By Owen Henry
I am done. Graduation is just around the corner, I’ve finished all of my Honors work, and all I have left to do is finish out writing a few articles to complete the totality of my Oberlin career. I am, of course, thrilled to be finally leaving to start my real life (I hope). But with the departure of myself and my fellow seniors, you, my fellow students, are going to be losing all of our collective experience navigating the Oberlin system. We’ve done it all before. We know all the ins and outs, the tricks to the trade, and before I left I wanted to make sure you knew a few of them. After much consultation with fellow seniors, I’ve come up with a list of things you should probably know that will help you make the most of your time here. Because the list is a long one, I’m going to deliver it to you in spurts.
For the first section of this advice collection, I wanted to focus on academics. So here it is: My Advice, Pt. 1.
1. Your professors know when you’re dicking around on computers in class, and they resent you for it.
The laws of physics appear to be on your side when you pull up Facebook halfway through a boring 9am lecture. “Certainly,” you say, “my Professor cannot see through my screen! I can procrastinate in perpetuity!”
But here’s the thing: they don’t have to see your screen. They can tell simply by the fact that once you start surfing the web, your eyes become glued to your computer screen and never leave it. They can hear you typing things when there’s nothing to be taking notes on. And they can DEFINITELY see when you start smirking at funny cat pictures.
Most professors don’t feel like disrupting their own lessons to call students out. A few will. Those that really care will make an example of you if they catch you, and even if they don’t make a huge deal out of it, they can choose to drop your participation grade. They’ll also likely be less sympathetic when you show up at their office complaining that you don’t understand the material.
Moral of the story: if you’re going to dick around on your computer, at least be sure to also show your professor you’re paying attention. Raise your hand, ask questions, participate, make eye contact, whatever it takes. Your professors will appreciate it, and will be more likely to want to help you if you run into trouble.
2. Deans are magical creatures who can fix all your problems.
Probably the most under-utilized resource at the College are the class deans. These are people who are specifically appointed to work for the good and benefit of the students in their charge, but most people fail to even realize they exist until they’re in trouble in some way. But the deans are a resource that are here for you to use. They know the ins and outs of the administration, and know how to navigate official channels to solve problems. They can advocate on your behalf with your professors if you’re having trouble, and can help point you to campus resources that will help. If at ANY point in your Oberlin career you’re having a problem that seems insurmountable, or just need someone knowledgable to talk to, find out who your class dean is and pay them a visit. I guarantee you the outcome will be constructive.
3. Don’t be afraid to take a class Pass/No Pass.
The basic idea of a liberal arts college is that we’re supposed to take a bunch of courses in not only our major but also in a wide variety of unrelated subjects. For those of you who are proficient at everything and can vomit up A+ work for any subject at a whim, this is not so much of a concern (also I hate you). But for the rest of us lowly human beings, this means that we’re going to have to take classes we’re probably not going to do as well in. Furthermore, you can’t always take only classes that you know you’ll ace – sometimes you really want to get out of the box and try something different or outside your subject area.
For situations in which you’re terrified by the thought of getting a C or worse on your transcript, the Pass/No Pass option is the way to go. Although it alters the weight of the other grades in your GPA, it takes the pressure off and gives you the breathing space you need to tackle difficult courses without worrying about how a C will look on your transcript.
And the best part about P/NP? The deadline comes several weeks AFTER course enrollment ends, so you have time to gauge how difficult the class will be before you decide.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THIS SYSTEM. IT WILL SAVE YOUR GPA.
4. Beware of new classes/professors
It is a verifiable fact that the first time a class is taught, or the first time a professor teaches at Oberlin, things are going to go one of two ways: either the workload will be a joke and you’ll breeze through, or (more likely) the teacher will overestimate the amount of time you have to spend on their class and will drop so many assignments and readings on you that you’ll wish a bookshelf in Mudd would just fall over and crush you. This is especially true if the professor is new to the College and hasn’t yet gotten tenure – they’re under the gun to prove themselves to be superior educators, worthy of long-term employment.
Good college courses are like good recipes for casserole. It takes time to balance the ingredients, and the first few batches can end up coming out a little burnt or tasting like too much paprika. If you really want to take a course that’s new, try and make sure it’s with a professor who’s been teaching at the College for awhile – they’ll have more experience coming up with balanced lesson plans that won’t overload you with work.
If you simply MUST take a new course with a new professor, check out the syllabus. If it looks overly developed, has a lot of really long sentences, and overall looks like a graduate dissertation, you had better either run for the hills or clear out your schedule because it’s going to be a whole lot of work. Also, in my experience, classes that assign several hundred pages of reading a week should be taken sparingly, if at all, so watch yourselves.
That’s all I have for you now. Stay tuned for the next installment!