Friday, August 16, 2013

Top Ten: College Caveats

Academia and education is in the news as usual, though attention has shifted from the alleged and perennial lack of funding to the notion of a higher education bubble. There are too many schools, education is too expensive, students have too much debt, students don't learn anything, and so forth. There is credibility in these and other arguments, but I'd like to point out a few less obvious caveats. With them I hope not to dissuade prospective undergraduates, but rather inform them so they can make the best choice. More specifically, I want to emphasize what it is difficult or impossible to know before attending.

10. Professor/Advisor Availability

There's no guarantee the professor you want will be teaching the class you want when you want/need to take that class, even if it's been advertised that he will be teaching it. You may or may not be able to put off taking it and wait for him, and it may or may not be worth taking without him. He might be on leave teaching somewhere else, on sabbatical, or pulled to teach another class. The same goes for your advisor.

9. Course Availability

You never know whether they'll be sufficient enrollment for the course you want/need, a variable which will impact smaller programs to a greater extent. Alternatively, the class you want/need might be extremely popular and either you don't register in time or so many people register that the class is enlarged to its detriment.

8. Courses Differ From Syllabus

This is an appalling bait-and-switch. There isn't always oversight over whether professors teach what is on the syllabus. Sometimes they simply don't care, sometimes they're not prepared, sometimes they're teaching someone else's syllabus and they're unsure, but in any case, you don't know until the class starts. Worse, the class can vary considerably from the syllabus.

7. Quality of Materials

Some departments and professors use poor text books. It's as simple as that. Coffee table books? Zinn's People's History of the United States? Seen both.

More commonly, some teachers simply teach the book; there's no expertly crafted curriculum of selected sources. Is that what you need, want, and are paying for: a tour of a text book? On the other hand I've had classes with beautifully eclectic selections and custom lectures, painstakingly prepared.

6. Professor Quality

This is obvious but it varies wildly, although it's getting easier to check this in advance.

5. Size of the Core Curriculum

Most schools still have a central, core curriculum of courses everyone must take. It may be bigger than you want, especially if you're not pursuing a liberal arts degree, or smaller if you are. Worse, it might be so large that it prevents you from taking more classes in your major. There's a good chance these classes are beneath your ability, even if you find their topics to your liking. You may or may not be able to satisfy the requirement for the class by exemplary or AP level work in high school. Are you going to pay to re-learn what you already know?

4. Sensibility of the Major Curriculum

This is perhaps the most difficult variable for an applicant to decide because almost always, the applicant is a novice. How do you know what the curriculum should be? Should I be reading more Homer (that answer is always yes, by the way), or rhetoric? Did I read enough Chaucer as an English major?

Aside from that, do you judge it based on its reputation, job placement, published articles, the professors' credentials, the quality of the books, or what? Will it prepare you for the next step in your life, whether it be full-time employment or further education? Also, consider how long it will take you to get through the program in terms of cost and time, relative to the course load.

3. Scheduling

Another obvious point, but the other nine items of this list are all going to vary from semester to semester and you'll have to time everything to make it work.

2. A Plurality of  Bad Ideas

You're probably going to be surrounded by more bad ideas and bad people than ever before, and potentially thereafter.  As far as people go, some will be students and some working for the university. Regarding ideas, some will be political, some philosophical or theological, and others will be just plain odd.  Worst of all, and worse than those encountered outside of academia, these will appear to act with impunity.

1. The Next Best Thing

It's quite possible that the other nine variables on this list will align in such a way as to foil your plans. Does this school offer you a reasonable Plan B, or were all of your eggs in one basket? Is there a Plan B? Is it too late to transfer? Be prepared to make the best of a bad situation.

Good Luck!

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