctly and use the appropriate form of address).

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Dear —–,

Thanks for your note today; your mom told me you’d be writing to me to get some advice about how to make your second semester at college better than your first.

Let’s begin: The best way to address your professors is to call them “Professor” --not “Miss” or “Mrs” --not even if they are women. “Ms.” is preferable to either of those. When addressing me, I’d stick with “Professor” since you know the person whose advice you’re asking happens to be one of those.

It’s also good to spell that person’s name correctly. You didn’t. You were not even close despite the fact that you had the correct spelling right there in the email address.

If I mention these details early it’s only to begin our relationship the way I hope it will be built: I’m delighted to help you determine what’s best for you but I’m not going to coddle you or let you off the hook.

Details count, especially in an introduction. This is especially significant when you’re asking for guidance from someone you’ve never met.

Okay, we’ve got that settled. Now for the tougher part: It’s up to you to bring your interests and appetites to the table, so let’s decide before we meet which classes you believe will interest you most and why.

I asked my friend, your mom, to get you to send me a note yourself (rather than her continuing to explain your “issues”) because I want to get to know you as a student. You say you didn’t “find your way” during your first semester—at least, not yet—and never really “got serious” about your classes.

Your candor works in your favor, but I’d like to know more specifically what you felt you were missing—and whether you thought that missing piece was an element you expected from the teachers, the course materials, the curriculum, or some other variable….In other words, what—in particular—did you want from your classes that you didn’t "get?" How much of what you didn't "get" was your responsibility to find and process for yourself?

Let’s meet and talk about it.

You said you’ve signed up for classes next term but “aren’t sure which of them” you’ll be taking. Before we meet, please make a list of the classes you intend to take next semester.

Construct a full schedule for the year based on your interests and then select classes you’d use as a backup if you don’t get into the classes you pick initially (not unusual for sophomores or those whose majors are undecided). Typically the names and times of courses are there for you to look at, often with the instructor’s name attached. You can then check on the faculty (what their interests are, what their publications history reflect, even—on occasion—what they describe as their teaching philosophies) through the individual department Web sites. And—while it is far, far from infallible—you can check their “scores” on places such as Ratemyprofessor.com and other sites like it.

This is a good way to begin. Improving your college experience will involve patience and work.  You'll also face a set of frustrating and annoying choices; these make many students whine (you should hear my office during registration) but making such choices is an excellent way to take responsibility for your own education–and that, funnily enough, is what I can help you do.

After you’ve done that prep work—the equivalent to chopping and slicing and mincing in the kitchen before beginning an elaborate meal—then we can start cooking. I’m happy to stand by your side and walk you through various recipes.

I guess it’s time to eat—I’m getting hungry, and my word choices indicate as much. I’ll sign off now and hope that you, your mother, and I can set up a date for you to come to my office either this week or next with your initial plans laid out so that we can talk about how to make your next semester of college far better and more satisfactory than your first.

I look forward to meeting you.

Testing, Testing