+ College Freshmen Get Advice From Long-Time Professors

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From the Labor Day weekend op-ed pages of the NY Times, nine highly honored and experienced university professors proffer the following advice.

Stanley Fish (professor of law at Florida International University, teaching since 1962) has two pieces of advice. 

First: find the good teachers by asking everyone who might know — advisors, older students, teacher-evaluation guides.  You want a professor known for his or her knowledge of the field, but also for their “ability to make it a window on the larger universe.” 

Second: take a writing composition course even if you’ve tested out; if you can’t write a clean English sentence you can’t do anything, he says.

Gerald Graff (past president of the Modern Language Association [MLA] and professor of English and education at the University of Illinois, Chicago.  He has been teaching since 1963.)  He advises that you cut through the clutter of all the jargon and contradictory -isms by learning to summarize and make your own arguments.  So:

1)… Learn to do something with what you’ve learned by turning it into an argument.  2)… Find out what others are saying about this topic and summarize their arguments in a recognizable way — especially the arguments that go against your own. 3)… In your summary, look not only for the thesis of any argument, but also who or what provoked it (the points of the controversy).  4)… Let these summaries motivate what you say and indicate why it needs saying.  Don’t be afraid to give your own opinion, but back it up with reasons and evidence —  and don’t disagree with anything without carefully summarizing it first! 

Harold Bloom  (renowned professor of English at Yale and author of too many books to mention, who has taught since 1955).  He has some very Bloomian suggestions.

Take this opportunity to voyage away from visual overstimulation into deep sustained reading of books that have survived ideological fashions: Homer, Plato, the Bible, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Cervantes, Shakespeare, Montaigne, Milton.  After the 19th century, include Blake, Wordworth, Austen, Dickens, George Eliot, Hardy, Yeats and Joyce (the Brits) and Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Hawthorne,  Faulkner, Frost, Wallace Stevens, TS Eliot and Hart Crane (the Americans). 

Of course, don’t stop there.  This is the path to a meaningful life; this is how you learn the discourse of the powerful. 

Carol Bekin  (professor of history at Baruch College and author of the forthcoming “Civil War Wives“).  She has been teaching since 1972.  Don’t alienate your professor, she says!  Here are some tips for the very first weeks:

Make sure you’re in the class you signed up for; you won’t be wasting your — or the professor’s — time.  During class DON’T  a) beat out a cadence on the desk while he’s lecturing; b) sigh audibly more than three or four times during a class period; c) check your watch more than twice during the hour.  DO  a) practice a look of genuine interest in the lecture or discussion; b) nod in agreement frequently; c) laugh at all — or at least most — of the professor’s jokes. 

Ask questions if you don’t understand the professor’s point, but do not ask any of the following: “Will this be on the test?”  “Does grammar count?” “Do we have to read the whole chapter?” “Can I turn my paper in late?”

Garry Wills (professor emeritus of history at Northwestern, who has been teaching since 1962) says

1)…Play to your strengths; choose courses you already have some interest in or knowledge of  — this won’t narrow you since the deeper you go into one thing, the more it connects with other things.  2)… Learn to write well: read what you write to a friend, ask the friend to read it back to you; problems will leap right out at you!  3)…Read, read, read, especially if you want to become a writer.  4)…Seek out the brains, the intellectually adventurous students.  Get close to the best and the brightest.  5)…Become politically active.  Don’t be afraid.  You will never be freer than now.

Martha Nussbaum  (professor of philosophy, law and divinity at the University of Chicago, who has been teaching since 1975).  Don’t worry about preparing for a job, she says.

This may be the one time in your life when you can think about the whole of your life.  Courses in humanities are not impractical but vital, because they stretch your imagination and challenge your mind to become more responsive, more critical, and simply — bigger.  These resources will prevent your mind from becoming narrower and more routinized later on!

James McGregor Burns  (professor emeritus of government at Williams College and author of “Packing the Court.”  He’s been teaching since the 1940s.)  Stay in touch with the world off campus, he writes.

Read a good newspaper every day.  Read deep, read the columnists.  A newspaper is your path to the world at large.  And a great newspaper will teach you how to write: articles are models of clarity and substance — no academic jargon.  Pay attention to the writer’s vocabulary, see how many active verbs are used.  Note striking new words.  Study how articles are structured: the first paragraph outlines clearly and simply the subject and the main points.  The final paragraph will show you how to conclude an essay with a “pithy phrase or a telling quotation.”

Also — get to know teachers outside of class.  Find out how they got involved in their subject and what they are working on.  Build a lifeline to the universe beyond college.  And get to know janitors, cafeteria workers: ask them questions.  Thank them.

Nancy Hopkins  (professor of biology at MIT, who has been teaching since 1973).  She says fall in love with an intellectual vision of the future!

She entered Harvard intending to major in math but found the amazing James D Watson, the scientist who co-discovered the double-helical structure of DNA (the molecule that genes are made of) and was a goner, she says.  She was in love with DNA.  She began to imagine the questions that molecular biologists might someday answer:  How do you make a hand?  Why do I look like my mother?  How does a cell become cancerous?  What is memory?

Passion is the mysterious force behind nearly every scientific breakthrough and makes the hard work worthwhile.  And if you have it, you’re in the race.  For the next four years, you get to poke around the corridors, listen to lectures, work in labs.  The field you choose may be so new it doesn’t even have a name yet.  You may be the person who contructs a new biological species, figures out how to stop global warming or aging, or discovers life on another planet.  Don’t settle for anything less than the passion!

Steven Weinberg  (professor of physics at the University of Texas at Austin, who’s been teaching since 1958).  He says expect college to be not quite what you expected!

You’ll learn what you’re good at and what you’re not.  You’ll learn that some of the fields you thought might be rich and wonderful are not so, at least for you.  You’ll probably make friends with students and professors who will remain friends and colleagues for life.  You’ll take walks  under beautiful trees.  And you’ll learn and fall in love with subjects you never considered before. 

sole source: NY Times Op-ed piece on 9/6/09.  www.nytimes.com

tutoring in columbus OH:   Adrienne Edwards   614-579-6021   or email  aedwardstutor@columbus.rr.com

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