Saturday, July 27, 2013

How to Succeed Academically in College * by someone who hasn't made it all the way through but is almost there

The previous two posts were more important than many parents would acknowledge, as it is difficult to do well in your classes if you're personally miserable. (And if such is the case in the extreme, most if not all campuses have resources to help you deal with emotional issues. Don't wait until you're practically suicidal before taking advantage of the resources.)  Still, the reason you are attending college is not for the social life but to gain an education. While it is difficult to think of that on a Friday night when you're on your third beer, you would do well not to let it slip too far into the recesses of your mind.

Academics come more easily to some than to others. It's a fact, whether or not everyone is willing to acknowledge it.  You may be someone who breezes through every course ever thrown at you. Or you may be someone who has had to figuratively sweat blood from every pore just to get the B's and occasional C you've gotten. Or you may be someone who, with the barest minimum of effort, could have graduated with a weighted 4.63, but instead, showed up for class on most days of high school, turned in the occasional assignment, aced most tests, and frustrated the hell out of your teachers because they had to give you the same B's and occasional C that they were giving to the kid who was practically killing himself to get the those grades.  Life is inherently unfair, and one way life's inequality is manifested is in innate cognitive ability.

Not everyone should go to a four-year college or university.  The mere suggestion was and is  beyond ridiculous.

Some students lack the academic skills to be in community college or four-year college. Remedial classes now exist on community college campuses as well as on some four-year campuses. Such was unheard of a generation ago. That was what high school was for; adult schools (usually operated by high school districts) existed and still exist for such purposes.  While I don't wish to crush anyone's dreams, anyone in need of remedial courses in a given area should not be taking college classes in the domain of deficit until he or she has been successfully remediated.   If, despite a person's diminished academic capacity, he or she is determined to complete a bachelor's degree and is willing to work sufficiently hard to accomplish his or her goal, more power to that person, but it won't be handed to him or her on a silver platter without having jumped through the necessary hoops, and it will not be easy.

A multitude of career opportunities exist for a person  who either lacks the skills to attend a four-year institution (sometimes it literally feels like an institution) or for whom such is not practical for a variety of reasons. Trade schools exist to provide jobs that sometimes pay as well as or better than those jobs secured by college graduates and sometimes are very highly in demand. Sometimes one can find a good lower-level position in a company and can essentially apprentice his way up into a high-paying position.  My parents just paid  a truckload of money to a plumber  to replace collapsible pipes that were being clogged by tree roots. While I  don't know this for certain, I doubt that the plumber spent a substantial amount of time in college.

Anyway, regardless of whether or not your most suitable source for career training is in college,  at  this point you've been accepted and you're here, or you're at some other equally scenic campus. What are you going to do to make the most of your four years or more? (The five- or six-year plan is becoming increasingly common for a variety of reasons, and you should not feel ashamed if that is your best or only option.)

First of all, be open to the possibility of change when choosing a major.  While you should take at least one class related to your major in your initial year of college, don't invest yourself too heavily in it. You may change your mind. Most people, myself included,  do. Neither should you "get your electives out of the way."  If you change your major, the classes you've taken toward your major, unless you are fortunate enough to have them fall into the fulfillment of general education requirements, may very well end up becoming your electives, unless you've  already filled all your elective slots, in which they may become wasted units.

Many colleges have a required orientation/seminar the summer before your enrollment begins, in which an upper-division student advises you as to what courses you should be taking, after which you immediately schedule your initial courses.  The university does this because it's the best it can do with a massive group of students descending upon the campus all within a relatively short period of time. Those upper-division student advisors know roughly as much as I do, and I make no claims as to any great proficiency at devising any sort of plan to help another student navigate his or her way through college in  timely manner. The student advisors mean well, but the advice you get from them may not be what you would be told be someone more knowledgeable regarding scheduling of courses and designing of an academic plan to steer you through college in an expeditious manner.  It would be wise to study the university's schedule of courses  and to speak with someone, perhaps a highly  knowledgeable high school counselor about what would be your ideal course load for your initial semester or quarter, as well as a back-up plan, as you, a newly incoming freshman, will be at the very bottom of the heap and will have the lowest priority in scheduling classes. (Some universities do not allow parents, guardians, or other advisors to be present at the initial scheduling sessions.  These are  colleges and universities  interested in mechanically disabling those parent-bearing helicopters  before they ever get off the ground.)  Pickings in terms of courses may be slim, but if you've done your homework and have looked over everything that is offered and at what times curses are available with someone who has some degree of expertise in the area, you can avoid having the course load of your initial semester or quarter consist of  "The History of Barbie," "Philosophy and Star Trek," 'The Culture of Zombies,"  "The Science of Cyber Heroes," and "Far Side Entomology." ***

Your university employs an academic counseling staff. Ask around or go to an online site to check out who are the best among those paid professional academic counselors.  Make an appointment with one early in your first quarter or semester of attendance. Have this person help you map out an academic plan. This person will have the knowledge that goals and plans change, and will load your initial semesters or quarters with general education courses, which must be completed by everyone, and will help you to find introductory classes in your major which will also fulfill general education requirements. Additionally, this person may have clout in terms of getting you into a particular class you need when the Powers That Be say that all sections in the course are full and inaccessible, or may be able, in  place of such, to find a suitable alternative.

Now you have your classes mapped out for the next four years. You're in a class in which the professor positively makes you want to vomit. What do you do? Drop the course? No, you do not drop the course. You buy a bottle of Pepto-Bismol and take it liberally, and get through the class. The biggest single contributor of unintentional five-, six-, or even greater-year-programs of obtaining four-year-degrees is getting into the habit of dropping classes. If you're fortunate enough to get into a class from the original plan you mapped out with your academic guidance counselor,  consider it a gift, no matter how big of a donkey's rectum the professor may be.

On the subject of professors who are the very essence of donkeys' rectums, you WILL encounter your share of them. Sometimes you simply have a personality conflict or a differing ideology with said professor. You need to grow up and learn to recognize when such is the case. In other instances, the professor truly will be the essence of a donkey's rectum.  In either instance, you can handle the situation in a way that can help or harm your grade point average. Some professors wouldn't remember Richard M. Nixon's name if he sat in a chair in the professor's class for five hours each week for an entire quarter. Others know every name of every student. Sometimes you cannot tell which professor is of which type despite the way they act. You, therefore, cannot afford to sit through every class period with a scowl on your face, muttering negative comments under your breath, which may greatly amuse your classmates but not your professor. Even though he or she cannot hear what you are saying, he or she will instinctively know by your classmates' giggles that you are not commenting on how much you like his tie or her skirt, or what a fine professor you believe he or she is.  Enter the class with a fake smile, or at least a fake interested look. It's OK to disagree with what a professor has professed on very rare occasions, as long as you do so with all due respect while acknowledging his or her point. Additionally, professors have required office hours. Make it a point to visit the professor during his or her office hours, particularly to ask advice on a paper that has been assigned. It's practically a guarantor of at least a few additional percentage points on the paper.

This leads to the logical topic of  ideological integrity in writing papers and/or answering essay questions. (This applies marginally if at all in truly objective subjects, such as many math and science courses, although writing is creeping its way into more and more academic domains, and where writing assignments or writing on tests exists, subjectivity exists.) While some would say my philosophy on this issue is disingenuous,  I submit that there are many times in life when one should be true to his or her convictions, but a college or university classroom is probably not the place to live one's convictions. If there is any one secret to success in college it is this: Every professor has something he or she wants to hear. Discover what is his or her personal truth as early in the course as possible, and repeat what ever it is he or she wants to hear back to him or her as many times  and in as many different words as possible.  Your own opinion on the topic is of little consequence. The professor's opinion is everything.  Be true to yourself in other ways. Vote your conscience, or even volunteer for the campaign of a candidate in whom you believe especially strongly.  Work in a soup kitchen.  Join the Peace Corps. Speak up for a person you feel is being mistreated.  In a college classroom, however, forget all about your personal convictions. What the professor thinks is all that matters.

Next comes the topic of academic integrity. Doing homework together may be permissible, though if it is verbal in nature, your words obviously should not match those of your classmate verbatim. If you do a math assignment with someone else, be certain that your answers are correct. If you repeatedly turn in papers with the same wrong answers as another student,  even if different  TAs are grading the assignments, you'll probably eventually be caught.  Your professor may still be OK with it if you explain that you were doing the work together as opposed to one doing while the other copied. Sometimes the policy is clarified in the first class session.  In terms of papers, it's easier than ever to purchase an essay or research paper. It's also easier than ever to get caught.  Is it worth being thrown out of a university over one lousy paper that you were too lazy to write? Take your chances if you must, but you're certifiably insane if you submit a paper not of your own writing that was written by anyone who isn't an extremely close friend or relative, and even then, think twice before turning it in. The stakes are high.

There are many ways of studying. My methods are extreme.  About two weeks into the quarter, I read everything that will be assigned and complete every assignment that can possibly be done. Then I have a mini-mental breakdown. I wouldn't recommend this for everyone.  At the same time, while many of us have procrastinated once or twice without disastrous results,  turning procrastination into a way of life or an art form seldom works to one's benefit. Power outages have been known to prevent students from finishing papers, printing them, or sending to a professor on time. (You may catch a break on the sending part, but good luck on receiving much mercy in regard to missing a deadline on  finishing or printing due to a power outage.) Wireless sources can go down as you're doing your research. Your hard drive can crash. You can get sick or break your arm.  Things can go wrong . Not all [as in very few] professors possess abundant sympathy.   We all know people in high places got where they are by procrastinating, then having a last-minute inspiration, but, in general, even if you're not the extremist that I am, it is wise to set some sort of schedule and stick to it.  Read assigned readings as they are assigned if not ahead of time.  The actual due date and time for a paper does not necessarily mean that  such is the very second your paper should emerge from the printer.

If there were any one piece of advice every student would be wise to follow, it is this: GO TO CLASS! Some professors base part of grading on attendance or will fail you after a given number of un-cleared absences. Even if the professor doesn't take attendance and doesn't know the kid who always sits in the front row from Bruce Jenner or any of those other Kardashians,  and even if you have access to the notes from the very best note-taker in the world,  there is no substitute for actually being there. Go to class.

I wish you the best of luck in your journey.


*** All are actual courses offered at major universities, and I've barely skimmed the surface of the oddities out there in terms of course offerings,

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