Thursday, August 28, 2008

Flash Drives

Also known as "thumb drives" (if you're very old, I guess, and have a very small thumb).

This has got to be one of the finest inventions of the computer age. I have three of them. The joy is that they're almost totally device-independent (which means they don't care what kind of computer they're plugged into) and quite stable and robust. You do need one (or more—I have three). But I do have some advice:

  • The worst thing about flash drives is that they are easy to lose. Protect yourself. Don't use a flash drive as your only storage place for important stuff. Make sure you frequently back up the drive (your campus server account is a great place to put flash drive info).
  • A flash drive is robust, but not indestructible. Don't run it through the washing machine. If it sticks out of the front of your desktop computer, try not to hit it. One of my students used his for a foot rest, and for some reason it stopped working.
  • They're very easy to leave in a computer lab. I've done it a lot myself. Try to get in the habit of checking any school computer for your flash before you leave. (By the way, you probably shouldn't put anything potentially embarrassing on the flash, just in case it falls into the wrong hands.)
  • You really don't need to spend a lot of money on one. The flash drives with incredibly large capacity were made to store a lot of music and/or photos and/or movies. If you're just storing material for college writing (and backing up your information), a $10 drive should be just fine.
  • Do, however, look at the physical size of your drive. Some of them have very large, bulky, and unnecessary plastic cases around them. Fat drives are a problem on some computers. Buy something slim. A few drives I've seen have a very short plug, combined with a fat body, so they can't even reach into all computer plugs. (I own one like this.) The answer to all these problems is to buy a very simple and cheap short USB extension cord.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Classifying Students

Warning! Politically incorrect message follows!

School begins in less than a week, and all the usual teacher stuff is happening. Department meetings are taking place this week to tell us at the last second that we have to change what we planned for the semester. Copiers are breaking down. Software for online courses is seizing up. Just the usual stuff. I've been at this game for a long time and I know who I'll be meeting this coming Monday. My students break down into several categories that are very obvious from the first week or so.

Top Students
Motivated, well prepared, eager to learn and able to write from day one. These students are often frustrated by my classes because the assignments and the lectures really are below them. Some of them write better than I do.

Bottom of the heap and see no hope
Students walk in and announce, "I can't write, and I never could. No force on earth can turn me into a person who can understand a written page or write something that makes sense." I think some of these people have been mistreated by previous teachers, and now they are making excuses for the lack of effort they will show during the semester. Until this kind of person loses this attitude, there's not much I can do.

Bottom of the heap and arrogant about it
These people come in several flavors:

  • "This class is a waste of time because I'll never write anything anyhow." These students don't understand the realities of the modern business world, but they are probably right about never writing anything again—though they will have to learn to say the phrase, "Would you like fries with that?"
  • "I learned it differently in high school (or somewhere else), so the whole English department is wrong." Let me ask you a gentle question: who is likely to know more—someone who remembers what was said to a class of 14-year-olds by a teacher with a bachelor's degree in general education, or a college lecturer with a master's or doctorate in English composition?
  • "My brand of English is the only right one, so most of what you are telling me is wrong." Whatever you speak—white Kentucky rural, black inner-city, or California surfer—is the only legitimate English? And the people who run businesses and colleges (and give out the money and power) are all wrong? Amazing! Good luck!

Most of my students are in the middle
Kind of OK about writing and grammar and all that. Kind of frightened. Not too sure about how to proceed. This is the easiest group to teach, so most of what I do is aimed here.

What you can do

Top Students: Don't tune out. Stretch yourself. Ask the teacher for permission to do things that might be beyond the basic assignment. Have fun with English composition.

Desperate and frightened: Spend a lot of time with people in the writing lab. Talk to your English teacher about your fears. Don't give up on yourself or take failure as part of your essential identity.

Arrogant: Lose the attitude. College is a waste of time for you if you didn't come here to be changed into something different and better. There's really nothing I can teach you if you're fighting every inch of the way. (By the way, you'll probably fail the course because doing the assignments right and on-time just won't be your thing.)

The ones in the middle: Sometimes you need to pretend you're in the top group: write imaginative stuff, have fun with the assignments, and ask for more intensive work. Sometimes you need to pretend you're in the "Desperate and frightened" group: visit the writing lab and learn to trust in your own abilities. Aim at getting really good at writing.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Daily writing assignments

Lots of courses have little writing assignments, perhaps a page or two at a time. Don't fret. They (probably) aren't going to be graded that tightly on grammar, though you should run the spelling/grammar checker when you write them. Teachers assign these things to find out whether you are actually doing the reading and to get you thinking the way the course thinks. Often these assignments are read very quickly, and the main benefit is to lubricate your brain for class discussion.


  • Actually write them and turn them in. They count for a grade.
  • Think of them as a time to practice the crafts of thinking and writing.
  • Try to think and write the way the course thinks and writes.


  • Be satisfied with a five-word answer. The teacher will think (with some justification) that you didn't give a hoot.
  • Use them as a chance to tell the teacher just what you think of this terrible assignment. The teacher probably thought the assignment was pretty good, and when you say it sucked, you are alienating the guy with the red pen. And there's the possibility that the teacher (and the source material if you had to do some reading) might really know something that you need to take in. Get humble. Figure it out. You aren't the caped crusader, riding in to fix everything that's wrong with the English department.
  • And finally, don't write that you can't figure out this kind of assignment. If you're truly lost, schedule an office appointment with the teacher. This sort of short writing isn't the place to complain about (or even glory in) your ignorance.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Why are titles so difficult?

I'm not talking about coming up with a title to your own essay (though that's pretty difficult for most students too). I'm just talking about basic punctuation. Hardly anybody (like maybe 10% of my students) can do it right, even after I show them how and give them quizzes to check their progress.

It's annoying because this is material that should have been learned in the third grade. It's not a matter of opinion, just a rule. And it has been the same for at least 50 years.

But nobody does it right, and after you read this, you won't either. I can't imagine why.

One More Try

Capitalization and Spelling
If you are referring to something someone else has written, do it their way. Don't fix or change the spelling. The ordinary rule for capitalizing titles is initial caps on everything except small words buried in the middle of the title. Got it?

Titles of big stuff
By "big" I mean books, newspapers, magazines, movies, and TV series. Italicize the whole title. Don't underline it. No quotation marks around it. And certianly don't give it everything: italics and quotes and maybe boldface. Incredibly hard, I know, but that's the rule. Just italics.

  • Will & Grace
  • Batman Begins
  • The Scarlet Letter
  • NOT Batman Begins or "Batman Begins" or "Batman Begins" or Batman Begins

Titles of small stuff
By "small stuff" I mean individual short stories, individual poems (less than book length), episodes of TV series, or articles in newspapers. This rule is even more difficult than the previous one. Put the title in double quotation marks. Not single quotes. Don't italicize or underline or boldface or anything like that—ordinary type.

  • "A Rose for Emily" not A Rose for Emily or anything else.

Ignore Microsoft

They are trying to bring a corporate Microsoft look to your papers (and probably a bit of Broadway too). Just do it the English department way. And ask someone if you don't know how. These rules are actually pretty well known (and show up in all the grammar textbooks).

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Your Bookshelf

I'm going to assume that you don't have much space, so here's a very minimum list of the books you need to have at college (in addition to the required textbooks)

There are several reasons you want actual books, not just online resources. The major one is that internet connections have a nasty habit of failing you at exactly the moment you need to look up "dialectic." They are also slower than having a real book, and don't encourage you to browse up and down the page for similar ideas.

Probably the most important reason is completeness. When I looked up the online discussion of "active and passive voice verbs" in our grammar book, I got a whole 150 words, just enough to tell you how to identify them and that you should probably avoid the passive voice. Hacker's handbook gives 3½ pages, complete with a discussion of places where a passive voice sentence is a better idea, suggestions for editing, and examples. The online resource had exactly one example (and one practice sentence). If you like "college lite," I guess the online grammar thingy is OK, but for those who actually want to learn something, a book is a much better idea.

A Dictionary
Yes, I know that some online dictionaries are quite good (my favorite is Merriam-Webster), but you do need a good, substantial paper dictionary. My favorite in this department is also Merriam-Webster

A Thesaurus
I like the kind that is not made like a dictionary. Roget's International Thesaurus has a system of index numbers at the back that takes you to pages and pages of related ideas, not just a near synonym.

A Grammar Handbook
You probably were required to buy one for Freshman Composition anyhow—but many colleges are going over to online versions. That's a sad thing, because you won't be able to use your handbook after the first year (and those online versions are notoriously difficult to use). Take advantage of the used book mess, and buy yourself a slightly outdated copy of a major handbook. (To give you an idea of price, one book goes for $75 new, but a used previous edition is $3.25.) Here are my recommendations, in order:

  • Rules for Writers by Diana Hacker
  • Little, Brown Handbook by H. Ramsey Fowler and Jane E. Aaron
  • Keys For Writers by Ann Raimes
  • Quick Access Reference for Writers by Lynn Quitman Troyka
  • Prentice Hall Reference Guide to Grammar & Usage by Muriel G. Harris
  • Scribner Handbook for Writers by Robert DiYanni and Pat C. Hoy

If you get into literature

MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers
by Joseph Gibaldi This is really the mother lode of information for English majors, and it's inexpensive! Buy the most recent edition.

A Bible
I'm listing this for literary reasons, not spiritual ones, though I think a habit of Bible-reading is a good one for you to have. A very large number of literary references and allusions go back to the Bible (almost always to the King James Version).

For many of the same reasons you bought that Bible. Get your Shakespeare at a used bookstore and find a "Complete Works."

A Literature Anthology
Get a slightly outdated college textbook used (I'm thinking of Norton or Bedford). You'll appreciate the "how-to" sections when you want to write about poetry or drama, and you'll use it to dig up works by some of the standard authors. Some of the more recent college texts are surprisingly unbalanced—one managed to get through English poetry without a single reference to anything Christian (which meant that John Donne and John Milton were forgotten). The standard works are a nice balance.

At the end of your freshman year, don't:

Don't assume that all of your writing is done with. Don't ditch all your writing books. There just might come a time when you need to write a job application letter or a lab report or a scientific paper. It always makes me sad when students figure that Freshman English is a little like chicken pox: makes you sick, but when it's done with you can forget it for the rest of your life. Maybe that's OK for the fools, but you have a duty to yourself not to be a fool.

Keep your basic library and assume that you'll have to write for years and years.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Apple Survival

I understand (from Apple advertisements, actually) that Apple is now the favorite college campus laptop. I think that's great. I have two Apples and love them, but if you have one, you need to be aware of some basic politics and/or technical issues.

Though Apple might be very popular among students, most campuses are run like big businesses, and have a very hard time ignoring Microsoft's clout. This means that many campus services are set up to work best with Windows and Internet Explorer (things like email, course download sites, etc.). To make things worse, apparently the newest Apple operating system (the one that's been out since October 2007) is different enough from the previous one that it simply doesn't work with some of these Microsoft sites. What to do?

  • Until recently, I would have recommended Firefox as a web browser, but it has trouble with PDF files (screen shots of printed pages). You should try Safari, Apple's built-in browser, first (and ignore warning messages about unsupported browsers). If you have trouble, you can always get Firefox. It's a free, stable download.
  • One of my college servers refuses to accept uploads from the newest Apple operating system, so I use a third-party uploader called Cyberduck.
  • Many of your professors still think that DOC and DOCX files are some sort of universal file format. They aren't, but you probably shouldn't tell the prof that. Instead, you can open them using TextEdit, iWork or NeoOffice. If you have to send anything TO these professors, make sure it's either a DOC or an RTF file.
  • Of course, if you're having trouble getting your Apple to talk to the University, you could simply go to a writing lab and use one of their machines.
  • You could simply buy a copy of the Windows operating system and set up your Apple as a dual-boot machine. I'd call this a last-resort answer because it costs money—and you'll have to invest in an anti-virus program and download an anti-spyware program too (because Windows is so vulnerable to those problems).

BTW: If you ever do a website of your own, please make it standard HTML, not something that requires the rest of us to buy a specific piece of equipment.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Using THAT Word

Every so often I get a student who thinks that (since we're now in college and we're all big boys and girls) it's OK to use the "F" word in an essay. Or some other troubling word, perhaps the "N" word. And I've had students appear in class wearing T-shirts with astonishing words on them (one had cartoons of women's breasts with cute little labels below them, classifying them).

Well yes, we're big boys and girls. In fact, we're bigger than that.

Two questions are really basic to all writing:

  1. Who is your audience? Perhaps some of the people in the room fit best into the "bunch of teenage drunks telling dirty stories" audience, but not all of them do. One in particular who doesn't is the teacher, the guy with the red pen. This red-pen guy also knows that he has a responsibility to protect the interests of everyone in the room, so a T-shirt that offends women, an essay that disparages a minority, or an essay that is generally offensive becomes a problem

  2. What are you trying to do to your audience? There are a lot of legitimate answers to this question: entertain, inform, persuade, and so forth. I doubt if "convince your audience that the author is insensitive and immature" is an aim you should pursue. And if nobody is on your side by the end of the essay, you can't accomplish any aim besides alienating them.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Scary Stuff in Essays

Cleaning out my files (I seem to do that a lot) I came across an essay that gave me the creeps. It gave me the creeps when the student first submitted it. The assignment was to produce a "Researched Opinion Paper." The student wrote a paper advocating torture and execution of sex offenders. Creepy enough when I say it that way, but the level of violence and anger in the writing led me to forward a copy to my supervisor and ask for his opinion. He thought that the student was just an immature blowhard. I hope he's right—we've seen plenty of media examples of people who gave out signals and then did terrible things to people.

Stuff I will report

Many students have been taught in high school that an English paper is the place to dump their deepest feelings and emotions—and that there's some sort of patient/counselor privilege in place, similar to what happens in a psychiatrist's office. Not so.

I'm going to refer anyone who seems to be sending signals about threats of violence and/or damage. If a student writes a suicide note or a threat to harm another person (or even University property), I'll send a copy to my supervisor for advice. It may turn out that the college has an interest in, for example, keeping a student from blowing up someone or something. These papers are not, after all, private messages. They aren't internal musings of a writer. They are public. Which brings up another issue:

Things you shouldn't write anyhow

Quite some time ago, a student wrote about being raped, then pleaded with me not to let anyone else in the class read it. I'm glad, in a way, that she trusted me and that she's dealing with her emotions, but that's not quite appropriate. I'd much rather have her talking to a counselor. I can't guarantee that the other members of the class who read this thing during peer editing will keep her secrets for her. I've had people discuss illegal acts, humiliating secrets, and stuff that's just too private. It's very tempting, when you discover the power of writing, to use it to begin a healing process in yourself. And I encourage you to do so. But do consider whether you want a couple dozen strangers to read your writing. If it's OK, then go ahead. If not, perhaps you should write something else for public consumption and put your private thoughts in a diary or journal. Not on a public blog.

On the other hand

This isn't to say you should always stay "safe." Last semester I asked my students to write a reaction to Andrew Sullivan's "The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage." One student wrote in support of Sullivan, and commented during class discussion that her father is gay and she wanted to make a statement in support of him. You don't have to "play nice" or always be safe. Just be sure that you want your writing to be read by a large group of strangers.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Following Instructions

One of my colleagues who teaches developmental math courses is always dismayed when his students give him assignments. He tells them to put the assignments on graph paper. They don't. Never mind whether you like the look of graph paper or whether you understand the reason behind the assignment—the man with the red pen who is trying to decide whether to pass you has asked for something. Maybe it would be a good idea to give it to him.

Most of us in the teaching profession are used to students who can't follow the simplest instructions. I ask my students to use the MLA Page Format. I get fancy type, huge margins, and colored ink. I ask my students to choose between two essays to analyze. I get a discussion of a book I've never heard of. I ask for 1000 words minimum. I get 650.

Analyzing your audience

When you write something for Freshman Comp, the assignment may specify an audience, but you should always remember that the teacher is going to read this thing and try to decide what grade to give you. Don't tempt the teacher to say, "Here's a fool who can't follow the most basic instructions." Specifically:

  • Due date. Assume it's cast in concrete. Assume that you need to solve any problems that get in the way of meeting the deadline (computer ink, roommate disasters).

  • Assignment length. Assume that's also cast in concrete. A typical college assignment is more than 1000 words (that's more than 3 pages), and a typical freshman semester will assign about twenty pages of total writing. That's more than you have ever done in your life. Most of your high school essays were probably in the 250-500 word range (if they were that long). Take a deep breath. Visit the Writing Center, and assume that you really do need to meet the assigned length.

  • Topic and treatment. Some teachers allow latitude; some don't. If you really don't want to write the assigned topic, talk to the teacher and see if there's a possibility of changing things. Whatever you do, don't simply scan the assignment, pick up on one key word, and start inventing. You have to actually read the assignment!

  • Other stuff. Depending on the course and instructor, you may have to include a Works Cited page, a summary of reading, or some other extra material. Nobody will give you a good grade if you're simply too lazy or disorganized to do these things.

None of this guarantees a good grade; I've seen plenty of neat, pretty papers that fulfilled the assignment but were really insufficient quality. On the other hand, why on earth jeopardize your grade? This isn't (as I said about another issue) the deep magic. It's simply doing the basics.

More persuasion

Read your professor's assignment sheet or syllabus. I did a Google search for other professors' assignment statements. Here's an assortment:

  • Failure to conform to formatting requirements can result in return of the paper for corrections or mark deductions.

  • A warning: too many of my students in the past have treated this as a trivial assignment and have not executed it carefully. The impact on their final grade was less than trivial.

  • Read these instructions before you begin.
    Read them after you begin.
    Read them before you turn the paper in!
    Many students lose marks because they do not follow directions.

You get the idea. It's not just your teacher. All teachers have requirements that you are supposed to meet.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

I NEED That Job!

Today, the minimum wage officially went up to $6.55 per hour. That's an awfully appealing number, and I know that a lot of my students (particularly in afternoon classes) will ditch class when the job demands their presence. A lot of them will get terrible grades.

Many of my students need to work. I did. Of the twelve years or so that I was in college, I only avoided having a job for one semester.

I know that when there's a conflict between job and school, the job always wins, at least nowadays.

Now let's think about this for a moment. Are there a lot of minimum wage jobs out there? If your McDonald's manager decides she doesn't need you, is that the last fast food job in town? Is there no job wiping tables, digging sewers, or planting trees? (All jobs I had while I was in school) On the other hand, if you miss English class are you cutting yourself out of a job that's better than minimum wage? Will you easily find another college if you flunk out of this one?


Say this slowly and carefully: "College IS my job right now!" Everything else is secondary. Or to put it another way, which of these is the supreme item that has a right to push everything else (including study) off your calendar?

  • Minimum wage job at a fast food place?
  • Counseling your loony roommate/girlfriend/other?
  • Family obligations?
  • Drinking and partying?
  • Social, political, or religious club?
  • Sex
  • Finding a spouse

Once you figure out what's number one (and there can really be only one number one), you know what's going to happen in your life. And if your priorities are (1) Parties, (2) Booze, (3) Sex, (4) Part-Time Job, and (5) College classwork, please don't complain when you only have enough time and mental resources to take care of numbers one through four and number five has to slide.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Gatekeeper Courses

This is an ugly subject, and many educators will flatly deny that their colleges have "gatekeeper courses." But they do. Sixty years (or more) ago, we could assume several things. High schools were doing a good job of basic education, and for most people a high school diploma was their grandest achievement. (Take a look at this 8th grade final exam from Kansas in 1895). For the lucky few who managed to gain entrance to a college, everyone could assume a high level of preparation.

Not so any more.

Beginning in the 1960s, America engaged in an enormous educational experiment. Almost everyone who wants to can graduate high school. And almost everyone who wants to can get into college. EVERYONE!

This means that a lot of very unprepared people with very poor habits are in our freshman classes. One of my colleagues in the math department has to teach students how to convert a common fraction into a decimal. I often have to point out that the first person pronoun "I" is capitalized. Lots of stuff that should have been covered in the third or fourth grade just didn't get learned. My students are often surprised that they have to actually show up for every class. One informed me that his high school English teacher gave him a "C" because she knew how much he loved basketball and she didn't want him to be ineligible to play. Thus the need for gatekeeper courses: a filter to give everyone a chance, but weed out the ones who simply won't succeed as sophomores.

Characteristics of a Gatekeeper Course

  • Absolutely everyone has to take the course. Freshman English and math are good examples.

  • The stress is on skills that should have been learned a long time ago. Thus (again) English and math, but not necessarily art history.

  • Some of the requirements seem a little childish. When I was a freshman, my math homework had to be fastened together with one staple. Two staples would lose me points. When I teach a course, I take attendance every day and count it as a major component of the grade. Why all the trivia? Some people need to know that when a teacher (or supervisor at work) says to do something, it's really necessary to do it.

  • Lots of people fail. I'm known as a fairly easy teacher. Two thirds of my students can proceed to the next class. One third must repeat. I've seen failure rates as high as 75%.

What all this means to you

  • You have to take the course seriously. Chances are that someone is looking for a way to clean the deadwood out of the freshman class. Don't provide an opportunity.

  • This stuff isn't brain surgery. Showing up on time, shutting off the cell phone, and turning in homework on time aren't exactly the material for a course in "the deeper magic." If you never really did learn how to do basic arithmetic or basic sentence grammar, it's easy to find someone to help—and this material should have been in place by the time you were fourteen years old.

  • Some gatekeeper teachers hate doing this. Another inconvenient truth: these courses burn teachers out. If you provide more fuel for that burnout, don't be surprised if you are the one who suffers. On the other hand, a student who makes a real effort to do well and cooperate will often find a gatekeeper teacher to be a real friend.

A word about retention

One buzzword at public colleges is "retention." Can we keep the students? Colleges don't look good when a lot of people fail, so we'd love to hold on to the qualified ones. In no particular order, here are some of the reasons my students fail, and the college's attempt to remedy:

  • Immaturity. Students on athletic scholarships have to answer to their coaches if they are failing. I often send memos to coaches when students have problems attending. We send out midterm grades to all students who are failing.

  • Alcohol. Nationwide, about 25% of college freshmen have a drinking problem severe enough to interfere with their studies. All colleges now enforce rules against underage drinking. Almost all colleges have counseling services available to students concerned about their substance abuse.

  • Other personal issues. Whether the issue is depression, pregnancy, or simple homesickness, colleges have free (and confidential) counseling services for all students.

  • Lack of skills. Almost all English and math departments have tutoring labs (again, they are free). Sadly, few of my students (and almost none of the ones who need it most) can be persuaded to accept this form of help.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Is a Teacher Ever Right?

I'm doing my typical summer thing: getting material ready for the beginning of classes in late August. At one of my schools, we have an electronic grammar book, and we need to go to a special website to sign in.

It never works.

The problem is that our school has cut a deal with the publisher so that we get two years of access instead of one, but we have to use that special website to get in, not the general one everyone else uses.

I give the students a handout in class. I put a link on my website. I fire up the projector and show them how to do it.

And it doesn't work. A significant number, perhaps 20%, figure that I don't know what I'm talking about. They refuse to follow my instructions, and the general login site rejects them. They have to use the special one.

Which raises an interesting question:

What's the point of actually attending college? (Aside from the beer and sex, of course.) It would be much cheaper to simply buy the textbooks at an ordinary bookstore, hang out in a library, and read them. If messing about on the computer is your thing, it's a lot cheaper to go to one of those bread-and-salad restaurants that has free internet connection, buy lunch, and get online. The food would be better too.

As far as I can see, the only real reason to spend that money and time is that the college brings together a large number of people who know more than you do, all with the purpose of teaching and coaching you. And if your attitude is that these people are idiots—well—why bother?

Another view

A few years ago, one of my second-semester students informed me that he didn't actually need college for anything. He'd learned everything there was to know when he was in high school. He just needed the actual diploma so he could get more money. He was an engineer. Here's an e-mail he wrote to me after I had been out sick for two days:

just writting you to see how your doing and to yell at you i did my writing assinment last wensday to get it out of the way for friday and yep there was no class and then monday yep no class agian hehe im just kidding its just funny that the first time i do my work ahead of time is the only time i didnt have too. well im still working on my first wrighting assinment so i can make it better and if you could look over my grades and see if i have a chance of making a B+ that would be very helpfull i usally aim for the A but i think my first paper messed that up

I hope I never have to drive over a bridge he designed.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Caring for Your Body

A surprising number of my students fail because of health issues. Of course, some things cannot be avoided, but you'd be amazed how many times student failure is simply a matter of poor self-care.

  • Don't engage in binge drinking. That means don't drink five or more beers/shots/glasses of wine in an evening. The number is four if you're a woman. Lots of bad stuff happens to binge drinkers: alcohol poisoning, broken bones, fist fights, car wrecks, unwelcome sex.

  • As a matter of fact, you should limit your drinking to Friday and Saturday night—not Thursday or Sunday. You need to go to class without a hangover.

  • Eat healthy. Pizza, pop, and Doritos are just fine once in a while, but that shouldn't be your daily diet. Find a way to work in some vegetables and fruits. Our campus food is finally working away from "Deep-fried paradise," but you need to actually choose good food. You mother isn't there to yell at you if you eat Oreos for breakfast.

  • Find a way to get some exercise. If you aren't an athlete, the campus gym is still available for such things as jogging and swimming. Walk briskly between classes. Use the stairs, not the elevator.

  • Build a lifestyle that includes at least eight hours of sleep a night. This means getting your assignments done early so you don't do the all-nighters (which usually produce terrible writing anyhow) and getting your roommate to shut up at midnight.

What happens if you don't?

  • The Freshman Fifteen (or twenty or thirty). Poor eating habits and lack of exercise mean that most freshmen gain 10% to 20% in body weight—all fat.

  • Sleeping in class. It's not just your physical body we want—your mind must be here too.

  • Depression. Lack of sleep, poor nutrition, frustration with studies (because your body isn't allowing you to do a good job), and a poor body image all add up to a recipe for depression.

  • Sickness. If you aren't getting vitamins or sleep, and you're crammed into a tight space with other people, you will almost inevitably get colds, flu, and the like.

  • All the problems associated with drinking. It's not just the binge drinkers who have trouble with class. College freshman drinking (which is almost always illegal anyhow) isn't usually a polite glass of wine with supper. It's the stuff that destroys your academic career and your life: Tuesday hangovers, showing up for class plastered, trips to the emergency room, unwanted pregnancy and/or STDs, visits to the police station.

Consider college classes as your job. If you are habitually late or absent at a fast food job, you'll get fired. If you show up and you are physically unable to perform, you'll get fired. Same principle here: aim at zero absences and maximum health.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Do I HAVE to Read That?

The average freshman has to spend a fortune on books. You've already figured that out, and you're probably upset/angry/afraid. (Just to give you some numbers, my students will pay between $66 and $100 for books for our course, but that's only because I'm pretty conservative about ordering).

Do you have to actually read these things?

What an interesting question.

In high school classes, perhaps you would be assigned to read a section, then during class "discussions" parrot back the book's language when called upon. Trivia is great stuff for short answer quizzes: definition of a sestina, name of George Washington's horse. Some courses really need this kind of information. There's not much you can do with organic chemistry until you actually know how carbon atoms work. You'll do a lot better discussing Shakespeare's sonnets if you know how many lines a sonnet has and why they are grouped in a certain way. Many courses, though, don't do daily testing on trivia. The professors expect you to keep up with the reading because it's background information that will help you understand the lecture and/or material that will help you write a paper and/or material that will broaden your understanding of the subject.

But do you HAVE to read the textbook if you're not going to get tested on trivia? Well, no. It does seem a shame, though, to show up at college, pay the money for tuition and books, and make a point of staying ignorant.

Unless, of course, you are just here for the beer and sex.

Now for the rest of you:

Assuming you see more to higher education than just getting high, here's what one teacher thinks you should do with textbooks.

  • When you read a textbook, you get more than one teacher. It's me plus the textbook author. Even better, if you don't understand the textbook author, you can stop and grab a dictionary.

  • Tip of the iceberg. A one-hour lecture doesn't allow me to be as complete as a textbook chapter. The book has examples, illustrations, and even pictures. I'll explain points that seem to be difficult and answer questions raised by the text.

  • Disagreement: Sometimes I do differ from the textbook author, and I'll mention that. You need to see that some issues have more than one side.

  • Basic definitions and explanations. Why should I go into detail about nuts-and-bolts stuff that the textbook has covered very well? I assume you can read and that you've done it. That way I can build on your understanding.

And just because I live in a real world and know that my freshmen need to build a few good habits, I really will give brief reading quizzes, just to make sure you have cracked open the book.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Your Car is Your Friend

Even in these days of insane gasoline prices, many freshmen commute. Think of your car as an educational device, and make it part of your college strategy.
  • If you have a choice which car to drive to school (or if you're buying one for commuting), go for substance, not style. You want the gray Toyota Corolla, not the pimped-out ride. People steal things from the pimped-out rides. People back into your car in the lot. Probably the worst choice for a commuter car is the refugee from the Monster Truck Rally. A nine-foot-tall four wheel drive truck with off road lights, tires two feet wide, and a total length approaching 30 feet simply won't fit into most university parking.
  • The university cops really do mean every word they say, especially when they write parking regulations. They really will put a boot on your car if you don't have a sticker. They really will charge $300 to take it off.
  • Even if you have a rusted out beater car, take it to a mechanic and make sure it will start on a cold morning. Buy that new battery.
  • Learn to drive on snow.
  • You really do need tread on your tires, especially in bad weather.
  • Learn to drive in a parking garage. No, the speed limit isn't 40 mph.
  • Stock your car with spare stuff: pens, spiral notebooks, an energy bar. Some morning, you'll forget to put those things in your back pack.
  • Leave home early. Allow extra time.
  • Buy gas on the way home. You won't have time in the morning.
  • No, you can't use your car to move from one class to another, even on a really large campus. There are usually shuttle buses if it's too far to walk.
  • Do a test run the week before classes begin.
  • Relax. The first week of commuting is the worst. Nobody knows where they are going; twice as many cars are on campus; nothing seems to work right. It will get better.
  • Study the campus parking map to learn where else to park your car.
  • Try to find someone to walk with you if you have to return to your car after dark.
  • Allow time to walk from your car to your classes.
  • Don't do road rage.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Scheduling Classes

In one way, all colleges are the same. All ask you to come up with a schedule before you know a single thing about the college itself (physical layout of the campus or professors or requirements) or your own needs and desires. One other similarity seems to bind all colleges: students claim their academic advisers are useless.

In a spirit of avuncular advice (great word), here are a few scheduling basics (in no particular order).

Consider campus geography. Even a small campus such as Ashland University has classes in several different buildings. If you have a class in Bixler, there's no way you can get to over to Schar in less than ten minutes. A big place like Akron is, of course, much worse. To walk all the way from Olin to Polsky takes a minimum of 25 minutes (assuming that you're in good physical shape and hit the traffic lights right). The moral of the story: when you make your summer campus visit, walk the place and time yourself. Don't schedule things back-to-back unless they are in the same building.

Eight o'clocks. Recently I read a study which claimed that the older adolescent brain doesn't have the same circadian rhythm as an adult brain—and that "older adolescent" extends to 22 years old. This means that the college freshman's body wants to sleep from 2 a.m. to 10 a.m. Nobody has told school administrators this one, so a LOT of freshman classes are scheduled for 8 a.m. (Sometimes even earlier!) Do your best to avoid these, even if you think you're an early bird. If you're stuck with eight o'clock classes, work really hard to be awake for them: allow at least 90 minutes for shower, food, and commute.

Speaking of commuting: If you've never driven in a rush hour, you don't realize that it takes twice as long to get there during a "rush." Most larger cities calm down by 9 a.m. and begin to get intense again around 4, so work around that schedule if you can.

What to take #1: Some courses are pretty much required for everyone (Freshman English is a good example). Others are pretty much required for everyone in a particular field (Engineers should just plan on taking calculus). You might as well study the college catalog and figure out what these "everyone" courses are and work on them from the beginning. You don't want to get caught at the end of your sophomore year needing basic courses so you can proceed.

What to take #2: "Prerequisite" means that you can't take course number two until you pass number one. You need to take these things seriously because the college will. Keep track of the courses you've taken and the requirements for your curriculum. You don't want to arrive at the end of four years and learn that you really needed a sophomore literature course.

What to take #3: It's a good idea to do a bit of detective work. There's nothing wrong with asking people whether they liked Professor Jones (but be aware that a lousy student will tell you that he hated everyone). There's certainly nothing wrong with visiting Professor Jones during his office hours and asking him what his course will be like next semester. When someone says that Professor Jones was a "good professor," ask what "good" means. Easy? Interesting? Thought-provoking?

When to schedule things. ASAP. Classes fill up. As soon as the computer will let you register, do it!

Friday, July 4, 2008

Only one thing is missing

It's happened again. Almost every time I teach a course, a student approaches me with the comment that this is the second time around. Usually the complaint is that the student was really wonderful—did all the work, got good grades, etc. Only one thing was fouled up, usually a major paper that was worth a lot of points. And of course, the previous teacher (who was, the student assures me, a real bastard) didn't have any mercy. With a missing paper that was worth 30% of the course and a pretty good average on the rest of the course, the student had a total average of 60% and failed. How unfair!

Now comes the punch line.

These students usually assume that they don't need to do anything for my course except the missing paper. They never attend, turn in homework, or anything like that. The next time I'll see them is on the last day of class. Then I fail them because their average is something like 30%.

How unfair!

I don't know how your high school worked grades, but in college it's not exactly like filling a tank of gasoline. If I have a 12-gallon tank on my car, there's really nothing wrong with putting in six gallons here, three at the next station, and three at the station after that. College courses are more like video games. Yesterday I was playing a Legos Star Wars game with a friend. Every time I fell in the hot lava, I had to begin that stage again. I didn't get to simply climb out of the hot lava—I had to go all the way back to the entrance to the cave and jump from one rock to the next, redoing all the work I had just done.

College is like that. Teachers don't forward their grade books and say, "Suzie Student did very well, but screwed up the last test, so if you will simply let her take that last test we can pass her." Nope. You have to do the whole course all over again. And if you don't choose to show up and do the work in my course, I'll fail you too.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Just finding a place to put your car—sounds so easy, but it's near the top of "things that make me crazy." A few random thoughts:
  1. You should assume the worst: schedule a full half hour for the search for a parking place. If you do better, bonanza! Don't forget to schedule time to walk from a distant parking place to your class.
  2. Never assume you can use the car to move from one class to another unless you've got a couple of hours between. (In that case, why not simply walk over to the Union and get a coffee while you read?)
  3. Be aware of special campus events that will preempt your parking, and have a backup plan. (Last year a special president's fundraiser put 1000 visitors on campus—one to a car—during a peak class time.)
  4. See if you can figure out when the peak times for parking occur. Show up during off-peak times and study while you're waiting for class.
  5. Carpool.
  6. Campus cops really do enforce the parking regulations. You can't get out of the fine.
  7. Smart people always lock their cars. Smart people don't lock the keys inside. (But if you do lock your keys in the car, call the campus cops before you call a locksmith. You might get in for less money, and you'll avoid the suspicion of car theft.)
  8. Smart people don't leave obviously-expensive junk lying in their cars, inviting thieves.
  9. Smart people find parking places that are reasonably well-lit and near civilization. Really smart people don't go back to their cars alone at night. (Your campus cops might have an escort service.)
Something to consider

The campus parking garage is filled with people who only have two years' driving experience, are late to class, and have never been in a parking garage before. They are desperate, foolish, and inept. Don't get in their way. And don't be desperate, foolish, and inept yourself.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Having an attitude

An amazing number of students show up on college campuses with attitudes that simply fight them. This kind of thinking almost guarantees that college will be a dreary struggle (and probably a losing battle).

I'm an idiot

This blog is about Freshman English, so I'll focus here. A great deal of high school teaching (apparently) focused on the idea that the students need to be ground down to a powder. When I was a high school senior, my English teacher announced to the class that no high school student could ever write well enough to get an "A". No, you're not necessarily an idiot. You need to believe in yourself and your abilities before you can hope to make any progress.

I'm God's gift to the world

A little balance is nice, though. One of my students (who had distinctly limited grammatical skills) walked in the first day and began pointing out all the errors in the textbook. I'm not sure what he was trying to prove, but he succeeded in proving that he didn't know what he was talking about or who he was talking to. You may have been the biggest fish in the pond, but college is a much larger and more competitive pond. And things that were valued in high school English (spilling your guts and piling up colorful adjectives) may not necessarily work that well in college.

My teacher is an idiot

I'm going to say this as gently as possible. There's an excellent chance that a college professor who has spent a decade or so gaining a degree might know more than you do. There's also an excellent chance that a professor with an advanced degree specializing in one area might know more than your high school teacher who had a bachelor's degree in education and a general knowledge of a whole bunch of stuff. Besides, college is incredibly expensive. Why on earth would you come here and waste your money on idiots? Stay home if you're that good!

Losing attitude

By the third class meeting I really can tell who will pass and who will fail. Students who saunter in five minutes late with an "I don't give a damn about this stuff" attitude probably will be lucky to get a D plus. They won't do the work, won't participate in class, and will succeed in irritating the teacher. Unfortunately, they don't realize several basic truths:

  • The point of college isn't simply to get a diploma; it's to become something different and better.
  • A freshman can't really change the system. It's too big and you're too small. If you want to fight, choose your battles wisely.
  • Teachers have the ultimate weapons: gradebooks.

Friday, June 20, 2008

What is in your backpack?

To begin with, we can easily divide freshmen into three groups. One group shows up to class with absolutely nothing—no pen, pencil, paper, textbook. This group will probably never become sophomores. Another group brings an entire office, often in a little wheeled suitcase. Then there is the majority, who carry a backpack. You in the majority are the group I'm talking to. The first aren't at all serious about this business of being a "student," and the suitcase group is prepared for all eventualities.

General Principles

Everyone forgets stuff at home, so you need a few backup items: paper, another pen, computer flash drive, etc. Put a $5 bill in your backpack so you can eat lunch, but don't put a credit card or your campus meal card in there (people steal stuff, remember). I like the idea of keeping a PowerBar for emergency food because they don't get crumbly and you can mash them in the bottom of the pack without damaging them too much. Think in terms of "emergency spare stuff."

Textbooks? You need to figure out what books will get used in class every day. Many classes don't refer to them at all (they are for homework), so don't haul them around if you don't need to. (And remember, people steal stuff.)

Cell phone? Certainly—but turn it off when you enter the classroom. By the way, if your campus has an emergency police number besides 911, program it in. Several violent crimes on my campuses have been thwarted because students put in the call.

Get organized

I really like the idea of accordion folders with dividers. You don't need the chaos of a backpack full of random wads of paper when it comes time to study. And for heaven's sake, don't do as one of my students did and put an open can of pop in the bottom of your pack!

Things nobody has, but everyone should:
Stapler, aspirin, cough drops, handkerchief, spare pen, highlight marker, PowerBar, $5 (only!) emergency money, list of emergency phone numbers (your roommate, for example), spare spiral notebook, charger for your computer, extra copy of the reading schedule for each course, folder to preserve essays and papers that you are going to turn in.

Things everyone has in a backpack, but shouldn't:
Things that leak, things that rot (tuna sandwich from last week), wallet, car keys, dorm room key, large amounts of money, credit cards, campus meal card, things that set off the alarm at the library, things that are illegal (or at least embarrassing if found), your only copy of a 20-page research paper you are about to turn in.

Whatever you do, don't:

Don't simply leave your backpack lying somewhere. It won't be there when you return. If the thieves don't get it, the campus cops will (thinking it could be a bomb).

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Taking Notes in Class

I wish I could give you a one-size-fits-all set of instructions for note-taking, but I can't. (I'll bet your college bookstore has a pamphlet that attempts this daunting task, though.) Here's why: everyone learns things differently, and every teacher teaches differently, so when I face a room with 25 students, I'm probably going to see 25 different learning styles. When those 25 students move on to the next class (with a different instructor), the new combination will yield another 25 possibilities. So far, fifty different possibilities for note-taking! In spite of the task, here are a few guidelines.


I simply do not respect the student who shows up in class empty-handed: no paper, no pen, no way to keep handouts I give (the trademark is the handout laying on the desk when this student leaves). That attitude says either that the student is going to remember everything that's important, or that nothing is important enough to write down. (It's always amusing to watch these students scrambling for writing material when I give a surprise quiz.) If you're serious about college (and intend to return next semester), you will need:

  • Something to write on. I like the feel of a legal pad, and it works well on the little half-desk most college classrooms use, but it does present an organizational problem. I've got to sort out my sheets, punch holes in them, and put them in some sort of notebook. A spiral notebook for each class would probably be smarter.

  • Something to write with. Pencils are probably the worst choice because the points break. I used to carry a fountain pen, but I know I'm alone on this. Cheap ballpoint pens are difficult to write with and run out of ink at the worst possible time (when they aren't vomiting blobs on ink on your notes). Whatever you use, it should be legible and unfussy. Keep a spare because you'll inevitably lose your pen or it will run out of ink. My first choice (after the fountain pen) would be a good-quality brand-name ballpoint.

  • A way to organize stuff. You'll probably have a backpack or purse or something, but you also need one of those plastic pocketed folders. That way you can put all the material for the same course in the same pocket: spiral notebook, incoming homework, classroom handouts. You don't want your papers fighting with your lunch, iPod, and personal items.

  • Laptop computer? I wouldn't recommend it. For one thing, your battery will probably fail at the worst possible moment. For another, the key-clicking will drive your professor and fellow students insane. For yet another, you'll be tempted to zone out into Facebook or Solitaire.


Taking notes for the sake of taking notes has some value because it keeps you awake and alert, but the most efficient note-taking always has a sense of purpose behind it. Why are you taking these notes? To know the answer to this one, you'll have to analyze the professor and the course so you can figure out what's important. Some professors and courses are focused on tiny details. If you need to know dates, numbers, and definitions, put those in your notes. Other professors are "big picture" teachers who want you to get the overall scope of relations between things.

What are you going to do with these notes? When I took a linguistics course, we'd work out problems in class, then do similar problems at home. Obviously, I had to know how these things worked so I could do it again on my own. My course in 19th century American poetry really stressed the changing meanings of words, and we were quizzed on definitions (as they would have been used in 1880). This stuff wasn't in textbooks, so I had to write it all down. My professor in a pedagogy course was an original thinker who kept throwing out and explaining his own ideas, and I wanted to keep some of them for further consideration. My business writing course was all details. The main thing I wrote down in my Walt Whitman class was ideas of my own that got generated by the classroom discussion and lecture (ideas that would eventually find their way into my papers).

You get the idea. You will need to know what the course is doing so you can take the right kind of notes.

Hint: If you do the assigned reading before class, you'll have a better idea what to put in your notes and you'll be hearing a lot of the material a second time (from a different perspective).


This is where individual preferences are strongest, so I'll only say a few words about my own notes. (I actually use all these styles.)

  • The running summary. Advantages: Keeps you involved with the lecture, doesn't require a lot of secondary thinking. Disadvantages: Doesn't emphasize anything very much, difficult to use when you study for a test.

  • The formal outline. Advantages: Forces you to consider what's important in the lecture, very easy to use when studying for a test. Disadvantage: distracting if you're not used to outlining (particularly if you're a neatness freak who has to have a "B" under every "A"). Don't get so focused on making an outline that you lose track of the lecture.

  • The controlled scribble. Advantages: no procedural thinking necessary, has room for non-lecture things. Disadvantage: can be too chaotic to be useful. This is actually my current style: I've got most of the content running up the middle of the page, with ideas for papers, due dates, grocery lists, and doodles on the edges.

  • Required elements. No matter how you take notes, you must have these things on each day's product:

    • Today's date.
    • Course name (if you're taking two science courses, the notes can look distressingly similar)
    • In-class announcements about changes in reading assignments, etc.
    • Ideas and brainstorms for your own research and writing.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Do I hate public school teachers?

Not really. Many of the comments in this blog sound as if I do, but my daughter, ex-wife, and uncle all are public school teachers. Several of my friends are. My aunt spent her whole professional career teaching special education classes in a school less than 200 yards from her front door. My daughter in law is a deaf interpreter in a public school. My public education roots run pretty deep.

I know that public school teachers work under an enormous bureaucratic burden. Every day seems to bring some bright new idea from the school board or law makers or someone, without any extra time or resources to implement them. Every low grade means a potential run-in with the principal and the kid's parents (by the way, when you get a poor grade in college, do not bring your parents to see the dean).

And yet, I've got a list of horror stories that all seem to say that something went wrong in the public education process.

  • Over half of my incoming students are totally clueless about basic English grammar issues: sentence fragments, run-ons, comma usage, and spelling. This isn't college material. It isn't even high school material. By the time you leave the fourth grade, you should know when to use there, their, and they're.

  • I asked a teacher why she teaches that sentences over a certain length are run-ons. She said, "It's easier than teaching them structure."

  • Students always arrive with their heads full of fake rules: "any sentence over seven words is a run-on," "you cannot use a semicolon more than three times on a page," "the word although always has a comma after it," and so on. None of these "rules" is correct; they all have the appearance of being invented by someone who didn't really understand grammar.

  • One of my students went to my supervisor (with her father) to complain that I was teaching commas wrong. Her high school teacher had said that you put in a comma every time you take a breath. (Do trained athletes need fewer commas? Do heavy smokers need more? There's another of those fake rules.)

  • One really poor student confided in me that his high school English teacher passed him because she knew how much he loved to play basketball, and she couldn't bring herself to deny him that. I often wonder how many of my other students have similar stories.

Now I know the fault isn't all with the teachers. I'm often astonished when a student tells me what I said to the class and somehow leaves out a "not" or a "don't." But things are so consistent and so many of my students write something that's nowhere near college English that I've got to wonder.

What this means to you

This blog wasn't intended to be my personal rants and complaints, though this entry certainly feels that way. It's addressed to high school seniors and college freshmen, and attempts to help you become better equipped to survive college English. I'll close with a four-step, guaranteed-to-help prescription.

  1. Spend some time every day reading quality stuff. I don't mean Facebook, USA Today, or Yahoo. I mean smart, well-edited material: quality fiction (go to a used bookstore and find an anthology that was used in college courses), big-city newspapers such as The Washington Post or The New York Times, or national news magazines.

  2. Decide that you're going to get good. Don't smugly assume that you are perfect because you got good grades in high school (after all, even the best student should become better at 18 years old than she was at 14). What would you do if you wanted to become really good at basketball? At skateboarding? At computer programming? You'd look at examples of excellence, you'd critique your own work, you'd ask for coaching, and you'd find books to read. Why not take the same approach to writing?

  3. When you write something, use one of the major word processing programs (Microsoft Word is actually quite good) and run the spelling/grammar checker. When you run it, don't mindlessly accept the first suggestion. You won't learn anything that way, and you'll probably stick in "defiantly" when you meant "definitely." For every suggestion it makes, ask what the program is suggesting, why it wants to make this change, and whether you want to accept the suggestion (the computer isn't always right, after all).

  4. Ask questions when something puzzles you. As I was writing this blog entry, I got an e-mail from a friend asking punctuation advice on an incredibly long sentence in a doctoral dissertation. I suggested enclosing a non-restrictive subordinate clause in commas. It's always OK to ask a more expert person for help.

Saturday, June 14, 2008


It's an ugly subject. High school teachers didn't care too much, apparently. Several high school kids have confided in me: "Well, I ran out of time, so I just copied an essay from the Internet, but the teacher didn't care." Believe me, college instructors do care.

We all have master's degrees or doctorates, and in almost every case we got there by researching and writing a thesis on an original subject. We place a very high value on original thinking. A fake who claims to present an original piece of writing (when it is just a copy of someone else's) is essentially spitting in the face of everyone who actually did the work.

One of my students said to me, "You got a paper. Why do you care who wrote it?" That says that I have some form of "paper hunger" and I need these student productions to keep me fed. Not true. I'm not accumulating some grand anthology of freshman writing; I'm hoping to produce a group of educated men and women. When a student simply copies a paper, it passes through the system undigested, something like corn kernels through the human body. One of my students wrote, concerning the short story "The Yellow Wallpaper," "This story has been interpreted by feminist critics as a condemnation of the androcentric hegemony of 19th century medical profession." Great stuff. Too bad she wasn't the first writer. What on earth is "androcentric hegemony"? If she doesn't know, she's learned nothing except how to cheat (and not too well, either).

Here's the minimum penalty for plagiarism in my courses (and I suspect that other teachers and colleges are very similar).

  • Zero on the paper, with no chance for revision

  • A hearing before the appropriate college authorities. They often impose their own penalties (such things as an essay on academic honesty). If this is not a first offense, the student usually becomes a former student of this institution.

  • A failing grade in my course, unless the college authorities instruct me to change the grade. They have never done that.

  • Here in Ohio, we have something called PSEO (Post Secondary Education Option). That's a program which enables high school students with good grades to take a few college courses at public expense. When a PSEO kid fails a course (and I've gotten a few plagiarism cases from this group, too), the high school English grade is also an "F" (which usually means no graduation from high school). PSEO students who fail courses have to reimburse the state for their college tuition.

Plagiarism is a big deal. Don't do it. It's so easy to detect.

A Note of Hope

There is such a thing as unintentional plagiarism. If you are concerned that your writing might fall into that category, your best strategy is to ask the instructor to discuss your paper with you. You'll always get a good response.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Writing Enough

Many of my students have a terrible struggle coming up with enough content. In high school, they never needed to know how to number pages (or use a stapler) because they never were asked to write anything that extended longer than a single sheet. Then they land in my classroom, and I assign a paper that's three to five pages long. I tell them that I know all the tricks (enormous type, enormous margins, skipping a line between paragraphs, etc.) and I am not interested in simply killing trees, but in generating content.

They think I'm crazy. Nobody except a professional writer could ever write more than 250 words on any topic whatsoever.

Finally the big moment comes: the paper due date. I take the 450-word essay that was supposed to be three pages (that's about 1000 words), and I give a grade that's multiplied by 45%. I'm so unjust.

Help is available

Almost every college has a writing lab of some sort. Most students are either too proud or too terrified to go there. They assume it's a room full of grammar Nazis who will pounce on every misplaced comma. They assume that only the mentally-retarded should go there.

The truth is far different. Most writing labs are staffed by graduate students, and usually they would love a chance to help you develop a topic by talking over the possibilities and the ramifications. Sitting and chatting about your work: that's the agenda. (By the way, my students who regularly use writing labs are usually the ones getting the best grades.)

Another sort of help that most students ignore is professors' office hours. We're supposed to have open times for students to simply walk in and ask questions or talk over their progress. Almost nobody ever uses these times, and it's a pity, because this is where the real education can occur.

More advice

Most of my students are terrified of specifics when they write. If I ask them to describe a boyfriend/girlfriend, I'll get:

Mary is really great. She's so smart and fun to be with. She's always there for me. She's good looking, too.

That's 21 words that really say nothing in particular. We know the name and we know that the writer has a positive attitude, and that's it. We've got those enormous, meaningless words ("great") and the cliché "she's always there for me" but nothing specific to hang on to. How much of that essay would you read? You're already tired after only 21 words—can you endure the idea of another 979? I can't. How much better to write as one of my students did:

My boyfriend really is my ideal man. He's got a big, happy smile punctuated by a gold tooth. His head is shaved and shiny and his skin is the exact color of a Hershey's milk chocolate bar.

Monday, June 9, 2008


It seems so simple: Put your name on your paper when you turn it in. You'd be amazed how often quizzes and even major papers arrive without an author, though. When that happens, I've only got a few options. If it's your lucky day, only one student in the class is unaccounted for—obviously the paper must be yours. Sometimes, though, I can't decide who the thing belongs to. If it's a major essay, I'll bring it into class and humiliate you by asking who wrote the paper. If it's a quiz, you just lose the points.

Not My Fault

Yet another grade dispute has landed in my e-mail. This one was from a student who turned in a really insufficient paper, then "discovered" a much better copy on his flash drive after the semester was over and his low grade was posted. This isn't much different from the objection I get when I accuse someone of plagiarism: "I didn't really write that. It just showed up with my name on it and was turned in when the rest of the papers were. It's not my fault."


Unless you can somehow prove that someone is forging your papers, the responsibility is yours. (And if only one paper with your name showed up when they were all due, I have a hard time believing the forgery charge.) If your name is on it, you are responsible for what it says. If your name is on a plagiarized paper, you are a plagiarist.

I can hear the objections already: "I just gave it to a friend to type, and she changed the whole thing and included all this extra material." Even if that weird event did happen (believe me, I've typed papers for other people and the last thing in my mind is doing a complete rewrite of someone else's paper), you are still the author of that paper. You should look it over before submitting it. Or do you want to claim that you paid someone else to write it for you and that person got it from the Internet?

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Reading about Politics

We're never too far from political discussions, and you are actually part of things now because you can vote. Your opinion counts for more than it did when you were twelve. (By the way, one of the main reasons originally given for establishing schools in our country was to have an educated electorate who could vote for things intelligently.)

As I sit here writing on June 5, 2008, I know that the presidential election is about to enter its final phase. Obama will probably become the first black candidate fielded by a major political party, though there's still a chance that Clinton will, instead, become the first woman. California's Supreme Court has issued a ruling that legalizes gay marriage, but the conservatives in that state promise to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot to forbid such unions. Senator Robert Byrd, 90 years old, and the longest serving U.S. Senator, has entered the hospital, and so has Senator Ted Kennedy, probably one of the most powerful Senators.

Politics is interesting daily stuff.

Last semester, I assigned Andrew Sullivan's "The Conservative Case for Gay Marriage." It's an article that originally appeared in Time magazine in 2003, pondering what effect the Canadian legalization of gay marriage would have on the USA. Some of my students' reactions were disturbing:
  • Many assumed that Canada's decision was binding on the USA. They didn't seem to realize that the two countries are separate.
  • At the time the article was written, the state Supreme Court in Massachusetts seemed very likely to rule that gay marriage should be legal there. Many of my students assumed that decision would be binding on everyone else in the country.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court was about to rule on the question whether a specific sexual practice should have a different legal status depending on whether one is gay or straight. Many of my students thought the issue was gay marriage.
  • Nobody seemed aware that our state, Ohio, has a Constitutional amendment against gay marriage that is so broad that a live-in boyfriend who beats his girlfriend cannot be prosecuted for domestic violence.
All of this brings up two points.
  1. You need to know how our country is governed if you intend to make any sort of intelligent comment. Do you know what a primary election is? What on earth is the Electoral College (and why was it put in place)? If California legalizes something, does Ohio have to allow it?
  2. If you get your news from the kids at the lunch table, you really don't know anything. If you get it from online sources such as Yahoo, you are in better shape, but their complexity is aimed at a person with a fourth grade education and 30 seconds to read. You will do far better with a big-city newspaper such as The Washington Post or the Los Angeles Times. You really should spend some time with major news magazines (Time or Newsweek, for example) and actually read the in-depth articles.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008


I'll make this short, because I doubt if you'll believe me. Most of my students arrive thinking that Van Wilder and Animal House were documentaries. Most assume that heavy weekend drinking is normal and expected, and that "Thirsty Thursday" (a big drinking party after suffering through four grueling days of work) is a pretty good idea.

I hate Mondays. I always give a short quiz in my 8 a.m. class so the drunks who are too hung-over to show up get the message.

I hate end-of-semester student reflections. Every term I get at least two students who write something similar to one girl's: "I would have been a better student if I hadn't been drunk every time I showed up for class." She got a D-. Most aren't that self-aware. They think that I hate them because I give them low grades. The campus cops hate them because of all that trouble in the dorm. Boyfriends hate them because of unwanted sex when they were both drunk.

A few years ago, I read an article that claimed 25% of America's college freshmen have enough of a drinking problem that it interferes with their schoolwork. I believe it. I have no trouble naming smart, appealing kids who should be getting Fulbright Scholarships. Instead they're getting drunk. One student who was an especially close friend nearly died from alcohol poisoning.

One last word. Colleges really do want to see you succeed, both in life and in academics. Almost all colleges have some sort of counseling program. It's usually free. Legally, they are forbidden from telling your parents what's going on there (they could lose their licenses) if you're over 18 years old. If your drinking (or some other issue) is out of control, they really can help.

Further reading: Information on Alcohol and College Students from the U.S. Government.

College Textbooks

Some of us (including me) think that the prices charged for new textbooks are obscene.

Some of us (including my daughter, the teacher in California) can tell horror stories of teachers who specified a textbook for a course, then never asked the students to open it.

Some basic textbook rules

  • Yes, you probably do need to buy all the books listed as "required." No, the teachers don't get a kickback from the publishers (though some professors are sadly unaware of how much money they are asking students to spend).

  • Keep your bookstore receipts! If you bought something by mistake and didn't mark in it, you can return it for a full refund (but you need to know their deadline).

  • Bookstores buy books back all through the school year. There are two reasons you need to know this:
    1. Some books just aren't worth keeping after you take the course.
    2. Thieves find bookstore buy-back a ready source of cash. Keep track of your stuff and lock your dorm room.

  • You probably don't need to haul every book for every course into class every day. Some of my students have actually bought wheeled suitcases to tote their entire office around. Not necessary (unless you're a commuter who will be stuck on campus for eight hours waiting for your carpool to go home).

  • You really do need to keep up with the reading, even if it's not on a daily quiz. The point of this whole exercise called "college" is to change you and inform you. If you refuse to read the textbook, why did you bother to come to college at all? Besides, if you are like me, the idea of spending $90 on something that you won't use is just ridiculous.

Marking your textbook

First of all, get used to the idea that you won't get that much money back when you sell the books at the end of the semester. It's your book. You might as well get the maximum good from it, and that usually means marking it somehow.

Though I like to write with a fountain pen, I don't mark books with one. The ink soaks through. Get out your good-quality ballpoint pen (the one that doesn't blob ink). Maybe a couple of different colors of ink would help. I like a short flexible plastic ruler to make the underlining neater. I usually avoid highlight markers (It takes me years to use one up).

If you think of a textbook as a series of things to memorize, you'll hate the process and get little from it. Think of textbook marking as a conversation between yourself and the author. The writer has thought through some important thing and has something to say. You are trying to think these thoughts too and to respond to them.

On the first reading (Yes, it really does need more than one reading!), neat reader-response comments in the margin are appropriate: questions you'd like answered, points you disagree with, comments in the professor's last lecture that apply here, places you have seen this reading applied. The second reading is the time to figure out the structure of the piece. What did the author see as important? What's the main point? (Students often bog down in tiny details without seeing what it's all about.) This is when I underline transitional statements such as "The first thing," "Another main point," and so forth. The third reading might be a good time to deal with your professor's issues. Does he love little trivia for the test? Is she fascinated by big overall principles? Change ink color and mark these things. You'll want them when you're studying this stuff for the next test.

A last word about dictionaries

Do keep your dictionary handy and use it. Most college textbooks are written on a higher level than USA Today, and will use words you're not familiar with. A few years ago, my students read "The Jilting of Granny Weatherall," by Katherine Anne Porter. The point of the short story is that the old lady felt like God had abandoned her just as her first boyfriend had. My student misread "jilt" as "jolt," and wrote a fairly simple-minded essay about what a jolt it had been when she was left at the altar. If the student had known that "jilt" means "suddenly reject or abandon (a lover)," he would have known a lot more about the story.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008


You need a dictionary. You really do.

I've got a bachelor's degree and two master's, and I use a dictionary all the time. I assume that a college freshman might need it at least as much as I do.

It's not just for spelling, either. When your adviser writes a note saying that you need ancillary courses, what on earth does she mean? How do you pronounce it when you phone her? When someone trots out the tired assertion that "my dictionary says marriage is between one man and one woman," do you understand how to read the dictionary entry to find out what else the word can mean?

Go to a good bookstore and spend a bit of time looking through their choices. Plan on spending at least $30 (you'll spend a lot more on college textbooks, by the way). Plan on buying a new dictionary every few years because the language keeps changing.

Good online dictionaries are also useful, primarily because they are constantly updated. My favorite is Merriam Webster. Don't miss their how-to page either.

Learn to Write

I don't mean this in the sense of "learn to put together essays" (though I do think you need to do that too). I simply mean "learn to put words on paper with a pen or pencil."

An astonishing number of kids get out of high school without the ability to make words on paper. Their "writing" is difficult, cramped printing. They suffer over every word. They hold the pen in a death grip. When they are done, their hands are in pain, the product is illegible, and the paper itself is nearly destroyed.

I feel like Professor Kirk in The Chronicles of Narnia: "I wonder what they do teach them in these schools" (Lewis 50). Handwriting is a skill you should have picked up in the third and fourth grades. Since you can't go back and repeat those years, you need to at least teach yourself.


  • You will spend at least fifteen hours a week in lectures. Contrary to popular opinion, the stuff in lectures is often worth remembering. Your best strategy is to take notes. The best notes are easy to write and will help you learn the material.

  • You are going to write marginal notes in your textbooks. Highlighting isn't enough. Big messy blobs won't help you either.

  • You will probably write lab reports. You can do the finished work on a computer, but how are you going to figure out what to put into the report?

  • You will certainly have to write some in-class essay tests. These are timed, and the teacher must be able to figure out what you wrote. If the writing itself is slow, painful, and illegible, you can't get a good grade on these things.


  • Get humble. You won't get anywhere if you keep complaining that all this is beneath you. Concert pianists spend their afternoons playing scales. You can learn the basics too.

  • Buy a decent pen. Protect it. Don't lose it.
    • The worst pens are the free ones you get at the bank or pawn shop. They write badly, have almost no ink in them, and feel cheap. You can't respect yourself or your writing when you are inscribing your words with a pen that advertises payday loans.
    • About the only nice thing I can say about those transparent pens that are sold a dozen in a bag is that you can see how much ink you have. They break. They vomit.
    • Five to ten dollars should get you a good brand-name retractable ballpoint. They feel solid, write smoothly, and can be refilled.
    • Consider a cheap fountain pen. It will last forever (after you destroy the first couple of them, that is). It will train you to write with a light, smooth touch. The ink is beautiful. And nothing quite compares with the reaction you get at the lunch table when you pull the cap off a fountain pen to write down a friend's phone number.

  • Look around at a bookstore and see if you can find a book to help you—maybe in the kids' section. Calligraphy isn't quite what I have in mind because it takes too long, but at least a calligraphy book will teach you how to hold a pen.

  • Buy a big yellow legal pad and just practice. When you need to make a shopping list, write it carefully and smoothly. Write stuff all the time.

  • If you have an elderly relative who used to teach elementary school, ask for help. (I doubt if any teachers under the age of 50 would know what you're talking about.)

  • Here's a sample page of the old-fashioned handwriting (the way I learned it years ago). The little arrows show you which way to move your pen and the numbers show you the sequence of pen strokes.

  • This website on basic handwriting seems really helpful

Work Cited

Lewis, C.S. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. The Chronicles of Narnia 2. New York: HarperCollins, 1994.

Monday, June 2, 2008

Using a Computer

Back in 1995, my English classes included a significant amount of instruction in using a computer: "This is a floppy disk. Don't get it near a magnet. Insert it like this." My classes were scheduled in computer labs and I always had several students who had never been so close to a computer.

Things are different now, but not that different.

Today's freshmen probably grew up with computers in their houses, so they aren't afraid of them. Many received a new laptop as a graduation gift. The problem is that very few know how to use them.

Moving beyond Facebook

You will be writing a LOT in college, so you need to actually learn how to use the machine.

1. Get a word processing program. Your computer probably came with a try-out version of something, and maybe with a copy of Microsoft Works. College campuses almost always use Microsoft Word. Repeat after me: "Microsoft Works is not the same as Microsoft Word." You have several options for word processing programs:

  • Your college might have a special discount deal with Microsoft. Ask around to see if you can buy Word for less money.
  • If money is a problem, you should strongly consider one of the free, non-Microsoft options.
  • Be aware that it doesn't matter if your computer box says "Dell" just like the computers at school. It doesn't matter if your machine runs Windows Vista just like the machines at school. The question is which word processing program are you using? If you aren't using exactly the same one as the school computers use, you'll need to learn how to work around things.

If you are using a demonstration copy, you should be aware that it really will shut down after the demo period if you don't send money. You don't want that to happen just before a paper is due.

2. Learn how to make a basic college paper. In high school you could probably get a higher grade by making a pretty paper with a cute border, inventive use of color and a frilly type face. Not in college. They are all supposed to look the same.

  • Here is a sample MLA paper. This is a format your English, philosophy, history, and art teachers will love. The APA format loved by your science teachers isn't too different.
  • Microsoft Word has done its best to impose a distinctive look on papers (a look most of your teachers will hate), and the newest edition really tries to hide the instructions for doing anything else. You don't have to accept this. Here are instructions for writing a paper in Word.
  • As a bonus, because you haven't had to type punctuation very carefully in high school, here's a basic discussion of punctuation typing issues.

3. Learn how your computer works. I wish I had a dollar for every student who has whined, "I saved the paper, but I don't know where it is on the computer." This is all really basic stuff. If you were a student with Harry Potter at Hogwart's, you would learn how to write with a quill and a bottle of ink. This is the same: it's not advanced magic, just housekeeping.

4. Learn how to send someone else a file. The day will come when you must send a professor a paper by e-mail. Learn how to do it. By the way, I can guarantee that your professor does not have a copy of Microsoft Works, and might not have a copy of the newest Word. You really must learn how to save in RTF format.

5. Your computer isn't just a typewriter. There is a LOT of power in there (even in a very old machine). Learn how to use it. Buy one of those "For Dummies" books.

It's not a toy either

You should be aware that most teachers absolutely hate it when students are messing around on computers doing non-classroom stuff. I routinely give students zero for participation when they can't stop playing Solitaire or reading Facebook long enough to pay attention in class. That's enough to drop a solid B to a C minus for the semester. Last year I gave a D minus to a student whose only real issues were showing up late (so she missed a lot of quizzes) and constant playing on the computer. She actually was a pretty good writer.

You should also be aware that you will suck in a LOT of viruses, spyware, and malware if you love pornography and illegal downloads. It's enough to completely stop a computer. If you absolutely cannot control your porn and pirating, you should make an agreement with your roommate to reserve one computer entirely for games and the other entirely for schoolwork.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The Basics are Basic

A few years ago, when I was in graduate school, I learned that Ohio doesn't require its public school teachers to know anything at all about English grammar. It shows. Many (not all) of my incoming freshmen are really, really rocky—and interestingly enough, they are rocky in the same way.

College English isn't supposed to be about learning the basics of sentence grammar. It's supposed to be about learning to say something smart. So, as soon as possible, do these things:

1. Buy a grammar handbook.
It hardly matters which one, and it doesn't have to be new. College bookstores have used ones for about half price, and if it's an older edition, they practically give them away. Many colleges are moving to online grammar books, but students often find those awkward to use, which brings up the next point: Use it!

2. Master the top 20.
Someone very helpfully read 20,000 freshman papers and gave us the top 20 grammar issues. Make sure you catch the older list at the bottom of the page. It's got examples and an explanation. I have my own list too.

3. Learn to spell.
Two or three spelling/homonym errors per page is a LOT. You need to learn how to run the spelling checker on your computer, but you also need to know its limitations. The checker won't catch homonym problems. If you never learned the difference between their, they're, and there, learn it! If you don't know the business about double consonants and long vowels, learn it. (The sentence, "I was so scarred in the dinning room that I thought I'd loose my mind," means "I was so covered with old injuries in the room where there was a lot of noise that I thought I'd release my too-tight mind." You don't eat things in a dinning room. When you are frightened, you aren't scarred unless you lose a lot of blood. And when that blood went away, you didn't loose it.)

4. Figure out sentence fragments.
They almost always arise because you didn't have the nerve to write a subordinate clause. Learn about them from the grammar handbook you bought.

5. Figure out comma splices.
I know that J.K. Rowling loves them, and so do the majority of college freshmen. Most academic readers just hate them. Go back to the grammar handbook to learn what I'm talking about.

6. Learn how to write the title of a book.
I've almost never run into a freshman who could correctly include the title of a book in a paper. Look it up in your grammar handbook. While you're at it, learn what to do with the title of a short story, poem, or magazine article. (You should have learned this one in about the fourth grade.) By the way, J.K. Rowling's first book was Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone. One of the most well-known poems by Robert Frost is "Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening." There. That was easy, wasn't it?

7. Figure out apostrophes.
It's a very simple rule, really, and you'll find it in that grammar handbook. You need to learn how to write possessives, simple plurals, and common third-person verbs.

None of this is brain surgery. All of it should have been in place before you got out of the sixth grade. Teachers, however, seem to have other things on their minds in public schools, so native-born students arrive at college with less ability to write correct English than the immigrant who arrived yesterday.

None of what I said here will give you a good paper—just a legal one. It's like rats and cockroaches. One of the basics of running a restaurant is to keep the rats and cockroaches out. Being vermin-free doesn't guarantee a good restaurant: both the fancy French place and the sandwich shop should be free of rats. But you don't want to eat at the gourmet restaurant that's overrun with filth.

Saturday, May 31, 2008

Reading a Syllabus

Every college course you take will have a syllabus. This is the list of rules and regulations for the course, along with a schedule of readings and assignments due. (My courses are a bit unusual because I publish the schedule as a separate document from the rules.) Typically, a copy of the syllabus is filed with the Department supervisor, and occasionally reviewed so the rules end up being fair and appropriate.

I'm always hearing comments such as "I didn't realize attendance was worth that much!" or "How could my grade be so low when I only fouled up one paper?" (You fouled up a paper that was worth 25% of your grade.)

Most college teachers assume that if they distribute a printed copy on the first day of the course and discuss it in class, you will know what's on it. If you miss turning in an assignment, the first question is "Wasn't it on the schedule?" If you want to appeal a grade, the first question will be "What does the syllabus say?" Nobody is going to track you down and urge you to turn things in or attend class. You were informed at the start of the term. For examples of my syllabi, click the links to my schools (right side of this page).

Trouble spot:

Not all syllabi are created equal! One professor won't count attendance at all. Another counts it very closely. One will allow late papers. Another won't. Chances are that if you take five courses, you'll have five starkly different syllabi. Your English professor won't be at all moved if you point out that your history course doesn't require daily attendance.