Thursday, April 07, 2005

The Scariest (Common) Student Question

What Should I Take?

Such an innocent question, but it still scares me. How the hell should I know? It’s easy if the student already has a desired major and a track record of success in it – then it’s just a matter of checking the transcript against the remaining requirements. Usually, though, those students don’t ask, since they don’t have to. Usually, the question comes from students who have absolutely no idea what to study. They’re in college because, at some level, they (or their parents) think they are supposed to be, but they don’t know why.

It’s a tough one. I usually respond with a question, something along the lines of “what do you care about?” or “what are you good at?” or even “what do you want to do when you graduate?”

Sometimes students surprise me. I’ve been working with one for about a year – I’ll call him Otto – whose lack of self-awareness is simply breathtaking. He was carrying a zero-point-something GPA (lower than a D) after three semesters, stubbornly trying to succeed in a major that he chose because his friends were in it. Otto came to me at registration to ask if I could sign off on letting him try yet again. I asked him why he wanted to keep doing something he obviously hated. He just stared blankly. I suggested that, judging by his transcript, the only classes he actually flourished in were in another discipline. He agreed, saying those were the only classes he actually liked. I asked why he didn’t just switch majors.

(Sound of crickets)

Otto is in the new major now, and thriving. Last semester he carried a B-plus, he’s on track for graduation, and he’s already looking to transfer to a four-year school. All it took was for someone to point out the obvious.

I wonder how many Otto-like students we have who just never have that talk.

It’s tougher with the kids fresh from high school. They don’t have a track record yet, so there’s really nothing to judge. They ask someone to pick a major for them, as if we can see into their heads. I usually default to the generic transfer program, on the theory that it gives them more time to decide, but it’s astonishing how completely they expect clairvoyance.

When we talk about students from disadvantaged backgrounds and the struggles they face in college, we usually talk about either academic ability/preparation or money. I wonder, though, how much of it is just not knowing the rules of the academic game. It just never occurred to Otto to switch majors. Once he did, he was fine. He has the ability to be a pretty good student, when he’s taking subjects he actually cares about.

How do you teach ‘savvy’?