“This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco…”

Album Cover for Talking Heads’ “Fear of Music”

Originally, I was going to use this title for a pithy list of challenges and opportunities related to the dissertation process for the Spring semester (which is, indeed, no disco).  Upon reading feedback from my students for the Fall semester, I decided to take this title in a different direction, and that is expectations of work and readings in college.  College is serious business, and while there are so many opportunities to enjoy in college, there is still a deeper meaning for why you have dedicated four years and many economic resources to undertaking this education.  The title is not meant to be dismissive, but rather a unifying lyric for the amount of work it takes to get through it all.  What you will find below is some honest and helpful advice to manage expectations for students entering the world of higher education for the first time.  Sometimes it seems daunting, and even overwhelming, when faced with the syllabus and reading list for the first time.  There are also some protocol lessons that you just do not realize as a newbie.  Here are my best “lessons learned” to share with you:

  1. Readings: there will be many.  A consistent question that I got throughout the semester was “Why are there so many readings?  Are we supposed to read this much?” In my experience, professors are very intentional with the readings they assign to their students.  It’s not a trick, nor busy work.  The purpose of the readings are to supplement the discussions you are having in class as well as transmitting valuable information to students.  It’ll be a lot.  Develop strategies and read what you can meaningfully so you do not get burnt out.  Dartmouth has put together a great collection of resources for managing your reading load that can help with this.
  2. It’s not about checkboxes.  It is about quality and depth.  You are here to learn, to experience, and to grow.  While high school often feels like a sprint to the finish as you try to fit in as many extracurriculars, languages, experiences, and AP courses to add to your resume, College is now an opportunity to deepen experiences.  Try new things, but also use the resources and colleagues you have surrounding you to become a specialist or to dive into a topic about which you always wanted to learn more.  Whether it is maximizing library resources or participating in a co-op, college affords you access to experiences and resources that are unique and sometimes once in a lifetime.
  3. Grades are earned, not given. While seemingly obvious, students often utter the phrase “Professor X gave me a B in this class.”  Think about the effort you put into the class and pay heed to the breakdown of weighting that will be listed out on the syllabus.  If you do a rewrite of a paper, make sure that the professor can see a meaningful difference rather than tacking on a few resources at the end of an unchanged paper.  We do care, and we do pay attention.  Finally, not everything will be graded, but that does not mean it is not important.
  4. You are here to learn.  The purpose of higher education is both to prepare you for life beyond the campus and also to, well, educate.  Good professors are planning their syllabi thoughtfully and assigning the readings and assignments they think will add to your knowledge base.  If you do not discuss the reading in class, you still (hopefully) got the knowledge out of the readings that you endeavored to finish.  You are building your intrinsic motivation and wealth of resources regardless of how many times you check in to show others that you are reading.
  5. Participate.  Class participation, graded or not, is a way to make your mark in college.  Plan on asking for a letter of recommendation?  Make yourself memorable by sharing insights and perspectives in meaningful ways that show you are following and comprehending.  Classroom participation is a shared responsibility, and if you are given the freedom to talk openly and in a critical dialogue, do so.  And do not be afraid of asking when you do not understand.  There is a high probability that you are not the only one.

College life is a adventure that can be both terrifying and amazingly gratifying.  But, ultimately, this experience is what you make of it.  Push past the mentality that you are there because you have to be.  You are either paying or using resources to undertake that education, and should be there by choice and with enthusiasm.  If you give it your best, prioritize, and quell the fear of trying new things, you will be transformed from that finish-line sprinter to a lifelong learner.


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