Thursday, August 22, 2013

Getting the Most out of your Tuition at UT Tyler

On August 15th, Daniel Hopkins, a political scientist and professor at Georgetown University, wrote a piece called “So You Are Starting Your First Year at a Research University…” on The Monkey Cage political science blog.  Hopkins discusses some simple tips for new undergraduate students as they enter into the world of higher education.  The post targets students who are enrolling in research universities, and while UT Tyler technically does not carry this label, the ideas he shares are universal for all new college students.

1) Familiarize yourself with the course catalog 

A few things will occur when you begin to explore your academic interests in a collegiate setting.  Most students enter their first year with the intention of taking classes choosing a major that follows suit with your high school interests.   For example, I was heavily interested in politics and debate in high school, so I assumed that Political Science and Speech Communication were the optimal choices for my majors.  Students who focused on sports and athletic training in high school may believe that Kinesiology or Nursing would be the right path to take.  These decisions are not necessarily wrong, but supplementing them with further research gives the student a better understanding of what their new academic institution has to offer.
Hopkins suggests students to take ample time in reading their course catalog, to get a better understanding of the organization of their particular fields.  No student comes into an academic institution knowing fully of the intricacies of their prospective programs, and having an optimal understanding of how these fields function within their college will push them farther with their academic ambitions.  Hopkins also notes that investigating other fields, particularly those that the student knows the least about, allows the student to learn about the different disciplinary toolkits for improving intellectual process.  He says, “You might really like a subject like European history, but also find that the tools you want to use to make sense of that history are actually those of an anthropologist.  Or a computer scientist.  Or an economist.”

2) Explore different models of academic research      

There is a paragraph in the article I find to be spot on with his overall message:

“In that is also a thought about picking classes, to the extent that first-year requirements leave room for choice.  Good classes convey facts, sure.  But they also convey ways of thinking and ways of learning.  More than the specific facts, it is those ways of thinking and learning that you are likely to retain years later.  So if the instructor of a course thinks about problems in a novel or compelling way, give the course a shot—even if you never imagined taking a class on pre-modern Chinese diets.”

In high school, the model of learning that takes primacy is one that conveys facts onto students that then transfer over to standardized tests and report cards.  The good college classes, as Hopkins says, will use a fact-based learning system, students utilize those facts in context with research papers, final exams, and more standardized tests.  Hopkins is correct regarding what sticks with the students: the methods of research and understanding a certain field of study.  It is not always just about the facts in a vacuum, but rather, how professors and students approach those facts and the way they frame them in a broader academic sense.  Keep this in mind when you choose your major-specific courses.  Even if the targeted content does not peak your interest, the method of evaluating that content just might.

3) Get to know your instructors

You have a good idea of what to expect from your field of study, and you have a framework for choosing classes throughout your undergraduate career.  The next step is simple, and it involves communicating with the instructors and students around you.  Hopkins quotes a study from Harvard professor Richard Light, who concluded that students have a richer college experience when they get to know their instructors better.  This involves taking smaller classes rather than big lecture courses, as well as increasing your critical thinking and sharing your thought process with the professor during their office hours.  You may even ask your professors about their individual research, and offer your services to become more involved.  Along with your professors, speak to your graduate assistants, your fellow classmates, and perhaps even deans and explore their different educational backgrounds and their reasoning for studying their particular fields.  This proves beneficial at the end of your undergraduate when seeking out professors to write letters of recommendation for internships, graduate school, or even entry-level positions pertaining to your degree.  The letter will be more sincere and detailed if the professor knows you well both in and out of class.

Your undergraduate career is the optimal time to explore your academic interests fully, and then apply those tools to a future career.  Try to do so without spending too much on tuition, though.

PS. The Monkey Cage is a great political science blog written by various professors of political science from some of the top political science institutions in the United States, including various guest bloggers from time to time.  Check it out if interested! 

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