A Professor’s Letter to First-Year College Students
Congratulations! You are embarking on a journey. The people and ideas you encounter and the experiences you have will define you for many years to come. The risks are great, but so are the potential rewards. Some of you have already undertaken great sacrifice to make it this far.
Many students succeed. Others fail academically and some – not necessarily those who fail academically – fail at life. As someone who primarily teaches college freshmen, I have seen what works. I have discerned some general principles to help you increase your odds for success, academically, vocationally, and personally.
Those of you who are my students, you are likely to hear parts of this from me in person. Enjoy this condensed version. Those of you who are not in my classroom, I hope you may benefit from these insights regardless. (And dear parents of my students, if you are listening in, this is a glimpse of what your children are in for.)
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Imagining a Plausible Future without Bees, Remembering them for Those to Come
There was a sweetness once: rich, pure, and mellow. It flowed golden and sticky. It could cool into a crystalline mass or dissolve in a warm drink. It was the sweetness to which all other sweetnesses compared. When prophets spoke of a land full of blessing, this was the flavor of that blessing. But now those who make it are gone.
Bees were marvelous creatures. As a child, I learned to fear them. They were insects slightly larger than flies and without any of flies’ ugliness. Like butterflies, they began as eggs and hatched, worm-like, only to cocoon and hatch again as winged adults; but unlike butterflies, bees had the semblance of ferocity and toughness. They could soar and hover, humming ominously as they went. They could impale those they deemed threats, for each possessed a sharp barb behind her legs. One sting could ache and swell or even kill, for an unlucky, vulnerable few. Even though a stinging bee would lose her own life, she would do so gladly in order to protect her community, for bees were creatures of service and self-sacrifice.
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LinkedIn Strategies for Academics
For business professionals, there is one premier place online to post one’s resume and to look for jobs: LinkedIn. Indeed, those are the primary purposes of the professional social networking site. With our lengthy CVs and specialized job listings elsewhere, we academics have no need for such services. Nonetheless, both junior and established scholars have compelling reasons to use LinkedIn.
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The New Agenda is a non-profit advocating on behalf of women in the workplace. I recently wrote my reflections on attending one of their networking lunches, shared as a guest blog post on their website here.
Starbucks as Religion
“Have you noticed the fervor of some of our customers?” I asked, mopping the floor in my green apron with a freshly minted master’s degree in theology. “It’s like drinking coffee from here is their religion.”
“We’ve got tradition, community, and ritual,” replied a fellow barista and Ph.D. candidate in English literature. “It fits.”
To this, I would add an explicit system of ethics, focused on care for all, and implicit belief system: the Cult of the Self.
The purpose of this essay is not to make the case that we can find religion and religion-like phenomena everywhere. To do so would be to risk diluting the term “religion” to the point of meaninglessness. Rather, the significance of this exercise is to demonstrate the potential connection between consumption and the transcendent, both real and illusory. What and how we drink forms part of the self we present to the world, how we perceive ourselves, and, in complex ways, who we truly are. You belong to what your worship, so drink with care.
The traditions of Starbucks are myriad. The stores mark the changing of the seasons. Individual stores trace their lineage nationally back to the mother store and locally back to whichever store came first. Old timers tell of the legend of chantico and the return of orange mocha Frappuccino. Some recall the evolution of the siren, which some hail as a neo-pagan deity, but which most recognize as merely a whimsical mythological creature capturing the spirit of fun and adventure, the antithesis of corporate America. Indeed, there is a distinctly countercultural strain in Starbucks’ corporate culture, though some anti-establishment types might see this as a veneer masking corporate hypocrisy. But I digress.
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How a Year as a Barista Helped – and Hindered – my Teaching
When I feel overwhelmed by a growing pile of papers to grade, I remember once having a growing list of lattes to make, and I smile. It has been nearly six years since I was a barista, but that experience left an indelible impression on me and how I relate to others. I have now spent more time as a college-level educator than I did in the food service industry – but just barely. While wearing a coffee-stained apron, I honed the ability to empathize and listen unjudgmentally; and this has been a priceless asset. But, at the same time, I recognize that the sales tactic of catering to absurd requests does not serve students well.
Few things are more important to teaching than listening. Especially in discussion-based courses, which are all that I currently teach, I know that I must listen and respond thoughtfully to students in order for the conversation to move forward. I have long been frustrated with colleagues who ask an open-ended question and will not accept anything but one particular, narrow answer, for which they have been fishing. By adopting the stance of welcoming any answer as a contribution, no matter how tangentially related to what is correct in the strict sense of the word, I am able to encourage students to participate, even as I engage with them intellectually. Any answer is better than no answer. There is no such thing as a stupid question – and, at least for the purposes of class discussion, I do not believe stupid questions exist.
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Why Conservatives Should Embrace the Liberal Arts
Whether or not I am a conservative is irrelevant. In economic, religious, and political terms, there is a conservative argument to be made for the liberal arts and I am going to make it.
Just as fiscal, small-government conservatives hope, the liberal arts accommodate the variability of the free market. Just as religious conservatives of various stripes desire, the liberal arts empower individuals to care for their neighbors. And just as political conservatives profess, the liberal arts have the potential to produce the ruggedly independent citizens our nation needs.
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Traditional American Higher Education Must Transform or Perish… But There is Hope
Some are sounding the death knells of traditional undergraduate education in the U.S. Nathan Harden of The American Interest writes: “If a faster, cheaper way of sharing information emerges, history shows us that it will quickly supplant what came before. People will not continue to pay tens of thousands of dollars for what technology allows them to get for free.” Harden further asserts that Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs) will soon render traditional education “obsolete.” If they can provide education cheaper and more convenient, how couldn’t they?
Make no mistake. MOOCs represent an incredible opportunity. Higher education has become unsustainably expensive for the average middle class student. MOOCs will hopefully expand access to education and drive down costs. As Harvard President Drew Gilpin Faust points out, they are a grand experiment, with opportunities for professors to rethink how they approach education, including education in the classroom (see Maria Bartiromo’s interview with her on CNBC).
But Harden and likeminded harbingers of the end-of-education-as-we-know-it risk conflating education with information. Ironically, in his above-cited article, Harden himself presents the crux of the matter without integrating it into his argument: “Just as information is not the same as knowledge, and auto-access is not necessarily auto-didactics, so taking a bunch of random courses does not a coherent university education make.”
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Helping our Students Unplug so They Can Upgrade their Minds and Renew their Humanity
The average American high school or college student is adept at using technology. However, many seem unable to refrain from using technology. As educators, it is our duty to provide our students with a basic set of skills: critical thinking; clear communication, both in print and in speech; and careful reading and processing of information, discerning its validity. In the process, we should cultivate their character, that they may develop greater wisdom, moral integrity, patience, empathy, and compassion in a world with a shortage of these virtues.
While technology does provide some compelling avenues for us to train students’ core intellectual skills, it does virtually nothing to enhance character development. We must encourage our students to unplug, so that they can upgrade their minds and renew their humanity. We should not discard technology; it provides useful tools. But we must teach our students that it is not the only tool and not always the best.
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There is no substitute for individual meetings with students. This semester I teach three sections of an all-freshmen introductory philosophy/theology course. My students wrote passable papers last year, when I taught the course under similar circumstances , but I realized that most of them consistently made the same mistakes: lack of cohesion; a tendency to summarize the texts rather than use them to illustrate points in their own arguments (something which I am especially keen to point out, knowing that I, too, struggle with this in my own writing); and, generally, lack of a clear and well-structured plan.
This semester, I retained the same the final paper assignment. My standards of grading have not lessened. I have the same high expectations for the finished product; but I have taken preventative measures for helping the students meet them. I told them the common pitfalls, both in print and as a class; I required them to produce an outline and draft of their thesis statement a week in advance of the paper’s deadline; and I required each of them to meet with me in person to discuss his or her outline.
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