College Hack #2: Take Professors, not Courses

Classes are like pizzas

Pizza is Pizza. Well, not really. There’s so many levels of pizza, ranging from the cardboard flavored wedge of yellow American cheese-flavored food product atop a ketchup covered “crust” to the artisanal wood-fired delicacies covered with fresh basil and buffalo milk mozzarella. So although you need to take Social Psychology to get your degree, the quality can vary widely. There is a tension between getting the courses and schedule you need to accumulate points toward your academic credential and learning something you can actually use. You might have to cough down something from under the heat lamp, or you might be served an expert’s best recipe prepared fresh each day for a truly memorable experience. I’d eat anything Mario Batali puts in front of me, even if his interpretation of pizza that night was a pasta dish or poached fish. I’d also take any class Dr. Poelstra offers irrespective of the title.

Choose wisely

Classes are so bad these days. I hear horror stories of rambling “professors” telling irrelevant stories, pushing their political agenda, and generally stumbling around dragging out the time with nothing to prove. We also know too well that many courses are taught by graduate students, who might be devoting hundreds of hours to getting it just right so you’ll reward them with “5’s” on that eval (they want to get a job too, you know). Or they might be stressed out and cope with being unprepared by reading lectures out loud from book A, having assigned book B so you won’t notice that they didn’t write (or understand) any of their lectures. The best way to ensure a tolerable experience is to focus on instructor quality instead of the name of the course. I suggest:

  •  Max out then get out. Enroll in the maximum number of courses you are allowed every semester without having to pay the ambition tax that kicks in at 18 or so credits. In one week you’ll know what to drop.
  • Ask around. Students know. You can’t find out enough on any of the teacher rating sites, although the angry rants are funny and you will figure out who the poisonous professors are.
  • Stick with the best. When you find the right teacher, take everything they teach until you graduate. I took several courses from Dr. Poelstra, and I still have my notes over 20 years later. When I got a professor job, I literally pulled out my notes from his class to prepare to teach the material myself.
  • Curriculum shmirriculum. Contrary to popular belief, professors do not sit around carefully considering the right sequence and arrangement of subject material for a well-rounded education. That’s why every psychology department has exactly the same courses with some electives sprinkled in because the professor wants to teach them (e.g., “Psychopathy in film” or “Dream interpretation in the 19th century”). Obviously you have to take certain things to check boxes, but many most have enough space for electives, which might be the only education you get. I took one philosophy course from J.P. Moreland, and when I got to graduate school they thought I had a philosophy degree. Most students are far too focused on checking the boxes in a certain order or having all their classes on Tuesday/Thursday afternoon.
  • Sleepwalk through the nonsense. That’s right, just play along for the absolutely terrible courses. Try to take distance learning sections of classes with bad professors, so they don’t have to waste any more of your life than necessary. If you find that Dr. Blowhard is the only person who offers the mandatory statistics course, just do it. Get a tutor. Watch Kahn academy. Study with friends. Make it through politely but quietly. I’ve had a couple real stinkers in my time. I’ll never forget the professor that graded all the 5 page papers during a 15 minute break and assigned 1,000 readings but had absolutely no lecture. She would just start a group assignment in class and sit back. She literally said “get into groups and create a self-report questionnaire to measure love, so you can discuss how psychometric theory affects test construction.” That was her version of 3 hours of instruction. I made sure my 5 page papers for her class (due every week) were done in 90 minutes or less.

The University is a Cafeteria

There’s a lot of variety, but much of it is sub-par. The reasons for this are a topic for another day, but be certain that professors are not rewarded (and sometimes punished) for trying when it comes to teaching. Therefore, find the real celebrity chefs who dish up incredible food and keep going back for more. Sustain yourself with their instruction, and get to know them. Show them you appreciate their efforts. Stay away from bad instructors unless you absolutely have to take that course. And by all means, ignore the titles of courses once you know the right professors. In the era of the internet you can be self-taught to undergraduate proficiency in 100 hours of study on most topics. But a reheated stale course flopped onto your tray always leaves a bad taste.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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