Your Major Isn’t All that Major

Yippee! You’re going to COLLEGE!

You’re probably getting hours and hours of sleep because you don’t spend any time at all mulling over all the new, unknown, big, scary things that come bundled up in that word ‘college.’ No, you haven’t started thinking about your future or your career or what all that means for your next four years. You haven’t started thinking about leaving home (if you are), either, or leaving your friends. You’re dandy. You’re just great. You are so excited. Genuinely amped. Ready to go. You feel like you just want to give everyone high fives.

Except, that’s not true at all. That’s actually laughable.

I know, you know, we all know that you are also (and I am definitely understating this): scared out of your wits. You’ve got the heebie-jeebies—those annoying willies. Your stomach is essentially a butterfly conservatory. You spend a lot of your free time exclaiming things like: “WHAT IS GOING ON?” Or… “HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHAT I WANT TO DO WHEN I GROW UP?” But mostly… “AHHHHHH.”

Yep.

Guess what? You’re normal.

This is normal.

College is a huge adjustment. Somehow, though, all of us college-goers come out alive, smiling, and never wanting to leave. So be soothed. This will be the best time of your life.

Now, I know my words of wisdom won’t actually be heeded at the moment, so I won’t keep spouting nostalgic, reflective, awesome statements about college.

What I will do is give you some tips on how to gain appropriate perspective on your undergraduate education. We’re going to talk about (dun dun dunnnn…): YOUR MAJOR.

Hear me when I say: YOU WANT TO READ THIS.

It’s okay to change it. Multiple times.

Some of you know exactly what you want to study, maybe what career path you want to go down. You’re pretty sure you’ve got it all figured out. If you’re nodding your head right now, this piece of wisdom is for you: you may be surprised.

Some of you will keep on that initial path. You’ll start taking classes in your particular major, you’ll enjoy it, you’ll sit in the front row, hang out with your professors in office hours, and you’ll just keep on keepin’ on until you graduate.

Some of you, though, will find that you don’t actually like what you thought you would. You’re bored, you’re confused, you’re sleeping (and snoring) in class, and you just aren’t that into it. For you guys, and for those who start off college undeclared, I implore you to feel comfortable and at ease trying new things until something fits. You do it when you shop, you can do it when you study. You wouldn’t buy an extremely expensive outfit without trying it on first, would you? So why buy an education (which is, you know, sort of pricey) without trying some stuff out first? Think about it.

Some of you might be worried about what “other people” will think. I want to tell you that no one will judge you if you change it up a bit. They will actually praise you for caring about the education you are getting (who’s the cool kid on campus now?). As long as you monitor your units, requirements, etc. throughout your college career, you should have no problem. Have no fear, you are not alone! Counselors can help you with this process, too!

It doesn’t define your career.

Oh my goodness, what did she just say? THAT IS BLASPHEMOUS!

I have a lot of friends who want to be doctors. They’ve taken their pre-requisites for medical school, sure, but do you know how many of them are actually majoring in things like physiological sciences, biology, biochemistry, neuroscience, etc.? Practically none. Many have picked majors like history and English. The same goes for some of my friends who chose to go to law school.

Your major matters because hopefully it reflects your interests. Hopefully, you are studying something you really want to be studying. That may or may not lead to a career in that field. You may even (like my aspiring-doctor-buds) get the chance to study two subjects (Wow!). I changed my major three times (almost four…no shame), am currently studying psychology, and don’t intend to be a psychologist. Nuts, right? Your options are endless.

The main point is…

Don’t let yourself be scared by the constricting appearance of a word like ‘major.’ It’s not going to constrict you unless you want it to and you let it. With enough determination you can always pull strings here and there and maneuver stealthily through your undergraduate experience to create whatever experience you want. Honestly. Just look at college as a time to figure out what really makes you tick- what you really want to spend time learning about. Maybe you will be inspired to continue that study later on in life, and maybe you won’t. There’s nothing wrong with either of these situations.

So take the leap, step into the unknown, jump into the ocean, let your spirit fly!

(That got excessive fairly quickly…my bad.)

Point is: try new things, explore a little bit. You’ll be better than fine.

I promise.

Okay, okay… I pinky promise.


Tips from the eNotes Intern: Getting Over the Post-Winter Break Blues

Here at eNotes, our intern evidently doesn’t pull any punches. Following are the straight up facts about the post-winter break blues (aka ‘WAA’) and how to overcome them with this six step program, straight from your fellow student’s mouth:

WINTER BREAK IS OVER.

Ouch. That sort of hurt, didn’t it? I do apologize, I just thought saying it out loud might make it easier to comprehend. For many of us, our winter holidays are coming to an end. If you’re like me, you are now trying to piece together memories of what life was like before vacation, and it’s a very sad business. You have adapted to days filled with holiday celebrations, friends, family, the couch, copious amounts of cookies, home-cooked meals, the couch, your bed, blankets, and more couch time. Now, I don’t know about you, but adapting to that lifestyle took me all of three seconds. So why is it so hard to snap back into the “student” life we’ve been leading for practically all our years? The way I see it, there are three phases most of us go through.

  1. The Wallowing Phase
  2. The Acceptance Phase
  3. The Adapting Phase

Let’s make an acronym out of it: “WAA.” WAA is the process by which the average student adjusts to reality after enduring a highly enjoyable, relaxing vacation. The first phase (Wallowing) is characterized by irritability, anxiousness, complaining, heightened laziness (the laziest you’ve ever been), and prolonged sleeping. The second phase (Acceptance) is characterized by, well, acceptance. You know that you have to go back to school and normal life, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Now, I didn’t say you were necessarily happy about the situation, but you’ve become accustomed to the idea. The final phase (Adapting) is where you take steps to get used your student lifestyle again. Now, as a student who has seen many winter break transitions, I am a master of the WAA, especially phase 3. I thought I’d give you a few tips for getting back into the swing of things. They’re real, they’re awesome, and they’re coming at you in list format:

  1. Make a list or two: Time management is one of the most beneficial skills you can learn. Sometimes, keeping track of things is really difficult. There’s a pretty decent chance you’re a little flustered right now, seeing as you’ve been thrown right into the craziness of school all over again. With so many things to take care of (assignment due dates from here until June, exams, quizzes, projects, and all the aspects of your daily, personal lives as well), you’re quite right to be a little flustered. How are you going to get it all done and when? Whenever I feel this way, I make lists. Lists and lists and lists. They really work, and all it takes is a piece of paper and a pen (you can use some sort of iPhone app if you would like to, but I prefer the old-school format). Here’s what you do: write down a list of all the things you have to do. Just get it all out of your head and onto the paper. You can leave it just like that, if you’d like, or you can organize it further by due date, class, or some amalgamation of the two. Then when you complete a task, guess what? You get to cross it off. Believe me, it feels awesome. Not only can you see everything you have to accomplish very clearly in front of you, but you can also really feel and see yourself getting things done. So make a list, it can’t hurt!
  2. Create a routine and do your best to stick to it: Routines are really helpful for a couple of reasons. For one thing, they give you a clear idea of what your day or week is going to look like. You can become accustomed to the pattern so that certain things you don’t necessarily enjoy very much (say, exercising or studying for example) can be accomplished with much more ease. There’s a certain invisible accountability you feel to the routine. You can’t let it down! And once it becomes habit, it’s easy as pie. Routines also help with time management. Having a relatively set schedule makes it easier to know when you will have free time to accomplish certain tasks. You’ll feel charged and on track, ready to take on the day.
  3. Set realistic educational goals: Now I’m not saying you have to make a commitment to study eight hours a night. We have to be realistic. You could, for instance, give yourself the goal of finishing a term paper a week in advance, so you will have more time to study for finals at the end of the term. You might achieve that by doing little segments of the paper throughout the semester, or by blocking certain chunks of time for uninterrupted work on your paper. Any kind of goal, no matter how small, can really help propel you along this academic rollercoaster. Graduation, degrees—those can all seem very far off. If you can give yourself a goal that seems closer in proximity and feels more attainable, you will undeniably feel more motivated in the academic setting, and in your life in general.
  4. Be active: Yes, your bed is comfortable. Yes, your favorite TV drama is on. Yes, Facebook might as well be your desktop background. It’s nearly impossible to avoid all these things, especially when coming back from a vacation. It’s almost as if we’re being sucked in. One of the best ways to beat the winter break spell, then, is to fight back. We don’t always realize how lethargic we’ve become. Fighting lethargy and doing some exercise or even partaking in hobbies—anything to get you moving—will increase your energy. I mean, endorphins, right? You’ll be a happier camper if you’re up and about and moving around. The activity feeds off itself and you will find yourself doing more and more without thinking about it. You’ll stop counting the steps it takes to get from your bed to the refrigerator and instead use your legs willingly and excitedly. You’ll feel more alive, and subsequently, feel like you can take on the entire world. Yes, the world is your oyster.
  5. Remember why you’re really in school: Hey, be excited! You’ve been given this opportunity to learn at the hands of different professors and teachers, and you are getting something out of it. Even if you can’t appreciate it now, you know that deep down you really want to be here, and that you’re acquiring something invaluable by participating. You are getting an education that is going to help you create the future you want, whatever that may be. That is something to feel grateful for.
  6. Take a deep breath: Just do it. It will always help. Inhale, then exhale, slowly. Now smile, and go to class. You’re probably already late.

No More Smokin’ in the Boys’ Room: Tracking Chips On the Rise for Junior High and High School Students

I have a child in junior high and a child in high school. Every day, both of them must wear their school-issued identification card on a lanyard around their necks at all times. The doors to their schools are locked at 8:30 a.m.  After being checked out on a video camera and buzzed in, parents and other visitors must present a driver’s license upon entering the building, and then that visitor is issued a sticker with a scanned image of their license picture and their name in bold letters.  The sticker must be worn at all times while on school grounds.

My children do not attend school in the Gaza Strip. They are in a small Texas suburb where, honestly, the biggest threat to their well-being are West Nile mosquitoes, all of which, sadly, are too tiny for State-issued sticky-IDs.

Still, it is not enough. Now in addition to their dog-collars…err.. I mean “IDs,”… soon, they, like thousands of other Texas’ kids, will be required to have their IDs “chipped,” as in microchipped with GPS tracking devices that will let administrators and, presumably, teachers, know where they are at all times.

Not surprisingly, there has been backlash. One student, Andrea Hernandez of San Antonio, Texas, just won the right to refuse to wear the embedded identification.  While Hernandez’s reasons for balking at the requirement may be unusual (she believes the tracking is “Satanic”), many parents and students also contend that the practice is invasive and in violation of their rights. It all feels a little too creepily “Big Brother-ish” to lots of dissenters.

For their part, schools are embracing the GPS IDs because increased attendance means increased funding. Additionally, they claim that students’ “rights being violated” is inapplicable since the students are under age. Moreover, there are voices on all sides, parents, teachers, administrators, and students, who argue that there should be nothing to worry about and no objections…if your student (or you) are where they (or you) are supposed to be.

What do you think? Yes to chips or no? And why?


Why College Students Today Can’t Write

Today’s post is brought to you by  Braintrack.com, an online resource for university, college, and career searches. You can check out their blog here!

College professors have been bemoaning the lack of solid writing skills in their students for decades (see this article from 1974 for proof), but statistics gathered over the past few years suggest that student writing skills are in an even more dismal state than they were in 1974. Today, 28% of college graduates produce writing that rates as deficient, even with tuition reaching record rates and many colleges being more selective than ever. These poor writing skills have had serious ramifications not only in higher education but in the business world, as our information-driven society makes it ever more critical for students to develop the ability to communicate through the written word.

While it’s easy to point out the problem, it’s much harder to figure out a solution. A promising first step can be to pinpoint just what is causing students to arrive and leave college without the skills they’ll need to get by in the real world. That’s easier said than done. The decline of writing abilities in students is a multifaceted issue, impacted by teachers, students, and administrators alike and encompassing all elements of writing education from support to motivation. While not comprehensive, this list addresses some of the biggest reasons so many students struggle with writing in colleges today, from freshman year to graduation.

One of the biggest reasons college students can’t write may simply be due to the fact that most college courses and degree programs don’t demand it of them. In the book Academically Adrift most freshmen reported “little academic demand in terms of writing” and half of college seniors reported never having written a paper longer than 20 pages during their last year of college. Students who aren’t being required to submit papers that are academically challenging have little opportunity to learn and grow as writers, which can hold them back academically. In fact, the same study showed that students who took classes with high expectations (those with 40 pages of reading a week and 20 pages of writing a semester) gained more from their courses than their peers in less demanding courses.
Many students enter college with sub-par writing skills because of inadequate writing instruction in their high school courses. A report by the National Assessment of Educational Progress in 2007 found that just 24% of high school seniors could score proficient or better on a writing exam. Things haven’t changed much for the better since then, and many fear that high schools are failing students when it comes to teaching writing. Why is this happening? At some schools, teachers simply don’t have enough time to leave adequate feedback on lengthy student papers when they have 120 or more students in their courses. Another problem that many experts have pointed to is that high schools simply don’t focus on writing instruction. Schools are often so caught up in boosting scores in skills that are tested in state exams like math, science, and reading, that writing simply falls by the wayside. There are schools trying to make improvements, with some making writing a central part of their curricula, but there’s still a long way to go before America’s high school students will graduate with improved writing abilities across the board.
Whether it’s fair to students or not, many college professors don’t want to dedicate class time to teaching students remedial writing skills they should really already know by the time they reach college. Giving increased attention to writing means that not only do professors have less class time to focus on the true subject of the course, they also have to dedicate hours of time outside of class to rigorously correcting student papers in order to make progress in improving student writing. This kind of grading is time-consuming and frustrating, and with many writing-intensive courses no longer being simply English classes, it’s often a distraction from learning other material.

It isn’t just professors and employers who’ve taken note of the dwindling writing skills of college students. Students themselves are also well aware that they need a little more help in their writing. In a national study of 30,000 undergraduates, fewer than 50% felt that their writing had improved over the four years they were in school. A similar study reported that just 27.6% of students saw improvement in their writing by graduation. The reason students cited for the lack of progress? Inadequate feedback and support. Eighty percent of students in the study said they felt they would have become better writers if they had received more feedback and direct interaction from professors.
At the majority of American colleges, writing requirements are fulfilled by passing a couple of courses deemed as “writing intensive.” Yet that doesn’t always ensure that students will graduate knowing how to write or be any good at it. Some schools, like Old Dominion University, used to require that students pass a writing test before graduation, but tests like these are being phased out or dropped. Why? Too many students failed them. While they may have represented an outdated model for assessing student abilities, the fact that a significant portion of students couldn’t pass them is troubling to say the least. At most colleges, a C or better in a handful of writing courses is a ticket to graduation, but with grade inflation rampant it’s unclear what degree of writing ability that truly represents. With little motivation to push themselves to learn to improve writing, many students graduate without ever mastering grammar, syntax, or analytical writing.
Grade inflation is a very real phenomenon (today, 43% of all grades are A’s, an increase of 28% since 1960) and one that is slowly starting to take a serious toll on what students actually get out of their educational experiences. Students don’t just hope to earn a good grade, many actually expect it, whether their work warrants it or not. Sadly, a growing number of professors are happy to oblige, as student feedback on faculty ratings can be key to helping them keep jobs, get tenure, and get ahead. This has had a serious impact on the level of writing that many college students produce, as those who don’t feel compelled to do more than the minimum to pass courses are getting by with less than ever before. Harsh, strict grading and evaluation of papers used to be common practice. The lack of this same kind of rigor may just be a contributing factor to why students can’t write as well today.
From the Ivy League to community colleges, read a classroom’s worth of essays and you’re bound to come across a student using “text speak” or overly casual vernacular in their academic writing. While these kinds of abbreviations and words might work in everyday conversation, they’re generally unacceptable in college level writing. The problem is that many students don’t understand that what works in speech or in a casual discussion doesn’t quite cut it in a college essay. Even worse, many are allowed to get by with these language blunders in their courses, both in high school and beyond. It doesn’t bode well for academic standards or for students who want to earn respect in the workplace.
Many colleges have done away with the basic freshman comp courses in lieu of courses in the social sciences that are writing-intensive. While writing intensive courses in the social sciences aren’t a bad idea in and of themselves (and many social science professors are great writers), they aren’t really a substitute for writing-focused courses that are designed to give incoming students rigorous foundation in writing. R.V. Young, a professor at North Carolina State, recalls that in 1970, students at the school were required to take a composition course spanning two semesters. During the course, students had to write 25 papers all of which were graded harshly by professors. These kinds of courses have largely disappeared in colleges nationwide and have been replaced with other hybrid courses, with few containing the same rigorous, focused attention on writing.
Before students can become great writers, they have to learn (at least) two basic things: the rules of good writing and how to think critically and creatively. Yet many education experts have pointed out that schools fail to adequately teach students either of those things in secondary school and beyond. Students are more often taught what to think, not how to think, and as a result often don’t understand how to expand on ideas, apply rules in a broader sense, or even begin to understand what constitutes great writing. Of course, there’s a line to walk between the structure and creativity that sometimes just doesn’t get through to students. One example? Students learn to format writing in forms that are rarely seen in the real world (how often do you see the five-paragraph essay?), causing them to have to unlearn what they’ve learned just to progress to the level of their college peers.
Why does it matter if today’s college grads aren’t great writers? It should matter to college students themselves, as those who enter the working world without writing skills, even those who aren’t working in a writing-centric profession, may find it harder to get a job or to perform the duties their employers require. More seriously, however, poor writing can have a negative effect on the economy. The National Committee on Writing estimates that poor writing costs businesses as much as $3.1 billion annually. If students are pouring tens of thousands into a college education, shouldn’t more than half graduate believing they’ve improved their writing skills? Shouldn’t employers be able to trust that students have basic skills in reading, writing, and mathematics if they hold a college degree? While ideally, the answer to both of those questions should be yes, the reality is that neither is a guarantee in today’s world.

Does “AP” stand for “Absolutely Pointless”?

My 12-year-old son began his first semester in junior high this year. In July, all of us parents were rounded up for a three-hour information seminar. We visited each of the “Pre-AP” teachers’ rooms,  a total of seven different potential course offerings. In every session, the message was the same: you enrolled your kid in ALL Pre-AP classes if your child isn’t a complete dummy. Pre-AP, it was (sometimes not) patiently explained, was necessary for your child so that he or she could take AP courses in high school, and then be eligible to skip introductory courses in college. The point, apparently, was to save us a little money and to (it was implied) feel a bit superior about our offspring.

The same teachers who teach Pre-AP classes also teach regular courses. Although our “information seminar” was supposed to tell us the difference between the two types of classes, virtually none  of the teachers even mentioned the regular classes. The Pre-AP was pushed so hard it made a parent feel like admitting your kid was as on par intellectually with the Honey Boo Boo clan for simply asking about the differences.

As the evening droned on and on, I began to wonder: Whatever happened to teaching students at the actual level they are at, intellectually, emotionally, and socially? I wondered too, as a college professor myself, if AP is pushed so heavily, why is it that I find my freshmen so unprepared for the rigors of a college course? This week, the Atlantic published an article by John Tierney, a retired professor and high school AP teacher. Like me, Tierney wondered the same thing.

So why this huge push into AP?  Probably the biggest reason is that the College Board, which sets the standards and publishes the AP curriculum, earns over half of its earnings from AP courses. Which might be all right with everyone if high schools truly were turning out enhanced and advanced learners. However, in Tierney’s experience, and my own, they are not doing any such thing.

Tierney investigated the many reasons for the failures of the AP programs, and some confusion about their promises. For example, while AP courses in high school may let a college freshman “opt out” of an introductory course, they often do not receive actual “college credit” for AP classes as expected. And when they do get to skip an intro class, many students find that their AP classes in high school do not remotely resemble the challenges of a true college class, and many wish they HAD taken the regular introductory college course.

Another valid argument is Tierney’s opposition to “open enrollment” for  AP classes.  This was the case in my son’s new school. There was no merit base.  No one was asked to join because of high scores in elementary school or a teacher’s recommendation. What we were basically told is that Pre-AP was “sink or swim.” Tierney argues that, “two thirds of the students taking my class each year did not belong there. And they dragged down the course for the students who did.”

And what of the kids who fail to swim? It’s pretty grim, according to Tierney. He says that those classes get ever more full as the years wear on and some kids just can’t hack it, but they are not given the strongest teachers. Those teachers, of course, are reserved for the AP program. A lot of these non-swimmers are minorities, who will now face even more obstacles to higher education.

Finally, and reinforcing what I have already seen in my own home, the push to cover so much material so fast leads to “rigid stultification — a kind of mindless genuflection to a prescribed plan of study that squelches creativity and free inquiry.” No wonder when I took my Freshmen out on a sunny day and we all did nothing but read Thoreau out loud to one another, they all looked stunned… then they slowly began to relax, smile, and enjoy the pleasures of learning. Sadly, high school teachers are not able to take their students down interesting paths of learning. After all… there’s a test coming up.


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