“Worthy Habits” for Undergraduate Students (Part 1 of 3)

Baby Yoda Meme from MakeAMeme

This is the first of three posts on the topic of “worthy habits” for undergraduates during a pandemic. I usually blog about Latin American and Chicana/o literatures and cultures, but the next three weeks will take a departure into “real life” undergraduate experience. This “Worthy Habits” series is designed to speak directly to underrepresented student populations, particularly first generation college students, who may not see their needs or concerns reflected in standardized information dumps. However, any new undergraduate student could benefit from reading this post.

What does the first “Worthy Habits” List cover?

  1. Actively Read the Syllabus.
  2. Price Check Books
  3. Visit Office Hours

Continue reading below for a detailed break-down of each worthy habit!

1.Actively Read the Syllabus

Annotate!  How do you annotate? Put questions, key words, and due dates in the margins. Highlight important assignments. If there is a presentation date you sign-up for, add that to the syllabus.

The syllabus is a contract between you and the instructor. If you read carefully, you can even discern what student qualities your instructor values. For example, instructors with zero flexibility with due dates values adherence to deadlines and organized planning. An instructor with a “no technology” policy for in-class meetings, or “camera-on” requirement for virtual meetings, values student engagement (e.g., questions, note-taking, making connections to other readings/discussions).

Do your best and try to not take any syllabus policy personally. If anything rubs you the wrong way, reserve your judgment until you visit the instructor during office hours and ask for clarification!  If your instructor’s policy is not tolerable to you as a student (and person with responsibilities outside of school) drop the class ASAP. Before you add a new class, email the instructor and request a copy of their syllabus.  Read it and ask questions during office hours before you add the new class.

Meme/Comic from @crazybug389

2.Price Check Books

The university/college bookstore will rarely have the cheapest price for your books. If you attend a large university, then there are probably local college book stores you can call for prices.

Buy used books or consider renting! Renting is a great option for high priced anthologies, science, and math textbooks. Using post-its to annotate in a used textbook can be very effective. If you are a “write in the margins” kind of person, or a major in the class, buying a used text is probably a better option. 

Beware of purchasing a textbook which is not the same edition being used for your class. Even if it costs $10 more, purchase the correct edition of the textbook. If your instructor has not provided you with the edition number and/or ISBN#, then email them and ask which version you need for class.

Your book may be available for FREE to check out at your university library, through your uni’s e-book service, or at your local public library. Make sure you check due dates for hard-copy check outs. And, if you check a textbook out from your university library, be prepared with a back-up option if it is recalled. A recall can happen if an instructor wants the textbook for their course reserves and/or research. Some universities also allow students to recall checked-out materials.  You can search for your textbook on your university’s library search engine and review your options.

Many instructors place a copy of all course textbooks on reserve. During the COVID-19 pandemic, this may not be a viable option for closed campuses. If your campus is closed, go to the library website and see if it is offering pick-up service or digitized resources. If your campus is open, you can usually search their course-reserve holdings. Not finding the information you need? Email or call the library and ask them if they cam tell you what titles are on reserve for your course. If your textbook is on-reserve and the library remains accessible, then you can access a copy of the book for FREE. For open-campus libraries, the check-out period is usually only 2-3 hours. Do not try to read the assigned pages in that block of time. Instead, make paper copies of the assigned pages, or use your library’s scanner to make a PDF. That way, you will have the reading with you for class.

The three major online booksellers to check for pricing are Amazon, Bookshop, and Abe Books. Amazon offers students a discounted rate on Amazon Prime services!  You should sign-up for this service from Amazon, even if you do not buy your textbooks from them.

Meme from MemeMaker.net

3.Visit Office Hours

Take advantage of your instructor’s office hours! Why? Your instructor will learn more about you and your goals, and you can learn more about them and how the curriculum for the class was developed. You can also get direct input on a graded assignment or assignment draft. This type of feedback will help you conceptualize the instructor’s expectations and improve the quality of your scholarship. An instructor who knows you is more likely to trust you when an emergency comes up, more likely to respond quickly to emailed questions because there is a context already discussed in-person, and more likely to be a potential recommender for future academic programs or jobs.

Do you have paper due for a class? Take a draft to the instructor’s office hours to talk over your argument and/or research.  Do not expect your instructor to copy edit or read your entire draft. Your instructor cannot ethically pre-grade or correct your essay. However, they can have you read from the paragraph that most concerns you and start the discussion about methods for improvement from there. Go to the writing center on campus for additional feedback.

Do you have a presentation for class? Outline your presentation and take it to the instructor’s office hours to talk over your plan and their expectations.

Are you confused about a grading rubric, assignment prompt, or your current grade for the course? What do you do? You guessed it! Go to your instructor’s office hours and ask appropriate questions. Appropriate questions revolve around actions you can take to improve your grade and/or produce A-level work for a specific assignment. Inappropriate questions usually revolve around requests to change grades for past assignments. If you are confused as to why what you believe was an A-level paper received a C, then ask your instructor to help you understand your paper grade so that you can improve for the next assignment. “Demands” which give your instructor no room to discuss ways to improve your scholarship are also inappropriate. Office hours are about dialogue! Pedagogically, many instructors (like me) subscribe to Paolo Freire’s belief that educators are also learning from students. Try your best to not go into a meeting with defensive feelings and anger. The majority of your instructors just want to help you become a better student-scholar and learn more about their students.

Go to office hours with a plan! Tell the instructor why you are there. If you have a list of questions, then share the list with them. It is possible that there is a line of students behind you, so you may only get 10-15 minutes. So, prioritize your questions and ask if they are available to meet again to review the rest of your questions. Some instructors will tell you to email them to follow up, or direct you to return for the next scheduled office hours. Some may refer you back to the course syllabus because it already answers your questions. And, some may arrange a 1-1 meeting with you outside of office hours!  A polite request and/or question will never hurt your status in a course.

Meme from IMGFlip

This is not a complete list, but it does reflect the top five things I advise new undergraduates to consider!  As a side note, learning during a pandemic has its own unique challenges for students and instructors. While some campuses in the United States have returned to in-person classes, many on the West and East coasts are in virtual learning mode, or hybrid learning modes, where only a small portion of classes will be conducted in-person. Be patient with yourself, your peers, campus staff, faculty advisors, and the instructors for your class. We only come to learn of the challenges each one of us are facing if we take the time to connect, listen, and respond to one another.  Even if this kind of “check-in” time is built into a class discussion or break-out session, many will not feel comfortable disclosing the challenges they are facing.

Meme from @NotOccupying

Here are just some challenges I have seen students and colleagues contend with since mid-March: stress/anxiety due to the COVID-19 health crisis, lack of necessary electronic resources, lack of access to wifi, lack of a personal work space at home, financial crises due to unemployment, meeting the needs of minor-aged siblings or children while working from home, “business hours” unavailability due to coordinating home schooling for siblings or children, exhaustion from lack of child-care, health crisis due to complications with becoming infected with COVID-19, mental health crisis due to social isolation, inability to concentrate due to Zoom burnout, inability to process and retain new information due to overexposure to digital recordings and written material, inability to meet deadlines for the “written work” portion of virtual learning, and lack of fluency with teaching/learning using primarily online platforms.

Meme from MemeGenerator

No student or instructor is perfect. If your instructor has strict policies that you cannot adhere to due to your life situation, then do yourself a favor and drop the class! Their policies are not directed at you personally; they are the result of years spent training to be an expert in researching and teaching within their discipline.  And, unfortunately, some instructors cannot or will not allow for flexibility with due dates and synchronous class engagement. Don’t forget that many full-time adjuncts and faculty teach anywhere from 100-400 students per semester/quarter.  Large lecture courses also require that your instructor coordinate the efforts of teaching assistants who run discussion sections. Instructors with a large number of students cannot always afford to be flexible.  The odds are high that you, your peers, and your course instructor are dealing with at least three or more of the stressful situations listed above. It does not look like these threats to undergraduate learning and teaching are going to be resolved this term. What can we do to mitigate negative impact?

Meme found on Pinterest

We can focus on quality and not quantity. We can plan and map out our assignments and major due dates. We can integrate some mindfulness-related practices into our daily life. Students can take non-major classes as pass/fail or credit/no credit, which can take the pressure off and allow you to focus on the major classes that only count if you receive a letter grade of C or higher. Check with your academic advisor before making decisions about how to receive your grade in a course. And, while this post is for undergraduate students, any faculty reading this post should consider adopting a more flexible due date policy and allow for student discussion/questions over Zoom instant messaging, discussion board, and/or break-out rooms. As educators who value critical thinking over rote memorization, we should also consider developing as many open-book assessment methods as possible in our discipline. Together, we make-up diverse academic communities. Together, we can look for innovative ways to build community while protecting our collective health.

Do you have an idea or resource? Please feel free to share in the comments! And, don’t forget to subscribe to Brown Metropolis to received the next two posts on “Worthy Habits.”

Published by Clarissa Castaneda, PhD

Clarissa Castaneda, PhD is a scholar of Latin American literature and cultures, indigenous literatures and cultures, visual and material cultures, archive theory, and poetics. Her dissertation, Latinidades and the Repository Function of the Poetic (2020), is available via ProQuest. And, “Indigenous Libretto and Aural Memory in The Sun Dance and El Circo Anahuac” is available in Displaced: Literature of Indigeneity, Migration, and Trauma (Routledge 2020). Dr. Castaneda has recently lectured for the English departments at Cal Poly Pomona and University California Riverside. In addition to research, academic writing, and teaching, she is a poet and musician.

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