Students occasionally ask me how to best take advantage of their four years. Information is cheap, but growth and understanding is hard to come by.
Most undergraduates follow the path of least resistance. They get processed rather than educated. Many drop out. Most get a degree, but do so while being bored to tears and without learning much of anything. Yet there are plentiful resources in a university for the student who wants them. Relative to other institutions in our society, universities stand for art, knowledge and freedom. The problem is to get that part with as little contact as possible with the other part – the bureaucracy.
Don’t let yourself be drowned in mere information. What with libraries and the internet, information is now cheaper than dirt. The main principle is to be an active student rather than a passive one.
It makes all the difference in the world.
Being an active student:
1. Shop around for the best classes. Don’t stay in a class that you don’t like. Find another one to replace it.
2. Find out who the best and worst teachers are. Some schools have a website for that. Ask around. Most universities have both excellent and horrible teachers. Try to study with the former as much as possible, and avoid the latter entirely.
3. It helps enormously to have at least one mentor. If a class interests you, make a beeline to lecturers’ office hours, all of them. Talk to them. If possible, look up their website, and read one or more of their publications. They will be surprised and delighted. Offer free research assistance, baby-sitting or dog-walking. Stick to them like glue; they are your guide through the labyrinth.
4. Learn to speed-read – basically looking and guessing and then looking again to check your guess. Your guessing mind is a million times smarter than your regular mind. Also, speed-reading encourages an active, aggressive attitude. Don’t be passive, letting the words and pages roll over you. Ten minutes of reading this way yields more than an hour of passive reading. It also positions you into the right, skeptical, attitude toward the material.
5. Question everything. Some lecturers try to get away with taking up the whole class time. No matter what size or type class, insist on asking questions. Don’t yield an inch.
6. Take independent studies whenever possible. You are allowed 30 units. It’s a way to actually get to know a professor and what she knows. Also it may be possible to avoid a particularly odiously required class by getting her to sign off that you have had an independent study class equivalent.
7. Avoid, if possible, classes with objective exams. Look for classes that require papers that will be read and returned to you all marked up. You need to get detailed and precise feedback on your strengths and weaknesses.
8. Avoid large classes.
9. If allowed, take classes by examination. Reading a textbook at your convenience is a lot quicker than 20-30 hours of sitting on your butt in a class.
10. Try to take seminars – that is, discussions – rather than lecture classes.
11. Design your own major: an individual major. You need a 3.0 GPA, plenty of chutzpah, two faculty advisors and a good idea. For example, a truly interdisciplinary social science – anthropology, communication, history, political science, psychology and sociology – based on courses that connect with at least one other discipline.
12. If you can’t design your own major, there is an equivalent that you can do on your own. Suppose that you take three or four classes each quarter. Each quarter, figure out which is the most interesting, important and useful for you and then do the maximum amount of work you are capable of – more than is required. What about the other two or three courses? Do the minimum amount of work that will get you the grade you need. Over your four years, if you major in particular classes this way, you will get a real education.
You don’t need a very high IQ, just respectful assertiveness. Be active rather than passive, and courteous but relentless. You have a world to win.
Thomas Scheff is a professor emeritus in UCSB’s sociology department.