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.