Sunday, October 12, 2014

Tiffany's Top Ten: Study Advice Part 2

My friend Tiffany is an English Professor at a great school (bias alert - I have a degree from there).  She is the author of the recent book "The Future of the Word", which I am half way through and loving.  I e-mailed her to get her thoughts on my 10 study tip thoughts, and she generated her own.  I just decided to run it as its own post.  Also, I may have riffed once or twice in footnotes:

When I think about undergraduate experience, the thoughts are really much different than about grad school or beyond.  Here are some random thoughts from a teacher of undergrads and from my various regrets, etc.

1. Stay at school for the whole four years. 

If there's ANY WAY, don't fast track it. Gotta have time for the discoveries that happen when you take the courses you don't think you'll like, etc. etc.

2. BUY IN. 

If you can, at all possible, try to get at the nerdiness and geek out about whatever course or thing you’re doing--to not think of something as for a grade, but for as much as possible to give in to it on ITs terms, not yours. 

Example:  if you actually thought of taking the foreign language as a chance to learn the language rather than get a particular grade or fulfill a requirement--if you decided that yes, the love of the Trinity inheres in the magical translatability of the gospel and in the love across cultures, and that therefore, you will learn a LANGUAGE, not a textbook, then you would perhaps consider the following:  try church in the language; do some geeky conversation table in the community at the local library; read Bible in both languages; radically, publicly, and awkwardly practice it, etc. etc.  Do extra drill and practice, even try starting to write or worship in the language--not to get an A in Spanish 103, but to find the glory of the Lord in the multiplicity of languages, etc. etc.  And that metaphor applies across disciplines, I think.

3.  Show your buy in during class in the following ways: 

(1) If you can nod sincerely (not nod off) during class, DO IT.[1]  Teachers teach better when they feel the buy in. Indeed, sometimes I feel like I’m giving myself totally to the people who nod or show buy in, trying to teach specially for them

(2) If you can, visit office hours at least twice a term per class.  It helps YOUR buy in and, (forgive this vulgarity) I think people who visit office hours get better grades than they would have without (basically, the teacher, hearing your story, begins to BUY IN to you even more than they already do or would). 

4.  If you get stuck, MOVE YOUR BODY. 

I have heard countless stories about people trying to stick it out, stick it out, sit there until they crumble into dust in order to study, but often, exercise of a kind works out a problem, opens you for revelations that you won’t get if you try to just brain power through it. 

Poet friends tell me of, after a fruitless day of trying to power through, having even the WALK TO THE CAR be enough to open them to revelation.  One friend had to stop on the side walk and get out paper and pad right there on the concrete because the solution to the structural problem had, as it were, sort of showed up without him, as soon as he moved.

5. That whole getting off the media thing is for reals.

Serious. Trade Facebook (or whatever sites you go to, I know, Facebook is for grammas now) passwords with a friend, then change your friend’s password (and vice versa) for a week.  Use or other browser aids to keep you from that terrible track. 

6. Consider the talks and plays and concerts that are available in your department and across disciplines on campus to be PART of your education and budget in time to see the experts (even if you haven’t heard of them) that your professors spend great amounts of time and institutional (and sometimes personal!) money to bring in. 

7.  Try to remember that there are two ways that God has given us to serve him, married and single, and that both are good ways. 

Try very hard to remember that.  I wish I would have thought about the first way much less during college.  I think I would have been able to do more good work and do better work, if I didn’t assume that my whole life was pointing toward marriage (ok, sex. Mostly sex, and because I’m sort of a Christian traditionalist, marriage.). 

8.  Consider that colleges invent lists of requirements in and across disciplines for a reason and don’t think you’re too good to benefit from the wisdom of those who put together those lists. 

I bucked this SO SO many times—in undergrad, for instance, I took “Theology and Oxford Christian Writers” to fulfill the theology course requirement for general education—basically so I could read as much Dorothy L. Sayers and C.S. Lewis as I wanted to.  I screwed myself out of systematic theology at a Christian college because I thought I was too good for the required course.  HUGE mistake.  Huge. 

And not just for theological reasons—it works in other disciplines too. In grad school, I made my own prelims reading list—another disaster that I’m still paying for. Oh, and by “don’t think you’re too good to benefit,” I mean both that you should take the courses that are required, AND that you should BUY IN, rather than doing the minimum possible.[2] 

9. Don’t underestimate the extent to which all disciplines fundamentally rely on writing.[3]

Learn, in college, not just how to write, as if it were a universal, but rather learn how to LEARN how to write in different fields:  by acquiring subject matter knowledge, knowledge of the genres that writers in the field tackle, knowledge of writing process, rhetorical knowledge, and knowledge of the discourse communities in which you’ll be writing.

10. Start every single day reminding yourself practically and tangibly (on paper, on your knees, in song, out loud) some version of John 15’s assertion that without Christ, you can do nothing.

Footnotes by stanford

[1] This also works during Collegelife talks.  Seriously.  Teacher-learner energy is a feedback loop.  And I am more motivated to put in the extra time to prepare the next one if i had the sense that the last one mattered to someone.
[2] I also have regrets with respect to this.  I endured modern physics.  In retrospect, it should have been my favorite class.  15 years later I devour all the modern physics I can – it is one of my 4 or 5 favorite topics (which is saying something given the length of that list).  But then it didn’t seem sufficiently practical to warrant my attention at the time.  I wish I had asked “why is this required and how could it capture my imagination.” I had a similar experience with at least 3 other classes in undergrad.
[3] As a full fledged STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Math) nerd…let me say…Yes!!!  STEM is not exempt from this advice.  It took me 10 years to learn the technical writing skills I should have picked up in an undergrad class.  Every profession writes.  And also, for some of us, writing is a mode of thinking.

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