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So You Are Starting Your First Year at a Research University…

- August 15, 2013

It’s August–and while that means a dearth of news about American politics, it also means that across the country, recent high school grads are getting ready to start up at a dizzying array of colleges and universities.  I’d be surprised if this blog has much of a readership among people in their late teens.  But having spent some 15 years at research universities, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts about starting undergraduate life at one, and would be curious to get others’ takes in the Comments.  I must have learned something in those eight years living in undergraduate dorms, right?  (Don’t worry–I wasn’t on the eight-year plan.  I was a residential adviser for most of my time in graduate school.  Hm, you still look worried.)

Research universities aren’t just a scaled-up version of a high school, with more students and better sports teams–they are organized differently, and understanding that organization is one of the first tasks of the entering undergraduate.  Case in point: in my high school, any study of literature would have been in the English Department, from Thoreau to Tolstoy.  I knew I liked literature, so when I got to college, I sought out a well-reputed class in the English Department.  But it was only months later, over the winter holidays, that I actually had time to read the course catalog, which was several hundred pages long.  And I realized, belatedly, that literatures written in foreign languages were taught in separate departments–Slavic Languages and Literatures, Germanic Languages and Literatures, etc.  Or else in the Comparative Literature Department.  I also realized that there were whole fields I had never encountered in high school–computer science, sociology, anthropology, to name just a few.

If I were starting again, I’d spend a lot more time reading (or now browsing) the course catalog, to get a better sense of how the fields at a university are organized.  I wouldn’t just read up in the fields I was most interested in.  In fact, I’d read up mostly in the fields I knew nothing about.  The less familiar the Department’s name, the better.  And I’d also spend more time asking people about the different fields, their main tools, their driving questions, their intellectual progress.  High schools are frequently organized by topic area, while universities are organized in part based on different disciplinary toolkits.  You might really like a subject like European history, but also find that the tools you want to use to make sense of that history are actually those of an anthropologist.  Or a computer scientist.  Or an economist.

In that is also a thought about picking classes, to the extent that first-year requirements leave room for choice.  Good classes convey facts, sure.  But they also convey ways of thinking and ways of learning.  More than the specific facts, it is those ways of thinking and learning that you are likely to retain years later.  So if the instructor of a course thinks about problems in a novel or compelling way, give the course a shot–even if you never imagined taking a class on pre-modern Chinese diets.

OK, so I would have spent more time asking people about the academic disciplines–but who, exactly?  Research universities are massive and busy, and some aren’t exactly brimming with people who will stop and explain the intellectual organization of the contemporary university to a wayward first-year.  But that’s where your advisers, teaching assistants, professors, and deans come in.  Harvard professor Richard Light has studied what makes for a successful college experience, and one of his main take-aways is that the students who get to know their instructors have richer college experiences.  His advice: make it a goal to get to know one instructor a semester.  That might mean balancing a few of those big lecture classes with smaller seminars.  It might mean thinking hard about a problem, and then heading to office hours to ask about it.  It might mean asking your teaching assistant why she went into a particular field.  Or it might mean asking a professor about her research, and seeing if you can get involved in it.  They’re called “research universities” for a reason–and yet, many students spend years on university campuses without getting involved in one of their signature activities.

Which brings me to… getting involved in general.  But not getting too involved.  In my high school in the 1990s, and maybe in yours today, a lot of people got involved in a lot of activities: sports teams, student government, religious groups, high school newspapers, weekend jobs, you name it.  But whereas high school life is highly structured, starting at dawn and going well into the evening in some cases, undergraduate life is much less so.  You might find yourself in class for 15 hours a week, leaving a lot of time for other pursuits.  Three weeks into college life, I’ll bet most first-year students couldn’t physically go back to their high school schedules if they tried.  (And having taught classes early on Monday mornings–well, 9:30 am–I have solid evidence of that.)  But the organizational and extra-curricular life at universities is a lot more specialized than that in high school.  It’s not the same people running every activity or doing every on-campus job.  So learn about lots of activities, organizations, and jobs, sure–but plan to devote your time to just a few, and to do those well.

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