Campus Scenes

Advice to the Proto-Freshman

How to win smart friends, locate the library, and work a 40-hour week.

By 9.7.06

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If you, dear reader, are a young person looking forward to entering college this fall, I hope the months and years ahead will prove both beneficial and enjoyable. The chances of the latter's fulfillment are probably greater than the former. The intention here is to offer some advice for the proto-freshman:

Probably you will be required to live in a college-owned dormitory. How else can the place be amortized? Avoid -- however appealing it may seem -- living in a "co-ed" dormitory where the sexes are intermixed, in more ways than one. Also shun the "open" dormitory where members of the opposite sex are free to roam at any time. These are not really safe, and it is rather difficult to concentrate on cell division or the various forms of avoir when persons nearby are rutting.

The first important question a freshman must usually answer is, "What is your major?" Obviously this decision can have life-long ramifications, but -- relax -- it usually does not. A minority of alumni are today working in exactly the field they thought they would be preparing for when they entered college. Many a would-be engineer has been shunted into new channels by a required course in organic chemistry or calculus, which can approximate the impact of a railroad locomotive. The high school courses where you got your best grades and which you enjoyed the most will likely be a reliable starting place. But be warned that high school and college courses vary greatly in the breadth and depth with which material is covered and, most of all, in the speed of that coverage.

This leads to a question probably lurking in the back of your mind: How much will I have to work in college? Answer: a lot! Even noted party schools have professors who understand that students learn little of value in easy courses. Such courses travel under a variety of nicknames: snap, pipe, gut, blow-off, and probably newer terms because imaginative students regularly change the nomenclature. But there are exceptions. I once took a course in art appreciation (with several football players as classmates), but my valuation of that course reached its peak 30 years later when I stood in the Medici Chapel in Florence, Italy, and saw statuary previously only seen in pictures.

There are two standard expectations of your workload at college. The one long used says, "Spend two hours studying for every hour spent in a classroom or laboratory." There may be a student who actually met such a standard, but if so he is probably stuffed and in a museum somewhere. More realistically, just remember that you are a professional student and your salary is the payment of your living costs and college fees. So try to work a 40-hour week, with class time and studying. This may seem an easy goal but with all the diversions a college campus affords, you will do well to meet it.

This advice assumes you are not one of those lucky individuals who read at a thousand-words-a-minute speed, with a photographic memory. Such a fellow-student once said, when he saw me pouring over a history book, "You don't need to do all that. Just wait until the night before an exam, then read all the material assigned, and that'll be enough." It was not. My experiment with that procedure was brief.

A 19th-century educator, Mark Hopkins if memory serves, once said that if he were founding a college with only limited funds, he would first build a dormitory, assuming that students would learn a great deal simply from each other. He was probably right, but I shudder to think of some of the learning that would result from such a "curriculum." He added that if he had more money he would build a library and buy books. Only if he had yet more money would he build classrooms and hire a faculty. Well, the college library is probably your main piece of learning equipment. Quickly find where it is located and how to use it. A library is one place on campus where you can rely on having needed peace and quiet for study.

What about Mr. Mark Hopkins' valuation of your fellow students? I am not going to tell you how to make friends in college, but if you can arrange to room with an upper-classman, by all means do so. I shall never forget as a freshman asking my senior roommate how to spell a word, and, without looking up from his reading, he reached for his dictionary and threw it in my direction. Juniors are ideal. I once asked my older brother, then in college, "Freshmen are green, sophomores are goofy, seniors are looking ahead to life after college. What characteristics do juniors have?" He answered, "They just work like hell."

In general, try to make friends with students who are smarter than you are. They tend to be more interesting than slower students, serve as good models and are often helpful. If you are interested in joining a fraternity or sorority, fine, but do not be afraid to ask about costs, all costs, and ask how the organization's members' grades rank in comparison with their peers and the all-university grade average. If they will not tell you, the dean of students' office will.

Now we come to the big question, what classes shall you take? At least one and perhaps two classes will be required of all freshmen, which means most freshmen will make three selections, which may not be easy. The institution that supplied me with paychecks for four decades has, by my count, 240 departments. If each of these departments offers five courses -- a conservative estimate -- that means more than 1,200 separate courses are available. You will probably not be interested in "Middle English Literature" or "Biochemistry and Molecular Biology," at least for a while, and probably will be eligible for no more than 20 percent of the offerings. A faculty member or adviser may be on hand to assist you, but the final responsibility for the selections will be yours.

In course selection let me offer a very loose suggestion: prefer the course covering a definite subject area to the broad, the general, the vague. Avoid all courses with "Studies" in the title or description. Why? Which do you suppose will give you a solid, coherent body of knowledge, a course entitled "Botany 101," or "Botanical Studies"? The latter is likely a wide selection of the instructor's favorite readings. This is especially true if the subject area allows his or her political prejudices to come into play, for you then may be sure of an unbroken diet of far left-wing readings calculated to make you a life-long Democrat voter. For much the same reason, be cautious in choosing courses with "Readings In ..." in the title. Such a course may be excellent for a senior majoring in the field but probably not for beginning student.

College professors are not meticulous in naming courses. The names chosen are, simply, advertising. An example is "political science." Politics is about as scientific as witchcraft. Also, pause thoughtfully when weighing a course that begins with "socio-," as in sociology, social science, social psychology, social work, etc. The word points to the behavior of people and, as you can easily observe, human beings and their behavior are pretty hard to pin down with any exactitude.

Now for what may be the most valuable advice here given. If an aunt should happen to ask what you would like as a high school graduation present, perhaps the best answer you can give is, "a good collegiate dictionary!" In any case, be sure you have one, for it contains within its covers most of what you do not know. During your four years of college you will probably learn the meanings of more new words than during any other four-year span of your life, though the learning process may continue for the rest of your life. In almost every course you study, the core of the material can be reduced to a vocabulary list of technical or conceptual words. Learn the meanings and applications of those words and you will be on top of the course.

Now let me add a final caution and encouragement. The freshman year is often the most difficult for the reason that we learn things in context, and freshmen do not have much academic context. The more you know about a subject the easier it is to learn more about that subject. You will, especially during your first two years, be building several contexts. And you will soon concede -- I sincerely hope -- that the time and effort you in-vest in learning are absolutely worth the cost. Best of all, you may discover a lifetime's sheer enjoyment of learning things you did not previously know.

Theodore R. Kennedy is Professor emeritus at Michigan State University.

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Theodore R. Kennedy is Professor emeritus at Michigan State University.