Professor Haugaard's Blog

January 2012
Start Fresh

A movie that I like a lot is “Waitress.” One of the characters (played by Andy Griffith - in the movie just a bit older than I often feel), keeps telling the waitress in question, “Start fresh.” I like that line.

As we get ready to start a new semester, here is my suggestion to all of you for starting fresh. I know that it is a very grandfatherly thing to suggest (I have given up on trying to pass myself off as being in a fatherly role). I know that it is a very 1960s thing to suggest. But, I think that you all could do it, for a week, and see if you experience your life any differently.

When you get back to school and classes begin, leave your phone in your room for a week. Talk on the phone all you want in your room, but keep it in your room.

Yes, I know, it sounds so old fashioned. And, it sounds so unreasonable. But, one thing that I’ve learned over the years is that if you do not try tweaking your life a bit every now and again, your chance for growth is reduced dramatically. Even if, after tweaking your life for a while, you go back to the way it was before, you will be much more comfortable because you have tried something else and found that it was not as good as the way you had been doing it.

I spent my entire life, until the 1990s, only having a phone in my house. Even in college. And, I made it to adulthood. It is possible to call people back later in the day and it is even possible to completely ignore a phone call (in fact, when I only had a phone at home, I worked to develop the skill to let the phone ring and ring and ring and not answer it if I did not want to - that is a very hard skill to develop).

What to do with your phone in your room?

-Focus on talking with the people with whom you are walking to class or having lunch or passing the time while waiting for a professor to arrive in a classroom.

-Look at the starkness of the trees in the winter as you walk to the podium - notice how much bluer the sky is in the winter than in the summer.

-Sit and relax for a few minutes before your class starts. We are all too uptight these days; take a bit of time to sit quietly and relax.

-Think good thoughts about yourself, or your friends, or your family.

-Plan your wedding, or the weddings of your children.

Really - I think that you should leave your phone in your room for the first or second week of classes. Then, at the end of the week, think about your life and decide if you want to keep leaving your phone in your room or want to start carrying it again. Whatever your decision, you will be making it from a more informed perspective.

onward and upward,

April 2011
Not Quitting Early

(Wednesday) As I was listening to what seemed to be an increased amount of noise outside last night, I was wondering how many of the students out in the Quad had decided that, with spring break starting on Friday, they were “done” already.

It is very tempting to think of oneself as done when the end of some work period draws near - whether you stop working Tuesday before a break that starts three days later or at 3:00 on a Friday afternoon if you have a job that goes until 5:00.  However, I think that this is a temptation to be avoided.  There is still valuable time to get some work done and you will be finished soon anyway. It is somewhat like running 10 laps around a track and pulling off the track with 9.75 of them finished.  Why not struggle on, even though very tired.

It can be helpful to save tasks that require less concentrated effort for these times.  When I was a professor and doing lots of writing, I would save the task of looking for references until Friday afternoon.  It was a task that needed to be done but was not one that required lots of concentration - so I did it when I was tired and ready (but not quite ready) to quit work.

Absolutely, you should take it easy over your breaks - whether they come in the evening, on a weekend, or over a week or a month.  Do not think that you have to work all the time.  But try not to stop work early because of an impending break.

onward and upward,

June 2010
The Default Grade on a Paper

A while back, I was having a conversation with Professor Vivien Ng about students’ concerns about paper grades.  As we talked, it began to dawn on me that a source of consternation between professors and students when it comes to paper grades is the difference between the “default” grade that professors and students believe exists.  Based on my own recollections and the recollections of a few other professors with whom I’ve spoken about this, I have come up with my Grand Theory of Paper-grade Consternation.

Consider this conversation - maybe you have heard or been involved in a similar conversation:

Student: Professor, could you tell me why I got a B on this paper?
Professor: Well, let me see it (trying to remember the paper from among the other 49 that she read for that course, and why she might have given it a B).  It seems like a good paper, you covered all the points that you needed to cover and it only has a few grammar errors, so I gave it a B.
Student: But, I don’t understand why I didn’t get an A if I covered all the points I was supposed to cover.  What’s wrong with the paper?
Professor: There isn’t anything necessarily wrong with it.
Student: Then I don’t understand why it’s a B.

The primary issue, I believe, is that many students believe that a paper “starts” with a grade of A - that is, before the professor begins to read the paper, its grade is an A.  Most students believe that, to assign a lower grade, the professor must find errors in the paper (of either omission (e.g., important bits of information are left out) or commission (e.g., grammar errors, conclusions not supported with sufficient evidence)).  Thus, a grade of a B on a paper shows that the professor has found (and can identify if asked) a certain number of errors.

No professors with whom I’ve talked about this (maybe a half dozen) believe that a paper starts with a grade of A.  There is some variation in the starting grade within my small sample - which ranges from C to B (B being the most popular (the modal) response).  No professor with whom I have consulted has given a grade higher than a B as the starting grade (no B+'s or As).

Why this big difference?

Professors start with a B (or in some cases a C) for two primary reasons: (a) they want to provide papers that are very well written with a higher grade than those that are good but not very well written and (b) they look at the word(s) used at various schools and colleges to describe what a B means (at UAlbany, a B is described as “good”) and believe that most papers start at this level and can stay that way or become “excellent” (warranting an A), “fair” (warranting a C), or “poor” (warranting a D).  Interestingly, the one professor in my sample who uses a C as a starting point stated that C means “average” (although I think that this may be a bit outdated - it seems to me that a B is more what we consider average today).

Most college students have been raised in an educational environment where most grades start at 100% and work their way down.  Spelling tests and arithmetic tests are great examples of this - and we take spelling and arithmetic tests throughout almost all of our early education.  If there are 20 spelling words or 20 arithmetic problems on a test, you get 5% off for every wrong answer you give.  If you do nothing wrong, you remain at 100%.  I can even remember writing assignments in junior high where I received deductions for each grammar or spelling error - reinforcing the notion that an error-free paper would result in a grade of 100%.  Our fundamental beliefs about how school is supposed to work are formed by the way we get these grades in our early years in school.

These beliefs are reinforced by courses in some disciplines throughout our schooling: many exams in math, chemistry, biology, social studies, for example, start with a grade of 100% and deduct for every error.  Although we may write papers more frequently as we get into middle school and high school, we may not experience the grading strategies our teachers employ for these papers frequently enough to shake that basic, fundamental (maybe unconscious) belief we have about how grading in school should be done.

Why don’t professors use this belief when grading papers if it is so basic and fundamental?  The reason, I believe, is that grading papers is a qualitatively different task than being graded on papers.  So, when they start grading papers, professors develop strategies that bear no resemblance to the strategies they used when considering the grades they received as a student.  It is not that they are trying to be tougher - it is simply that grading is a whole new task, so they develop new strategies that make the most sense with this new task.

The consternation that many students experience when seeing a B on the top of their paper, and the consternation that many professors experience when trying to describe to a student why his error-free paper received a B, can be attributed to this difference in expectation about the starting point for paper grades.  What to do about this?  My sense is that it would be helpful for professors to describe their paper-grading starting point, why they use that point, and how a student can move up to a better grade.  Students, I believe, need to understand that, for most (or maybe all) professors, avoiding errors will not necessarily result in a grade of A - more needs to be done.

(PS - I am taking a course this summer and the class received our first papers back two weeks ago.  The next week, the professor said that she understood that some students were unhappy with a grade of B, and that she considered that B means that the student wrote a good paper.  The average age of the students in this course is about 45- so it is not just typically aged college students who experience this consternation about where a paper grade starts.)

onward and upward,

December 2008
Thoughts on Letters of Recommendation from Professors

One responsibility of anyone who works with students is to provide letters of recommendation as these students progress through their education.  Although most of your professors are busy, a part of what we are all expected to do is write letters of recommendation.  So, you should not feel that you are asking something unreasonable of a professor when you ask him or her to write a letter of recommendation for you.

However, a professor who is willing to write a letter for you is going out of his or her way to do so.  Also, a well-crafted letter of recommendation requires significant effort, and you do want your letter to be crafted well, so a professor who writes a well-crafted letter for you is going even a bit more out of his or her way.  Consequently, you want to maximize the clarity of your appreciation for a professor who is writing you a letter and minimize the work that a professor must accomplish to write a well-crafted letter for you.

Timing: Two weeks is the minimum lead-time you should give a professor to complete a letter of recommendation.  If you need the letter in less than two weeks, you need to acknowledge clearly, and probably several times, that you are aware that you are not providing the time that you should provide (“I know that I am not giving you much time to write this letter, but I just became aware of this scholarship.”).  A month is better than two weeks.

The Initial Request for a Letter: My view is that asking for things is best done in person, when that is possible.  So, I suggest that you ask for a letter in person, if you can.  This might mean coming before class or staying after class to ask about the possibility, or going to a professor’s office hours to ask.  If you rarely see the professor and the professor is likely to know you, then you could write an email asking for a letter.  The initial request is often a quick exchange.  Typically, you would want to:

• Start by asking for the letter straight-out, “Professor Haugaard, I would like to ask you to write a letter of recommendation for me.”

• Say briefly what the letter is for, “I’m applying for. . . and I need a letter from two of my professors.”

• Maybe say something a bit flattering, such as “You probably know me better than most of my other professors,” or “I liked the honors course I took from you last semester very much and we had many interesting discussions so I think you know me pretty well.”

• Finish up with when the letter is due and that, if the professor can write the letter for you, you can bring the needed materials by the professor’s office.

A Thank-you Email:  Soon after you make the initial request, you should follow with a thank-you email.  This will remind the professor about the letter and is a polite thing to do. “Thanks again, Professor Haugaard, for being willing to write the letter or recommendation for me for (whatever it was). I will be bringing the applications by your office soon. Thanks again.”

In some cases, the letter of recommendation is submitted over the web, and the professor will be getting a note from the organization requesting the recommendation.  If this is the case, be sure to include specific information about this in your thank-you email.  With all the junk we get through email, it can be easy for a professor to delete the request if it comes from some organization that the professor does not recognize.

Materials to Take to the Professor: The amount and type of material you give to the professor will depend on the reason for the letter.  Whatever it is that you give the professor, it should be very well organized.  Once you have all the material together, put everything in an envelope big enough to hold it all without too much folding.  Write something like “letter of recommendation for . . .” on the envelope.  Do not bring a stack of material and hope that the professor can keep everything together.  You do not want something vital to get lost.  It is up to you to organize things well.

And, it is very important to have a cover letter (or cover note) that is at the front of all the material, that states your name, what the letter is for, how the professor will submit it (e.g., will someone be sending a link to an online letter, does the letter get mailed), and other important information.  Even if you tell the professor all this information, repeat it again in this note.  I, for one, deal with lots of students every day, and it is easy for me to forget important information that one of them may have told me.  Redundancy is always a good idea in these types of situations - repeat what you have told the professor in this cover note.  (I just added this paragraph to this blog entry, and the addition was prompted by the fact that I have a request to write a letter to some foundation sitting on my desk.  I have no idea who this is for.  This is a problem.  Yes, I should have noted the student's name on the form, but I forgot.  I am hoping that I can find out who needs this letter.)

Application materials: These may include forms that the professor completes and envelopes for returning the forms to you or mailing them directly to the institution to which you are applying.

• First, remember to fill out everything on the form that you can complete.  Where it asks for the name and address of the professor, you should write that in.  You are, after all, the person who hopes to benefit from the letter - so it is your responsibility to do as much work as you can on it - relieving the professor from these tasks.  If there is a place for you to sign the form, sign and date it.

• Second, fill out the envelopes completely, including the address of the institution (or your address if the letter is returned to you) and the professor’s return address (which can be the professor’s name and department, and the UAlbany address).  Each should have the proper postage.

• Then, paper clip each envelope to the corresponding form.  Do not expect the professor to match up a stack of forms with a stack of envelopes - again, you should be doing everything you can to make the task easy for the professor.

  Many graduate and professional schools require that the applicant gather the letters of recommendation and send them with the application.  You can decide whether you want the professor to mail the envelopes with each recommendation in it to you, or put all the letters in one big envelope and mail it to you.  Either is fine.  If you are using one big envelope, be sure to attach enough postage or it will be returned to the professor.

Supporting materials: Some supporting material should be included with every request for a letter:

• A resume, even if it is not very long.  If you are in your first year of college, you might include some high-school activities on this resume.  Be sure to check the spelling and layout of the resume.  I am amazed at the high percentage of resumes I receive that have at least one spelling error.  As I am looking at your resume in preparation for writing your letter, you do not want me to see that you cannot write a resume carefully.

• A transcript.  This does not have to be an official transcript.  Print it from My UAlbany - that is sufficient.  If you are a freshman and do not have any grades yet, you might want to print the courses you are taking now and will be taking next semester.

• Specifics on any course you have taken with the professor: Either on your transcript or a separate piece of paper, you can provide information about papers you have written for the professor.  For example, give the title of any paper you wrote and the grade you received, or maybe include the abstract along with the grade you received, or maybe make a copy of the abstract and the page on which the professor wrote comments and the grade.  If you wrote a couple short papers, maybe include the entire papers.

It may also be helpful to include other specialized supporting materials.

• If you are a senior and applying to graduate school, you might include a draft of your personal statement and the abstract from your honors thesis.

• If you are applying for an internship and have written a paper in a course that is relevant to the internship, include a copy of the paper.

• If you are applying for a scholarship or entrance to some program and that scholarship or program has a website, include the URL.

You do not want to load the professor down with information that is not relevant to the task of writing the letter (e.g., the papers you wrote for other courses), but provide anything else that might be useful.  If the professor does not want to use it, he or she will toss it out.  Now, it is true that this might cost you some additional money copying material for a professor - but the payoff of this addition dollar or two may be substantial.  So, keep the big picture in mind.

A Reminder: I always ask students to send me a reminder a week before the letter is due (or the first letter is due if I am sending the letter to multiple locations).  I believe that it is appropriate for you to send an email reminder to the professors who you asked to write a letter.  Send it about 7-10 days before the letter is due.  The reminder should be brief: “Dear Professor Haugaard, I’m writing to remind you that the letter of recommendation for the Alsijflaskdhfj Scholarship is due in a week.  If I can provide any additional information about the Alsijflaskdhfj Scholarship, please let me know.”  This way, it is not only a reminder, it is also an offer to provide additional information if needed.

A Thank-you Note: Take a bit of time and write a thank-you note to the professor, after the letters have been sent.  Thanking people is always the correct thing to do.  I get about 70 emails a day and about 1 written note a month.  So, a note is more notable (what a great line!).

A Follow-up Note: When you hear from the schools/programs/etc. you have applied to, send the professor a note (an email is probably OK).  Give her or him the outcome, even if it is not positive.  Thank the professor again.

onward and upward,

July 2008
Striving for Excellence

(This is a long one and I have been working on it, off and on, for months.  It does not seem finished, but I am finished with it for now.)

Hello all.

I have been thinking a lot about striving for excellence lately, and worry that I do not see as much of it around as I would like. The more I thought about this, however, the more confused my thoughts became (this happens to me frequently: initial thinking about something seems straightforward, but the more I think about it the more complex the issue becomes and the less certain my thinking about it becomes - but that is an issue for another day). So, I am writing with some of these thoughts, which, as you will see, are not all that straightforward. Perhaps I can have a dialog about striving for excellence with some of you.

Before you consider tossing this note aside, I want to assure you that I am not going to dole out a pile of easy-to-say statements that you have heard many times already, such as you should strive for excellence in everything that you do. Given my definition of striving for excellence, this is an impossible goal. Also, I am not going to try to convince all of you that you should all strive for excellence in your academic work. I will, however, try to argue that you should strive for excellence in some part of your life.

Before anyone can discuss a concept, it needs to be defined clearly. The definition does not need to be agreed upon by everyone in the discussion, but the definition needs to be clear and unambiguous so that each person knows what is being discussed. So, I need to define striving for excellence before I can begin to discuss it.

That said, I have found it impossible to define striving for excellence clearly and unambiguously. I have struggled with the definition a lot, and the best I can do is: striving for excellence is putting everything you can into an activity (to a reasonable limit - an issue discussed below). So, if I am striving for excellence as a chef, I focus on doing everything I can to create and present a flawless meal. I do not take short cuts. If I am tired, I do not let my fatigue convince me to avoid a small component of my meal preparation, even if that small component would not be noticed by those around me. I do not let others distract me while I am preparing a meal and I do not let others impose values on me that precludes me from doing everything I can while preparing a meal (e.g., "it’s silly to spend so much time on that;" "you have to relax more").

As you can probably tell from the previous paragraph, a critical part of my definition of striving for excellence is that is a process, not an outcome. It is the way that someone labors at something–it is not the outcome of those labors.

An important consequence of defining striving for excellence as a process is that it is difficult for each of us to determine when we are striving for excellence. This is because knowing when we are putting everything into an activity is hard. Consequently, we often resort to using the outcome of our actions to determine whether we strived for excellence: If I receive all As, excellence has been achieved; it has not been achieved if I receive other grades. However, basing an assessment of striving for excellence on outcomes is problematic for several reasons. First, it does not take individual differences in abilities into account. For example, I know from talking with many of you that you achieved many As in high school without putting everything you had into a course (or, sometimes, even very much). Clearly this would not be striving for excellence. Second, it does not take experience into account. A beginning dancer who is striving for excellence may appear less talented than an experienced dancer who is loafing. Finally, observing outcomes does not allow for a consideration of many issues that may inhibit or facilitate a person’s performance. For example, using grades as an indicator of striving for excellence in academics may provide misleading information about a student struggling with depression or another student struggling with symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder from an assault experienced a year before. The symptoms of these disorders may inhibit the performance, and thus lower the grades, of these students, even if both are striving for excellence in academics.

To recap, I define striving for excellence as putting everything you can into an activity, and I argue that it is the process of putting everything you can into an activity, not the outcome of the activity, that determines whether striving for excellence has occurred. How then, you might ask, do I know when I have "put everything I have into an activity?"

As I have thought about this, it has become clear to me that the process of putting everything you have into something can be divided into two processes - one is qualitative and one is quantitative. The qualitative one involves how you go about striving (what one does as a chef, student, or athlete when striving for excellence). The quantitative one is how long one does this.

There is a paradoxical nature to assessing both the qualitative and quantitative parts of striving for excellence. For the qualitative piece, it can be more difficult to describe what one is doing when one is striving for excellence. For example, describing how one focuses on cooking or studying or practicing free throws can be difficult. However, it is easy, once we know what each qualitative piece is for us, to assess whether we have done it. The paradoxical part of the quantitative piece is that we can describe it easily - in minutes or hours or days. But, it can be very difficult to assess how many minutes or hours or days we should work on a task to consider that we are striving for excellence.

Returning to the chef, it may be relatively easy for him to assess whether he had strived for excellence in the qualitative parts of cooking during a shift. Did he focus, avoid short cuts, do all the little things that maybe others would not even notice, etc? When you are writing a paper, it may be possible to assess relatively easily whether you are striving for excellence qualitatively: have you written it early enough so that you have time to review drafts, have you focused while writing or was your attention drawn to other things, did you read those final three articles or did you just figure that you could get along without them, etc. etc.?

The chef, however, has it easier in his assessment of the quantity of his cooking. He received a certain number of orders during a shift, and when he was done with them, he was done.

However, how does one assess the quantitative process of striving for excellence when it comes to activities that are less constrained by time? For example, how does one assess the quantitative process of striving for excellence in academic performance? One could always study a bit more, do another practice problem, or search for another journal article. And it is not only in academics that assessing the quantitative part of effort is difficult. Athletes who are striving for excellence could always swim one more practice lap or shoot another dozen balls at a lacrosse or field-hockey goal. Parents who are striving for excellence could always read one more "how to parent" book, take their children to another culturally enriching activity, or work a bit longer to enhance their child’s cognitive or physical abilities.

Even more problematic is that an excessive quantity of striving can result in untoward consequences. A student who studies too much can ignore other important developmental tasks (e.g., developing physically and socially) or may burn out on a subject that once held great delight for her. An athlete striving to gain or lose weight because it is perceived that doing so will result in better performance may experience significant health problems at a certain weight. Parents who monitor the academic, social, and physical development of their children too much may have children unable to cope with some important developmental milestones (e.g., moving to college).

So, it seems to me that it is impossible to create rules or expectations for the assessing the quantitative aspects of whether one is "putting everything that one can" into an activity. Consequently, after all this, I think that I have come to the point of having to say "you know when you are striving for excellence when you are." This seems inadequate, but I think that it is best I can do. You know when you have studied (a) enough and (b) in a manner that constitutes striving for excellence in that subject. Yes, you could always study another half hour, and doing so might result in your getting another question correct on an exam, but, as just noted, there is no end to this. I think that if you are willing to assess for yourself if you are striving for excellence in an area - giving it all that you can give - you can assess it accurately. Granted, this is much more difficult than simply assigning a time limit and using that as a benchmark for how you are doing (e.g., I will study math one hour each night), but we are talking about excellence here - so one has to expect that it will be more difficult to assess and one has to be willing to live with the ambiguity and uncertainly of assessing striving for excellence if one is going to venture in this direction.

So, after all that introduction, I would like to say that I believe that each of you should be striving for excellence in at least one part of your life. I believe that we should all experience the process of doing the best we can in something. None of us can fully appreciate the power that we have as individuals until we are willing to put everything that we have into some activity. It is easy to avoid learning about one’s power (and, at the same time, the limits of one’s power–maybe this is what frightens most people off) by never striving for excellence. But, I believe that doing this limits each of us unnecessarily. We avoid learning about our limits by never seeing what they are, but at the same time we are not able to learn about our power. I think that the tradeoff is a bad deal.

You cannot simply strive for excellence once (e.g., the second semester of your 7th grade year) and then say that you have done that. This is because the cognitive, social, and emotional development that we all experience across our life span changes the ways in which we experience excellence at different points in our lives. So, learning about your power by achieving excellence in the 7th grade does not tell you much about your potential power in the 14th grade. Striving for excellence is a process that you must pursue repeatedly through your life (maybe not continuously, but at least periodically).

My sense is that each of us needs to choose the area(s) in which we are going to strive for excellence. What each of chooses will reflect our values at that point in time, and thinking about our choices and the values that support them may even help us learn about the values that are important to us at that point. In addition, it is much harder to strive for excellence in an area dictated by someone else - after all, it is you doing the striving so you should strive in the directions you want.

As you begin college, an obvious area in which you could strive for excellence is your academic work - maybe by striving for excellence in one or two of your courses initially. However, striving for excellence does not have to be limited to your academic work (or, for that matter, may not even involve your academic work). Striving for excellence in playing the French horn involves just as much striving, dedication, and self-exploration as does striving for excellence in computer science. Striving for excellence while tutoring an illiterate adult is the same process as striving for excellence in writing poetry. Striving for excellence in religious observation is the same process as striving for excellence in understanding macroeconomics. Certainly there are different external benefits to striving for excellence in one thing instead of another, but the rewards of the striving are the same no matter what direction the striving takes.

Can you strive for excellence in doing nothing? I do not think so, but I must admit that I am not completely sure about this. (The husband of the director of a community kitchen at which I used to volunteer began the "International Organization of Leisurely Persons," and he was excellent in his pursuit of leisure.) I distinguish "doing nothing" from activities such as meditating or relaxing, as meditating and relaxing involve doing something. My sense is that "striving for excellence in doing nothing" is an oxymoron, as striving requires action while doing nothing prohibits action. Striving for excellence in hanging out? To the extent that hanging out means, at its foundation, doing nothing, then my response would be "no." To the extent that hanging out involves some type of striving, perhaps it could be (although I am skeptical that hanging out involves any striving).

Striving for excellence in drinking? This is more complex than one might imagine. I have a friend in AA. For him, striving for excellence in drinking is not drinking–one day at a time. I know how much energy this takes for him (less now that 10 years ago, but still some). Striving for excellence in drinking might involve never getting intoxicated while drinking socially with others. Maybe. However, if striving for excellence in drinking involves drinking lots and lots, no. This is harmful, probably after the first drink, for all of us. My sense is that striving for excellence does not involve engaging in behaviors that are inherently harmful.

So this is what I hope happens:

  • each of you decides that you are going to strive for excellence in one or more parts of your life (the initial commitment)
  • you then consider carefully and choose this area (or these areas) (a deeper commitment)
  • you then think about what you need to do to strive for excellence in this area or these areas - this may involve discussions with others (I would enjoy talking with you about this, but others may be more appropriate)
  • you start, recognizing that you will falter along the way several times (everyone does) but that the key is to continue striving even after an experience of faltering
  • I hope that some of you will share your experiences in striving for excellence with me.

I would also enjoy talking with you, face-to-face or over e-mail, to hear your thoughts on all of this.

onward and upward,

November 2007
For Those Who Are Not Doing As Well This Semester As They Had Planned

Hello to all Honors students,

This is a note to those of you who are not doing nearly as well this semester as you had planned. As I walk through Melville and Steinmetz Halls, I see that many of you are working very hard but my sense is that some of you may be disappointed in how much you have achieved this semester.

Several years ago, a series of well-known psychology studies focused on the eating habits of people on diets (as with many psychology studies, most of them used college students as participants). Here is some of what they found:

  • when they brought a group consisting of dieters and nondieters together into a room under the pretense of having them wait for an experiment to begin, and there were plates of cookies and other high-calorie snacks in the room, the nondieters ate many more snacks than did the dieters (which seems to be what one would expect)
  • when they brought other groups together, after requiring that each person drink a large, high-calorie milkshake (called a preload), the dieters ate more snacks than did the nondieters while in the wating area (this seems counterintuitive, since one might expect the dieters to restrict their eating even more after being required to drink a high-calorie milkshake)

Further experiments and much debriefing of the participants led to the following interpretation: once the dieters had "broken" their diet by drinking the milkshake they had the attitude "now that I've broken my diet I might as well continue to eat" which resulted in their eating more snacks than they would have eaten if they had not broken their diet. Those of us who have dieted have probably had the same experience - once we think that we have blown it we tend to lose strength and continue to blow it. We might start back on our diet the next day, or maybe the next Monday, but we do not get back on track as soon as we might.

My concern is that some of you who have not done as well as you had planned this semester may follow this same pattern: you may not get back on track as fast as you can, but instead put it off until next semester.

If you were planning on getting As and Bs this semester, and you find that you are getting all Bs, then continuing to slide could result in your getting Bs and Cs by the end of the semester. Recovering from a semester of Bs will certainly be easier than recovering from a semester of Bs and Cs. Besides, recovering your good work habits sooner, rather than later, is likely to strengthen them - and now is when they need to be stronger than ever.

What I know is that all of you have the intellectual skills to do very well in college. If you find that you are not doing as well this semester as you had planned, it is worth looking at how you are working. You can probably identify things that you should do differently. You could then plan to change how you are working. What you need to do is identify specific changes that you will make (e.g., I will go out only two nights a week) rather than making general plans (e.g., I will work harder), as knowing whether you are meeting the expectations of general plans is impossible.

The hardest part of making any changes will be dealing with your friends. They will expect you to continue as you have been for the past few months and may find any changes difficult to understand. It may be helpful to explain any changes to them and, if they are good enough friends, to ask their help with them.

If you are wondering about what changes would be best for you to make, many people can provide some advice or guidance - including your friends, family, professors, or academic advisors. Of course, I am available to discuss with you how you are doing and ways that you might get back on track before the end of the semester. If I can be of help, please e-mail or come by my office (in LC-31) or my apartment (I am there most evenings). Now is the time to get back on track.

onward and upward,

August 2007
For First-Year Students: Two Syndromes to Avoid (and Some Minor Points)

Here are some suggestions:

If you are off to a bit of a rocky start in one area or another, work hard to get that under control. One way of doing this is to consult with more advanced students, your family, your advisor, a professor or two, or me. There are lots of people available to help with issues. Try to avoid wishing problems away (a strategy that rarely works) or feeling that you should know enough to overcome all issues on your own (yes, you are smart, but no one can overcome all issues on their own). I know from talking with students last year that financial issues (e.g., not having enough money to buy all your texts), academic issues (e.g., having a problem with a professor), and personal issues (e.g., problems with a long-distance relationship) are more common than anyone thinks. If you are struggling a bit, let me or others know if we can help.

Two things to avoid:

The "I don't have anything to turn in for three weeks" syndrome.

Letting things slide is VERY easy during the first week or two of a semester. You may have been able to write papers, do homework, study for exams, etc. a night or two before something was due in high school. My experience is that only a very small percentage of honors students can continue that strategy successfully in college. Maybe you are one of these students, but probably you are not. There's about a 7% chance that you are.

These are the weeks when you should be planning your papers, gathering information for writing papers, reading your texts, and starting to study the information that is being presented in class. You may not have much specific homework now, but in a few weeks you will have assignments due, homework, AND exams. It is those exams that throw the biggest monkey wrench into the works. So, start studying the information now. Get ahead in your reading if you can. Start collecting material for papers and maybe even make an outline to help organize your efforts. Many of your exams will occur during the same 7-day period - lots of them. That's the way college is. You really do need to get ahead.

The "I can behave like I did in high school and do well in college" syndrome.

A principal difference between high school and college is the amount of time spent on different educational activities. In high school, you are "in school" for many hours each day and have only a little homework to do most days (some students claim to have gotten good grades while doing little or no homework throughout high school). It is just the opposite in college: you spend little time in class and more time studying.

If you make the mistake of continuing the amount of study time from high school to college, you will likely have some significant problems. You just cannot continue to work a couple of hours a day on your studying and expect to be successful. Let's think about this. You are in class about 14 hours each week. If you study two hours each weekday, that's 10 hours a week. That means that the grand total of the time you spend on your academics is 24 hours a week. That's barely over a half-time job. Here's what I think: If you study every day (all seven days), then you can get away with studying four hours a day (28 + 14 = 42 hours a week). If you want to have the weekends off, you should work about 5.5 hours studying each day (27.5 + 14 = 41.5 hours a week).

Keep track of the time you are studying. You don't get to count dinner, walking to the library, or study breaks as studying. Really; they don't count.

And all of this only gets you up to a full-time job. It doesn't even come close to my 50-hours-a-week suggestion (see my blog for this).

And yes, you will see LOTS of students in the quads who don't seem to be working much or at all right now. Try not to pay attention to them.

And, please be respectful of your new friends and colleagues. Be quiet when you should so that they can get their work done. Be aware that the noise you make does not seem nearly as loud to you as it seems to someone who is trying to study. My sense is that most of the time (and especially after 9pm on the weekdays) it should be quiet enough to study, and that it should be quiet enough to sleep after midnight.

Some small things:

I'm often amazed at how long students will stand in line to get some particular thing to eat. Wendy's just can't be that good, can it? Also, you should know that excitement about waffles will die down in a couple of months - rather than having to wait in line you'll be able to stroll right up to the waffle maker by November.

Try to make a pact with yourself to eat as many vegetables (Tater-Tots don't count as vegetables) as you do desserts.

OK, that's enough for now.

onward and upward,

July 2007
Being In Over Your Head

I had an interesting short conversation with a psychology professor a few months ago as we were standing around waiting for the psychology graduation program to begin. She noted that a few of the psychology honors students had experienced a negative reaction to being told that they needed to make substantial revisions in their honors theses. They seemed genuinely angry that revisions were being required. Her sense what that writing the thesis was a new experience for them and that they were expecting that the level of writing that was acceptable for many class papers would be acceptable for their thesis. Therefore, they had a sense of being wronged when they were told that they had to make revisions to their thesis, an experience that they had never had before.

This started me thinking about the whole educational process and how frightening it can be to be asked or required to learn something that is substantially different from what we have learned before. For example, think about your own experience with two significant milestones in the development of most of us: learning to ride a bicycle and learning to drive a car. Both are tasks for which our earlier life provides little preparation. While riding a tricycle involves some of the skills as riding a bicycle (e.g., pedaling), all of the most critical aspects of riding a bicycle (e.g., pedaling while maintaining balance) are new. The same it true for learning to drive. Unless one were to spend many hours driving midget race cars around various tracks or a truck around a farm, almost nothing that we have learned before age 16 directly prepares us to learn to drive a car. Children and adolescents tend to approach these two events with high levels of excitement and anxiety. Both are likely to involve some significant failures (e.g., falling off the bike; banging into something while learning parallel parking).

There are probably some academic equivalents to learning to ride a bike or drive a car. The examples that come most quickly to mind are in math. When I was in high school, the four years of math were: algebra, geometry, algebra II, and trigonometry. Each class was a significant challenge because it seemed as if the math skills already learned were of only minor help in learning the new skills. Learning algebra did not seem to help me understand geometry. Then, when I got to college I quickly discovered that none of my previous math helped me learn calculus, a task that I just could not do. "Social studies," on the other hand, involved the same kind of learning each year, we just learned about different things. Once one learned how to learn social studies, it made little difference whether you were learning about ancient civilizations, European history, or U.S. history. Same process; different facts.

One consequence of having to learn something completely new is that one can feel in over one's head, to use the "walking into the lake" analogy. Wandering around in a lake up to one's knees or up to one's waist is not all that different. However, when you get in over your head it is another experience.

"In over our head" is an anxiety-provoking experience for many of us. For example, we can feel anxious about the physical and emotional consequences associated with falling off a bike or smacking into something with a car (e.g., physical injury and a sense of embarrassment). Those of us striving for very high grades can feel anxious about a new academic task because we worry that our previous learning may not prepare us for the new task. As we feel in over our heads our anxiety increases.

Despite the anxiety, it is often only when we are in over our heads that leaps in learning occur. Going back to my high-school class examples: my fifth year of social studies did not produce any dramatic changes in what I learned, I just accumulated a few more facts that year. However, learning geometry caused me to experience mathematics in a whole new way. My ability to think mathematically expanded.

What we are working VERY hard to accomplish in The Honors College is to create an educational environment that expands how you think. This means that you should feel in over your head as you traverse your honors experiences. The association between (a) being in over your head and (b) how much your ability to learn expands is shown below (based on a compilation of many well-crafted empirical studies). As can be seen, as you go in deeper and deeper over your head, the amount that you learn expands. However, after a certain point, being in over your head reduces what you learn because the psychological angst of being in over your head too often inhibits learning. Of course, the graph represents the average data gathered from many, many students. There are substantial individual differences, meaning that some of you will continue to increase your learning past the point where others experience a learning decrement.

In my view, the best professors are those who chop off the rope holding you safely to the shore and let you careen through the water and then flounder on the rocks (yes, it is flounder in this case). The professor is there to guide you (e.g., "watch out for that very swift current to the left") and perhaps to provide some support (e.g., telling you that you will survive as you are floundering on the rocks) but is not there to keep you from sinking and floundering. Ideally, your professors let you sink and flounder right to the point on the graph with the arrow. (They have a little lee-way in that you can sink a bit more and still not experience much decrement in your performance.) Then, if needed, they toss you a line (e.g., "have you thought about this type of an approach") or provide a bit of a fire to warm you on the rocks ("I think that you are heading in the right direction on this"). In some ways, if you feel comfortable throughout an honors course, the professor is not doing a good enough job.

The experience for you, of course, is anxiety. However, I think that feeling anxious throughout a significant portion of your honors courses is good for you. Of course it is easier for me to say this (from my position of safety here on the shore) than for you to experience it (as the water sucks you down another time). But, you are young and I have spent lots of time under water already.

The principal issue is how you cope with your anxiety. Some cope by feeling inadequate and depressed (e.g., "I'll never be able to compete with other smart students" or "I'm an idiot"). Others get angry (e.g., "it's that damn professor who won't tell me what I should do"). Others are able to roll with things a bit better, maybe with some basic faith that they have the fundamental skills and abilities to get through it all. All of us probably have each of these reactions at different times. The key is to minimize the depression and anger and maximize the faith.

So, as you get ready to start next year, I hope that you will be willing to spend some time in over your head. Don't fight it; don't blame your professor for insisting that you swim out into the current. It is how you will learn.

onward and upward,

May 2007
Your Stuff Will Not Fit Into the Car

Hello all.

Good lord, it is almost time to get ready to leave campus for the summer. One thing that you should know, as you prepare to do this for the first time, is that, even if you have not purchased anything while here, and even if you have not brought anything from home for the entire academic year, you will not be able to get everything that you brought with you into the same vehicle that you came in nine months ago. It just will not fit. That is all there is to it.

Several years ago, a study done by a prominent physicist at UAlbany showed that material kept in a dorm room for nine months expands by approximately .097% (possibly due to the excessive heat we have all endured for the past six months). While this expansion is very small, with each item expanding a small amount and the tight packing job that is typically done while heading to college, the total expansion is just enough to result in one very important item not fitting in the vehicle during the return trip. Additional studies done by several of the professor's honors students showed that even large amounts of cursing, yelling, and stomping of feet did not allow for this one item to be inserted into said vehicle (requiring, in some cases, hasty calculations about the relative importance of this item and a younger sibling who had come to help with packing the car).

As an interesting side-note, the one class of items that do not expand a tiny amount over the course of the year is pants. Most people find that their pants tend to shrink some over the course of the year. There have been no experimental studies done on this odd phenomenon, but some theoretical physicists have suggested that it is related to the overall "conservation of matter" issue. Apparently, our pants are required to shrink a certain amount to offset the small but consistent expansion in all the other items we have had with us for the past nine months.

So, prepare yourself for this. If you happen to be heading home before the end of the year, take stuff with you. Even if you have looked at everything you have in your room and have done many, many mathematical calculations related to volume and "crammableness" of your various items, and even if you have assured yourself that everything will fit into your folks' car, the simple fact is that it will not. It just will not. Sorry.

Just thought that you would like to know.

onward and upward,

April 2007
The Agony of Good Weather


Hello all.

I have this long-held hypothesis that there is a moderate positive correlation between the number of warm days in early April and students' spring-semester GPAs. Currently I have no data to support or refute this hypothesis, so like any good scientist I am holding strongly to it.

Why this correlation, you might ask (or, at this point you might be asking why you are even reading this-but I will ignore that possibility)?

Here is the theory behind my hypothesis:

When warm weather hits upstate New York for the first time in the spring, there is a strong desire among all those cooped up by six months of cold weather to get out in the warmth and feel those sun rays on their bodies. Thus, there is considerable wearing of swim suits and other sun-ray-friendly clothing and considerable lying around in the sun. Significant amounts of skin are visible. Even the hardest working and most serious students find themselves pulled to the sunshine and away from their textbooks. (Yes, there are a few people who think they can study while lying in the sun, but this is a myth-that sunshine is so physically delightful that no serious cognitive tasks can be accomplished.)

The problem occurs when this warm weather hits right at the end of the semester, when papers are due and end-of-the-semester exams take place. Even more deadly is when this warm weather hits for the first time a couple of days before finals begin. Studying during these all important days diminishes significantly. Grade point averages suffer noticeably.

Alternately, when there are enough warm days early in April, most students get sufficient time for sun-ray collection early in the month and are able to refocus on their studies at the end of the semester and as finals are beginning. Study time increases substantially. GPAs rise considerably.

We seem to be in some never-before-researched warm-weather pattern this year. There were no warm days in early April, suggesting that GPAs would be quite low this semester. However, there was that delightful three-day stretch of warmth right around Fountain Day with a sudden return to colder weather right after that. If the warm weather returns on May 4, will the spurt of warm weather around Fountain Day be enough to moderate swimsuit lying around or will those three days have just whet individuals' appetites for sun-ray intoxication? It is hard to know. If the weather does turn warm at the end of next week, I will be out collecting data.

onward and upward,

March 2007
Musterbation

Hello all. I had a couple experiences yesterday that I thought I would write to you all about. The first one involved my working on a chapter for a child psychopathology textbook I have been writing for the past couple of years. I have completed all the chapters and now am in the process of reviewing the changes that the copy editor has made to the chapters (a copy editor is hired by a publisher to read manuscripts and make grammatical and style changes-the author then reviews the proposed changes and accepts or rejects them). The chapter I was reviewing last night was on basic psychological theories. One section was on a psychologist named Albert Ellis who developed a cognitively based therapy called Rational-Emotive Therapy. One concept that Ellis has is that most of us have too many "musts" in our lives: we must get all As, we must be the best on the soccer team, we must be the thinnest/strongest/most attractive. The list can go on forever. Ellis, who has a good sense of humor, refers to this as "musterbation." What he points out is that if we must get all As, then the occasional bad test or paper is awful and devastating, rather than just upsetting or bothersome. Similarly, if we must be liked by everyone, then the occasional social slights that we all experience are horrific rather than just irritating.

The second experience was going to the Festival of Contemporary Music last night in the PAC. I must admit that I often think of "contemporary music" as an oxymoron, but I am willing to try something new occasionally. There was much clanging and banging that I did not find all that inspiring, but there was one 10-minute piece that involved eight musicians playing two facing marimbas (or xylophones, or whatever they are called) that was amazing. It was something the likes of which I have never heard before, and I will remember it for a while.

As I was walking home, these two experiences made some connection in my cortex. It struck me that many of us have come to expect that experiences we have and events we attend must always be inspiring or wonderful or life-changing. My experience is that this is just not true. The problem is that if we believe that these experiences must be wonderful, we will avoid experiences that we anticipate will not be wonderful because we are likely to experience disappointment. Alternately, if we are willing to have a variety of experiences, knowing that every now and again one of the experiences (or one component of the experience) will be wonderful, then we increase dramatically our chance of having a wonderful experience. We also increase the likelihood that our thinking will broaden and that our circle of friends and acquaintances will expand. Of course, the "cost" of this is that we have many experiences that are dull or uninspiring. But, much of life seems to be this. The highlights are highlights because they are highlights, not everyday occurrences.

This prompted another thought, which came from the lecture that Patricia Pinho gave to The Honors College last week. She talked about how the concept of race was created by those in the majority in many cultures and so wondered why those in minority groups in the culture hung on so strongly to the importance of the concept of race. That was very provocative. I am still thinking occasionally about her point and my thinking about it is likely to evolve. But, I am only thinking about this intriguing idea because I attended her lecture.

As I thought more about this I realized that one of the reasons that I have been encouraging all of you to attend all these different events (and next year will be pressuring/requiring/forcing you to do so) is because of my belief that, if I can get you to attend 7-10 events next semester you will be able to add 1-3 eye-opening, qualitatively different experiences to your life. I believe that this would be good.

So, I guess the basic message here is that participating in many experiences, most of which will not be all that exciting, increases the likelihood that you will occasionally have a life-enhancing experience. Those occasional life-enhancing experiences make all the effort to have all those experiences worthwhile. Think of sitting through dull and uninspiring experiences as the time between the interesting ones. Don't feel that all your experiences must be exciting and wonderful. Be glad when one is and be tolerant when many are not.

onward and upward,

February 2007
The Importance of Listening (It is VERY Hard to do Well)

Hello all. My sense is that it is important for developing scholars to engage in discussions of controversial topics because there is much that can be learned through these discussions. Unfortunately, many people do not learn as much as they can from these conversations. I believe that this is because they do not distinguish between conversations in which they are (a) trying to convince others of the correctness of their position on a controversial topic and (b) conversations in which they are trying to expand their own knowledge.

This is caused, I believe, because most of the conversations that we observe are those in which the sole goal of the participants is to convince others that the position they hold on an issue is THE correct position. Sadly, almost all news programs these days, for example, are examples of these. The producers of the news programs bring together two or more people with differing opinions and they give each person the opportunity to explain, as forcefully as they can, their position. Listeners who do not have an opinion on the issue may be helped to form an opinion, but this newly formed opinion is often simplistic (e.g., this side is right, that side is wrong). Listeners who already have an opinion usually just have that opinion reinforced (e.g., I am even more right than before, the other people are even more wrong than before). In my view, this leads to (a) the ongoing simplification of an issue that is complex and (b) greater polarization of opinion on an issue (which, sadly in my opinion, can be seen in most of the debates about complex issues that occur in our nation and internationally).

Learning from conversations about complex issues can almost never occur when the goal of the participants is simply to convince others that they are correct. Learning can only occur when people listen carefully to the positions held by others as a way of expanding their understanding of the complexity of an issue. The goal of listening in this situation is not to relinquish one's position on an issue and embrace wholeheartedly the position of others. Doing this usually only results in the relinquishing of one relatively simplistic stand on an issue and replacing that simplistic stand with another relatively simplistic stand. Instead, the goal of listening to others' positions is to determine whether there are portions of their arguments that have some ring of truth to them, so that this portion of their argument can be integrated into one's current understanding of the complex issue being discussed.

Given all of this, I think that it is important for developing scholars to be willing to listen carefully to many sides to a controversial topic in an attempt to appreciate the complex nature, rather than the simplistic nature, of the controversy. This is important because complex solutions are required for complex problems. The simplistic solutions that are offered to complex problems (e.g., never allow this to happen, always allow that to happen) are rarely influential because they are so simplistic. Sometimes they are implemented, but my sense is that this only occurs when one side has the power to ram the solution down the throats of everyone (e.g., they have the guns or a large enough majority). However, even in these situations, the complex problems are not solved-at best they sink below the radar screen for a while, only to emerge years or decades later as even bigger problems.

In order to have a thoughtful conversation about something, I believe that you must listen carefully to what others are saying, even if your initial reaction is that they are wrong. For most of us, it is very hard to do this, because, as we listen to them we spend much of our attention rebutting their arguments in our head. We come up with the counter-arguments to all of their points as they are making their points. As we do this, our attention is diverted, so we cannot truly listen to what they are saying. If we decide as they are talking that they are just plain wrong, we prohibit ourselves from thinking about what we have heard and consequently from possibly finding something in the other person's argument that makes sense to us and that thereby broadens the way that we think about this issue (the "I had never thought about that" phenomenon). It often takes a conscious effort to switch off the automated counter-argument part of our brain so that we can listen to all that the other person has to say.

It is also important to listen with as open a mind as possible. An open mind is not an empty mind or a nonopinionated mind. Rather, an open mind is one that allows the speaker's ideas in so that they can mix with the ideas that are currently there. When one listens with an open mind, one does not make any statement about what one believes now or what one will believe in the future. This is a mistake that is commonly made: people will tell you that if you listen with an open mind to someone who is professing a view that is counter to the views you have, that you are somehow acting in a disrespectful way to your views. I do not believe that this is true at all. Listening with an open mind simply lets the ideas in-it does not mean that they will not eventually be rejected. So, listening with an open mind can never be a bad thing, despite what others may tell you.

I should note, however, that careful listening with an open mind can have significant negative short-term consequences. In particular, careful listening, without the usual counter-arguing, can result in an increased level of uncertainty about an issue that is important to you. This can result in feelings of discomfort. Most of us find that we are most comfortable when our beliefs about the important things in our life are unequivocal. These unequivocal beliefs provide a strong foundation upon which we can build other beliefs and upon which we can base many of our important feelings. If we let in enough information about one of these beliefs to cause them to be a bit more equivocal, then our foundation is rattled a bit. Suddenly, we are on shakier ground, and this rarely feels good.

However, the long-term benefits of this short-term angst can be substantial. In some cases, after letting contrary thoughts into your head and then giving yourself the necessary permission to examine them carefully, you will find that your original beliefs are unchanged, and that you have rejected completely the new beliefs that you let into your mind. This is super. There is no obligation to change one's beliefs by letting other beliefs in. I would argue that your beliefs are now even stronger, because you have examined them in light of the conflicting beliefs that you let into your mind, and found that they were the correct beliefs (at least for you, at this time and place). Terrific.

Perhaps you will find that you continue to hold to your previous beliefs, but with some modification. This is super. In essence, your thinking about this issue has become more complex, which is always good when the issue is complex. Terrific.

Maybe you find that you cannot hold onto your old beliefs so strongly, in the face of the new information that you have let in to rattle around in your mind. You may simply be less certain. This is super. One does not have to be sure about everything. It is fine to be "mostly sure" about something. It is also fine to be confused about something. Lack of clarity can lead to further exploration, which may result in a fuller, more complex and accurate view of the issue or belief. Terrific.

In some cases as you listen with an open mind, you may find that your previously strongly held belief is supplanted by a new strongly held belief (but this happens rarely). This is super. Imagine being able to think clearly and deeply enough about something to decide that your earlier belief was wrong. Does that mean that you were a fool before. Certainly not. Once when asked about the fact that the policy he was supporting one day was the opposite of the policy that he had supported earlier, Winston Churchill said, "I reserve the right to be smarter today than I was yesterday." Isn't that terrific! Of course, we all want to be smarter today than we were yesterday.

So, I hope that during your time in college, and for years after, you will have many opportunities to listen carefully and with an open mind to those with opinions that you first find wrong/distasteful/stupid.

onward and upward,

December 2006
Gearing Up for Finals

Hello all. Well, here it is the last day of the last full week of classes-for many of you the first last day of the last full week of classes that you'll experience as an undergraduate. Given that finals are coming up, and that some or many of you may be a bit anxious about them, I thought that I would send along some random bits of fatherly advice about preparing for finals.

I suppose that one problem with finals is that they happen at the end of the semester, when you may be very tired from all the academic work that you've been doing for the past dozen weeks or so. You just need to drag whatever energy to the foreground that you can. It is like running the last lap of a long race: now is the time to think about sprinting, not about how tired you are. And, since it is the last lap, with the end in sight, you really can sprint toward the end.

Rather than thinking about this weekend as the last time to relax and let loose before finals, think about it as the beginning of finals. Especially if you are a freshman, you will have many weekends to relax and let loose before you graduate. My sense is that this should not be one of them. Think about using this weekend to plan your studying for the next two weeks and then get started on that studying. Try to ignore those who are drinking themselves silly all weekend.

One problem with studying is that you could always study a bit more, so you never know whether to be satisfied with what you have done. One strategy for dealing with this is to create a studying calendar for the next two weeks. Look at when your finals occur and your papers are due and plan when to do all your work. Schedule specific times for studying each subject or working on each paper. Put these times on the calendar so that you know when you should be working on what. Be sure that you are putting in enough time each day. Alternately, don't schedule an unreasonable amount of time on any day.

It is hard to know, up front, exactly how much time you need to spend on each subject. However, you can schedule some "overflow" time throughout the two weeks, and use that for additional study in a particular subject if you need it.

If you try this strategy, some points to think about include:

  • Schedule short breaks at the end of a time period that you have learned is the maximum amount of time that you can study effectively. Some people can focus on studying for an hour or more, and others have a shorter study-attention time. Know what yours is and schedule accordingly.
  • Schedule longer breaks throughout the day and in the evening. Take an hour for lunch if that will be helpful (but don't stay for an hour and a half). If there is a TV program you particularly like, schedule a break so that you can see it (but don't watch the next program). Breaks are essential for studying efficiently. Know how long a break you need-if a half hour is a "long" break for you, schedule breaks for a half hour. If you need a full hour to clear the cobwebs and get back to work, then schedule a full hour.
  • Don't wimp out and stop studying until your schedule calls for a break. Do some related work that does not require as much concentration until the end of your scheduled study time. For example, it is easier to revise a paper than to do the initial writing-so do some editing if you are tired rather than stopping early.
  • Get some exercise. You will sleep better and, even if it is very cold, you will study more efficiently after a 10-minute walk than after staring out the window for 10 minutes. Walk around the outside of your quad once or twice every few hours. Do some pushups. Do some situps. Get that blood flowing. Coordinate calendars with friends for some short group exercising. Walking to the RAC and back in a group of 3 or 4 is better than walking by yourself.
  • Be willing to say "no" to friends when they ask you to socialize. "No" is okay over the next two weeks. Be willing to honor your friend's "no" if you ask him or her to do some socializing.
  • Watch what you eat during the day. Try to avoid sugar and fat, as they make you drowsy. Oatmeal and milk for breakfast; salad with chicken or tofu for lunch. That will keep the right neurotransmitters humming.
  • Come to a relaxation session in Montauk (more on this later). Spend 5 minutes relaxing in the afternoon, 5 minutes in the evening, and 5 minutes before you go to bed (so you will fall to sleep faster).

Other suggestions are:

  • Give your TV to a friend or bring it by my apartment to store for you until your last final is over. Although it is not a well-known fact, it is possible to live without watching TV.
  • Delete all the games from your computer-you can reload them after your last final.
  • Turn your cell phone off. Collect messages. Put a time on your schedule to return phone calls. I know that this will be VERY hard to believe, but you will not have a stroke if you do not immediately talk to everyone who wants to talk with you.

Work hard. You will survive. You will do well.

onward and upward,

October 2006
No One Thinks I'm Right About This (But I Am)

Hello all. Although it has been a long day, I did want to send another of my fatherly bits of advice along (I trust that none of you see me as grandfatherly at this point-or at least if you do you will be kind enough not to say so). So, I have turned the 10,000 Maniacs up full blast (or as full blast as this silly speaker on the bottom of my monitor will allow), to give me the energy to send this along.

About 10 years my niece was getting ready to go to college. It seemed as if should give her some godfatherly advice on how much to work at college. Here is what I said: you should either be getting all A's or you should be working 50 hours each week (I went on to explain that I considered all activities related to her studies (going to class, homework, searching for books in the library) as "work"). She thought I was daft. Her mother and father thought I was daft. Every student to whom I have ever told this has thought I was daft. The ONLY people who have not thought that I am daft (at least about this) are my professor colleagues.

Since nearly everyone though that I was balmy about this 50-hour-a-week schedule, it seemed to me that I should think some about how I came up with that number (could I be wrong about this or is everyone else (other than my professor colleagues) wrong?). What I decided is that I considered how many hours I was working (which was 50-55) and figured that students (who are, after all, only students for a limited number of years and are much younger than I am) should be working as many hours as I worked (after all, I will be a professor for an indefinite period). So, I actually thought that my suggestion of 50 hours a week was a conservative suggestion (imagine the amazement if I had said 55-60, based on the belief that students should be spending more time working than professors).

Now, one of the big struggles is how to react to a situation where you have to decide who is wrong: (a) you or (b) practically everyone else in the world. This is more difficult than it seems. For some of us, as soon as anyone disagrees with us we feel that we must be wrong. Others (who mostly seem to be jerks) never seem to list to anyone else and always know that they are correct. The rest of us seem to be somewhere in between. How strong do I have to feel that I am correct before I am willing to hold out against everyone else? How important does an issue have to be before I am willing to hold out against everyone else?

Let's admit it, how hard YOU should be working each week is not an essential issue in MY life. I do, sincerely, want each of you to learn VERY much over the next few years. But, I realize that my sincerely wanting something will not make it so. You are in charge of how much you work and how much you learn. So, it might make sense for me to decide not to push the 50-hour-a-week issue. But, I just KNOW that I am right about this. I just KNOW that everyone else is wrong. So, I can't let it go.

Come on, 50 hours is not that much. You can do 50 hours by 10 hours a day during the part of the week that those of us from working-class families refer to as the "work week." Ten hours a day. Go to class at 9, work until noon, take an hour for lunch, class and homework until 5, hour break, dinner until 7, study until 10, then goof around all you want until you go to bed. Come on. Then you get the ENTIRE weekend off. You do not have to do ANY work until 9am Monday morning. That should be a breeze. Or, if you only want to work 9 hours each day, you have to work 2 ½ hours each weekend day. Come on, 2½ hours over an entire Saturday. Surely, you can find 2½ hours on a Saturday.

OK, maybe I am getting a bit carried away (it is hard to hear myself think with the music at this level). Maybe I should just say that if you are working 50 hours a week and see lots of other folks working 20-30 hours a week, YOU ARE THE ONE WHO IS RIGHT. Spend that extra hour on Thursday afternoon doing some library work finding articles, go to the library for an hour before that 10am Wed morning class. Do those 50 hours.

Then, in 15 years, you can e-mail me and say, "Professor Haugaard, there is now one more person who agrees with you that college students should work 50 hours a week- ME."

onward and upward,

September 2006
Getting Off to a Good Start

Hello all. It is easy in college to get lulled into a false sense of security that you are keeping up with your work when, in fact, you are behind. This false sense of security develops for a variety of reasons that vary from person to person, including:

  • in high school you were able to get by without working very hard except during short periods of time (e.g., frantically writing a paper the night before was due)
  • since assignments in college are much less frequent than in high school it is easy to say, "I don't have anything due for 3 weeks, and that's a long time from now"

This false sense of security can result in reduced studying during the first 2 or 3 weeks of each semester. The reduced studying may be particularly evident on the weekends.

Try not to get lulled into not working hard during the beginning of each semester. What many students find is that during weeks when they have two or three exams they need to continue to do assignments and readings for all their courses. The readings and assignments in most courses are not reduced during the week before an exam, so you have to study while continuing your reading. This can feel overwhelming.

The answer for most students is:

Try to get ahead with your reading now. You might want to mark on your calendar when your exams are and when major assignments are due. If several fall in one week (as usually happens), you may want to read ahead to the point where you can spend that week studying for exams and yet not fall behind in your reading.

Get started on those end-of-the-semester papers now. I know that it seems very early. Do the types of activities that are easy to do and that you might even be able to do while watching TV. For example, if you are going to be writing a paper on the folk dances of 16th century Lithuania, then you could log onto the library website, find whatever databases provide information about 16th century folk dancing and begin to identify articles and book chapters that you will eventually read for your paper. You could then begin to collect them. (Another big advantage of this is that you can take advantage of Interlibrary Loan to get articles not available on this campus-getting something through interlibrary loan may take several weeks, so getting started early is helpful.)

AND, did you know that there is an Honors College Librarian? There is. Her name is Jean McLaughlin. Her office is located in the main library. If, for example, you are finding it difficult to find articles on 16th-century Lithuanian folk dances, then e-mail her and ask for help. Identify yourself as a student in The Honors College. At this time in the semester, she is likely to be less busy than later, so this would be a great time to get some information on finding the information you will need for your assignments later in the semester.

Finally, I know from walking around Indian Quad that it seems as if many students are just hanging around and not doing any work. This is probably true. Try not to let them influence how and when you study. Be brave; do what you know is right and what you need to do.

onward and upward,