Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Orientation Speech, August 2014

My wife, who, like me, graduated from college more than a decade ago, recently had a dream in which she was being forced to take a math quiz. She described it as a nightmare--utter terror. Who here is afraid of math quizzes? Who's afraid of writing research papers? Who's afraid of college in general?

The good news is you're not alone. Many new college students--maybe even most--are afraid that their writing skills or their math skills or their overall academic skills won't be good enough for them to achieve their goals. This fear is common, and it's understandable, but it's not very helpful. The most important bit of advice I can give you is not to let this fear hold you back.

If you're not a very good writer, it's not a big deal. (Yes, I'm an English professor, and I just said that.) Nearly all college students struggle with writing during their first few semesters. What matters more is how good your writing is a year from now, two years from now, four years from now. The same is true for math, or any other academic skill. It doesn't matter where you start; it matters where you finish, and what you learn along the way.

In order for that learning to take place, you need to believe that you are capable of improvement. If you think you are a bad writer, and that's just who you are--or that you're bad at math and nothing can change that--then you are making your own education impossible. Change can only happen if you believe it can happen. People who believe they can't get better at something don't bother practicing. But those who are driven to better themselves keep trying, no matter how many setbacks and obstacles they encounter, and that persistence eventually produces results.

When students in my classes don't succeed, it's not because they're bad writers. It's because they stop coming to class or because they don't hand in their work. If these students had simply come to class and tried their best on their assignments, they would have passed. Maybe they would've gotten "C's" and not "A's", but so what. There's more to life than grades. You are more than your GPA.

There are many different reasons why this happens, but I believe fear to be the most common one. By avoiding class and avoiding assignments, these students are trying to avoid judgment. They are afraid that their professors will confirm their worst fear--that they don't belong here, that they don't have what it takes to get a college degree.

But having what it takes isn't about being super-smart. It's about persevering through all the stress and anxiety. It's about not letting one or two bad grades discourage you. It's about moving forward, no matter what. And your professors aren't here merely to judge you. It's not my job to survey all my students and decree, "You are the smart ones," and "You are the not-smart ones." My job is to help all my students meet their goals. The job of everyone who works at this college is to help you succeed. We all want that. So when you feel that fear, or if you just feel stuck--not sure how to get through a particular class or a particular assignment--talk to a professor, talk to a counselor, talk to a tutor. And talk to each other--you all will be experiencing the same challenges.

Let me end by giving you some specific, practical advice, and then a little homework.

#1. Don't skip class. Ever. If you're deathly ill or there is a true emergency, then fine, but otherwise go to every class no matter what. Showing up is more than half the battle. It's at least two thirds.

#2. When you're in class, find ways to be active. Lots of people will tell you about how important it is to take notes, and yes, note-taking is helpful. But don't do it passively. Make sure you understand what you're writing down. When you don't understand something, ASK A QUESTION. When your professors invite you to share your thoughts and opinions, share them. If you're not interacting with your classmates and your professor in class, you're not learning as much as you could be.

#3. Organize your time. Use a planner; use an app; use whatever works for you. Keep track of when things are due and when you will have the time to do them. If you're a full-time student, expect 15-20 hours of homework every week. Finding time to get it all done can be a real challenge if you also have a full- or part-time job. Carefully organizing your time is the only way.

#4. Talk to your professor outside of class. Any time you are confused or just want some feedback on your work, talk to your professor one-on-one. Don't be intimidated. We're all quite friendly once you get to know us. Many of us have regular office hours, which will be posted on the course syllabus. "Office Hours" means you can drop in WITHOUT an appointment. It doesn't mean we're in our offices doing important office work and cannot be disturbed. By all means, disturb us. We're here to help. It's our job.

#5. Turn in your work on time. Late work drives professors nuts, and many of us simply won't accept it. If you know you can't make a deadline, talk to your professor well in advance, and ask for an extension. There's no shame in asking--worst case scenario, the professor says no. But most of us are pretty accommodating with such requests, as long as you don't wait until the last minute.

Ok, now for your homework assignment. Little warning--it involves some math. When you get home, divide your total tuition bill by the number of times your classes are scheduled to meet throughout the entire semester. This will show you how much you are paying per class. Figure out what this number is. Keep it in mind the next time you're not sure if you have the energy to go to class. Let it motivate you. You already bought the ticket. It's time to take the ride.

Good luck.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I am going to have my students read this. Perfect to share with freshmen students on their day 1 in college. Thank you so much. From polar bear