New Semester, Old Complaints

A new semester is upon us. Classes have begun, and I’m getting back into the swing of things. So, naturally, it’s time for me to gripe about the state of the academy.

A few days ago I ran into a friend’s boyfriend who is starting his undergraduate degree as an adult student. As we chatted, he lamented that he had ordered a book too late for a class, and would not have it in time for the first reading assignment. “Have you checked the library?” I asked. He looked flabbergasted. The idea, which seemed so second nature to me at this point, had simply not occurred to him- that the textbook for a class would be in the school library was completely outside of his frame of reference.

This got me thinking. I remember how lost I felt when I started grad school. I am lucky enough to be part of a department that is incredibly supportive and helpful, and it still took me at least two semesters to feel like I had the slightest inkling of what was going on.

I recall similarly feeling pretty overwhelmed when I started my undergraduate education. However, I was one of those privileged students who begins college right out of high school, so I at least wasn’t out of practice when it came to doing my homework, etc. My first year was still pretty rough (especially when you add “struggles with mental illness” to the standard adjusting to college life). I imagine it must be so much tougher to go to college as an adult.

The professor I T.A. for at UNCC spends an entire class period during the first week of her LBST (Liberal Studies) classes going over “the freshman myth” (or, the idea most incoming first year students have that college will be no different from high school, and therefore they will not have to change their study habits). She additionally teaches them how to take notes, how to listen to lectures, and how to write an argumentative essay. I have never encountered another professor who does this for any class.

To be fair, incoming freshman at UNCC have, as a whole, distinctly different backgrounds from those at UNC, where I did my undergrad. While there it could be assumed that most of them had already gone through the rite-of-passage of writing five paragraph essays, the same cannot be assumed for UNCC- which is one reason why I love this school, while at the same time am profoundly frustrated as a T.A. Many students are the first in their family to attempt higher education, and most are working and taking classes simultaneously. Plenty are coming back to school as adults.

Clearly the adjustment to college is hard. And clearly many don’t know how to ask for help, or even that they can ask. So why don’t more professors these basic introductions to academic expectations when teaching classes filled with first year college students?  

I think part of the reason is that they- we- forget what it was like when we were first starting. I know that I have to make myself remember how disoriented and lost I was when I started grad school, and that was only two years ago. Imagine how hard it must be to recall these feelings of anxiety and confusion when it has been more like fifteen, twenty, or even thirty years.

I think that I need to make more of a conscious effort to remember these feelings. Instead of getting frustrated with students for now automatically knowing how the academy works, I should try to be compassionate and patient. After all, I only barely know what I’m doing- and it wasn’t so long ago I was in their shoes.

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