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…and a very fast three years they’ll be. Keeping that in mind, this post is meant to contain some advice for you all on how best to take advantage of the time you have left here at Sweet Briar. I’ve learned a lot from observing and (occasionally) teaching this class, not only about how to be a better teacher, but also about you all as students. And while I generally only have good things to say about you all, I also have some advice to offer. It isn’t so much about changing what you don’t do well, but about becoming even better. Essentially, I’m pooling together what I’ve observed about your class, as well as what I’ve learned from my own experiences here, in an effort to give you something useful as you move forward in your undergraduate careers.

I considered writing this as paragraphs of text–somewhat like an essay–but I really do love bullets, so I decided to go with those instead. It makes the text look more digestible, and since I don’t know yet how much I’m going to write, I thought it wouldn’t hurt to take some precautions.

  • Listen, form an opinion, defend it, and don’t be afraid to change it. The beauty of classes at SBC is that they are, for the most part, discussion-based, which means that they are only as good as you make them. It also means that having opinions is certainly welcome, if not expected. However, the best discussions are those based on informed opinions. We all know what it’s like to be in class with blindly uninformed opinions being tossed around, and, thankfully, this was not one of them. So, after listening to different viewpoints and assessing them, expect the teacher–or another student–to challenge it. It doesn’t mean you’re wrong, and it doesn’t mean you have to change your opinion (yet). But it does ask you to reconsider what you believe and either strengthen your argument, or alter it. There’s no shame in changing your mind if you’re doing it as a result of your own conviction.
  • Never, never, never say, “I don’t know,” especially after you’ve said something that clearly indicates otherwise. This was one of the best pieces of advice I ever got from a psychology class. If you pay attention to any discussion in class, you’ll notice that most students, at one point or another in the discussion, say something smart and then falter at the end, resorting to a mumbled and hardly audible, “I don’t know.” They’ve basically just said, “I don’t know what I’m talking about, so please disregard everything I’m saying.” Truth is, you all are way smarter than that. We don’t know everything, and, especially in literature, we know very little with certainty. But that’s the whole point of a discussion. It’s not to reaffirm our uncertainty in knowledge, but to assert what we do think and discuss its validity. There’s no use reminding others and ourselves that nothing is certain and that we’re not even sure of what we think we know. Say what you think and own it. Don’t ever belittle your own thoughts or ideas.
  • Every presentation is a chance to take command of the class. Don’t let it go to waste. Presentations are one of those great opportunities to really push yourself with your research and then show everyone–teach everyone–about what you’ve been working so hard to do. As one of my professors said, “Own the space.” Just because the class discussions tend to be informal, doesn’t mean that your presentations have to be. Obviously, you don’t need to come in wearing a suit, but it’s worth running through your presentation at least once, even in your head, before the day of your presentation. It makes a world of difference in how confident you are and appear, and how well you transition from slide to slide. It’s like telling a story. The sentences you say should flow naturally as you progress to the next slide. Your ideas should be logically connected, and if they’re not, your audience is likely to notice. Also, presentations are a chance for you take control of the class, so don’t waste it. There is no such thing as being too prepared, or having too much information, or pushing yourself too hard. Rest assured: if you don’t push yourself before the presentation, not a single professor will hesitate to do so in front of the class. Your choice.
  • Say what you’re thinking, even if you’re not sure it’s a good idea, and recognize when you’ve said enough. I never used to talk in class. Seriously. Never. It wasn’t until I took PSYC 302 (Developmental Psychology II…highly recommended), where 25% of my grade was participation-based, that I felt the need to speak up. There was no way I was letting my silence get in the way of my grades. I made it a rule to say at least two “smart” things in class a day. Essentially, I figured if I wasn’t going to speak as much, I should at least make the things I say count. The amazing thing was, the more I talked, the more exciting the class became, the more I learned, and the more I wanted to say. It sounds cliché, but I swear, it’s true. Eventually, even after meeting my quota for the day, I would have more things to say, and I wouldn’t hesitate to say them. That class, single-handedly, turned me from a student who never spoke to the student who spoke just enough without dominating a class. For the students on the other side of the spectrum, realize that just as there are people who always have something to say right away, there are those who have things to say, but take longer building up to them. Trust me, I used to be one of those people. It’s important to recognize that just because someone doesn’t speak up right away, it doesn’t mean they don’t have anything to say. It’s a tough balancing act–knowing when to speak and when to let others speak–but it’s much easier when you’re more aware of and sensitive to it.
  • Make connections across the disciplines. As a future teacher, this is where I get most excited. Our classes are divided into departments, but there are an infinite number of connections you can make across them. Remember that not everyone has taken the same classes as you, so the more information you can bring to the table from other classes, the better. You’ll be amazed at the connections you can make, and at the discussions you can help spark. Even if the connection is incomplete, offer it to the class with the hope that someone else can help fill in the missing link.
  • Take advantage of office hours. I won’t belabor this point, but your professors are amazingly intelligent. No exaggeration. Learn as much from them as you possibly can.

Truth be told, I could probably come up with more points if you wanted me to. And, while  some of these points may not apply to you, believe me: I thought of every single one of you when I wrote this, so there is at least something on here that I hope you’ll take with you after this class. These next three years will fly by. With one year already (almost) under your belt, you can probably imagine that the next three will be some of the most amazing years you’ll ever have. Make the most of them. I wish you all the very best these years have to offer you, and hope to see you around campus next fall.

Maria

2 Responses to “One Year Down, Three More To Go…”

  1. joerger15 says:

    Thank you for the wonderful advice, Maria. I am guilty of saying, “I don’t know” and I am now going to try to be conscious of it. It’s true, saying it, makes you seem less confident and how are people going to trust you or agree with you, if you “don’t know” ?

    • Maria says:

      I’m glad you liked the advice, Verena. I would have never noticed the tendency for students to add “I don’t know” to the end of nearly everything they say if my psychology professor hadn’t pointed it out. It was such a good piece of advice at the time, and I thought it’d be useful to pass along. And once you realize it, it’s impossible not to notice it every single time it happens!