Four Tips for My New Undergrad Classmates

I am now officially old, at least old enough to take advantage of a program at my local public university that allows me, an old person, to audit a class alongside undergrads gratis. In theory I’m supposed to add my life experiences to their learning, and they are to see in me the pleasure of learning for its own sake. I am supposed to benefit from being around their youthful vigor and all. We’ll see about all that. But I do now have a plausible explanation for the police as to why I am shirtless at a foam party alongside “adults” more than four decades my junior — I need to give back. Cross-generational communication being what it is I am treading lightly on passing out life advice (“Foam is really slippery and you lose flexibility as you age”) and felt it better to write down what I wish I could say to them between classes.

1. Go to class. Whether or not your professor takes attendance, go to class. You got out of the habit during your Zoom School days, I know. But professors have the habit of saying interesting and useful things in class, so go listen to them. If you’re concerned about grades, listening to what a professor choses to emphasize out of the reading (and do the reading) will be a big hint as to what will be emphasized on the test. Especially go to the first class and write down everything the professor says. Much of it won’t make sense, because it is about a subject you have not yet studied but months from now when you’re staring down the barrel of a final exam those ideas important enough to mention on day one will likely be a part of it. Sit up front, show some interest, ask an intelligent question or two (never “Is this gonna be on the test?” or “why do we have to study this stuff?”) and you may even develop an intellectual bond with the instructor.

2. Leave the computer in your dorm. Sitting in the back of the classroom, I look out on to a sea of Insta and other social media, Amazon pages, and the like, with sometimes (for the good students) half the small screen devoted to a Word document for notes. It is unfair to place a catalog screen designed by award-winning psychologists to attract you in competition with a Teaching Assistant in front of a class for the first time since 6th grade book reports. Unless you need to actually compute things, leave the devices back in the dorm. Take notes by hand, on paper. You’ll retain more and stay connected with the material better.

3. Learn to take notes. This is a life skill, not a college skill, so best to learn it. Notes help you remember what was said, to reconstruct the argument the professor made, to mark down what was important, to compare what showed up both in the reading and in class (it’s going to matter if it is in both places) and to help you pay attention if yes, it sometimes gets boring. Ideally your notes should resemble a term paper (and yes you can learn to write better term papers by learning to take better notes) with some sort of topic sentence followed by examples followed by a conclusion. Most times the professor will help you with this, laying out an outline of sorts on slides or on the board. Unless you’ve got a good reason not to, your notes should at the end of class look a  lot like what the prof wrote — I. Causes of WWII followed by a, b, and c, listing causes such as c) Japan’s need for resources, esp. oil and rubber, followed by the conclusions the war was caused by runaway capitalism or whatever. If your notes are incomplete — “something about Germany” — you need more details. If you are always racing to keep up you may need less detail on paper and to spend more time just listening; you’re not a stenographer. Notes are not transcripts of the lecture, they are something akin to an x-ray view of the lecture. If all else fails, make an appointment to see the prof, explain your note taking problem, and ask (very politely, profs can be possessive) to see his lecture notes if possible. Compare yours to his and adjust accordingly.

4. Learn to manage time. This is also life skill, not a college skill, so best to learn it. Most high school teachers managed your time for you. They broke things down into class-size packages, lightened up a bit for Homecoming Weekend, and incessantly counted down for you to the next test. If you had to write a paper, many times they’d break that process down, demanding a reading list one Monday, an outline the next week, a rough draft by week four, etc. Rarely so in college. The syllabus issued on day one might mention a 10 page paper is due at week 14 and leave it at that. Same for reading; that fat stack of books in front of you has to be read between August and Christmas break, so you have plenty of time. You actually do not. Learn to work backwards from deadlines to day one of class, maybe even make a little calendar for yourself so you know by week three you should have some idea of a reading list for your paper, etc. This is your guide, so if by week four you do not have an outline that should answer your question about whether you can afford to stay up all night for Homecoming raves or not. Think of it partly as a bank. If you have enough hours in and are on schedule you can afford to spend a little more time away. But if you are in to deficit spending on time… think “clean as you go.” Anybody who has worked at a restaurant knows you can’t go home at night until everything is cleaned for the next day. If you clean as you go throughout the night, it is easier than starting at 2 am. It is even better to not make a mess in the first place.

Everything else: Don’t talk to the police without a lawyer present. Don’t cheat. Think before you speak. Sometimes don’t speak. Be generous if you have resources your classmates do not have. Drugs are not for stupid people. And the guy who usually sits in seat 13E, I think you’re wasting your time. And I saw the girl in front of you waiting after class for someone else, sorry, man. Maybe see you two at the foam party?

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2 Comments

  • Rich Bauer on said:

    Those 20 somethings are most likely texting each other about the creepy old guy.

  • John Poole on said:

    Bauer- That was clever but devastating. I even felt that sting it here on the mainland. Try to be kinde, please for the sake of civility.

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