Advice to Students
The Junior's Dilemma
Here is the institution as its junior members first encounter it: the institution from below. The chief conflict it presents is the one between a job and a career. Scholars are engaged in an open dialogue with the past, where conclusions are subject to reconsideration. Institutions are encounters with present realities, where decisions are final. The enterprise of acquiring knowledge is one of steady cumulation, but the enterprise of passing on knowledge is one of perpetual starting over. One's research habits don't always translate well into these applied situations. Below we give some suggestions for the scholar's first steps in classroom cogency and institutional citizenship: the part of life that is lived out of an office.
- 65. The sovereign quality of the teacher is to know where the student is starting out from; to remember what it was like not to know what you know.
- 66. Students like to know where they are headed for. Tell them. If you are writing the textbook as you go along, give them an outline. Put a goal statement at the end of the outline. The goal statement is a promise. Be sure the promise gets kept. Even if you have to stay up late, every night of the term.
- 67. Course design. Learning cannot be compressed into too short a space. There is a lag of assimilation before one fact or vocabulary item is firmly enough possessed to have another fact or vocabulary item piled on top of it. The mind operates only with familiar information, and new information takes time to become familiar. If you want to convey more in a given time, enrichment is better than acceleration.
- 68. As musicians are acutely aware, the highest teaching is to know when to pass the student along to another teacher, another course, another advisor, another major. The indigo dye comes from the indigo plant, but the dye is bluer than the plant (Sywndz 1).
- 69. Don't give too much to teaching. At the same time, allow room for your own work of learning to teach. Your first effort should be manageable for yourself. Academe is littered with the ruins of passionate but unsustainable experiments in teaching. Don't litter.
- 70. Don't design a course in anger. Some of the things you disliked as a student were good for you: replicate them. Your responsibility is to facilitate student progress: don't replicate them sadistically. The rigors of learning are rigorous enough.
- 71. The character of a class depends on its size. You can't have a tutorial for more than four, a seminar for more than eight, or an interactive course for more than sixteen. The ideal is half the maximum. Lectures without microphone (in a classroom) are different from lectures with microphone (in an auditorium). Observe others, so that the first invitation to talk in another mode won't require you to improvise in that mode. Experience is the best teacher. Other people's experience is the least embarrassing teacher.
- 72. Don't use grades as a private language. Make your own judgements, but communicate those judgements to others in a form that others will recognize. Don't say, "For me, B is the highest possible grade." In case it comes up, and it often does come up, the intuitive meanings of the standard grades are as follows.
- A: Above the expected level for the course; exceptional. (Or, if it means the student is enrolled in a too easy course, reprehensible).
- B: Not perfect, but fully adequate as preparation for the next higher course in the standard sequence. The normal good performance.
- C: OK, but doubtful as a basis for more advanced work. The "gentleman's C" is a decent effort by a student uncommitted to the subject. The student should consult an advisor before enrolling in a higher level course in that sequence, but there is no problem with a course in another subject, at the same level.
- D: Deficient. May count as graduation credit, as a proof of exposure to the subject, but it is a warning sign that the student may not be capable of handling work at this level.
- F: Failing, the reprehensible version of the preceding. No adequate effort, and no basis for a performance estimate. No credit toward graduation. An occasion for a serious discussion about whether this student should remain in this school. (Selective admissions are what make "grading on the curve" ridiculous. If your student performance chart shows a two-tailed normal distribution curve, your Admissions Office needs restaffing).
- 73. If you got help from someone in your own student days, here is where you pay it back. If you didn't, here is where you start a better tradition.
- 74. Keep a student contact posibility open, and be sure students know it is open. A posted office hour, a habit of lunching at a certain table in the cafeteria, whatever.
- 75. Know your field. If you hear yourself making suggestions based on knowledge of persons five years ago, or of institutions ten years ago, or of disciplines twenty years ago, you need to get out more often. Advising needs preparation. Ill-prepared advising, however well-meant, is an injury to the advisee.
- 76. The best advice, and the most efficient, and the only kind that works outside of office hours, is to be an example of the thing you recommend.
- 77. Don't try to reform institutions. You aren't well placed for it, you aren't being paid for it, it isn't practical, you haven't the time. If you can't bear the present institution, find another. If you do find another, don't expect much from it. Institutions are more or less alike. Switching may solve some problem that is annoying you at the moment. And other problems, whose solution you had taken for granted, may appear.
- 78. If something can be done, find out who knows how to get it done. Often it is a secretary. Cultivate secretaries, but remember that their loyalty is to their boss. They don't have rights of preference.
- 79. Keep your word. Be credible alike to friend and enemy. Given time, anyone can do things; the professional is the one who can dependably do things, on time and to spec. Be professional.
- 80. Time management is mind management. Don't do things twice. Answer the letter when you open it, not eight days letter, from the reply you mentally composed when you opened it, but now you can't find the letter and don't know where to send the reply. When you put something down, put it where it will go. Bunch errands, but not so much that some of them are overdue when you do the bunch. Check your deadlines every week, and don't get the habit of working up to deadline. Try "deadline minus five."
- 81. The bad thing about teaching is that success in it doesn't transfer to your next job. Make a 2-hour spot each day (5 pages per week; a book in 15 months) where nothing else but writing can happen, or writing won't happen. Don't scant your students, but also, don't envenom yourself.
- 82. Book reviews don't count for tenure, and they can offer an uncomfortable choice between honesty and friendship. Instead, take a weekend off for a short article inspired by some book you have read. Similarly, be wary of invitations to edit special issues of journals. It's too much work for the credit, and it puts you at the mercy of other people's inefficiency. You can practice editing just as well on your own stuff.
- 83. If your research plan is grantable, write it up for a foundation. Know the foundation's preferences. Count backward from them, and see if you meet your idea coming the other way. If not, try another. Another foundation, not another plan.
- 84. Don't count on a favorable reply to a grant application. Don't wait for the reply, whatever it may be. Don't surrender the initiative to some committee. Start the work now. Let the letter of acceptance, when it hits your mailbox, find you running; your final report will look better. Let the next application, when it hits the desk of another foundation and its overlapping review board members, find your work further along than last time; your chances will be better. Don't slack; don't sulk.
Collaborating and Its Converse
- 85. The skills of collaborators should not wholly contrast, lest there be no common ground for talking. They should not wholly coincide, lest there be no reason for talking. There should be variety of contribution in even the most like-minded collaboration (Neyman and Pearson).
- 86. If you embark on a joint development, agree in advance on credit sharing and profit sharing. Nothing tests collaborations like the success of collaborations (Courant and Robbins).
- 87. Accept the fact that not all associates at one level will still be associates at the next level. Alliances have their term. Colleagues diverge. Friends may be offput by the success of friends (Analects 9:30).
- 88. Don't appropriate others' work. But also, don't invite theft. If you are well into the follow-up book the morning after you finish your thesis, you will have fewer worries about somebody else ripping off your thesis. So also down the line. The best disputes are not those you win, but those you keep from happening (Analects 12:13).
Collegiality and Its Complement
- 89. Collegiality is rare in the humanities, which has an underlying culture of opposition. Your strongest sense of colleagueship may come in the context of a shared departmental resistance to something administrative, or something in another department. Other seeming alignments are liable to shift. Be ready for them to do so.
- 90. Argue points, not people. State your position in such a way that the other person retains a psychologically viable option of agreeing with you. State your position in such a way that you yourself retain a psychologically viable option of coming to agree with the other person. Whatever the other person may thing, an argument is properly a collaboration in discovery.
- 91. It's easy to disagree on paper. Malice in person is harder to handle. If it happens to you, don't get shook. Cultivate an equilibrium face. Cultivate equilibrium behind the face.
- 92. The most important people in an argument are those who are watching it. You may fail to persuade opposing counsel, but you should at least aim to sell the jury.
- 93. Rather than learn the ropes when a senior colleague defaults to you at the last minute in arranging a large conference, organize your own small one. You will find out just as well where things are, and if you mess up, fewer people will be mad at you. The maximum number who can talk around a table without amplification is 24. Keeping your list to 12 will simplify the budget, and your life generally.
- 94. Academics talk in 50-minute modules. If you specify a different time limit for papers, translate it into pages. It takes 3 minutes to read 1 page. The sciences have found that 10 minutes (a little over 3 pages) is a good presentation module. There comes a point where an argument can't be followed by ear. At that point, questions should intervene. The limit of 4 pages decreed by the French Academy of Sciences in 1835 wasn't just a device to exclude Cauchy's 300-page memoirs. It recognized a fact of nature.
- 95. As moderator, don't be arbitrary, but don't be invisible. Do intervene in an overlong presentation, in the interest of the allotment for other presentations. Remember that fairness is the one universally accepted virtue. Remember too that sentiment is the one universally applauded exception to virtue. Don't intrude when something seizes the attention or the affection of the group, or when animated discussion overruns the time officially available for it. If you get animation, give it scope. Of course, if you had posted the papers in advance, your life (and everybody else's) would be easier now.
- 96. Arrange for a quality dinner. Intellect is well enough in its way, but when all is said and done, most scholars go to conferences for the food. If there is too much Coke and not enough Sprite on the snack tray, your scholarly reputation will suffer.
Some larger aspects of intellectual citizenship are discussed in The Manager's Eye:
12 Aug 2002 / Contact The Project / Exit to Advice Page