Things I Learned as an Undergraduate
1. Embrace Humbleness.
If I’m not humble about my abilities or knowledge, I risk a skewed self-perception and worse, I risk producing pompous work that isn’t based in historical, religious, and political fact. There will always be someone better than me.
2. Strive for Excellence.
In all things, I should strive to do the best I can do. If I think I won’t be able to give something my best effort, I should figure out why and seek out the resources to make excellence happen. From excellence stems many great fruits.
3. I know nothing.
Thus the basis of the pursuit of academia: to discover and to understand. Consider Socrates, who, upon meeting with a man who was renowned for his wisdom, ”tried to explain to him that he thought himself wise, but was not really wise…. Well, I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is - for he knows nothing and thinks that he knows. I neither know nor think that I know.”
3. Be Honest.
Honesty will serve you well. Be honest about your abilities. Admit when you are struggling with a certain course, topic, or concept. Don’t be ashamed to ask for help (this is tied in with humbleness). Be honest in your academic writing. Don’t exaggerate or forget the constraints presented by the period you’re writing about.
4. Be Kind.
Kindness, like humbleness and excellence and honesty, will get you a long way. But be kind for kindness’ sake. Help someone study, pick their classes, track down a book…
5. I can’t write.
No one is truly a ‘good’ writer, or if they are, such skill isn’t without years of practice and experience. I am consistently refining my writing. I’m guilty of overusing commas and hyphens. I misuse words. I struggle with conveying ideas in a coherent manner. I’m uncertain as to whether I will ever be a ‘great’ writer, but I aspire to be. (Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is an indispensable and priceless resource for young writers.)
5. Professors are people, too.
Professors are normal people with extraordinary jobs. They happen to have a unique set of skills and a unique knowledge base. They have dedicated themselves to the pursuit of the mind and to discovery. But they still are people. They have busy schedules, just like us. They have deadlines to meet. They have children and husbands and wives. They worry (publish or perish, or budget cuts, anyone?). No need to be intimated by them.
6. … At the same time, they are the superior being.
Don’t be disrespectful to your professor by arriving to class consistently late, answering your phone in class, texting, sleeping, being on Facebook, etc. They spend a lot of time preparing lessons, something that I think we take for granted. If visiting office hours, knock politely, and if a student is currently with the professor, wait patiently. (I say this only because one time, a student barged into one of my professor’s office hours while he was with a student, and completely didn’t care that another student was being helped. Care about your fellow students’ needs, and about privacy, too!) Recognize that your professors have worked extremely hard to get where they are. Respect their work by producing work of your own that will delight them with its excellence.
7. Take time to relax.
Try to set aside time each day to relax, whether this means watching cartoons or reading a book you actually get to choose. It will do your brain cells good and you will come back to your studies with greater clarity.
8. Nothing comes without struggle.
At least once in your academic career, you will encounter struggle. For me, the struggles were manifold. I learned that an 8am class where 10% of your grade is attendance is not a good idea when you have an hour and a half commute. I learned that linguistics is too similar to math — too late. I wrestled with certain scholars’ work to the point where I couldn’t sleep for a week because their work simply didn’t make sense and yet it was important to my research. Everyone’s struggles are different. I struggled, and for it, my mind is better.
9. You will probably never understand everything about your field.
This may seem obvious, but it needs to be said. If someone in the world did understand everything about, say, Early Modern art history, there would be no need for other Early Modern scholars. Academia is founded on discovery, disagreement, and new ideas. We strive to understand. But we will never fully understand because, for most of us, we are separated from truly understanding a field by centuries, modern ways of thinking, and (often unknowningly) imposing ourselves on our work.
10. Don’t forsake your family and friends. (The most important lesson is last.)
It’s easy to become too enraptured with studying, writing, and stress. Don’t forget to spend time with your family and friends! Waking up early one morning to finish some homework is a small sacrifice for spending time with your friends and family.
Truer words were never spoken:
All I ask is one thing, and I’m asking this particularly of young people: please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism, for the record, it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, it’s just true. — Conan O’Brien