In my last post, I urged new undergraduates to avoid some of the mistakes I made in my own undergraduate career. This post relates some of the strategies that served me well — takes, if you will –and should serve you well, too.
1. Study what you love. It sounds a bit trite, I know, but I really was one of those people who followed a dream. I had trouble settling on a major until I happened upon the English and Drama program at the University of Western Ontario where I was studying. By happy circumstance, I got to know some of the senior drama students and that year’s director-in-residence and knew I wanted to be one of them. Many people, no doubt, worried about what was going to become of me with such an artsy major, and my grandfather was recruited to gently urge me on the path towards high school teaching, but I knew that I was learning a lot and when the time came I would somehow end up in a career that let me do what I loved. And here I am. And no, being a professor is not like being a high school teacher, thankfully.
2. Find new, smart friends. In a comment on my previous post, a reader urged me to not to neglect the social aspect of university life, and I certainly agree that social interactions are a key part of the experience. But by “social interactions” I do not mean getting drunk and falling down a flight of stairs every weekend. A university undergraduate is one of the few people for whom it is not unforgivably obnoxious to question everyone about everything. Find people who want to talk about big ideas. Talk about religion, talk about politics. Talk about all the things that you won’t feel comfortable talking about when you are at an office cocktail party ten years later. Many of my ideas about ethics, government, law, and art took shape during raucous, impromptu debates with classmates, roommates, friends — even strangers. For those of you attending your small, local universities, try to find some friends that you weren’t friends with in high school — you’ll be amazed at what other people think.
3. Never underestimate the value of thirty minutes. My roommate and I had a regular TV schedule that had us watching one show from 7:00 to 8:00 and something else at 8:30 (kids, “TV” was a kind of internet that you couldn’t control). In the interval, I would go upstairs and do homework for half an hour. My roommate marveled at this, partly in admiration at my discipline, and partly in incredulity that I thought I could get anything worthwhile done in half an hour. In fact, you can get a lot done in half an hour. You can read a chapter of a textbook, proofread the draft of a short paper, organize your schedule for the coming week. And, in practice, an undergraduate often has a half an hour here and there between classes, before the bus comes, and so on. But I think a lot of people assume that if you only have half an hour, there’s no point in getting to work. Wrong. Find something you can do, and do it. An extra half an hour a day is an extra 84 hours in an academic year, not counting exam periods. That’s more time than all the classes in a full-year course.