What follows are versions of chapters in How to Succeed in College and Beyond: The Art of Learning (Wiley-Blackwell)


How to Prepare for College

The College Olympics: How to Choose the Right College and How to Get the Right College to Choose You

17 Suggestions for Choosing Classes in College



Twenty Suggestions for Incoming College Freshmen

Nineteen Suggestions for College Sophomores

Suggestions for College Juniors: Balancing the Joy and Practicality of Learning

Making the Most of Your Senior Year in College

Suggestions for Seniors Graduating From College: Planning for the Future

Changing the World: Are college students less idealistic than they were in the Sixties?

How to Succeed at College and Beyond: The Art of Learning

The Shame of the Greek System



What to Do With a B.A. in English?

Why Study the Arts and the Humanities?

Do the Humanities Help Us Understand the World in Which We Live?

Does it Make Sense to Pursue a Humanities Doctorate? The Pros and Cons of Graduate Education in the Humanities



Are Teaching and Research Mutually Exclusive?

Teaching Freshman Humanities at Cornell: Toward a Community of Inquiry


How to Prepare for College


Because I have been teaching at Cornell for more than four decades, and because I have been writing on Higher Education for the Huffington Post and in 2008 published In Defense of Reading: Teaching Literature in the Twenty-First Century, I am often asked if I have any suggestions for preparing for college. The following suggestions are by no means inclusive but provide some basics.

A student needs to develop the necessary skills to pursue a college degree, although in truth there are many kinds of colleges and some are far more difficult than others, both in terms of admittance and performance expectations. Not every one is thinking about an elite college. For many the right choice is a local branch of a state college, a community college for the first two years, or a good but less selective small liberal arts college, none of which have the rigorous entry requirements of the Ivies, MIT, Caltech, Chicago, Stanford, Duke, Northwestern or the major State Universities (Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, UCLA, Berkeley, etc) or the elite small liberal arts colleges (Amherst, Williams, Middlebury, Emory, the Claremont schools, etc).

Before choosing a college, students need to consider why they want to go to college and what they expect to get out of it. Student should think about the relative emphasis they put on learning skills for a job, on preparing for graduate education, and on pursuing the liberal arts. (See my “What to with a B.A. in English?” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-r-schwarz/what-to-do-with-a-ba-in-e_b_4204376.html).

Part of college preparation is figuring out the costs. The elite colleges are the most heavily endowed, but other schools may offer a particular student a more generous financial aid package in order to attract him or her for either athletics or academics. Taking enormous loans may be a less desirable path than going to an in-state college.

What Can Parents Do?

Putting away funds for college beginning soon after a child’s birth is an excellent plan, and many states give tax benefits to those who do so under 529 plans. Asking children to earn some money for college while in high school and college is reasonable. But students should not be asked to sacrifice their schoolwork or, if at all economically feasible, their participation in school activities. Working in summers will give students valuable experience while giving them a chance earn funds for college

The more positive the home environment, the more likely a child will succeed in school. When parents take an interest in their children’s day-to-day learning in school, children respond. But interest does not mean doing, and children need learn to do their own work and turn to parents only after they have made a strong effort on their own. Not every parent will be able to help with advanced high school math and physics, but those who can help should focus on teaching the concepts rather than doing the problems.

Preparation for college should begin early. Parents need to play a motivating role, and we know that educated parents are more likely to produce educated children. But we also know that successful students -and those that in ensuing years make a significant difference in their fields–come from every socio-economic and ethnic background and that emphases on learning within homes can take place even in tightened circumstances in rough neighborhoods.

Parents should monitor how their children spend their time and can do this from an early age. They need to be alert to their children’s mental and physical health, and face head on issues of depression, learning disabilities, and physical limitation. They need to be aware of the people with whom their children spend time. If parents smoke and drink and abuse drugs, their children are far more likely to do so.

Parents should stress the pleasures of reading–the exaltation of reading a great book–and insist on quiet time as well as regulate TV watching to a set number of hours per week. Parents can expose their children to cultural opportunities: theatre, music, museums, etc. If these are not readily available–to some degree they usually are- -trips to even small cities can complement rural villages and towns.

While parents should encourage participation in sports and the development of specific skills in the sports that children choose, they should also make their children aware of how few people make their living as professional athletes. It should be obvious that being the best player on a high school team usually does not result in making a livelihood in a sport.

Secondary Schools

High schools have different cultures, and those that focus on academic achievement are usually the best ones to prepare students for selective universities.

If the situation demands it, parents can in some areas enroll their children in public schools with a more favorable learning culture than the ones closest to their home or, if this is not possible and funds permit, enroll in a private school, some of which do offer scholarships to those in need.

Some schools give students major advantages in college preparation and in the admission process. But the elite colleges seek geographic and ethnic diversity and find students from all over the country. Special public schools that select students by means of a rigorous test are called Magnet Schools; they include Stuyvesant, Hunter and The Bronx High School of Science in New York, Boston Latin, Classical High School in Providence, the School for the Talented and Gifted in Dallas. Other alternatives are elite private boarding schools such as Exeter, Choate, or Andover or day schools such as Dalton, Horace Mann, or Fieldston in New York; the National Cathedral School in DC; Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia; and Harvard-Westlake school in Los Angeles.

What Students Can Do

It is never too early to think about what kind of career you want to have and to begin learning what kind of preparation is necessary for that. Speaking to people about their careers and reading about what people do are ways to develop a sense of what is right for you. If you are fortunate, your work will bring you joy and satisfaction. Knowing whether you want to be a doctor, a lawyer, engineer, business executive, CPA, teacher or college professor may help shape your HS curriculum and your choice of colleges, but developing the skills I mention below will be helpful to whatever career you choose.

To succeed in higher education, you need to develop time management and disciplined study habits as early as middle school. It is a good idea to keep track in writing or keep a computer file of how you are using your time. You need to set aside specific times for study and during those times you should turn off the TV and put the smart phone away. Realistically, you might begin with 30 to 40 minute study periods but by your later high school years you should be able to concentrate without a break for between 60 to 90 minutes.

The best preparation is to learn how to read carefully and thoroughly whether it be fiction or non-fiction; the latter category includes newspapers in print or on line. Select your reading with discrimination and rely on suggestions from teachers and other well-read adults. It is important that you keep up with national and international news and issues and that you develop an interest in the world in which you live, including the rapidly changing world of science. Reading the New York Times, the best news source in the US, for a half hour daily will help.

Reading well means reading skeptically and learning to find places in newspapers or online when arguments are not logical or require more imagination. Developing a critical intelligence is a crucial component of learning.

Equally important to reading intelligently is developing your writing skills. That means taking every writing assignment seriously. It means learning to write drafts, and that requires beginning assignments as soon as they are given. Term papers can teach you how to do research and use the library and internet as research tools.

Writing takes constant and continuing practice. Keeping a journal or diary, providing you stress writing well when doing so, is a good way to practice writing. I would buy–and read once a year–Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.

You also need to develop listening skills in class, and that means getting enough sleep. Taking notes in class will help you develop listening skills and also will help you organize material, which is essential not only for test taking but for understanding any subject. If you are permitted to bring a computer to class, take notes on that. Keep a separate file for each course and continue to re-organize as the semester progresses. Remember that you can always edit material if you write down too much, but you cannot recoup material that you have forgotten. If you miss class, borrowing another student’s notes is essential. But always be sure to borrow from top students.

Finally, and this needs be stressed, you need to develop verbal skills and learn to play a significant role in class discussion. You should speak in class even if it takes effort. Making notes to yourself about what you want to say before you raise your hand helps many students overcome reluctance to speak in class. Try to eliminate “mmm”s and “you know”s when you speak in class and think of your class contributions as relatively important events.

Learning How to Learn

To prepare for college, high school should be a challenge and an opportunity. Working hard is the best preparation. Developing curiosity, a desire for knowledge, and the ability to solve complex thought-provoking problems are important life skills.

Studying well is a matter of learning how to concentrate and block out everything else. Most people do better when not listening to music, but some people seem to be able to listen to soothing music when studying. Using study halls and homeroom to study rather than wasting time on video games or social media is a good way to be time efficient.

When it is permitted, studying with a classmate can be helpful, but you must choose wisely and keep focused on the work at hand and not on other matters. Indeed, choice of friends is an important ingredient of school success, and if your social group is motivated to learn, the chances are better that you will be, too.

Take challenging courses, including basic sciences and math courses even if that is not your primary interest. In computing rank and grade point average, many high schools give extra quantitative emphasis for advanced and honors courses. Colleges not only consider the difficulty of high school programs when weighing students’ applications, but succeeding in difficult courses will be the best preparation for the next educational challenges. Without high school biology, chemistry, and physics and college preparatory math and/or calculus as well as computer science, you will not be able to begin to understand the world in which you live. Furthermore, by not taking such classes you foreclose some of your future options in pursuing sciences and engineering. (You might read Steve Strogatz’s The Joy of x). Moreover, colleges expect you to have basic knowledge in those areas, even if you ultimately study the humanities, social sciences, or a business curriculum.

Even now when English is becoming the basic language of the world, it is important to study a foreign language. For one thing, it will help you understand the world better because you will learn something about another culture, and for another you will be preparing yourself for some choices if you decide to do a junior year–or junior semester– abroad.

Be alert about who are the best teachers, and take advice from the best students. Great teachers are demanding in terms of standards, but also create an environment where students experience learning as a privilege and a pleasure. Getting to know some of your teachers well will give you the necessary sources of recommendations for your applications. Getting to know the advisor or guidance counselor who prepares the material transmitted to college is essential. When possible, take advanced placements courses and/or courses in a local college.

Other Suggestions

Participate in extra curricula activities such as varsity sports, school newspaper, drama and choral groups, orchestra and band, debating, and student government. Developing skills and competence in these areas builds self-confidence. High school is more rewarding, fulfilling, and fun for those who are part of the school community. Moreover, selective colleges favor for admittance those who play a leadership role in such activities, in part because such activities at a more advanced level play a vital role in college life and in part because the best advertisement for a college are alumni playing a leadership role in their communities and perhaps on the state and national level.

College admissions people are favorably impressed with those who are active participants in the community beyond school by volunteering to tutor or read to adults or work with disabled children or give some time at the local hospital or hospice. That volunteerism can be connected with your church or synagogue. Meaningful summer and after school paid jobs such as working as counselor for younger children or in a hospital lab can also be a plus for admission officers.

Nothing is more important for high school success than physical and mental health. Getting a full night’s sleep, eating properly, and avoiding cigarettes, alcohol, and drugs will enhance your enjoyment of life and your success in your studies. No matter how dedicated you are to a project, you need to take some time for fun activities. Each day you need to do something you like whether it be a walk in the woods, a visit to a museum, watching your favorite TV show, or pursuing a hobby.

Conclusion: Preparation for the Application Process

Standards tests such as SAT and ACT play an important role in admission. Particularly in highly competitive areas, high school students pay for special preparation classes or hire a private tutor to prepare for these tests, and these classes can be costly. Competitive high schools often stress preparation for these tests.

In the spring and summer of your junior year, you should begin to visit campuses in which you are interested. But you should begin learning about what colleges are for you even earlier. Interview processes vary but they seem to play less of a role than they once did and most public universities eschew them.

Although the college application and admission procedure is stressful, it is important to remember that where you do your undergraduate work is far less important than enjoying high school and college, while discovering the joy and privilege of learning.

“How to Prepare for College,” July 13, 2014, Huffington Posthttp://t.co/pbYR1ezXwf via @HuffPostCollege


The College Olympics: How to Choose the Right College and How to Get the Right College to Choose You

I have been blogging for Huffington Post on Higher Education for a few years and have been given a contract to write a short book tentatively titled: The Joy and Practicality of Learning: Succeeding in College and Beyond.

What follows is a sequel to "How to Prepare for College" and "Nineteen Suggestions for College Freshmen."

Finding the right fit for college is a complex process requiring considerable effort.

1) Find a match between your interests and the schools you apply to. You need to decide whether you prefer a rural or urban environment, whether distance from home is important, whether you wish to go to a school that foregrounds your particular religion, whether the size of the enrollment matters, and whether you want a true campus experience where students live on campus and near classrooms. You want to learn about the size of classes, whether they are taught by senior faculty or adjuncts and teaching assistants, and whether undergraduates--especially in the sciences and engineering but also the in the social sciences and the humanities--have a chance to do advanced research. You might also think about the physical facilities and the activities that interest you. You wouldn't go to the University of Florida if skiing were an important activity.

2) Find a match between your high school record and abilities and the schools to which you apply. You can find out whether your grades, rank in class and SAT and/or ACT scores meet the qualifications of the schools that interest you. Standard tests are a way that colleges get data that shows them whether an A in one school equals an A in another. But some diligent and imaginative students do not test well and are at a disadvantage. While tutoring or enrollment in private classes can bridge the testing problem they are not guarantees to more successful college applications, in part because so many people do some kind of test preparation. Indeed, in some communities even those who test well take such courses.

Presumably in your freshmen year of high school you have begun the process of learning what courses are necessary and have taken the courses that you need to apply to specific colleges. If you are thinking of elite colleges or universities (and what is elite is debatable)--or, indeed, any of the flagship campuses of four year state colleges, many of which have select programs for their best students--you should have taken Honors and Advanced Placement courses.

When we think of elite and selective schools we think of such schools as the Ivies, MIT, Caltech, Stanford, Duke, the University of Chicago, Northwestern and many of our great state universities like Berkeley, UCLA, Virginia, Michigan, Indiana, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Texas, along with quite a number of smaller private colleges from Amherst, Williams, Bowdoin, and Middlebury in the Northeast to Reed and the five Claremont colleges out West. But we need to think, too, of such excellent if slightly less prestigious and often less costly universities -especially for state residents--such as (to name a few) Binghamton and Buffalo of the New York State system, the University of Vermont, the University of Oregon, the University of Maryland, and Penn State. (A useful web site is "College Confidential").

In the application process, note that extra-curricular activities and community service matter. But it is better to excel in and/or play a leadership role in one or two activities than to be a participant in a long list.

For non-elite schools, you should investigate the graduation rate and the time from matriculation to commencement.

3) Find a match between the anticipated costs and your ability to pay.Learn what kind of financial aid is available to you and whether that aid takes the form of scholarships, work study jobs, other jobs, or loans. Taking into consideration tuition, room and board, travel costs and allowing some funds for miscellaneous costs, make up budgets for the colleges that interest you.

How much debt you should incur depends on many factors, including your expected future earnings, but be careful about mortgaging your future. In past decades, especially the 1970s and 1980s, because of high inflation students were repaying loans more easily because the dollar they borrowed was worth much more than the dollar they repaid, but this has not been the case for some years. Of course now fixed interest rates are lower than they have been.

How will you pay for college if your parents cannot afford it or are unwilling to pay for most or all of it? The latter problem is sometimes fixed by legally declaring yourself to be an independent adult without supporting family in which cases your aid will be based on your own earnings and assets; be forewarned that this process is not easy. (See " What can you do if your parents refuse to help?").

The good news for those families of modest means is that a sustained effort is being made to help low-income high achievers get the necessary financial support to thrive in college. Whether this effort at economic diversity will succeed depends in part on whether the colleges themselves will sacrifice tuition revenue in the interests of economic diversity. As David Leonardt points out, "On some campuses, including Caltech, Dartmouth, Notre Dame and Washington University in St. Louis, fewer than 15 percent of entering students receive federal Pell grants, which go roughly to students from the bottom two-fifths of the income distribution. One problem is that supporting economic diversity depends on the school's endowment, and those with lower endowments per student have fewer resources.

But more good news is that many of the elite colleges do need-blind admissions and have the resources to help those whom they admit and who need financial assistance. One should not be scared off by "sticker price," because there are means of getting significant support. Also, many schools offer merit scholarships to attract top students. The more highly endowed schools will offer an aid package with a large grant component. Other good news is that the US Department of Education has the Pell Grant program to help fund college education and the maximum 2014-2015 grant is $5730. For the Ivies and other schools with comparatively large endowments, qualification for the Pell is a signal to schools to provide--in almost all cases--generous aid packages. Further good news is there are many other scholarship programs, including those restricted to residents in each state; in New York State these range from $500 to $1500. In addition, there are many private scholarships administered by such organizations as the Rotary, although the latter focuses on study abroad.

Although Cornell does not have the resources of Harvard, Yale or Princeton, in the Cornell class of 2018, consisting of 3261 students, 47.8 percent were eligible for need-based aid and 44.4 percent received need based aid from Cornell sources, averaging $35,735 in grant aid--which does not have to be repaid-- and $5,783 in loans.

Another source of scholarships is athletics, but be aware that neither the Ivies or the (usually) smaller colleges in Division Three offer athletic scholarships. Be aware, too, that many more parents think that their children are candidates for athletic scholarships than there are scholarships and that Division One scholarships often have expectations for practice, conditioning, travel, and competition that take significant time from studies. New rulings seem to allow some schools to give more aid than in the past, but at what price to the student?

In addition, there are various loan programs, although I am wary of loans that saddle young people with enormous debts that can affect their ability to buy a home, start a family, choose a low-paying career such as social work or elementary and secondary school teaching, as well as prepare for retirement. In fact a handful of top universities have eliminated loans from aid packages and I expect more to follow.

Avoid for-profit colleges, many of which have engaged in fraudulent practices and are responsible for a disproportionate amount of student loan defaults. Several government studies have exposed these schools as taking advantage of gullible students and making exaggerated claims.

4) One key to college success is finding professors who are interested in you; it is worth researching whether teaching and mentoring are stressed at the colleges to which you apply.

Before you decide where to apply, the more you can learn about the school and the departments and professors that interest you, the better.

Both small colleges and large universities have great teachers, but the latter will have more courses taught and graded by graduate students who may also serve in the sciences as lab instructors. On the other hand, research universities will offer a wider variety of courses and programs.

Is it better, you might ask, to work with a world-class scholar at a top research university who opens the doors to exciting and complex projects and ideas than with a capable, enthusiastic professor who does little or no research? Or are you more likely to find at an excellent small college a professor who challenges you and shows interest in your growth as a person?

There is no one answer, but in my experience you are just as likely to find the ideal mentor at a large university as at a small college. Katherine Burroughs, Cornell '85 recalls: "What is really remarkable though is notwithstanding the size of [Cornell}and the focus on being a research institution, I can count on a few fingers the bad experiences." 

Keep in mind that major research universities can offer students opportunities to work with senior scholars on grants and give you a leg up for graduate school. There are programs like Cornell's Presidential Research Scholars that enable student to do independent research under the auspices of a senior scholar; these programs are not limited to the sciences but can include the humanities.

My sense is that teaching at research universities, including teaching in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) courses, has improved gradually and dramatically in recent decades. At research universities, teaching effectiveness is not only more a component in tenure decisions but is also stressed more in the administration's review of a department's and individual performances than used to be the case. But certainly at some universities teaching should be stressed in some disciplines more than it is.

Because of a tight job market, professors trained at the strongest graduate programs are everywhere now, and you will be able to find excellent mentors not only at the most selective colleges and flagship state universities, but at almost any college, including community colleges.

5) Suggestions #1-#4 means that you need to do the necessary research.This means finding the tine to do some reading in catalogues and online sites--and, if possible speaking to people attending the colleges that interest you. Talk not only to your guidance counselor or the person handling college applications, but also to teachers whom you respect.

6) Visiting colleges is a good idea but don't overestimate what you learn in a campus visit. The best visits are overnight ones during the week that include living in the dorms and visiting classes rather than visits on football weekends at schools where football is foregrounded.

If you are a prospective athlete you will meet the coach and if he or she is interested in you as a potential player, you may be recruited with tales of championships and even exposed to campus partying, especially on weekends. You need to look at athletic facilities, find out how likely you are to play, and if you are offered an athletic scholarship, find out whether you lose that if you are injured or if you or the university decides you are not going to be on the team You need to do some research into whether the school is using you to bolster its athletic reputation or if it is really interested in your getting an education. There has been ample evidence that some schools universities are not educating many of its top athletes, especially in visible and revenue earning sports.

The worst reason to go to any college is because you think there will be lots of partying and sometimes eighteen year olds forget this.

7) Early decision (which is binding if the college accepts you and usually requires an application in November) and early action (which does not require a commitment until the regular commitment deadline of May 1) are often good options and in many elite schools give you a better chance of being admitted. For either, you apply to only one school. Early action still gives you a chance to apply elsewhere and compare financial aid offers. However, if you do early decision, you cannot compare financial aid packages; for those needing aid, early decision may not be the best alternative.

In my limited experience on admission committees at Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences those deferred during the process of admitting early decision applicants do not usually get admitted later. Nor are many students admitted from the so-called wait list. My guess is that this is true at virtually all the select schools and if you are deferred or waitlisted, you need to find out the facts on these matters. Your slim chances of being admitted off the wait list are increased by writing an enthusiastic letter expressing your strong interest, but don't become a nuisance by frequent writing and calling.

8) For those taking part in the regular application process or those who are rejected or deferred in the early decision or early action process, "safety schools"--those whom research plus your guidance counselor find are likely to admit you-- are a good way to avoid disappointment.

9) Think of the college admission process as an Olympic event in which you do your best, but if you don't get admitted where you want to be, be a good sport and realize this is NOT a judgment on your life to date or your potential. What you do at college is far more important than where you do it.

10) Once you have made a choice, commit yourself fully to that choice rather than thinking about "would haves" and "should haves" or what might have been.

11) Transferring is a possibility--and some schools give students "guaranteed transfer" if they meet certain stipulations--but in most cases the best thing is to give your all at the school in which you enroll.

If you are doubtful about which field you want to go into, choose a larger university with many choices of fields in which to major. That choice may be more important in STEM because you are preparing for a specific career than it is in the liberal arts where your skills in reading, writing, thinking analytically, making oral presentations, and summoning evidence are most important; in some liberal arts fields, you can move readily from one area to another. (See my "Why Study the Arts and the Humanities)."

In general it is easier to transfer from science and engineering programs into liberal arts than vice versa. Put another way, if you are interested in STEM, it is best to start in STEM.

12) One way to save on costs is to apply to a Canadian University or a university abroad. Canadian universities often do not require standard test scores or recommendations or essays--and some only require senior grades-- but they do give preference to students in their province. Canadian students submit their application to an application service or to the university and list their preference order. (See "10 Reasons to Attend Canadian Universities").

At Queen's University, one of Canada's elite schools, an American student's costs for tuition plus room and board might be in the neighborhood of two-thirds of an elite American school. Not only are there merit scholarships for international students, but you can also still apply for loans offered by the US government under the Stafford Program and PLUSloan programs.

Universities in countries other than Canada are also possible choices and will be less costly than the most expensive US universities (See: "The Complete University Guide").

British Universities require the Universities and College Admission Service Application. 
Only Oxford and Cambridge require applicant interviews; both welcome but do not require SAT and ACT test scores. For Oxford and Cambridge, an essay is also required but it is, rather than a personal essay, one focusing on your academic plans.

Alternative Paths to a College Education

But there are many other scenarios other than the college Olympics. Great teaching and mentoring can take place at Community Colleges and commuting four-year schools. When cost is an issue or when you are undecided on your direction, commuting to college can make a great deal of sense, and so can spending your first two college years getting an associate degree at a Community College.

Some states have innovative programs for getting a college degree. For example, New York's Empire State College has a fully accredited program for associate and bachelor degrees which allows a combination of online and on site courses and even gives college credit for certain kinds of work experience.

Questions that are part of the process for many young people:

Is college for everyone? Do you want to go to college upon high school graduation or would it be better to go into the Armed Service and go to college later when the Service will pay much of the costs? (See, for example, "US Army Benefits"). What if you have had to work for some years to support a family? What if, because of financial reasons, you are thinking of going to college part-time? What if you didn't do so well in high school, but now, after working or military experience, you feel ready for college? What if you need, for family and personal reasons, to stay home?

For some students, the answers to the foregoing questions will lead to a decision to begin your higher education at community colleges. Despite the focus in my earlier comments on "elite" and "selective" colleges, we need to remember almost half of US undergraduates are enrolled in community colleges and many more are in four-year commuter colleges where the road from high school matriculation to graduation can be difficult.

In "Community College Students Face a Very Long Road to Graduation," part of a series focusing on LaGuardia Community College in Queens, New York City, Gina Bellafonte writes:

In recent years, mounting concerns about inequality have fixated on the need for greater economic diversity at elite colleges, but the interest has tended to obscure the fact that the vast majority of high school students -- including the wealthiest -- will never go to Stanford or the University of Chicago or Yale. Even if each of U.S. News and World Report's 25 top-ranked universities committed to turning over all of its spots to poor students, the effort would serve fewer than 218,000 of them. Community colleges have 7.7 million students enrolled, 45 percent of all undergraduates in the country. . . .

More than 70 percent of LaGuardia students come from families with incomes of less than $25,000 a year. The college reports that 70 percent of its full-time students who graduated after six years transferred to four-year colleges, compared with just 18 percent nationally, but only a quarter of LaGuardia students received an associate degree within six years.

Students at community college at times do not have access to the mentors and counselors who understand the ins and outs of transferring to four-year schools. If you take this route, you need to educate yourself on these matters and, in the best case, find mentors among your teachers and advising deans who will help you.

My former Cornell English Department colleague, Phillip Marcus, now teaching at a less selective four year college, Florida International, eloquently reminds me that there is world quite different from Cornell and other prestige schools, a world in which professors face challenges that Ivy League and other elite schools can hardly imagine:

My own experience for the past twenty years would be quite different from yours as 80% of our 60,000 students are minorities (Hispanic, African-American, Afro-Caribbean) and most of them come from poor families and almost all work part time or even full time while carrying full loads of classes. I always have students who can't afford the textbooks. . . .

My students here face so many daunting challenges just to afford to go, though our cost is about 50 K lower per year than [Cornell]. . . As an example of differences between CU and FIU, the state mandates that we submit textbook orders very early, because a great number of our students simply cannot afford to buy new books and must search for used ones. Often the bargain books don't arrive in time and students are without books during the first crucial weeks of the semester.

To give another perspective that shows how difficult success at college can be for those marginally prepared, I cite Wendy Yoder, Retention Coordinator at Southwestern Oklahoma State University, another non-elite four year university:

Southwestern is . . . dedicated to students and willing to implement whatever changes necessary to optimize the success of our students. . . [W]e sometimes overlook the natural waning process that occurs between a freshman and senior class. College is not for everyone, but I believe that we can make a positive influence in the lives of our students even if they decide on another path in the future.

Despite these difficulties, four year schools like Florida International and Southwestern Oklahoma, where many and in some places most students are commuters, provide a viable alternative to the more expensive colleges and offer students without great means and perhaps honor grades in high school a chance to earn the necessary college degree to find a good job and make a difference in their communities. Similarly, community colleges play a crucial role for a great many students. They are often feeder schools for state university systems and provide a resource for upward mobility. They offer associate degrees after two years of successful full-time study. But because many of their students work full time and go to school part time, progress can be slow and many students drop out of classes during the term. Yet many students thrive in these schools and go on to graduate school.

While not for everyone, higher education will not only expand your earning power by developing your skills and intellect, but also open the doors and windows to the pleasures of reading and the joy of learning.


“The College Olympics: How to Choose the Right College and How to Get the Right College to Choose You,” Huffington Post, Nov.11, 2014, http://t.co/Bx3506gqWR


17 Suggestions for Choosing Classes in College

After making suggestions to students about how to negotiate the freshman year, sophomore yearjunior year, and senior year, I have been urged to write a piece on how to choose classes. My suggestions, in no particular order, follow.

1) Even while filling pre-requisites and requirements for your major as well as distribution requirements during your first first two years, each term -- if time permits -- take one class that expands your interests. In some cases, required distribution courses will be expanding your range of interests.

2) After you choose a major, continue to take one course a term that expands your interests or develops necessary skills that complement your major. Even after fulfilling basic graduation requirements, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) majors need to expose themselves to the humanities and social sciences; humanities majors need to take some basic sciences and social sciences; and students in the social sciences need to think about the humanities and science.

No matter what your major may be, you will need to develop tech skills. Every student needs to have a course in computer science and in economics, and every student needs to learn how to write lucidly and precisely and to learn to use evidence to make a well-structured argument. Take as many courses as possible that require extended written assignments.

Matt Barsamian, Cornell '04, observes: "I strongly agree with your admonition that students should step outside their comfort zone. I believe I dropped Introduction to Microeconomics three times as an undergraduate and never wound up taking it. I still regret not doing so. College is a rare opportunity where you can learn about just about anything and it is very very difficult to find the time and motivation to do so once you are working."

3) During your four years in college, take classes that cultivate new interests. Try a class or two in creative writing, music, art, and/or theatre. A basic survey course in these fields will give you an overview. Such classes will be an investment because they will prepare you for a lifetime of enjoyment.

In the humanities, where pre-requisites are less important, a more specialized class may be more challenging and ultimately have a higher yield in terms of introduction to a field. Thus what you learn from an in-depth class on Mozart will carry over into your understanding of Beethoven or Brahms, and what you learn about seventeenth century Dutch painting will help you understand the Italian Renaissance.

If you are not a scientist, take a class or two that enables you to understand such social and political issues as climate change, epidemics, population growth, genetic engineering and testing, and fossil fuels. At the very least you will be an informed citizen, but you may also have a chance in the future to shape policy on some of these issues within your community.

4) Speaking to other students about a professor or classes is a valuable source of information, but it is important to know how serious and responsible your sources are. Keep in mind that the best teachers offer courses that are often demanding. If you know that such a splendid class outside your major must get less of your attention in terms of effort and commitment, you might take it using the Pass/Fail option rather than miss the learning experience.

5) Sign up each term for as many courses as your school will allow and go to more classes the first week than you plan to take. After a few classes, you will have a good idea whether the class is for you. In addition, if need be, you can just go to larger classes without signing up. But where enrollment is limited, it is best to have your name on the initial list.

6) On the whole, when possible, take professors, not courses. Taking classes with engaged professors who love their subject and communicate their passion and in-depth understanding is part of the joy of learning. Such professors can brighten an entire semester as well as the entire college experience.

7) Find professors who are interested in their students and care about their students' growth. It may be reductive to say that some professors teach their subject, others teach their subject to individual students, but there is a good deal of truth in that distinction.

The professors who ask you about your plan of study, your goals, your outside activities, and seem to care about you as a human being will not only be those you can go to for advice, but those who could be a future reference. And thinking about who will be future references is important.

8) Remember, too, that no professor is the best professor for everyone.But in general, the best professors are those who expect you to come to every class prepared, take attendance, have high expectations, and give challenging assignments. The best professors not only treat student assignments carefully and expeditiously but also prepare each student to do the assignments successfully,

9) Take classes that emphasize concepts and how to apply them. Learning by rote is less important than learning how to think for yourself and to solve problems, a crucial quality for your future. Of course, some classes, like those in basic foreign language, do emphasize developing basic skills.

Learning how to think is a quality that develops in part from watching professors work through issues and synthesize on their feet when answering complex questions as well as understanding how they conceptualize assignments and exam questions. Most importantly, learning how to think involves solving problems and meeting challenges connected with papers and exams and, in STEM courses, complex conceptual and theoretical issues as well as interpreting the evidence from experiments.

Be aware that some problems are intractable and vague and courses that put everything in PowerPoint and neat packages are at times suspect. In your future career as a doctor, lawyer, government employee, or researcher, you will come upon problems that cannot be neatly solved or solved at all.

10) A current buzzword is "metacognition." What that means is knowing about knowing, or knowledge about when and how to use particular strategies for learning or for problem solving. Thus, when writing a paper or pursuing a lab experiment or social science project, think about what you know, what you need to know, what you can't know and how to use that mix to solve intellectually challenging problems and paradoxes.

11) Take courses that stress integrative learning, that enable you to understand material beyond one course, and to transfer what you have learned in one area to another area.

If your course in Russian literature enables you to better understand Putin's aspirations and follies, you would be integrating your learning. Another example is reading di Lampedusa's masterwork, The Leopard, not only for its literary value but to better understand Italian and Sicilian history, politics, and class divisions as well as continuing economic tensions between Northern and Southern Italy. Using psychology, including psychoanalyses, to understand literary characters and their authors is another example of integrative learning. By combining science and economics, integrative learning can also help us understand the effects of climate change on future generations.

12) Take courses where the professor can put material in context, reference other fields, and has some knowledge of the world beyond the classroom. Reading the New York Times in print or on the internet is one way for you to keep up with the world at large, including environmental and sustainability issues that affect us all, as well as how our government functions and how we can change it.

Follow international news and have a map of the world or a globe in your room and relate what you learn and read to specific places.

13) Take courses that help make you aware of ethical and moral issues.You are preparing yourself for life and such awareness will not only make you a better citizen, family member, and employee but a better member of the campus community.

14) Learn to think about the experiential implications of what you are learning and how solving academic problems can carry over into other aspects of life. Conversely, find internships and campus activities that give you an experiential base for what you are learning. Depending on your field, this could take the form of working in a lab, as a museum guide (docent), for a university publication or on the campus newspaper. Find summer internships and positions that enable you to integrate your knowledge with your experience.

15) Supplement the classes in which you are enrolled with lectures by guest speakers, audits, and occasion visit to classes that you are hear are stimulating. A professor will generally welcome guests.

16) Take courses that require your participation. At best such courses become communities of inquiry, and communities require working together. Learning how to be part of a functioning group comes from small classes requiring participation.

In your career, you will need to work with people, and employers like people who can work in collaborative situations, who know the basics of teamwork, and who respond to the ideas of others even while sharing their own ideas.

17) Because of the Internet, we live in a global village with virtually instant availability of news (as well as social gossip) as events occur and develop.While we cannot know what future technology will bring us, we do know that students need to take courses to prepare for continuing internationalization. Language skills are important, even if English has become he educated world's lingua franca, that is, its common language. If you want to be part of globalization -- and you have no choice -- you might think about learning Chinese while in college, and if your focus will be the Americas, fluency in Spanish is necessary. Collaboration in research and business and social programs can depend on language fluency.


Discussion-oriented classes in which you learn to articulate your perspective and respond to that of others are valuable not only for clarifying and refining your thinking, but also for developing essential tools for participating as a valued team member at work, in your avocations, and in the civic life of your community. Indeed, the give and take of ideas is what separates democracy from other forms of government.

"17 Suggestions for Choosing Classes in College,"” Huffington Post, May 5, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-r-schwarz/seventeen-suggestions-on_b_6807322.html

Twenty Suggestions for Incoming College Freshmen

With millions of college students about to begin their freshman year within a few weeks, it is an appropriate time for entering students to think about how to succeed in college and, in particular how get a good start in what is a life-changing experience and opportunity.

In 2012, I first published my "Suggestions for Incoming Freshmen" in the Huffington Post. Taking account of comments from readers and students, I have published updated versions each succeeding year. I have also written quite a few other Huffington pieces on higher education. My forthcoming book on undergraduate education for Wiley-Blackwell, entitled How to Succeed in College and Beyond: The Art of Learning, is now in press.

My primary credential is that I have been a Cornell English Professor for 47 years and have also held visiting professorships at various public universities in three other states.

The following suggestions apply to all entering freshmen, although a few may be more apropos to those living on campus. Needless to say, this is far from an exhaustive list, but one that students, parents, and colleagues might think of as a point of departure.


1) Keep your career and life goals in mind, and remember why you enrolled at the college and in the program you chose.

2) College is an opportunity, but you need to be a savvy consumer, and that means much more than not wasting your own money or that of your parents and not running up loans beyond you and your parents' ability to repay.

Being a savvy consumer means taking advantage of what is offered in terms of personal and intellectual growth as well as developing the necessary skills for the next stage of one's life. Savvy college consumers take advantage of opportunities and learn what resources are available, not only on campus in terms of courses, professors, extra-curricular activities, museums, theater, work, and volunteerism, but also within the community in which the campus is located.

3) After a reasonable amount of time, if you and your academic program are not a good match, think about changing direction within the college or, if you are at a university, transferring to another college within that university. A "reasonable amount of time" is admittedly vague; when to change direction will vary from person to person. Student input has made me think that in most cases at least an entire academic year is more appropriate than one semester.

Yoshi Toyoda, Cornell'14, counsels that students should be patient before changing fields:

For many science/math/engineering majors, a lot of freshman and sophomore classes are going to be laying foundations that may not be obviously related to your field. For example, all of my engineering friends had to first get through all of the differential equations and physics courses which they may not have enjoyed in order to fulfill the prerequisite to take upper-level, interesting, applied engineering courses.

One should take one's time about transferring to another college or university unless it was always your first choice and you had been given "guaranteed transfer" if you met certain stipulations. Be sure you are not transferring just because you are being asked to meet higher standards than in high school or that you are not the center of attention that you were in high school.

Subin Chung, Cornell '15 and a transfer, advises:

[A] student should probably take at least a year (rather than a semester) to judge whether t they should transfer - one semester isn't enough. First semester is often just adjusting to change; second is when you really realize whether that particular school is the right fit for you. I find that many of my transfer friends (and myself included) tend to think so.

Time Management

4) If any one thing determines success in school and in life for people of comparable potential and ability, it is time management, that is, using time effectively and efficiently. Keep a daily record of how you are using your time; each evening, schedule the next day, even while knowing you won't be following that schedule exactly.

You need a regular routine for doing your academic work. When you are awake, think about how the day will be going in terms of time, including how much time you will be spending on extra-curricula activities (varsity or club or intramural sports, university publications such as the school newspaper or literary magazine, band or orchestra), paid employment, community volunteering, and social activities.

Jenni Higgs, Cornell '01, suggests:

[I]t might be helpful to encourage students to explore resources on campus that can help them adjust to new academic demands (e.g., study groups, counseling/study centers, etc.) It might be comforting to freshmen to know that it's common to feel overwhelmed initially and that there are plenty of organizations on campus to help them through rough patches.

An important Basic Rule: no time period is too short to accomplish something, and sometimes--especially when writing about something that you have been thinking about for a while--the time constraints of 15 or 20 minutes can actually produce better results than longer time periods. It may be that in some cases if people have less time for a task, they are more efficient.

If you have time between classes, learn to use that time. If you have a fifty-minute class at 9:05 that ends at 9:55 and another that begins at 11:15, use those 80 minutes productively.

Know that the week has 168 hours. Be aware of how much time you spend with your smart phone, email, and social media such as Facebook, Twitter, etc. Be aware, too, of how much time you spend on social activities.

In July 1718, Cotton Mather advised his son Samuel, as he was going off to college:

My Dear Child, look on Idleness as no better than wickedness. Begin betimes to set a value upon time, very loathe to throw it away on impertinencies. You have but a little time to live; but by the truest wisdom from you may live much in a little time; every night think how have I spent my time today, and be grieved if you can't say, you have gotten or done some good in the day.

Mark Eisner, Cornell Ph.D. '70 who has been both a teacher and administrator at Cornell, and has also spent time in private industry, admonishes:

In managing time, it is important to be aware, not just of a schedule, but of how productive you are able to be at each point in the schedule. All hours spent on tasks are not equivalent - if you are overtired it can take extra time to complete tasks, and if you miss a class or fall asleep during [the class], it can cost more time to catch up than it would have taken to be in class and attentive to the material. That extra time then gets stolen from other tasks, with the risk of falling further and further behind.

Zivah Perel, Cornell '99, who teaches at Queensborough Community College, CUNY (The City University of New York), reminds us of the differences between students at elite schools and urban students balancing college with other demands: "My students have a hard time balancing the demands of their jobs, the demands of their families, and school. It's hard to know what to tell them, since I understand when they sometimes (or even often) have to prioritize something other than my class." Adding an eloquent personal note, she writes: "It's interesting coming from a place like Cornell, which was a totally different type of institution than where I am now (obviously). I so valued my time at Cornell and had always hoped to teach some place like it, but I find my work now so rewarding and important. These are students who need good teaching and someone who values them academically. So often that hasn't been the case for them."

5) Come to every class on time, alert, prepared, and ready to take notes. 
In response to the above sentence, Peter Fortunato, Cornell '72, a former student of mine who taught as a lecturer at Ithaca College for years and in the Cornell Summer College, wrote: "Learn how to take notes (most students, I've found, really don't know how to do this, or nowadays expect teachers to supply power-point notes!) and how to connect writing and thinking whatever the subject matter."

Work on your courses every day but not all day; do something that is fun and relaxing every day, whether it be formal activity like participation in an intramural sports or a singing group or a walk in the woods, a visit to a museum on or off campus, or a pick-up basketball game.

Fortunato observes: "Learn how to relax and focus, either by taking a stress-busting workshop or meditation class or guided relaxation class. Students do much better in college when they are intentional about these matters or have teachers who add such activities to class time."

Participating in Campus Life

6) Experience complements what you learn in classes. Try to find summer jobs, campus jobs, and campus or community activities that parallel your goals. If you need or want a part-time job, try to get one compatible with your goals as a way to test whether you are on the right path. But also use jobs and activities to expand your horizons and interests.

Yet if financially possible, during term keep most of your time for academic work with some left over for extra-curricular activities and community volunteering.

In general if you are at an elite college or university, ten or twelve hours on a paid job is enough. To be sure, at less demanding colleges and universities, many students--particularly older students, some of whom have families to support or help support-- carry a full course load and work much more at jobs.

Gabrielle McIntire, Cornell Ph.D. '02 and a professor of English at Queens University in Canada advises:

Prepare to work hard: this is the gateway and ticket to your whole future, and it is worth investing everything you have in this four-year period to keep those gates wide open so that you have as many choices as you possibly can upon graduation. I remember somehow figuring out in undergrad that it was well worth my time to have a minimal part-time job (5 hours/week), and to use my "extra" time on pushing myself as hard as I could scholastically since that was the REAL investment in my future. That is, instead of earning $10/hour doing more part-time work, and thus having a bit more cash at hand in the moment, I realized that it would be better to be slightly poorer during undergrad which would then allow me to have many more rewards after [undergraduate years].

7) Be sure to participate in one or more of the many campus activities, but during the first term choose a limited number until you are confident you can handle your course workload.

8) Given that this is a tech-driven world, no matter what your major, develop tech skills, perhaps by taking basic courses in computer science if you have not already done so in high school. If you have done so, consider taking another one in college. Virtually every student who didn't developed tech skills has expressed regret to me.

Ryan Larkin, Cornell '14 advises: "Learning how to code (even basic HTML and CSS) would have been an invaluable step for me to take in high school, and some of the first advice I'd give to students would be to acquire hard technical skills that can add value to almost any kind of resume."

Kyle Sullivan observes:"[T]he world is developing at such a rapid pace and having the hard technical skills is almost a must in most job situations that aren't sales related. Although I'm in a sales position right now as a Small Business Commercial Lender for M&T Bank in New Jersey, I recently taught myself the basics of HTML CSS, and Java through a website called codeacademy.com because that's something that won't change and will be quite valuable just for personal use moving forward."

Broadening Horizons and Expanding Interests

9) Take advantage of lectures outside the areas of your course work as well as special exhibits, campus theater presentations, musical and dance programs and other campus resources as well as the natural and/or urban treasures and cultural resources of the area in which your college is located.

10) The world has become a global village. For you to be part of the village, you need to spend some time each day keeping informed about international and national news. That means reading a major newspaper in print or on the Internet like the New York Times.

Reflecting on conversations he had with fellow students, notably during the financial crises but also on other occasions, Kyle Sullivan, Cornell '11, notes:

Some of my most valuable lessons in college came from the discourse I had with friends, friends from different upbringings and experiences that reflected their background and the places they came from or even visited for a brief or extended amount of time. Just having that intelligent and thoughtful discourse with them changed the way I look[ed] at a problem, or a topic and changed the way I react[ed] to [it]. . . . I remember sitting in the fraternity house huddled around either CNN or MSNBC and switching to Fox News to get a different perspective and learning so much just from listening to the conversations being had from the other guys sitting around the TV.

Choosing Classes and Studying

11) Think about your classes as communities of inquiry where you, your fellow students, and the professor are sharing intellectual curiosity, love of learning, and the desire to understand important subjects. I concur with what I have heard over the years: "If so-so [recognized at Cornell as a truly great professor] is teaching the Manhattan phone book, take it. "

Rachel (Greenguss) Schultz, Cornell, '83 emphasizes:

It is important to take interesting classes with great professors. Find out who the good teachers are and take their classes. Of course you need to be interested in the subject but sometimes a great teacher can awaken a passion.

I also think it is less about taking courses that fit your career path and more about taking classes that teach you how to think and learn. Success in adult life depends so much on being a life-long learner and any tools you glean in college to hone this skill will set you up for success later in life.

Take classes that emphasize concepts and how to apply them. Learning by rote is much less important than learning how to think for yourself and to solve problems; the latter skills are crucial for your future. Be aware in your thinking of what you know, what you need to know, and what is unknowable.

But the right class for you may not be the right class for others. Emily Choi, Cornell '14, counsels, "I think it's always good to register for as many classes as you can, and to go in your first week, even if it's just to feel them out." If possible when a class or professor is not fulfilling your expectations, drop it or change sections.

Some students, especially in the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) enjoy study groups. As Zhongming Chen Cornell ' 14 recalls:

I felt that studying with friends was a key to my success. I . . .made a lot of close friends this way It was a great way for me to bridge my major activities (academics, social life, and athletics) too. I understand that I may be a little biased though. I did head teams that created videos for the Learning Strategies Center that promoted these methods. I was that passionate about it! Also, this method may not be equally applicable to all majors (the videos my teams prepared were for the biology and chemistry departments).

In small classes, participate in discussion and ask for clarification; in large ones, don't hesitate to ask questions if you have them and to visit the teaching assistant or lecturer's office when you need help.

Peter Fortunato suggests: "Learn how you learn; that is, whether you are primarily an information-based (facts and figures), visual, auditory, 'hands-on,' or interpersonal (teamwork) based learner. Many professors and curricula assume that all students function in the same way in their respective courses."

Eisner notes: "There is more to learning something than absorbing facts and techniques. Try to find opportunities to explain the subject matter to someone else, or to write an explanation in your own words. The best learning is active learning."

12) Get to know at least one professor reasonably well each term. The professors who ask you about your plan of study, your goals, and your outside activities, and seem to care about you as a human being will be not only resources that you can go to for advice, but also potential future references. If one or more professors become your mentors, mature, stable, selfless people for whom your personal and intellectual growth and future success in whatever you choose matter, you will be most fortunate. Although students are just as likely to find valuable mentors at large colleges as small ones, they may need to make more effort to reach out, and connect with professors. Even within the same college and university, department cultures are not the same. Where teaching is valued and teachers spend time with students, you are more likely to find a mentor.

Once you arrive at your school, I suggest visiting professors during office hours, showing interest in the subject (taking the initiative to do extra reading and then asking the professor about it), participating often and thoughtfully in class, as well as attending optional learning activities. All of the aforementioned are ways to find a mentor at a college of any size.

For Becca Harrison, Cornell '14, finding a mentor was crucial:

In high school, no one would have cared if I fell through the cracks; at Cornell (and probably many institutions), the minute I reached out to my chemistry professor and graduate student Freshman Writing Seminar instructor for help, I realized that finding a mentor who truly cared about my success made it possible to learn how to learn and work effectively.

Matt Barsamian, Cornell '04, advises:

You discuss, in the tips for incoming freshmen, getting to know at least one professor well. I think that is invaluable. I was fortunate enough to get to know three or four professors/instructors fairly well. I would also emphasize the value of attending office hours and point out that they don't exist merely for those students who perceive themselves to be struggling to understand the material or in response to a bad grade on an exam or paper. I would highly recommend visiting every professor at least once during the semester during his/her office hours as an opportunity to connect. I think it also evidences a student's interest in and commitment to the course.

By knowing some of your professors, you will not only feel more a part of your college community, but you will also have necessary references for programs within college, work positions, and graduate school.

In "It Takes a Mentor," New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has written:

What are the things that happen at a college or technical school that, more than anything else, produce "engaged" employees on a fulfilling career track? According to Brandon Busteed, the executive director of Gallup's education division, two things stand out. Successful students had one or more teachers who were mentors and took a real interest in their aspirations, and they had an internship related to what they were learning in school.

13) Find a few comfortable and quiet study places on campus, places where you work effectively and are not easily distracted. If you are commuting, you will still need to find places where you can focus on your academic work.

Maintaining Physical and Mental Health

14) Participate in campus activities--teams, musical and dance groups, community activities that serve the underserved and aged--and attend seminars that call upon collaborative action. Such collective endeavors give you an opportunity to develop group responsibilities, including social ethics and leadership skills necessary for later life. (I am skeptical about the need for fraternities and sororities in 2014, a subject I will discuss later, but they do respond to the social needs of many students.)

Students who participate in campus activities get more out of their college experience and feel more satisfied with their college years both while at college and when looking back from a distance of years. Richard J. Light notes that, based on surveys, "a substantial commitment to one or two activities other than coursework--for as much as twenty hours a week---has little or no relationship to grades. But such commitments do have a strong relationship to overall satisfaction with college life. More involvement is strongly correlated with higher satisfaction" (Making The Most of College: Students Speak Their Minds, Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001, 26).

15) Remember the three R's: Resilience (Falling down and getting up are one motion.); Resourcefulness (Use your skills and intelligence.); and 
Resolve (Pursue goals with determination and persistence.) 
More likely than in high school, you are going to have disappointments and frustrations, but overcoming them is part of the process of preparing for the world beyond college.

In between completing her freshman year and beginning her sophomore year, Pauline Shongov, Cornell '17, observed: "[F]reshmen should never underestimate their talents but also should be humble in everything they do. If they strike a balance between these two, they will be open to everything college life has to offer and will thus win others' respect while maintaining self-respect in return."

16) Look at setbacks and problems as challenges to be met and overcome; when you do so successfully, you will be gaining confidence to meet the next challenges.

Learning to build on failures is an important quality for success, as many of my former students attest.

Becca Harrison, Cornell '14, recalls "the value [for her] in failing, and not necessarily succeeding right out of the starting-gate that is freshman year." Recognize that all problems--personal and intellectual--are not neatly solved, and learn how to deal with complex and ambiguous questions.

Alyson Favilla, Cornell '16, adds:

The only thing I might suggest is adding something [about] adjusting personal expectations for success. Number 16 on the list [about handling setbacks and problems} was great, but requires significant perspective that isn't going to be available to students currently struggling with something that feels far out of their depth. Many students, especially those from highly competitive, privileged areas, have never before had to confront the limitations of their own abilities. Recognizing those limits, and determining to improve on them, I think, is an important lesson; knowing that you can successfully apply yourself to difficult or new material is very different than expecting to understand it right away, or feeling disheartened when you do not. Similarly, success does not always engender satisfaction. Being good at something, or achieving conventional academic success at that thing is not always a reason to pursue it. For me, that was an important thing to consider when deciding whether or not to switch programs.

17) When you enter a new situation such as the first weeks at college, you might feel somewhat desperate to make friends quickly. But it is important to retain your core values and judgment and to avoid becoming part of a herd or doing things only because others are doing them.

Quoting Psalm 139, Cotton Mather advised his son going off to college: "[H]e that walketh with the Wise, shall be wise, but a companion of fools shall be destroyed. Shun the company of all profane and vicious persons, as you would the pestilence."

The period between entering school and Thanksgiving is sometimes known as the "Red Zone" because students are more prone to make bad choices, whether they be partaking excessively of substances that suspend their judgment or putting up with physically abusive hazing or bullying roommates. It is no disgrace to change roommates or to move to a different floor or dorm. If you feel a situation is beginning to get out of control, do not be afraid to protest to campus authorities, or, if you feel the situation is dire, to call psychiatric services or the campus police.

Seek help when you need it, no matter what the issue.

Mark Eisner, Cornell Ph.D. '70, succinctly observes: "There is no shame in seeking help, and doing so can save your education and possibly even your life."

18) Take Care of yourself physically and emotionally. Be sure to get enough exercise and sleep, and be sure to eat regular nutritious meals. Sleep deprivation can lead to poor performance and poor judgment. 

Eisner, Cornell Ph.D. '70, puts it well:

Sometimes you have to sacrifice what you could have learned through an all-nighter in order to get to bed at an hour that ensures a productive day the next day. Preferably you should set a regular bedtime and get to bed at that time each night. If there is not time to do everything, consider productivity in choosing which tasks to short change and when to sacrifice them. Studying course material (and thinking deeply about it) as you go along is more efficient than cramming at the end.

19) Know that substance abuse is a problem on campuses, with alcohol being the most abused, and that use of alcohol and illegal drugs can lead to compromising situations in which judgment is skewed.

Brad Berger, a father of a Dartmouth student and a reader of my Huffington Postarticles, feels that colleges abnegate their responsibility in not enforcing laws that forbid under age drinking:

When colleges allow drinking on the campuses, they are saying students and colleges can pick and choose what laws to break. Not only are they disregarding the drinking laws but also the behavior caused by the drinking is dangerous and destructive. Underage drinking in my opinion is the issue most important to colleges and least talked about.

20) Laugh a lot and continue to develop your sense of humor. When things are not going well, remember you can't fix the past, but you can start where you are and create the future.


“Twenty Suggestions for Incoming College Freshmen,” Huffington Post, July 22, 2015, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-r-schwarz/twenty-suggestions-for-in_b_7859008.html


Nineteen Suggestions for College Sophomores

After publishing articles in Huffington entitled “Suggestions for Seniors Graduating College” and “Fourteen Suggestions for Incoming College Freshmen” as well as “What to Do with a B.A. in English?” and “Why Study the Arts and the Humanities?” I have been asked if I had any suggestions for the years at college and in particular for the sophomore year.

Speaking to Cornell audiences about my suggestions for seniors and talking to my own students, I began to realize that students need to focus on planning at a much earlier stage than their senior year. Colleges and universities are becoming increasingly proactive about providing resources to help your planning. For example, the Cornell College of Arts and Sciences now has an Assistant Dean & Director of Career Services. So drawing upon my 46 years as a professor since arriving in 1968 at Cornell, and realizing that others will have additional suggestions, here I go with nineteen suggestions for sophomores who more often than not are nineteen years old. I would foreground my first three suggestions but after that there is no order.

1) Sophomore year is a time to think about the future–whether it be employment or further education or a combination of both. With the future in mind, you should choose your college major, your summer employment and internships, your community service, and at least some of your extra-curricula activities. Think about preparing yourself for graduate school–medical, law, masters or Ph.D.–and find out what the requirements are. Many MBA programs prefer some years of work before graduate school.

Develop your character in terms of self-knowledge, integrity, leadership, compassion, and judgment. Who you are becoming is as important as what skills you are developing.

2) Do not think of your career plans or even your choice of major in terms of future earnings but in terms of future satisfaction. Joy in work and joy in personal life are what give life meaning.

3) If you are in the wrong program, think about changing it because after the sophomore year you will have invested even more time and energy in a program. If you are in the wrong college, think about transferring. After your sophomore year, such changes become more difficult.

4) Be sure to choose an advisor who is interested in you and meet with your advisor regularly. Do not limit yourself to email communication. If you advisor doesn’t keep his or her office hours, get another one. I recommend that if possible you choose an advisor who has been your teacher because those who have taught you will know you better than an assigned advisor.

5) If you have more than one passion, think about double majoring.

6) If possible, take at least one course a term to expand your interests. Try a basic course in creative writing or photography or acting. Remember that a course in music or art appreciation is not only an investment in a degree but in life. If you are an English major, take an economics course. If an engineer, take an English or history course. And so on.

7) Sophomores should, if at all possible, finish fulfilling all non-major requirements in order to be able to pursue your major and take other upper-level courses.

8) Make an effort to know your professors, in part to cultivate potential references but also to take advantage of being around interesting minds. If a professor invites a class to go together to a theatrical or musical performance or to get together for a class dinner, don’t miss that opportunity.

9) Be sure you understand graduation requirements and major requirements, and be aware that your advisor may not be an expert so it is best to see these requirements in writing.

10) Take classes from the best professors, who may also be the most demanding and not the easiest graders.

11) Look for professors who are interested in students as people and want to know about your progress in college and future plans.

12) As much as possible balance smaller classes with larger ones.
Realize that sometimes you learn more from a professor who knows his field and mostly lectures than in a discussion size class where a half-prepared professor begins each class session with “What do we all think about this?”

13) Stay physically fit. Choose your friends wisely and avoid those who overindulge in alcohol and rely on illegal substances. Be very careful who and what you text and what you put on social media because these messages can come to back to haunt you.

Learn from your fellow students; spend time with students who are committed to the act of learning. Informal communities of inquiry will supplement your formal course instruction.

14) Use the campus cultural resources: theatre, music, arts, and museums.

15) Participate in activities on campus: debating, religious groups, college newspaper, sports even if intramural rather than varsity, musical and acting groups, etc. Also be a part of the larger community as a volunteer by tutoring underserved communities, helping the elderly, reading to the blind, etc.

16) Develop leadership skills in organizations; belong to groups in which your initiative matters.

17) Think about whether studying abroad is for you. The first term of your sophomore year is the best time for plan for this, but it may not be too late to think about it very early in the second term. I believe that study abroad for a term or a year is a terrific experience because you will live in another culture and learn new perspectives.

18) No matter what your major take courses that emphasize communication skills, notably expository writing and speaking. Whatever you do you will need to be articulate and write precise, lucid, and well-organized prose.

19) Finally, time is your most precious commodity. Use your time effectively and keep track of how you are using time.


“Nineteen Suggestions for College Sophomores,” Jan. 6, 2014, Huffington Post. http://huff.to/1cNLn5q via ‪@HuffPostCollege


Suggestions for College Juniors: Balancing the Joy and Practicality of Learning

In my Huffington Post post on higher education, I have been stressing the joy and practicality of learning. What follows is a sequel to my "19 Suggestions for Incoming College Freshman," "19 Suggestions for College Sophomores," "Suggestions for Seniors Graduating From College: Planning for the Future," as well as my "How to Prepare for College." A number of people wrote me asking to complete my advice for each year and say something about the junior year, the one year I have so far omitted. Drawing upon my 47 years as a professor since arriving in 1968 at Cornell, and realizing that others will have additional suggestions, I have thought about the junior year. After discussing my No. 1 suggestion -- study abroad for a year or a term if at all possible -- I will briefly discuss some other suggestions.

The problem for today's college students, and especially juniors, is how to balance learning for practical purposes -- career and graduate school preparation -- with the joy of learning. I think of junior year as a bridge between the college experience and the post-graduate experience. It is your last year in the college incubator, but one that looks forward to a time when the college experience is over.

It is a year for testing and refining values, for discovering who you are and who you want to be. Obviously this is a process begun in grade school -- and, hopefully, continuing throughout your life -- but it comes to a head in the later college years. Key words for the junior year are "proactive," "imaginative," "experimental," as well as, on the practical side, "dossier building" (which means summer internships and work experience before and after your junior year are important). Even as you zero in on career and graduate student goals, you should make an effort to hone your communication and listening skills.

Junior year is the time to separate the wheat from the chaff in terms of making lifetime friends as opposed to superficial partying and to emphasize health and fitness. If excessive drinking has been an issue, it is time for moderation and self-control.

Writing in the NY Times, Frank Bruni has observed that college is the time to move beyond sectarian enclaves:

"{T]here's another dimension to college. . . . I'm referring to the potential -- and need -- for college to confront and change political and social aspects of American life that are as troubling as the economy. . . . [W]e should talk as much about the way college can establish patterns of reading, thinking and interacting that buck the current tendency among Americans to tuck themselves into enclaves of confederates with the same politics, the same cultural tastes, the same incomes. That tendency. . .[is] at the very root of our sclerotic, dysfunctional political process." ('Demanding More From College,' New York Times, Sept. 6, 2014)

Junior year is the time to broaden your horizons, reach out beyond your immediate circles, and develop your skills at seeing the points of view of others. Certainly developing tolerance is a goal that encompasses the joy and practicality of learning. If the current generation learns to communicate ideas in civil nuanced discourse, logically and lucidly -- presented in such a way that there is space for discussion and rejoinders -- all of us will have the pleasure of living in a less polarized and more civil society where democracy functions and diverse perspectives are respected.


1) If at all possible, take a junior term or year abroad and participate in the Global Village.

Having studied abroad my junior year, I am a strong proponent of that experience and urge everyone to take advantage of the opportunity if it is possible. I still think after fifty years that spending a year at Edinburgh was a transformative year in my life. Without email and with phone calls being very expensive for my frugal parents, I was really on my own, even much more so than at a residential college in the US. I travelled all over Western and Central Europe and even took a month long train trip--rare for its day--into Eastern Europe, mostly Russia but with some days in Poland.

Going abroad often makes young adults better citizens by offering them a more cosmopolitan perspective on how the world works than they can get at home. Some of this comes from meeting students from other countries. Even students from other countries who are fellow guests may be more open than when in the US.

By encountering new challenges, you will learn more about yourself. Students usually return with greater self-confidence, poise, and maturity. Keep a journal of your experiences and think about the consequences of your experiences. Nothing teaches you how to think better and at a higher level than new experiences and new situations.

Although as an English major I was restricted to British universities, and Oxford and Cambridge in 1961-62 did not welcome American Juniors, today's students have a wide array of universities to choose from. They now take a term or a year not only in Europe but also in such places as Sidney, Seville, Cape Town, Prague, and Buenos Aires to say nothing of Nepal and Senegal.

Even though the world is far more connected electronically than when I did my Junior year in Scotland and my parents and I communicated entirely by snail mail--except for their one 3 day visit--you still will need rely more on you own resources when in a different environment and you will also need to make new friends.

I have very rarely heard a student returning to her or his home university with regret about taking a term or year abroad. The experience of studying in a different country and in many cases in a foreign language enables you to live in different cultures and among a diverse group of students unlike those in your American University. While many US colleges and universities now have an international inflexion with more and more foreign students coming here to study, the normative values--educational and otherwise--reflect those of the United States; foreign guests tend to adapt to the dominant US culture. But when you are the foreign guest in another country the values of that country's culture of course dominate and you need adjust.

Virtually every country in the world has a concept of its own exceptionalism, something we in the US may assume is ours alone. People take pride in their history and culture even if they come from countries that some politicians and even news media in the US either patronize as "Third World" and insignificant to the world's geopolitics or regard as in social and political disarray. For example, one might reductively think of Nigeria as a place where a radical Islamic group called Boko Haram kidnaps young girls, but Nigerians take great pride in the positive achievements of heir country.

During your term or year abroad, you may not work as hard or learn as much in terms of course work as at your home university. But learning takes place outside the classroom as you are exposed to different political systems and different social customs. Living in a different culture outside the comfort zone that you have developed in your first few years of college, your learning will take new forms. You will not only be reading history, you will--as you immerse yourself in another culture--be living history.

Your assumptions about how the world is organized politically and socially will be challenged. You will discover that many of the truths that you were taught and take for granted will be questioned. You may think that the US is the land of opportunity as well as the protector and paradigm of economic and political freedom, but others may see the US differently.

Learning about other cultures and languages is best done, in my judgment, through travel. Students from other countries need to visit the US and we need to visit other countries. Travelling is education by life experience and complements education by books and professors. While abroad, you should travel as much as possible. The opportunity to complement the experience of studying at another university with travel within and beyond the country where one is studying is another major benefit of a junior year abroad. Be sure to visit as many countries as you can and to see as much of your host country as you can. My junior year abroad turned me into a lifetime traveller.

If you study in Europe, you will be much more conscious of Hitler's rise and fall, of the effects of the World War, and of the Holocaust. If you study in Eastern Europe, you will discover that the military presence of the USSR from 1945 to 1989 and the effects of the Communist experiment inform every day of life in 2014. In the Balkans, you experience firsthand the costs of the terrible wars that divided the old Yugoslavia. In Russia or China, you will not only be living under different social and economic assumptions, but will also be exposed to far different views of the United States.

A personal note: In 1962, while driving across Germany in an inexpensive car that I bought, I stopped at a Bed and Breakfast. I came downstairs the next morning to see pictures of an SS officer on the wall. In Rome, a Jewish woman with a number from the camps came up not to beg but to greet me as someone she correctly took to be an American Jew. One night I wandered around Moscow with a friend because the subways had stopped running and we were miles from our hotel. In St. Petersburg, we met a young woman who was the granddaughter of a nuclear physicist and who wanted us to help her leave Russia; we went to the American Embassy on her behalf and were told something might be possible were the physicist the person who wanted to leave and that we were in all probability being follow by the KGB. These experiences taught me a great deal about Post-War Europe.

If you are not doing your study abroad an English speaking country, you will develop a new language facility. While some assume that English is the lingua franca of the world, learning foreign languages is more important than ever. Yes, many US campuses have international diversity, but people who are guests may be more inhibited about expressing their views and in some cases they may have not as good a command of English as they do of their native language. If you understand the indigenous language spoken in their own country, you may be exposed to a wide variety of views and perhaps more nuanced ones.

While in some fields--particularly engineering-- It is difficult to study abroad because of the large set of required courses in a tight four year sequence, more and more departments and colleges are encouraging students to try to find a way for students to do so. For example, the Cornell College of Engineering manages three exchange programs Universidad de Cantabria in Spain, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Technion--Israel Institute of Technology. Yet at this point in most places, only a small fraction of engineering students go abroad.

Practical Advice on Junior Year Abroad Planning

Do not spend too much of your time with students from your own US college if they are in the same program. Take courses with host country professors rather than with American professors that are sent along with students in some programs. Usually it is best to enroll directly in the host university rather than be part of a satellite program provided by an American university. If possible live with foreign students or a host family rather than fellow Americans and certainly not with close friends from your own US college.

If you are planning an entire year abroad, you need, at your US college, to choose courses during your sophomore year that put you on track to fulfill a major and, in some cases, do an honors program. If you need to take Honors seminars before writing an Honors essay, be sure to do so.

Even if you are only going abroad for one term, you will still need to be attentive to what courses you need take and what will count of your courses abroad. The key when going abroad is to be sure that all your requirements for graduation and completing your major are covered and that your major advisor and the major department's Director of Undergraduate Study and/or whoever needs to sign off on your plans are consulted and in the loop so that there is not any misunderstanding about credits and requirements for the major upon your return.

Further Suggestions

2) Offered by more than fifty colleges, the best alternative to a term or year abroad may be a term in Washington, especially for a Government or American History major. David Silbey, Cornell '90, Director of Cornell's Washington program, observes: " I think the value of the Cornell in Washington program comes from its combination of academic and practical challenges. By marrying intensive classwork with the on the ground experience of working in DC, students gain an understanding of the political and policy world in a way not possible in Ithaca." Cornell's semester in Washington program includes an internship where you will get practical experience. Another possibility at some colleges is a term in New York, especially for those focused on the Arts; for example such a program is offered by the Cornell College of Architecture, Art, and Planning.

Changing your venue and your immediate associates will open doors and windows to new of ways of thinking and new experiences.

Many colleges, including the Cornell's College of Engineering have Co-op programs in which students may spend a term in industry, preceded by an extra summer of course work when they take the courses they would have taken in the first semester of their journey year. At Cornell the program is also open to Arts & Sciences Sophomores in Computer Science, and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Sophomores in Biological and Environmental Engineering,

3) The Junior year is a time for engagement in a field of study, otherwise known as a major, and that concentration of courses in a particular area can not only bring depth to your learning but also the satisfaction of knowing that you have the tools and information to solve problems and to confront issues with competence.

If you are in STEM programs--STEM is an acronym referring to the academic disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics--your curriculum will have more required courses in sequence than other programs and thus be more tightly organized. You will be taking courses in your major that build on proficiency attained in more basic courses. If you are in the sciences, you will be developing necessary skills for a job after graduation or for graduate school. In most of the aforementioned fields, you should explore the possibility of doing research under the umbrella of professors' labs and research grants. Honing in on individual research projects will enable you to see if a research career is for you.

At the Cornell College of Engineering, Mark Eisner, Harvard '60, Cornell Ph.D. '70, Senior Lecturer in the Cornell School of Operations Research and Information Engineering 1997-2007, writes, "[T}here is an active program to engage the students in research . . . .Really strong undergraduates do get their names on published papers from time to time. . . .[U]ndergraduate project teams. . . are particularly popular and valuable in engineering." (See http://www.engineering.cornell.edu/research/undergraduate/) Professor David Delchamps, Cornell Associate Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, adds: "Many engineering undergraduates participate in research. Sometimes they do it for pay (which often comes from external research grants and contracts), but usually they do it for academic credit."

In the liberal arts, the major may be a bridge to a career path. Contrary to popular wisdom, a major in the humanities is not a passport to unemployment and living at home with your parents, something I have discussed in prior Huffington Post articles:
"What to Do with a BA in English," http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-r-schwarz/what-to-do-with-a-ba-in-e_b_4204376.html; "Why Study the Arts and the Humanities," http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-r-schwarz/why-study-the-arts-and-th_b_4059078.html)

For any field, among the most important skills that you need to develop are thinking critically, writing lucidly and precisely while marshaling evidence to make an argument, and expressing yourself articulately without a plethora of "umm"s and "you know"s.

If you have trouble expressing yourself in class or simply want to improve your speaking skills, junior year is an excellent time for a public speaking course if your school has such courses. Another place to develop verbal facility is the debating club, albeit the earlier one begins that activity--even in high school--the better.

Mark Eisner observes: "It may be easier to teach humanities graduates how to use a spreadsheet, prepare a specification and build a financial case than to teach STEM graduates how to write, speak, read, reason, understand, relate and create. Of course these humanities graduates need to be open to applying their intellect to mastering such mundane tasks, rather than falling back on 'I'm not good at math' and running away from them."

4) Balancing the practicality of learning with the joy of learning, the junior year is also a time to stress the joy of learning and to explore campus resources. You should strive to develop a few new interests, whether by taking a creative writing course, writing for the school newspaper for the first time, learning about classical music, yoga, acting and trying out for plays or maybe taking up a new musical instrument.

5) Choosing a minor in either a parallel or unrelated field to your major can be broadening. The minor is fairly new at Cornell and it enables upperclassman to branch out and complement their practical major with forays into the humanities, and, vice versa.

6) If you have an opportunity to do an Honors thesis, and thus do independent research, I advise taking it. To work on and complete an independent project is a wonderful experience in building self-confidence and developing intellectual curiosity and love of learning as well as way to polish your resume for the job market or for your graduate school application.

7) As you prepare for the future, junior year is a time for growth and maturation. This can take many forms, including expanding your competence and experience, both intellectually and personally. Even partial mastery of complex academic fields and completion of relatively sophisticated projects builds self-confidence to pursue even more difficult projects. If possible, it is a time to test and develop your leadership skills in one of the extra-curricular activities in which you are involved.

Choose some extra-curricular activities with your future career in mind. Debating club would be a good activity for law school or a career in politics, the student newspaper for a career in journalism, and so forth. If you want be a professional musician, you should obviously be in band or orchestra or the jazz ensemble or in a band you put together yourself with fellow musicians, or in a few of the aforementioned.

But don't ignore your avocations. If you wish to continue to develop skills in music or dance or stand-up comedy, you can do so by performing while in college. Moreover, you should try to develop at least one new activity that is fun and has lifetime potential, whether it be athletic such as biking, tennis or golf, or cultural such as joining a drama group or developing an interest in African art.

8) What you do in the summers between your sophomore and junior years and between your junior and senior years is important. Look for internships that might expose you to job opportunities or build references and experience for graduate school placement. In media fields--newspapers, magazine journalism, television, internet companies-- this seems particularly important for getting post-graduate employment. But building networks to help with placement after graduation--whether in employment or graduate school--matters in every field.

9) In looking for jobs on campus during your junior year, think about the future. Thus if you are interested in publishing, positions with the university press (if your school has one), the university publication office, or the alumni magazine will help. If you are a STEM student and can find a paying job, working in labs and on technology projects would be a good idea.

10) If graduate school--in medicine, law, STEM advanced studies, humanities--is in your sights, you must think about such admission tests as MCAT (Medical School), LCAT (Law School) GRE (Ph.D. or MA), GMAT (Graduate Management programs), or DAT (Dental). Many students take preparation courses for these exams, and others choose to study for themselves. But doing well on these exams is a component of successful application.

Paradoxically, with grade inflation--and this means grade conflation where so many students have similarly high grades--these exams tend to count more in the admission process than they once did. One argument for using standard tests--one made by graduate schools-- is it can weight a high GPA from one school against another school. Thus if one etudent has a 3.9 GPA from Dartmouth and another one has the same GPA from a much less prestigious college, the test enables a graduate school program to see if they are equally qualified or not.

This reliance on standard tests is especially true of law school admission where I find that, based on LSAT numbers, I can predict with some exactness to which schools a student will be admitted. Med Schools still have an interviewing process, but most other graduate programs do not.

11) Juniors need be thinking about who their references will be if they have not done so already when applying for summer positions and other positions requiring references. They should get to know some of their professors in smaller classes or, if they are only taking larger ones, cultivate a relationship with their major advisor and at least one professor. Another reference can come from faculty supervising research or supervising summer employment that is relevant to the post-graduate career or graduate school program.


Junior year is the time to both narrow your focus on what you plan on doing and expand your focus in terms of interests, skills, and who you are and want to be. Test yourself and enjoy the process.


“Suggestions for College Juniors: Balancing the Joy and Practicality of Learning,” Oct. 17, 2014, Huffington Post. http://huff.to/1whujml via ‪@HuffPostCollege


Making the Most of Your Senior Year in College

In my Huffington Post articles on Higher Education, I have been stressing the joy and practicality of learning.  My credentials are teaching 47 years at Cornell, occasionally interrupted by visiting professorships elsewhere.

What follows is a sequel to my “19 Suggestions for Incoming College Freshmen, “ (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-r-schwarz/nineteen-suggestions-for_b_5647734    .html), “19 Suggestions for College Sophomores,” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-r-schwarz/nineteen-suggestions-for-_b_4555784.html, “ Suggestions for Seniors Graduating From College: Planning for the Future” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-r-schwarz/suggestions-for-seniors-g_b_5334827.htm) as well as my “How to Prepare for College” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-r-schwarz/how-to-prepare-for-colleg_b_5582143.html).

It has been pointed out by readers that while I discussed how to plan for the future, in my “Suggestions for Seniors Graduating From College: Planning for the Future” (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-r-schwarz/suggestions-for-seniors-g_b_5334827.htm), I have not discussed how to make the most of your senior year, a time when you must balance academic work with seeking employment or applying for graduate school, and when the clock is running out on your precious undergraduate years.

Your senior year rounds out a four year—sometimes longer, especially for part-time students—investment of time and life experience and you want to bring it to as fulfilling a conclusion as possible. You may have entered college as an eighteen-year-old adolescent, but your goal should be to leave as an adult ready to confront the challenging world of graduate school or employment.

You need to balance the Joy and Practicality of Learning. Key concepts are “Preparation,” “Innovation,” “Experimentation,” and “Motivation.” I shall divide my suggestions between Preparation for the Future and Making the Most of your Campus Experience

The Campus Experience

What Anne Kenney, Head of Cornell’s Library System, counsels is especially true for your senior year: “I think having proper balance, being open to wonder and curiosity as well as academic work is so key.”

1) If you have a chance to write an Honors thesis and/or to do individual supervised research or independent study, take advantage of those opportunities. Working closely with a top professor who takes an interest in your work can be an exciting learning experience. Emily Choi, Cornell  ’14, emphasizes: “One of the most valuable skills I take away from my senior year is the ability to revise. It's so important to be able to look at your work. . .candidly, and to evaluate it, and find creative solutions for the parts that could change for the better.”  In the first term of her seniors thesis work in psychology, Sylvia Rusnak, Cornell ’15, writes: “My honors thesis thus far has proved to be an important learning experience. Of course it's stressful and immensely time-consuming and frustrating at (many) times, but to have the responsibility to run my own research study in a lab is an opportunity I feel so grateful to have.”

The process of doing independent research or writing an Honors thesis may help you decide whether you have the skills and passion to pursue a Ph. D. and a research career.  To do so, you need to enjoy thinking about your project every day. In my experience, those who succeed as research scholars are virtually fixated on their projects over a long period of time, and when one project is over already have the next foregrounded in their minds.

2) Presumably by now you have fulfilled your requirements. Senior year is a good time to take elective courses in new areas, perhaps even try a different foreign language (which also might help make you attractive to employers with an international business component).  It is also a good time to take courses that develop your understanding of music, art, architecture and literature, that is, to invest in lifetime activities. If you are majoring in a Liberal Arts field such as history or philosophy, you might consider a course in government  (political science at some schools) or economics. If you are concerned about grades, you can take these classes at most colleges on pass/fail or satisfactory/unsatisfactory basis.

Try something new in terms of extra-curricula activities, whether it is a new sport, acting in plays, photography, painting, etc.

3) While one cannot compartmentalize emotional problems, senior year is a good time to solve personal issues within the somewhat protective world of college, and that includes substance abuse issues like binge or excessive drinking.

4) Go beyond the comfort zone that you have established in your earlier years. Make a conscious effort to make new friends and spend time with people that are not your closest associates. If you are in a fraternity or sorority, reach beyond those enclaves. Benefit from the ethnic and class diversity at your college.  Learn, too, the value of alone time when you depend on your own resources and respond independently and thoughtfully to the world around you and your experiences.

5) Think of your senior year as another stage in personal growth and becoming the person you want to be. Develop your potential as a leader as well as your ability to work on projects as a team. Leading sometimes means helping to create a cooperative environment or community where everyone participates, has input, and feels part of projects. Obviously leadership emerges before your senior year and leadership qualities begin developing in high school and even junior high school, but most campus organizations have senior leadership opportunities.

University of South Carolina Professor of English and Comparative Literature Scott Gwara advises:

In your campus focus group (friends, partners, colleagues with common interests) discover what your leadership passion is. . . .In discovering your leadership, harnessing your network, and finding campus/personal/spiritual resources, you should articulate a vision of yourself and your interactions with the environment you want to change . . . . Connect to the facts but make your vision big enough to inspire. Set an agenda. Decide to make a difference and persist. You will learn about your limitations, your ethics, and your leadership capacities. By the time you graduate, you will have accomplished something meaningful, even if your primary accomplishment is learning not to take NO for an answer. By all means, learn the art of pushing back.

Certainly learning how to negotiate with those resistant to your ideas is an important skill, blending preparation (knowing the facts), enthusiasm, poise, and courtesy with the ability to organize and articulate an argument. Indeed, many of these qualities can be developed within small classes, especially seminars. But all the aforementioned qualities are part of becoming an effective adult ready to play part in the larger world of work and civic responsibility.

One of my pleasures as a teacher is observing the process by which bright adolescents on the threshold of adulthood become confident adults ready to play an important role in their chosen profession and society, although of course the process continues in their twenties and should continue throughout their lives.

6) Spend some time each day learning about the world beyond your campus. Reading the New York Times online or in print is one good way to fulfill my recommendation that you give a half hour a day to learning outside your courses about fields you know little about. For liberal arts students, Tuesdays Science section of the New York Times is a good learning opportunity. I also recommend the New York Review of Books; much more than a book review, it is along with the Economist an essential publication for understanding the world.

7) Seniors interviewing for employment positions need to begin to be aware that the employment world does not operate on the academic calendar or clock. Liberal arts students accustomed to awaking at 10 and going to bed in the wee hours of the morning need to learn that much of the world awakens at 7 or before and also learn that Thursday-- the day many liberal arts students end their class week-- does not end the work week in the employment world.  Nor is there time in the work world to compensate with an afternoon nap for sleeping only three hours. Some months after my older son’s graduation—his college hours took him into the 3am range--I remember calling him at 11:05; then employed in the NYC’s financial world, he growled: ”Don’t you know we go to bed at night here?”

Looking Beyond Your Undergraduate Experience

1) You need to be sure you know the qualifications for the career and graduate programs you have chosen. While pre-law and pre-med programs often make this clear, it may take some research to know how to prepare for careers in teaching, journalism, pharmacy, nursing, actuarial science, etc.   

2) You need to continue to develop skills of time management. I recommend keeping a log on how you are spending your time will be helpful. In your senior year, unless you are taking a gap year, you will be balancing your course work not only with extra-curricula activities and work if you have a job, but also making time for job interviews and applications for graduate school. If you are looking for employment or interviewing for medical schools or non-profits such as Teaching for America, you may find yourself taking several trips away from campus.

Studying for LSATS, MCATS and GRES is time consuming. In fact, the summer between your junior and senior years may be the best time to study for LSATS, MCATS, and GREs. You usually take these exams in the calendar year prior to the year you will be applying for entrance. Thus if you seek entrance in 2016 you would take the exam in 2015, but early enough so that you have the LSAT scores when you decide what schools to apply to. If you don’t so as well as you wish, you may take these tests again.

The MCAT exam is often taken in the second half of the junior year, and it is given in January, March, April, and May but some students prefer to take it in the summer. On the whole I recommend taking LSATS in June after your junior year, but if you wish more time to study, the early fall test might work better. Most medical and law schools have rolling admission, which means they begin to accept students and fill classes as the applications arrive.  (While what medical schools look for varies from school to school, the following if perhaps dated article from US News and World may be helpful: http://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/medical-school-admissions-doctor/2011/04/11/avoid-4-medical-school-admissions-myths)


3) You need to learn about your campus Career Service and Placement offices and resources. Not only will these offices have organized schedules of who is visiting campuses to interview candidates--often taking the form of Job Fairs--but also they will have tips for interviewing and preparing resumes as well as writing both appropriate cover letters and personal statements.  You need to set up a file at these Career Service and Placement offices. These offices can also be helpful with applying to graduate school, although some schools also have special offices and committees for law school and medical school applications.

Professors who have shown an interest in you can also be important resources. They can not only advise you how on the best course for entering certain fields but also put you in touch with influential people they may know, including former students, who maybe hiring.

4) Learn how to interview; this means learning not only how to speak but how to dress appropriately, something which varies depending on the organization and even person with whom you are interviewing. Teach for America has different expectations for presentable dress than investment banking. My younger son has made very clear to me that dress within the mutual fund industry is different from dress for those working the academic world.

5) Think about whether a gap year is right for you. If you are undecided about your future career or you want more time to prepare for GRES, MCATS, and LSATS or you feel you need a rest from the demands of study, taking a year between undergraduate and graduate school can be a good idea.  It may be a good idea in STEM fields—Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math—to not take more than a year because you might forget some of what you learned, but taking time between college and graduate is sometimes a necessary space for different kinds of learning and experiences.

Some students work on a political campaign, others take a few years to teach in other countries or join the Peace Corps.  But there is a huge number of worthwhile possibilities. Schools offering an MBA want their applicants to have a handful of years of work experience.

Your senior year in college is an excellent opportunity to bring your undergraduate years to fruition and to open doors to the next phases of your growth and development.


“Making the Most of Your Senior Year in College,” Huffington Post, Jan.22, 2015, http://t.co/nhy9ewrqbD via @HuffPostCollege.


Suggestions for Seniors Graduating From College: Planning for the Future

Last May I published a The Huffington Post blog, “Suggestions for Seniors Graduating from College,” that received quite a bit of attention. Indeed, I have been asked to give talks on the subject. After thinking further and getting suggestions from students, colleagues and readers, I have added some new suggestions and done some fine-tuning.

My primary credential is that I have been a Cornell English professor for 45 years and have held some visiting professorships at various public universities in three other states. I have also written several other HuffPost blogs on related subjects, including “Fourteen Suggestions for Incoming College Freshmen” as well as “What to Do with a B.A. in English?,” “Why Study the Arts and the Humanities?” and “Nineteen Suggestions for College Sophomores.”

I am going to divide my suggestions into two categories, although, as will be seen, they overlap.

I. Future Plans

1) The time to begin thinking about what you will be doing after graduation — whether it be graduate school, law school, medical school, etc. or entering the work world — is well before graduation, that is, when you are you are a freshman or perhaps a sophomore. For graduate programs, you need know what the expected requirements are. To be sure you may change direction, but choosing your courses, major, campus and off campus activities, summer work, including internships, and even where and whether to study abroad during your junior year are all part of this process. This does not mean everything you do must be directed to your future plans, but it does mean you should not be an ostrich — burying your head in the sand — about the future.

2) Your first choice for employment should usually be position where the employer is thinking about where you will be in few years not how much money you will bring in immediately. Usually, the best positions are those in which you have a chance to learn and grow and not those where you are used simply to sell something without getting much training. In the latter case you are an interchangeable cog and are probably not in the employer’s long-range plans. When you are offered a position, learn as much as you can about the culture of the employer, including whether employees stay and advance and are well treated.

3) Summer internships — whether paid or not — are a way to get to know an organization and the organization gets to know you. Thus internships are often a bridge to employment with the organization.

4) Cast your eye widely when applying for positions. Sometimes organizations will find applicants that are at a slightly oblique angle to their posted job specifications more interesting than those who are more obvious candidates and invite such applicants for interviews.

5) In a first interview — and indeed through the hiring process if you are just out of college — the prospective employer is mostly in charge, but once you are offered a position, you can be pro-active in asking questions and perhaps contact other employees. Of course later on when you have acquired skills and stature and you are shopping for a new position while holding a good one, you can be more aggressive in the early stages of the hiring process.

6) Learn as much as possible about the company interviewing you. Prepare for interviews in advance by anticipating questions. It is a good idea to write down questions and answers so that you are not responding with “you know”s and “umm”s. Recording your answers so you can listen to yourself is a good idea. Practicing with a friend is also helpful.

7) Interviews are the chance to show why you are the person for the position, and you need make sure by the end of an interview that you have given the interviewer the information that makes you special. If the company is hiring four people, finishing fifth is not good enough

8) The kindergarten criterion “works well with others” is at least as important after graduation as before. Self-presentation in terms of speaking well, showing your initiative, convincing an employer or a selection board that you have much to offer, and, yes, having an appropriate appearance is most important in interviews. But self-presentation is also important on a day-to-day basis and you will be judged on it. Respect diversity in the work place, and seek diversity among friends.

9) Once you take a position or enroll in a graduate program, you have chosen a path. Give it your full effort and every chance to work by making a full commitment. There will be plenty of time to change direction, and it is fine to do so if you decide after giving a situation a real chance that you have made the wrong choice.

Be aware that staying the course is considered by many a virtue, and flitting from one path to another every six months is not an advertisement for your persistence or stability when applying to graduate programs or seeking employment.

II. Life After College:

1) Learning has many dimensions. Understanding how your new environment functions in terms of its expectations and culture sometimes requires more imagination, flexibility, maturity and judgment than working through a course syllabus. This is true particularly but not exclusively in employment situations.

2) If you are in graduate school, you are both a pre-professional and a beginner/freshman, but isn’t this true in a new employment position? If are working in a new position or in graduate school you need to ask yourself what you have learned that day that applies to your work and what else you have learned.

3) Whether in medical school, graduate school, or law school, or beginning a new career, time management is crucial. Keep a chart of how you are using your time, including recreational time. EMC — Every Minute Counts — will serve you well. No matter how much you enjoy your work, do not become your work. Be sure you do not become a workaholic without any life outside work/school.

4) Remember that time is not money; time is time and it is what you have on this earth. Every day do something that is fun and relaxing. Busy people are more likely to be happy people. In contrast to college where the activities were there for the taking like a smorgasbord, you may have to take the initiative to find groups — athletic, fitness, drama, music, cooking, learning new skills, etc. — that interest you.

5) Take care of yourself physically and emotionally. Be sure to get enough exercise and sleep. Eat healthily. If you have emotional issues, seek help. Substance abuse, including alcohol, is as much if not more a possible distraction and danger in your post-college life.

6) Be a part of a supportive community of friends and family. Isolation and loneliness are not your friends. Keeping in touch with college friends, or if you are employed in a big city, living with friends is a good way to bridge your journey from college into a new world. Your community may come from an alumni association, a religious group, a volunteering commitment, an outdoor or nature group, a choir or orchestra, a book group or any combination of these and others that I have left out.

7) Use in work and graduate school the academic, practical, and interpersonal skills you have learned in college through classes and activities in which you have participated. Interpersonal skills help networking — and this is helpful in opening doors — but don’t spend your life worrying about making connections. If you are involved in activities, networking will come.

8) Speaking articulately, writing lucidly and precisely, reading carefully and thoughtfully, and thinking critically will serve you well.

9) Understand that everyone has not had the same experiences as you and be open to learning from others. Balancing listening and speaking is an art form that needs to be learned. If you tend to be a talker, sometimes it is necessary to call a time-out on yourself and consciously not speak for a while.

10) Develop new skills and interests — both in your professional and non-work life — even if you have limited time to cultivate them. Open the door to new experiences such as travel. If you are living in a city or visit one, try art museums, opera, ballet, and other cultural experiences that you may not have given much of chance.

11) Be bold and take reasonable risks. Have a dream, but be sure it has roots in reality.

Let me conclude with two suggestions that I have borrowed almost verbatim from my aforementioned “Suggestions for Freshmen.”

12) Remember the three R’s: Resilience (falling down and getting up are one motion.); Resourcefulness (use your skills and intelligence.); and Resolve (pursue goals with determination and persistence.).

13) Laugh a lot and continue to develop your sense of humor. When things are not going well or you make mistakes, remember you usually can’t fix the past. But you can start where you are.


“Suggestions for Seniors Graduating from College: Planning for the Future,” May 15, 2014, Huffington Post‪http://huff.to/1lmn70s via ‪@HuffPostEdu


Changing the World: Are college students less idealistic than they were in the Sixties?

At a recent dinner party, a retired college professor who had no Cornell connection vociferously argued:

The current generation of undergraduates are apathetic narcissists who think only about themselves and not about the world and their relationship to it.

With nostalgic regret, he recalled the halcyon days of the late Sixties when he and his fellow idealistic students participated in peace marches and dreamed of a revolution that would change not only American foreign policy and the staid university but the capitalist system itself.

Still active: Jordan Wells ’07 protests the demolition of Redbud Woods in 2005.

Thinking of my students, I strongly took issue with him. It is just too simplistic to contend that in 1968-70—my first years teaching at Cornell—we had an activist student “reformation” and that in recent years we have been having a “counter-reformation” defined by self-immersed materialism and ironic detachment from the world beyond self.

What I see today are students who wish to contribute to their communities but have a practical awareness of what can be accomplished. They are much more conscious of the environment than earlier generations of students, and they are more likely to volunteer in programs aimed at educating prisoners or working with disadvantaged school children, albeit less likely to be involved in protests—in part because we no longer have a draft.

Most of the students I know well are English majors. Many of them have double majors, and quite a few are pre-med or prelaw. Some study economics, often at the behest of parents who are worried that an English major is a passport to poverty. Students today are understandably reluctant to choose academic careers in fields where the job market is tight, but some do. We still have many students who wish to teach or to write the Great American Novel.

Most students are more pragmatic than they were forty years ago. They also seem more grade-oriented. Decisions about courses and summer jobs often depend on what is the best preparation for jobs. But are they cynical careerists? Not in my experience. I find them to be more directed and mature than their predecessors, although perhaps more realistic about what they can contribute to saving the world.

When I first came to Cornell, the students editing the Daily Sun or acting in plays were often not those who were excelling academically; now they are more likely to be the same. If there is one thing that categorizes today’s students, it is not the thought that time is money but that time is time—and that time needs to be used as fruitfully as possible, whether for work, extracurricular activities, volunteerism, or social life.

Because today’s students communicate electronically, activism tends to be less visible. Internet access is basically private and students debate issues and organize themselves online. According to Kayla Rakowski ’08, students learn about the possibility of joining political groups from Internet sources: “We are mavens of communication; we text, call, blog, instant message, Gchat, comment, and e-mail.” Kayla, a magna cum laude graduate in English, was an education intern at the Johnson Museum and president of her sorority; she is now working on a master’s degree in museum studies at NYU.

Are today’s students lacking in idealism? This past year, I wrote recommendations for four graduating seniors to Teach for America, a nonprofit to which students commit for two years to teach in “underresourced”—i.e., low income—urban or rural schools. In 2007-08, almost 25,000 candidates applied for about 3,700 places. While these students are modestly compensated, they are making an enormous commitment to the public good.

Students used to take pride in cutting the umbilical cord when they arrived at Cornell. They are less independent now and often think of their parents as friends as much as authority figures. Several students and parents with whom I have spoken feel that parents are less restrictive, which conforms to my impression. Although some parents believe they are being told everything in a constant stream of e-mails and phone calls, most students only selectively confide in them.

I will close with a comment from Ashley Featherstone ’08, a magna cum laude graduate in English and the first member of her family to attend college: “The people I spent the most time with shared many of the same values as me—hard work, determination, integrity, and service. . . . Whether through music, art, literature, business, science, or medicine, Cornell students are idealistic, and they are struggling with issues of war, poverty, race, gender, sexuality, education, and the environment.”


“Changing the World Without Revolution: Are Today’s Students Less Idealistic Than Those of the Sixties,” Cornell Alumni Magazine, 111:5, March, April 2009, 10.


How to Succeed at College and Beyond: The Art of Learning

I. Preparing Students for the College Experience and Responding to Critics of the American University

I have just published my How to Succeed at College and Beyond: The Art of Leaning (Wiley-Blackwell). I argue that students necessarily must balance the joy of learning with the practicality of learning, and achieving that synthesis is what I call the Art of Learning. Put another way, my book is about the college experience and how to make the most of it,

In late summer 2014, as he began his ninth and last year as the President of Cornell, David Skorton asked vital questions about American higher education:

For the first time in my 36 years in academia, the value of America’s colleges and universities is being questioned—and seriously. Is what we offer worth the money and time invested? Will a college degree really translate into a better job down the road or improve our quality of life? Couldn’t we rely more on technology and less on highly paid faculty members and expensive campuses and student amenities to deliver our “product” at lower cost?

In part, my book is a response to issues raised in these questions.

While my book is also something of a “How To” primer, it is based on considerable research that supplements my 48 years as a professor at Cornell within which I have held three visiting professorships and directed eight NEH Summer Seminars for college and high school teachers.

Many of the chapters derive from my widely read Huffington Post’s articles on higher education supplemented by further research and input from hundreds of past and present university and college students as well a great many administrators and faculty members. My book was written to be useful and interesting to undergraduates, parents, high school college and college teachers, and high school guidance counselors.

I discuss what I call the College Olympics, namely how students can find the right college for them and how to pursue financial aid. Even before the College Olympics begins, parents can help to prepare their children to flourish educationally and be ready for the admission process.

Beginning with the crucial freshman year of college and continuing through the senior year, my book offers suggestions on how to negotiate the challenges of each year as well as suggestions about specific issues such as time management and whether to study abroad for a term or even a year. In specific chapters I address how to choose classes, why the humanities are essential, and how to prepare for the future after graduation

My book also discusses the social choices that need to complement academic decisions, including a chapter that examines in detail the pros and cons of the Greek system (fraternities and sororities) that plays an important role on many campuses. I also discuss the role of parents once their children are attending college.

Believing, for a more fulfilling life, everyone should take some courses in the arts and the humanities (as well as gain a grounding in basic science and computer skills), I then turn to issues that pertain to the study of the arts and the humanities. I am responding to the widespread view that the study of the humanities is a passport to unemployment if not to poverty.

I conclude with a section on my perspective as a professor. Because I think students and parents will benefit from knowing what a professor is thinking about when he or she organizes courses, I discuss my goals and my philosophy as a teacher. I discuss the balance between teaching and research and why, despite some claims to the contrary, these two activities usually supplement one another. Finally, I discuss the values of the current generation of students and the current emphasis on community involvement. In doing so, I take issue with the charge that contemporary students are self-immersed and less interested in the world than their predecessors.

Thus the purpose of this book is to help prepare students, parents, and high school advisors for the college experience and beyond. My goal is to help students balance the joy of learning with the practicality of finding a career path. My book is for all those contemplating a college education and their families as well as for those already admitted to college.

I stress the positive aspects and the enormous potential of the American college experience. I do so at a time when much has been written of late about the shortcomings of American colleges and universities, including the relatively little time students spend on their academic study, the excessive partying that turns campuses into permissive social circuses and sites of sexual abuse, and the burgeoning costs accompanied by excessive student loans.

We need to consider how to open the doors of higher education, including those of the most prestigious schools, to students in the lower economic and social strata. Goldie Blumenstyk, author of American Higher Education in Crisis? What Everyone Needs to Know, asserts:

[Y]ou’ll still find lower-income students and minority students far more concentrated in community colleges and for-profit colleges, and upper-income students and white students more concentrated at four-year private colleges and publics. . . . [A]n adult from a wealthy family is nine times as likely to earn a bachelor’s degree by the age of 24 as one from a poor family — with all the implications for social and financial success that entails

A narrative of higher education in America should highlight the role of public education, including that of the great state universities like California and Michigan and the role that CUNY (City University of New York) played and still plays for first generation Americans. Unfortunately, the days of free and almost free tuition have passed. Nonetheless, the public universities still offer a lower cost alternative to elite private schools, particularly for residents of the state or city in which they are located.

Discussions finding fault with American higher include not only William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life (2014) and the 2014 CNN documentary Ivory Tower but also Kevin Carey’s The End of College: Creating the Future of Learning and the University of Everywhere (2015) and, to a lesser extent, Frank Bruni’s Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania (2015).

Perhaps we professors and administrators need to do a better job responding to naysayers. As Nicholas B. Dirk, Chancellor of the University of California at Berkeley, asserts: “For too long we have neglected the need to aggressively defend, explain, and promote the value of the education our institutions provide, not just for individuals but for society as a whole.” One goal of my book is to do just that while not overlooking areas that need improvement.

I do not ignore the failure of American universities to be economically inclusive, specifically the need to tap the potential of those in the bottom 20 per cent of the economic ladder. Nor should we turn our heads from issues raised by the diversity we have achieved and the need to achieve further diversity. Clearly the discomfort of minority students on American campuses needs to be addressed, and we need to underline our commitment to the actuality that Black Lives Matter. We also need to acknowledge other troubling issues on campus such as underage drinking, excessive drinking, sexual harassment— notably at parties where drinking takes place—and discuss the shortcomings of the Greek system, how it can be improved and whether it is in the long range interests of universities to sustain it.

Not only are the value of a college education and the economics of colleges and universities under scrutiny, but so too is the concept of the American dream whereby people use their ability and education to fulfill their potential and move up the socio-economic ladder. Today colleges and universities do have greater diversity in their student bodies and faculty than in the past. But at the same time evidence of severe economic inequality and social injustice dominate the news. Inequality and injustice are causes and effects of a crisis in America that extends to the role of higher education. I address those issues in the context of offering ideas for applying to and succeeding in college, including how to apply for financial aid and limit burdensome loans that hamper a student’s future.

I suggest initiatives that might help middle and working class parents and their children who cannot afford to send their children to expensive private schools or to live in affluent communities with elite public schools. In these affluent communities, preparation for college dominates virtually every educational policy decision made by school administrators and Boards of Education. In such school districts, parents are in the foreground encouraging their children, playing roles in shaping school policy, and contributing to foundations that supplement the tax base and support extra-curricular activities, including sports and music. These parents also pay for their children’s private tutors and sports coaches. By contrast, in many rural and urban schools, graduation rates are low, school budgets are pinched, teachers are overworked and deal with serious discipline issues on a daily basis, guidance counselors are asked to serve far too many students, and parents struggling to make a living do not have time or funds to be advocates for their children.

While my primary focus is on the US system of higher education, my suggestions are transferable to the educational systems of other countries. Young adults seeking higher education everywhere face similar challenges and pressures, although the US is unique in the financial issues students face. While career opportunities vary from country to country, balancing the joy of learning with the necessity and reality of career preparation is a pervasive issue.

II. The Economic Value of Higher Education

While I am realistic about problems, I tell another more optimistic story about the value of a college education. Barry Glassner and Morton Schapiro addressed this issue in the Oct 8, 2014 Chronicle of Higher Education:

The vast majority of students graduate with relatively modest loans—under $30,000, on average—and almost one-third leave college with no debt at all. Meanwhile the college premium—the ratio of earnings by college graduates to those by high-school graduates—is at or near a record level.

MIT economist David Autor writes: “The economic payoff to college education rose steadily throughout the 1980s and 1990s and was barely affected by the Great Recession starting in 2007.” According to Autor, this is also true for a great many “developed countries.” In the US, Autor finds that between 1965 and 2008 the value in lifetime earning of a university education, compared to those with as high-school diploma has “roughly tripled.”

We are often told that college isn’t for everyone, but it is surprising how many people can benefit from graduating from a four-year college. According to David Leonardt in a 2015 New York Times article entitled “College for the Masses”:

The unemployment rate among college graduates ages 25 to 34 is just 2 percent, even with the many stories you hear about out-of-work college graduates. They’re not generally working in menial jobs, either. The pay gap between college graduates and everyone else is near a record high.

What needs to be stressed is that even students with less than sterling credentials benefit greatly from college, even if among this group there is a high drop out rate:

Less selective colleges often set such benchmarks: Students who score 840 on the SAT, for example, or maintain a C+ average in high school are admitted. Those who don’t clear the bar are generally rejected, and many don’t attend any four-year college. . . . Perhaps most important, the data show that the students just above the admissions cutoff earned substantially more by their late 20s than students just below it — 22 percent more on average

From the practical standpoint, we know the economic value of a college degree. In a Wall Street Journal piece entitled, “A College Degree Pays Off Far Faster Than It Used To,” Josh Mitchell writes:

College graduates may be taking on historically high debt burdens to finance their educations. But it will take them far less time to get a return on that “investment” than it took their parents’ generation.. . .someone earning a bachelor’s degree in 2013 will need 10 years to recoup the entire cost of that degree. Those who earned a bachelor’s in 1983 needed 23 years to do so.

Thus we have overwhelming evidence for the value of a four-year college degree.

III. College Education and Quality of Life

What about the value of a college education in non-economic and at times intangible terms? In my book, I emphasize what education can add to the students’ quality of life in terms of self-awareness, understanding of the past and present contexts that define our individual and community experiences, and appreciation of the arts as doorway to a fuller life. To those lifetime gifts, I need to add that education teaches us to solve problems, to read insightfully, to write lucidly and logically, to speak articulately, to think rigorously, and to be creative.

College can also make us more tolerant citizens by teaching us to be receptive to diverse ideas. This is a goal that fulfills both the joy and practicality of learning, for if students learn to communicate ideas in nuanced discourse, logically and lucidly presented in such a way that there is space for substantive discussion, we will have the pleasure of living in a less polarized and more civil society where democracy functions and diverse perspectives are respected. At best, college teaches democracy by teaching students not only to work cooperatively in classes and extra-curricular activities, but also to speak their minds, often with the hope of changing the minds of others.

Notwithstanding the shortcomings of US universities, they offer hope and possibility. While some of our American students may take this for granted, most of my students are aware that they are in a crucible of opportunity. Foreign students who come here understand that the United States and its better colleges offer them something special. As Emma Ianni, Cornell ‘17, an undergraduate from Italy puts it,

I came here to find something that cannot be found [at home]: a bright future. My generation was born in a time that many define as the worst period for the job market since the Great Depression. Crisis, fear and disillusionment are pandemic, but here at Cornell I did find something I could have never found in Italy, my home country: here in the United States I found that determined hope that everyone needs nowadays. I say “determined” because I don’t mean hope in a sort of fatalistic way; it’s not about lightheartedly waiting for things to work out, it is rather about making things work out.

IV. Responding to Naysayers: College as Hope and Opportunity

In the aforementioned Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life, William Deresiewicz has complained about the shortcomings of education at what he calls elite schools—a list of which he never provides and a category he does not define precisely. Using a disproportionate number of examples from Yale and Harvard students, he claims that all these elite schools encourage careerism and stifle creativity and boldness: “We want kids with resilience, self-reliance, independence of spirit, genuine curiosity and creativity; and a willingness to take risks and make mistakes” (236). He does praise some non-elite liberal arts colleges as places where teaching, rather than research, is valued and where the humanities are emphasized.

I am sure that this emphasis on teaching takes place in the world’s prestigious public and private universities too, as well as throughout the American higher education system. Every day I see those qualities that Deresiewicz regrets missing. My Cornell classes and those of many of my colleagues are devoted to building those qualities even while we teach subjects.

Perhaps there is a small fraction of students who are busy building their resumes as opposed to enjoying and immersing themselves in their studies. However, Deresiewicz’s macrocosmic generalizations lack evidence—almost all of his student comments are unattributed sources— and his indictment of the “meritocracy” is reductive.

Certainly, in some urban and suburban places there is an anxiety epidemic on the part of parents worried that their children will not excel. I have heard parents in NYC worrying about getting their children into the best private nursery schools and even hiring people to prepare their three-year-olds for interviews. I have had students who had so much parental help and expensive private tutoring that, despite having terrific grades in private day schools and competitive public schools, they had trouble as first-term freshmen doing their own work.

But we need to understand that this anxiety epidemic is only one strand of the story of students making their way through the American educational system. I also see middle and lower income children—often first generation college students—from less competitive public schools excelling at Cornell. Within a term they usually catch up with students from prestigious private schools and most competitive public schools.

Upward mobility is alive and well, although it could be even stronger, as I have mentioned when discussing accessibility to colleges for those is lower income brackets. Were admission based purely on merit, the Ivies would take fewer legacies and potential varsity athletes.

One of Deresiewicz’s basic premises is that students have changed for the worse. He tells us that students were once more creative, imaginative, and interested in learning for its sake than they are now. My experience contradicts this claim.

We are also told that previous generations of students were happier, more confident, and had more developed “souls,” a term Deresiewicz uses in a secular sense. Put another way, he claims that students were less anxious, stressed, and depressed, and more reflective about who they were. But Deresiewicz does not provide substantive evidence or consider that prior generations were less likely to admit to depression and anxiety, because in the past admitting stress and depression or seeking help was culturally less acceptable.

Judged by the attention he received, Deresiewicz briefly touched a popular chord and became a rallying point for naysayers. Anxious parents whose children were not, or might not be, admitted to elite colleges could feel that little had been lost. Yet I believe much of what he says is either hyperbolic or lacks factual underpinnings. An example: “Everybody [at elite colleges] thinks that they’re the only one who’s suffering, so nobody says anything, so everybody suffers. Everyone feels like a fraud, everyone thinks that everyone else is smarter than they are” (Deresiewicz, 16). Suffering is living under the fear of having one’s home bombed, or being displaced from an area where one has lived for generations, or having a dread disease, or losing a beloved friend or family member. Suffering is not, in most cases, being concerned about your future when you are nineteen-years old and are attending an elite university in the United States. What he is describing is the discomfort that we all experienced as young adults and, indeed, periodically thereafter.

Students from our current diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds may have more anxiety than those admitted to elite schools two generations ago, but they succeed. Moreover, today colleges and universities admit students with emotional and physical challenges who might not have been able to function at college in earlier eras. We have far more support for deaf, blind, and physically challenged students as well as those diagnosed with bi-polar disorders, depression, and dyslexia.

Did universities, especially elite ones, have higher standards in the past? If we use grades as our criterion, there is some reason to answer “Yes.” Without doubt we have grade inflation, and one could argue that giving an A- for what thirty years ago was a B or B- is a lowering of standards. On the whole, however, I do not see a decline in the quality of academic work. I would argue that the quality of my students in terms of their preparation and performance is better than it once was. Moreover, while some students (being human) may occasionally take advantage of a professor’s good will and trust, I don’t see at Cornell much evidence of Deresiewicz’s particular complaints: “[T[here are due dates and attendance requirements at elite colleges, but no one takes them seriously. Extensions are available for the asking; threats to deduct credit for missed classes are rarely, if ever, carried out. Kids at prestigious schools receive an endless string of second chances” (218). Is there anything wrong with a day or two extension for a student who is ill or temporarily overwhelmed?

Another area where standards may have suffered nationally is the amount of time students spend on their academic work. Some of the time once spent on academics has been replaced by the surge in the time spent on extra-curricular activities, community involvement, and employment. At non-elite schools students often have jobs to pay for college and family needs, and these jobs may require that they work many hours a week and perhaps full-time. Furthermore, statistics show that a good deal of students’ time is spent on social media. It is possible that more time than in the past is spent on what is now called “partying.”

Of course, how students use their time varies from student to student, from field to field, and from college to college. From what I see not only at Cornell but where I have visited and what I hear from colleagues and students elsewhere, most students value their educational experience and manage their time to take full advantage of their learning opportunities.

V. Conclusion

I close with an echo of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s great essay “The American Scholar,” an essay derived from an 1837 address he gave to the Harvard Beta Kappa Chapter. The American Scholar, Emerson argued, should be “Man Thinking” (which we modify in the twenty-first century as “Man and Woman Thinking”), that is, drawing upon “an active and creative power of mind”—rather than being “a mere thinker, or still worse, the parrot of other’s people’s thinking.” These creative thinkers have an obligation “to see the world clearly, not severely influenced by traditional historical views and to broaden understanding of the world from fresh eyes and not to defer to the popular cry.” These qualities of vision, I submit, are the qualities to which our college students and their teachers aspire—and at times come close to achieving— in the continuing quest to master the Art of Learning.


“How to Succeed at College and Beyond: The Art of Learning,” Huffington Post, 9:16, March 1, 2016.


The Shame of the Greek System

More than a decade ago, in 2011, former Cornell University president David Skorton penned an op-ed for The New York Times after a 19-year-old Cornell sophomore named George Desdunes “died in a fraternity house while participating in a hazing episode that included mock kidnapping, ritualized humiliation and coerced drinking.” Pledging to take action to “remedy practices of the fraternity system that continue to foster hazing,” Skorton noted that, at Cornell, “high-risk drinking and drug use are two to three times more prevalent among fraternity and sorority members than elsewhere in the student population.”

Scores of hazing deaths have been recorded nationally—accounting for at least one death on a college campus per year since 1970—but that does not begin to tell the story of what is wrong with the Greek system. What befuddles so many students and faculty is why it continues.

The Greek system encourages excessive drinking, abusive bullying under the guise of hazing, groupthink and sexism in various forms ranging from the objectification of women to sexual assault. Thus the Greek system runs counter to the values espoused by contemporary colleges and universities.

Fraternities and—perhaps to a lesser extent at some colleges—sororities impose a kind of conformity that stifles growth and creates anxiety about being different. In the form of shared social, ethical and political attitudes and behavior, members are expected to adhere to the accepted mores of their Greek houses. Membership in Greek organizations stifles student innovation and creativity. Greek life absorbs time that could be better spent on academic work and more rewarding extracurricular activities, including community service.

Since I first discussed this issue at length in How to Succeed in College and Beyond: The Art of Learning (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016), I have seen no significant change and am even more certain than before that the Greek system, while providing value to some individual members, has outlived its usefulness.

While my most intimate knowledge necessarily comes from my home campus of Cornell—where only a third of undergraduate students belong to fraternities and sororities—and three visiting professorships elsewhere, I have for over half a century been reading about the Greek system and talking to colleagues and students during campus visits across the country. Although two Cornell students have died since 2011 due to two separate fraternity hazing incidents that received national attention, comparatively little has been done to control the Greek system here. In fact, Sigma Alpha Epsilon, the fraternity that was the site of Desdunes’s 2011 hazing-related death and was disbanded for a decade, has recently been allowed back on campus.

Just this past weekend, the Cornell police issued alerts reporting that one student was sexually assaulted and at least four others were drugged at off-campus residences affiliated with registered fraternities, prompting the temporary suspension of all fraternity parties and social events.

These temporary measures raise a more timeless question: Why are these organizations tolerated by universities? We know from studies that alcohol abuse is more common among those belonging to the Greek system than among other students and that membership in residential Greek organizations is associated with binge drinking and marijuana usage through midlife. As if that was not bad enough, a recent New York Times article on the University of Alabama’s sorority rush highlighted the superficiality and frivolity of this system and the significant cost in dollars that membership entails.

To be sure, one can find alumni and students who believe fraternities and sororities do enrich the lives of young adults. Yet virtually every current and almost all recent female sorority members to whom I have spoken about the Greek system over the past few decades think it is obsolete and should be terminated. While not as close to unanimous, most of the fraternity members to whom I have spoken one-on-one—as opposed to in the presence of their fraternity brothers—have similar views. Most current students—and almost all the women—do not believe that men and women should be segregated by gender as is the case with the Greek system.

The Greek system makes my university, Cornell, less than it should be. I know of no student or faculty member who thinks that the minor tinkering that has been done these past few years sends the necessary message. Cornell needs to abolish an antiquated, sexist, classist, elitist, discriminatory system that encourages excessive drinking, sexual abuse and dumbing down of the intellectual environment, even as it discourages interaction among diverse racial, ethnic and socioeconomic groups. I recently spoke to a group of fraternity brothers where I saw some ethnic diversity but very little economic diversity, in part because membership in the Greek system is expensive.

Notwithstanding announcements of reforms, the perception among present and former students is that nothing substantive has been done. I understand from reading and discussion with students and colleagues that the same is true at many other colleges and universities despite significant efforts to abolish the Greek system on many campuses.

It is fair to say that a great many students and faculty believe on this issue that their administrations have been rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

It is puzzling why college presidents and trustees ignore this community cancer, since they must know that the combination of hazing, bullying, predatory sexual behavior and binge drinking contributes to long-lasting physical and emotional injuries. One reason for inaction is pressure from older alumni donors who in hindsight treasure their Greek days. But we know from colleges that have abolished the Greek system—Amherst, Colby, Middlebury, Swarthmore and Williams Colleges, among others—that fundraising goes on just fine in absence of fraternities.

Another reason for inaction is that the Greek system supposedly helps solve housing problems. But were the Greek system to be terminated, the national organizations could sell the houses to the university at a nominal price since they would have no reason to sustain them. The result would be no loss of housing space.

The principal reason given by students for joining is to overcome loneliness and give students a sense of belonging. But now there are a plethora of clubs and activities from a cappella groups to juggling groups, adding up on many campuses to well over 1,000 opportunities for students to find friends and cohorts and to make networking connections for future employment.

At a time when there were few organized activities on campus, the origins of the Greek system developed from a need for male bonding and, later in the 19th century when women began attending college in numbers, female bonding. The Greek system flourished during the time of parietal rules governing relationships between men and women on campus. But now these rules are vestiges of the past and an irrelevant encumbrance to university goals. The question is whether in 2022 colleges and universities are better for the Greek system, and my answer—shared here by the vast majority of students and faculty I’ve spoken with—is a resounding no.

“The Shame of the Greek System: Fraternities and Sororities Should Not Be Permitted To Continue at American Colleges and Universities” Inside Higher Ed, Nov. 10 2022


What to Do With a B.A. in English?

After the appearance of my October Huffington blog, “Why Study the Arts and the Humanities?,” I have often been asked the question, “What can someone do with a B.A. in English?”

Some months ago I was giving a talk to an audience of over 100 at the midtown New York Public Library on my book Endtimes? Crisis and Turmoil at the New York Times. During the post talk question period, someone who wandered in a few minutes before and was standing on the side–and apparently knew I was an English professor–asked somewhat aggressively, “And what do your students do?” Since I knew fifteen or so of my former undergraduate students were in the audience, my response was: “Let’s ask them.” And as I went around the room, they responded: “I graduated from Harvard Law school and now work for the city of New York”; ” I am at MOMA working on foundation relations after doing an M. A. in Museum Studies at NYU”; “I work at Christie’s as a Junior specialist in European Furniture, porcelain, and decorative arts, after completing a Magister Literarum degree–accredited through the University of Glasgow– from Christie’s Education”; “I am working in hospital administration”; “I work in the financial industry”; “I am preparing to take the law boards in a few months and am working as a paralegal”; “I am an editor in a major publishing house”; “I am a professor of English at a branch of CUNY”; ‘I am in medical school in New York,” and so on.

Other of my former undergraduate majors have become authors and journalists (one won a Pulitzer not so long ago) or have been successful in the theatre and film industry (I was Christopher Reeve’s teacher and advisor). One is the founder of a major hedge fund.

Among those former English majors not in the audience, one writes for Jane’s, which specializes in defense and military technologies; another for Brides; and a third works for an ad agency. Others do technical and business writing or are excelling in various areas of library administration.

English majors choose a major that not only challenges them intellectually but gives them pleasure. They love to read and think that reading matters. Or they hope to be writers and have taken courses in creative writing to test their potential as poets, fiction writers, and dramatists. They may have taken courses in expository writing to polish their skills or to see if the essay and other non-fictional forms were their best genres for a writing career.

English majors believe in education as an end, not merely as a stepping-stone in the path to a career, but they are not necessarily impractical. They are idealists, but unless they have large trust funds or they expect an imminent inheritance or have immediate prospects for marrying into wealth, they need a career.

What an English major brings to career possibilities is the ability to think critically, speak articulately, write lucidly and precisely, and to read powerfully, deftly, and with understanding of subtleties and nuances. They know how language works and have the written and oral skills to communicate effectively.

The Obvious Possibilities:

English majors often go into teaching.

In bygone years, we encouraged our best students to think about a getting Ph.D. and going into college teaching. Many of them did and had splendid careers. I recall being made to understand that I could get a Ph.D. and enter into the mysterious world of academics. It was almost like being tapped for a secret society.

Now unless you really feel a calling akin to what I assume prospective clergy experience and are willing to teach anywhere in the country and perhaps at a small college with limited prestige or a two-year community college, you should think twice about graduate work. You can have a wonderful career teaching at such places, and you will find good students and colleagues everywhere. You may end up at a prestigious place, but job opportunities are more limited than they were when I went to grad school 50 years ago. If you do apply to graduate school in English, it is often better to wait a year after graduation so if you graduate with honors or make Phi Beta Kappa, you have that on your application

2) Teaching secondary school is another option. Some Ph.D.s now teach at elite preparatory or public high schools, but the more traditional degree is a Masters degree in English and if your choice is elementary school, a Masters in Education. We used to say college teachers teach subject and high school teachers teach students. I like to think we both teach subject to students. Teaching subject at a top public school or private school can be challenging and exciting.

3) Teach for America–a two year commitment to teach at underserved schools– has become a program that many of our students seek out and find rewarding. Similar programs such as New York’s Urban Teaching Corps also exist. This could lead to a career teaching students who are most in need, but it can also be a prelude to more traditional secondary teaching and/or public or private school administration.

4) Teaching abroad is a possibility; a number of programs exist for placing students in English speaking schools abroad and/or teaching English as second language. The Peace Corps can be another teaching venue.

But a BA in English is often a prelude to law school and even medical and dental school. Doing well on LSATS will make an English major as competitive for law school as any other major; reading deftly, writing precisely, thinking critically, and speaking well are important skills for a law career. Some of our students pursuing medical careers have double majors in English and biology or chemistry, but not all. Double majoring in economics is a good idea if you want to go into the business world, especially investment banking.

Other (But Certainly Not All) Possibilities:

English majors are often interested in becoming writers. Often the best way to pursue this is by getting an MFA (Master of Fine Arts). The few years in a MFA program enable you to focus on writing and are also good preparation for a teaching position in a creative writing program, especially if you are getting work published in respectable venues.

Many English majors become journalists. Several of my own Cornell students have done well in this field. Journalism now has expanded beyond print, radio, and TV broadcasting into the electronic media. In the past, a journalism degree was often a recommended path to a journalism career, but it is far from the only path. If you are interested in journalism, you need to get experience by writing for your college newspaper and to get summer internships in the media. Major papers sometimes hire students as part time “stringers” who submit stories that pertain to their campus.

Unfortunately some of the best internships do not pay. Recent litigation on the issue of unpaid interns may mean some of the media companies will pull back on such internships, but perhaps they will offer a lesser number of paid ones. You may have a better chance of employment if you specialize in science writing, music reviews, etc. and have a weekly column or, even better, an editorship on the student newspaper.

Unless you are very well connected, your first journalism position will not be with the New York Times, which tends to use other papers as a kind of farm system, and hire those writers whom they see as promising young stars. Smaller magazines and newspaper may pay less but will offer good opportunities for advancement.

5) Publishing. Again, summer internships are good because publishing house senior editors get to see your work and observe how well you work with a team. Once upon a time, publishing houses used to hire women as typists and fact checkers even if they had outstanding academic records but now publishers are equal opportunity employers.

6) Needing writers for publicity and for publishing reports to stockholders and clients, businesses hire English majors. So do Ad agencies, which need clever writers. Politicians and some CEOs need speechwriters. English majors are also hired by major investment banking firms because the firms see potential to grow capable young adults who are imaginative, innovative, and have communication and people skills. Again summer internships can open the door to being hired.


When you go to interviews, even med school interviews, you will be asked why you majored in English. Think of something to say beforehand such as–and these are only suggestions–”I majored in English because reading about other cultures and time periods complemented my life experience” or “No other major would have taught me so much about how people behave in various circumstances and in various cultures. More than any other major I felt I would learn how know other people live, what values motivate them, and why and how people think and feel.”

Among qualities to stress in an interview: you write lucidly; you know how to organize and synthesize complex material; you are an experienced researcher, comfortable with the Internet and libraries; you speak and write well; you have made presentations to audiences and you are a savvy member of the twenty-first century digital universe.

Emphasize that, having taken small classes and seminars, you know how to work within a community: you have exceptional listening skills, work well with peers and supervisors, and learn from others.

Keep in mind that you will be offered a position not for what you are but for what you will become. That is, you will not be hired only for the posted entry-level job but for your potential for growth. You should emphasize that you want be an important asset and will take initiatives within assigned tasks.

Keep a notebook for possible answers to expected questions. Whether it be a job or university interview, always go to interviews informed about the place interviewing you. Foreground what makes you the very person the interviewers want. Always dress appropriately. What might be appropriate for a major finance company might not be best for Teach for America where expensive clothes might have the interviewer wondering how you are going to be able to teach in the South Bronx or on an Indian reservation.


I asked a few of my former students how they use their English major. Kayla Rakowski, Cornell ’08, who is the student working at MOMA, observed: “I use the writing and proofreading skills I honed as an English major every single day, whether I am drafting a grant proposal, editing down content for a donor report, or simply typing emails and business correspondence. Further, the major greatly expanded my knowledge of cultural history, building a context that is a great asset to me as an employee of an art museum.” Devon Goodrich, Cornell ’07, Harvard Law ’11, Assistant Corporation Counsel in the Environmental Law Division of New York City, responded to my query: “[T]he reading comprehension and writing skills that I developed as an English major gave me an edge over other law students and young lawyers. . . .[T]he ability to closely read a text while also placing the text within its larger context directly translates to law. Practicing law involves reading all aspects of a situation — not only the applicable statutes or regulations, but also the clashing personalities of involved parties, the historical background of a project or property, and the political circumstances surrounding a case — and providing sound advice based on all the facts and angles. . . . Often when reading a legal document, the best readers can read what is not said in the document as well as the words on the page.”

Playwright and actress Zoe Geltman, Cornell, ’08 observed: “Majoring in English has definitely contributed to my appreciation of the Arts and of Literature in general. I think it has made me a more thoughtful, insightful person and made it easy and natural for me to analyze a piece of text–be it a play, a piece of fiction, or an article.” According to Liz Wight ’07: “I think the thing the major gave me most was critical thinking, a yearning for discovery and clear means of articulating myself.” Sal Ruggiero, Cornell ’07,who has been an editor and is now Assistant Manager, Domestic Rights for the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, adds: “Reading and writing not just well but for a purpose has proved paramount to my job. . . Plus learning argument and persuasion techniques in essay writing sometimes proves useful in contract negotiation or pitching.” Amanda First, Cornell ’12, assistant editor at Brides, notes, “My English major has lent me creative, critical thinking, and analytic writing skills that have my writing clearer, more exciting, and more serviceable to our readers.”

Grace Jean, Cornell, ’2000, US naval reporter writes for Jane’s as well as a part-time music reviewer for the Washington Post, brings the commentary from former students to an apt conclusion: “All the skills that I developed and honed through my English classes and seminars are put to use daily in my career as a journalist. Close reading, analytical thinking, and clear and concise writing have become the bread and butter of my livelihood. I have the English major to thank for playing an integral role in my professional development.”

What all these comments show is that the English major opens doors through which students walk to a splendid and varied future.


“What to Do with a B.A in English?” Nov. 2, 2013, Huffington Post. http://t.co/ArxW1dR7p5 via @HuffPostCollege


Why Study the Arts and the Humanities?

Following the recent report of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on the crisis in the Humanities entitled “The Heart of the Matter,” I have seen quite a few insightful commentaries, most stressing economic utility — how the humanities help students succeed in whatever endeavor they pursue — and some stressing how the humanities contribute to making students better citizens in a democracy.

In my definition, the humanities not only include literature of both ancient and modern languages, the performing arts, philosophy, comparative religion, and cultural studies, but also history, anthropology, and linguistics, although the latter three are often on the border between humanities and the social sciences.

What follows are my own reasons to study the humanities, with a particular focus on the arts. My reasons balance utility with more idealistic quality of life issues. Thus I want to stress both the isness and doesness of the humanities, which in fact is a version of the Horatian credo of delighting and instructing.

On the utility or doesness side, I would stress the value of learning to think critically and independently, read powerfully and perceptively, write lucidly and precisely, and speak articulately.

On the quality of life or isness side, I would stress that the arts take us into imagined worlds created by different minds and enable us to understand how others live. We are what we read, the museums we visit and the performances we see and hear. They are as much us — part of our memories, our isness — as the culture we inherit and the life experiences we have.

That entry into other worlds and minds does give us a larger context for thinking about how to live and how to confront and understand present personal and historic issues, even while also giving us pleasure for its own sake.

Another way to think about what the arts do is to ask whether experiencing the arts makes us more perceptive and sensitive humans. We can say with some certainty that reading and viewing masterworks in the visual arts or in attending performances of great music, opera, or ballet
widens our horizons about how people behave and what historical and cultural forces shape that behavior. But will, say, reading War and Peace be a catalyst to heroic action or, as Tolstoy urges, putting family first? Probably not. Will it make us slightly more aware of the need to find definition and purpose in life? Perhaps in some nuanced, immeasurable way, the answer is “Yes.” Do adolescents learn anything about life, love, and the place of the imagination from classic young adult fiction like Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye? I did.

Perhaps the best answer to who gets the most out of the arts is that it depends on what the reader, viewer, or listener brings to her or his experience. For there is a symbiotic relationship between art and audience, and each perceiver is a community of one. Or, as Constantine Cavafy puts it:

Laistrygonians, Cyclops,
wild Poseidon — you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you. (“Ithaka”)

Even while teaching us, the arts insert a pause between the tick and the tock and in a sense suspend our diurnal lives. In defending the humanities, perhaps we need to assert the value of that pause, whether it be attending a performance of a Balanchine ballet, a Mozart opera, a Beethoven symphony, or a blues concert by Buddy Guy. The joy and wonder evoked by such performances are real if immeasurable values.
By awakening our imagination, art intensifies and complements our own experience. Art represents people, cultures, values, and perspectives on living, but it does much more. While bringing us pleasure, art teaches us. While reading or contemplating a painting our minds go elsewhere. We are taken on a journey into a world where form and meaning are intertwined.

Form matters and gives pleasure. How a work of art is organized — its technique, its verbal or visual texture, its way of telling — gives pleasure. So does the inextricable relation between form and content. The form of imaginative art, as well as the form of well-written non-fiction, organizes the mess (if not the chaos) of personal life as well as that of external events. Form not only organizes and controls art but also other bodies of knowledge within the humanities. Form imposes structure that our own lives — as we move from moment to moment through time — may lack.

Narrative — sequential telling — imposes form as it orders and gives shape. Indeed, in the sense that each of us is continually giving shape to the stories we tell to and about ourselves, there is continuity between what we read and see and our own lives. Put another way, what we read teaches us to find narratives within our own lives and hence helps us make sense of who we are. Our seeing shapes and patterns in stories and other kinds of art helps give interpretive order — in the form of a narrative that we understand — to our lives. We live in our narratives, our discourse, about our actions, thought, and feelings.

While there is always a gulf between imagined worlds and real ones, does not the continuity between reading lives and reading texts depend on our understanding reading as a means of sharpening our perceptions and deepen our insights about ourselves? Reading is a process of cognition that depends on actively organizing the phenomena of language both in the moment of perception and in the fuller understanding that develops retrospectively.

To cultivate both the utility of the humanities and their contribution to the quality of life, we need to develop passionate, committed teachers at every level whose knowledge, enthusiasm, and interest in students enable them to help open the doors and windows of students’ minds to the importance of the humanities. Too often university professors are so immersed in their own research that some courses offered are narrow in scope, inadequately defined, and unattractive to students.

Much more stress in college and university curricula should be on how to attract students rather than how to satisfy faculty. But that does not mean dummying down curricula or abandoning the canon. Rather it means organizing the curricula so that the best teachers — those that truly engage students in the odyssey of learning — are foregrounded. Course syllabi must be more than maps of a teacher’s taste and interest. They need to be an astute selection of texts as windows into cultural traditions and values. Teachers should remember that the goal of the humanities is not only to intensify and complement their students’ life experiences but also to give them tools to understand and interpret the world in which they live. This will help them be economically and professionally successful. But it will also enhance their lives, enabling them to take pleasure in the arts and satisfaction in being part of an ongoing humanistic tradition of reading, writing, and thinking.


“Why Study the Arts and the Humanities, Oct. 7, 2013, Huffington Post. http://t.co/4Gnri3s2oi via @HuffPostCollege


Do the Humanities Help Us Understand the World in Which We Live?

What do the Humanities do? I would argue that they help us understand ourselves and the world in which we live. When we read, we listen to words, respond to behavior, and try to judge what people’s mindset is. We “read” human behavior every day in our interaction with colleagues, family, friends, and public figures, and our reading improves our knowledge, perspicacity, judgment, and sensitivity. In other words reading helps us make sense of our lives and the world we live in.

Reading literature and experiencing music, dance, live theatre, and the visual arts are as much part of our life experience as other events and can have a similar impact. The Humanities contribute to our moral, historical, and political awareness; this occurs even if the events described in a literary text, a painting or sculpture, or an operatic or theatrical performance are more imaginative than factually accurate.

Thus Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1898), with its stress on European imperial greed and racist exploitation of Africans, helps us understand the history of the country now called the Democratic Republic of Congo — formerly the Belgian Congo — and to some extent other former colonies in Africa. E.M. Forster’s Passage to India (1924) helps us understand India, particularly the continued divide between Muslims and Hindus and the more recent efforts in India to move beyond both its caste system and its colonial past to define itself as an inclusive democracy.

Let me turn to a current event, namely, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s seizure of Crimea from the Ukraine. What follows is not an apology for Putin’s outrageous and duplicitous behavior but an effort to understand it through the lens of literature.

Readers of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy will better understand Putins’s behavior and his response to Western disapproval if they remember those 19th century authors’ deep skepticism of the Enlightenment’s emphasis on logic and reason. Dostoevsky and Tolstoy believed in the Russian destiny and the exceptionalism of the Russian soul. While Putin shares many of their beliefs, we will also see that he ignores some of the humanistic implications of their fiction.

Although steeped in a Marxism that can be seen as a product of Enlightenment thinking, Putin sees himself as a Slavophile living by passion, faith and intuition and unwilling to submit to Western views of reason and fairness. Reading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, I believe, helps us understand Putin’s disdain for the West. What Westerners may see as Putin’s arrogant belief in Russian destiny needs to be understood in terms of a nation that fears not merely Western domination but Western invasion.

Putin’s acute xenophobia mixed with suspicion of Western ways of thinking were on display when he announced plans to absorb Crimea into the Russian Federation:

“Some Western politicians are already threatening us not just with sanctions but also the prospect of increasingly serious problems on the domestic front. … I would like to know what they have in mind exactly: action by a fifth column, this disparate bunch of ‘national traitors,’ or are they hoping to put us in a worsening social and economic situation so as to provoke public discontent?”

According to David Herszenhorn, the author of the aforementioned article: “Widely expected to be enacted into law, the proposed cultural policy emphasizes that ‘Russia is not Europe’ and urges ‘a rejection of the principles of multiculturalism and tolerance’ in favor of emphasizing Russia’s ‘unique state-government civilization.’” Among other things, Putin, when evoking multiculturalism and tolerance as Western ideas, is expressing his disdain for homosexuals.

Putin’s mindset owes a good deal to Napoleon’s and Hitler’s invasions of Russia and the historical memory of those events. The Napoleonic invasion was never far from the 19th Russian imagination, and that is particularly true in Dostoevsky’s and especially Tolstoy’s case. Even more timely for Putin is the more recent invasion by Hitler in World War II; although born in 1952, the historical and personal memories of the horrors of World War II were a defining part of the world in which he grew up.

Putin believes that once again the West wants to shrink Russia — that is the greater Russian empire he imagines — and that shrinkage has been going on since 1989. In his mind, the Russians lost no war but rather have been out-maneuvered to lose the peace. He detests any alliance between Ukraine and NATO. As he said March 18, 2014: “NATO remains a military alliance, and we are against having a military alliance making itself at home right in our own backyard; in our historic territory.”

Putin claims to have read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky and includes Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, and The Brothers Karamazov among his favorite books. Whether he reads them carefully or read about them, he would have found in those authors strong evidence of national disunity, severe class division, decadence, alcoholism, and the need for transforming Russia by one means or another.

Dostoevsky cast his lot with the Slavophils who were skeptical of Western ideas and thought Russia needed to maintain its cultural distinctiveness, That distinctiveness included spirituality and mysticism, as well as disdain for measuring and categorizing humans by scientific theories that fail to take account of each individual’s uniqueness. According to Robert G. Durgy: The Slavophils sought to dissociate Russia from the western influence and to discover her peculiarity in the old peasant commune that was believed to reveal her socialistic soul. Whereas the Westerners’ doctrines were either frankly atheistic or at least are areligious, the Slavophils believed in the primacy of the moral and religious laws of the Russian Orthodox Church and favored a holistic, spontaneous reason over the lower logical and analytic reason they associated with western positivism. (Notes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoevsky, ed. with an introduction by Robert G. Durgy, trans. Serge Shiskoff. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1969, xi-xii).

Dostoevsky is skeptical of the abstract reasoning and logic that he believed dominated Western Europe and in particular the Enlightenment. That is, Russia must find its own way derived from its own past and cultural traditions.

He was doubtful that the light of reason could effectively illuminate, organize, and understand human behavior by means of social and scientific theories. Dostoevsky was skeptical of western philosophical ideologies such as utilitarianism and political systems such as socialism or democracy that made rational claims about human behavior. He had great doubt that the scientific revolution would lead humankind to a better life or that humankind could step by step accumulate universal truths by evaluating hypotheses according to evidentiary tests. Nor did believe we can predict behavior from observation as if a human being were an experiment within — to use a figure from Notes from Underground — a laboratory retort. Nor did he believe, as did some of his Russian contemporaries who bought into Social Darwinism, that humans were upwardly evolving and fulfilling a teleological pattern to a perfected or at least a much-improved humanity.

He believed that the only way for humankind to contain man’s darker impulses–self-love, passions, desires, and impulses to narcissistic and destructive behavior–is through belief in God. Dostoevsky is something of a mystic who believed in the Russian soul as an individual and collective entity.

In Notes from Underground (1864), Dostoevsky is sympathetic to his narrator’s rebellion against logic and reason and various Western social formulae ranging from British utilitarianism (as defined by John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham) with its concomitant Hedonic Calculus to the Romanticism of Rousseau with its idealization of human behavior. The Romantics believed humans were born with an inherent propensity toward the good and beautiful that, were humans not corrupted by society, could be maintained in a state of nature.
Dostoevsky understands that we humans do not always act logically and or in our self-interest. With few exceptions, most notably Alyosha in The Brothers Karamazov (1880), Dostoevsky’s characters not only lack modesty, balance, and gradualism but also at times respond to passions and needs that they barely understand or control.

Let us consider how Dostoevsky proposes an alternative to Western thought. For most of Crime and Punishment (1866) we are in the world of chronological, linear time where we hear the clock ticking and ask what will happen next. However, within the novel, there is another alternative reality and that is the one that matters most to Dostoevsky: the timeless reality of God and salvation, a principle of inner order, patience and tranquility represented by Sonya. This is the world of faith and the Bible, specifically the account of the resurrection of Lazurus, which foreshadows Raskolnikov’s transfiguration. Transfiguration takes place within significant time — what the Greeks called kairos — when the tick-tock of passing time doesn’t matter. When Raskolnikov throws himself down at Sonya’s feet in an act of humility, we are to understand that he experiences a transformation from immersion in the chronological world to awareness of this alternative, richer reality: “They were resurrected by love; the heart of each held infinite sources of life for the heart of the other” (Crime and Punishment. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. New York: Vintage, 1993; Epilogue II, 549).

Although his father was an atheist in keeping with Communist ideology, Putin was baptized into the Russian Orthodox Church under his mother’s auspices. Since the 1990s he seems to have embraced Russian Orthodoxy; he makes clear that he wears a cross around his neck that was given to him by his mother. Whether he believes or not, he wants the Russian people to see the cross as a link to the Slavophil tradition just as he wants to advertise his supposedly remarkable physical fitness and outdoor adventures — including swimming in a cold Siberian river and other daring- do as alternatives to supposed Western decadence.

Let us turn to Tolstoy. Putin would certainly have found a source for Russian exceptionalism in Tolstoy’s diagnosis of what is right and what is wrong with late 19th century Russia. Tolstoy’s focus in both War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877) is Russia in the later nineteenth century after the freeing of the serfs in 1861 but still in the time of the Tsars. In the earlier novel, the focus is on the Napoleonic invasion and the perversion of Russian values by decadence that is often but not always of Western origin.

In War and Peace (1869), Tolstoy’s narrator is often a surrogate expressing the author’s views: major events do not depend upon a hero’s will but upon a confluence of causes. History is an accident informed by God’s will which humans cannot understand; military action is more often farcical than the fulfillment of a plan. Humans need to isolate a comprehensible concatenation of events from the historical mess.

What makes life meaningful is human love, but finally we need to recognize God’s miraculous world. We think we control far more in our personal lives than we do. Selfishness is bad and self-immersed narcissism is worse, but some self-love is necessary to act effectively. Tolstoy’s conservative view of Russia’s social structure sees the great families as necessary guardians of serfs and peasants.

In the combination of the characters’ empty social prattle, family ambitions, and manipulative and self-serving discourse in War and Peace, Putin would have seen Russian decadence and examples similar to contemporary cocktail parties of influential people and wannabes. Even as the upper classes speak French, the gathering storm is Napoleon’s expanding empire. Quite ironically, the first words we hear are Anna Pavlovna’s French. As Count Rastopchin sarcastically remarks in 1811 when the restive Napoleon is proving an unreliable and patronizing ally: “[F]ar be it from us to fight the French. . . .The French are our gods, and our kingdom of heaven is Paris” (War and Peace. Trans Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky; New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007; 2.5.iii.545).

Among the historical themes in both War and Peace and Anna Karenina that Putin evokes from Tolstoy is the greatness and specialness of Mother Russia with its own Slavic traditions and culture, including its traditional rural communities as opposed to the impersonality and frivolity of the modern city and urban life. Notwithstanding his own luxurious life style and his concept of “state capitalism,” part of Putin’s ideology is based on his appeal to the have-nots and to those who think traditional communism was better. In Anna Karenina, he would have found underemployed and marginally employed workers whose safety is not taken seriously, as in the case of the railroad watchman accidentally killed when Anna meets Vronsky for the first time.

Putin claims to be concerned with how Russia is to organize itself morally and spiritually. In Anna Karenina, Konstantin Levin is a typifying character with historical resonance struggling with moral and economic issues facing large landowners once the serfs are freed. It is Levin’s values that resonate with those of the other Tolstoy surrogate, the narrator. Tolstoy is scathingly critical of wasteful and dissolute ways of living by people of privilege. To an extent, Levin is the cultural answer to the triviality and superficiality of the world of Oblonsky, Vronsky, Anna, and her husband, Alexei Karenin.

Like his character Levin Tolstoy believes that the Russian nobility have special responsibilities to the less fortunate, but also believe that the Russian (Slavic) temperament and soul are different from those of Europeans. Levin’s acceptance that he lives in a universe informed by God’s presence transform Levin into a fully functional person.

Many of Levin’s — and Tolstoy’s — values are implicit in Putin’s espoused program. Like Tolstoy, Putin is impatient with the compromise and sluggishness of democracy, and he claims that his mission is to extend economic welfare to the less fortunate.

Putin’s appeal is to Russian Manifest Destiny and the purity of the Russian land, now polluted in the Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. When we join Levin in the country in Part Two of War and Peace. Chapters xii-xvii (151-173), it is as if Tolstoy takes us into a different, cleaner, and clearer world than the urban world of Part One. Tolstoy’s view of urban life, contemporary fashions, and political machinations is very much that of Levin’s. Tolstoy draws a strong contrast between what he sees as the superficiality of urban life and the substantive family oriented life of those who live on the land. It is almost as if the Russian soil is a mystical presence shaping character. Yes, Tolstoy can be a polemicist — he hates triviality, licentiousness and sloth — but understands intuitively that human behavior cannot always be controlled by reason.

The question is whether Putin is misreading Dostoevsky and Tolstoy and doing so to cater to reductive and simplistic solutions that serve his own purposes. For there are also significant differences between Putin and both these authors, and, given the positivism of Marxist theory, we can see the irony of Putin’s invoking both of them. Moreover, while Tolstoy undermines the great man theory and sees much of history as accident, Putin sees himself as larger-than-life figure unifying Russia in the wake of the terrible and catastrophic break up of the USSR in 1991.

We might remember, when thinking about Putin’s self-concept bordering on megalomania that Tolstoy detests Napoleon’s megalomania, ambition, solipsism and self-immersion. Tolstoy presents Napoleon as a vain foolish man who is in over his head. He mocks Napoleon’s invading Russia — he sarcastically calls Napoleon “that genius of geniuses” (4.2 viii.1001) — and thinks every major decision Napoleon made was wrong-headed. In Christianity and Patriotism (1896), he wrote, “No feats of heroism are needed to achieve the greatest and most important changes in the existence of humanity.”

Putin has done everything possible to remain close to the now independent nations that once composed the U.S.S.R. He plays on what he believes is the Russian desire for strong leadership, but Tolstoy was ironic about the transfiguring presence of a Czar, and both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were in fact far more concerned with spiritual values, the moral qualities of the individual, and the specialness of Russia under the auspices of God and less with power than the Machiavellian and xenophobic Putin who often appeals in his intolerance to diversity — whether in his attitude towards sexual orientation or political opinions — to the lowest common denominator of the Russian sensibility. He may see himself as an heir to the Tsars and the charismatic Lenin and Stalin, but we see him as a deluded man following his passions. When it comes to Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, he is misreading the literary and historical analogies he invokes and ignores the essential humanism that shapes their view of personal relationships.


“Do the Humanities Help Us Understand the World in Which We Live? Putin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy as Examples of How We Learn and What We Learn from Literary Texts ,” May 2, 2014, Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-r-schwarz/do-the-humanities-help-us_b_5253271.html


Are Teaching and Research Mutually Exclusive?

I say research and teaching are … inseparable. And they are symbiotic (Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann)

Recently after Adam Grant proposed that tenure should be awarded for good teaching as well as good research, I thought about his claim that research showed that, “In all fields and all kinds of colleges, there was little connection between research productivity and teaching ratings by students and peers.”

Of this study, Saul Teukolsky, Cornell’s Hans A. Bethe Professor of Astronomy and Physics, writes: “The study he cites basically lumps together many levels of teaching in many kinds of institutions (not restricted to research universities) and finds little connection between teaching and research. No surprise: You don’t have to be a strong researcher to do a good job of teaching freshman calculus or freshman composition. Since most university teaching is at the freshman level, this is the effect the study finds. But in my experience the strongest teachers of upper-level undergrad courses and graduate courses tend to be the strongest researchers. Of course there are exceptions, but statistically I believe this is true.”

I am not a social scientist and am basing what follows on my 46 years of college teaching in the humanities, mostly at Cornell but with a few visiting professorships at state universities. I have been fortunate to have won Cornell’s major teaching awards and have had some success as scholar.

The connection between teaching and research depends on a number of variables including where one teaches, how many courses one teaches, what the teaching expectations are, what field one teaches in, and what kind of students one teaches. It also depends on the criteria by which one rates teachers. But what is clear is that those who do research find a strong relationship between their teaching and research, and in most cases that teaching includes undergraduate teaching. As Ron Ehrenberg, Cornell’s Irving M. Ives Professor of Industrial and Labor Relations and Economics and an authority on higher education, puts it, “Put simply, my research enhances my undergrad teaching and my undergrad teaching enhances my research.”

My own experience as a teacher-scholar in the humanities makes me skeptical of the claim that there is no relation between effective teaching and effective research. As Beth Newman, Associate Professor of English and Director of Women’s and Gender Studies at SMU, stresses, “[T[he kind of knowledge dispensed in the humanities requires significant investment in producing that knowledge: "We do not produce tangible or marketable goods but knowledge. And that knowledge must not be confused with information. It is more often interpretation, in its broadest sense of re-framing of other knowledge for new social and cultural contexts. It is difficult to invest intellectually in this knowledge and to keep current in it, and therefore, to teach it responsibly to others, if one is not also producing it at some level."

It has been my impression that at Cornell and peer institutions, the most esteemed and productive scholars in the humanities have been for decades the most effective teachers, especially for the best students. But I decided to ask a number of colleagues in diverse fields--humanists, social scientists, and scientists--what they thought about the relationship between their own teaching and research, virtually all of them expressed the view that their teaching and research were strongly inter-related.

For me, there has always been a strong correlation between my teaching and writing. In a classroom, one learns to organize material, articulate it lucidly and precisely, and defend one's ideas, and that is also what one does when presenting research. To be sure, I have given many presentations based on my research at academic conferences and in other venues, but the often small audiences at conferences there do not always test you as much as a bright and informed group of graduate students or advanced undergraduates. Thus teacher-scholars in the humanities often test their hypotheses in the classroom before bringing them to conferences or submitting them to journals.

I am fortunate to teach in the humanities at a university where I have time to do research and where there is a strong relationship between what I study and what I teach. Indeed much of my scholarship derives from my teaching experience. Right now, I am working on a book on the European novel since 1900 that will include a chapter on Proust's Swann's Way. My reading and thinking about Proust informs what I bring to my current graduate seminar on Joyce's Ulysses in terms of narrative theory, and the experience of testing my ideas there is helping my understanding of Proust's narrative strategies.

Most of Cornell's best scholars in diverse fields believe that teaching helps their research. Nobel Laureate Professor of Chemistry emeritus Roald Hoffmann writes: "I have thought about [the relation between teaching and research] over the years, and overall reached the conclusion that it works in both directions, and importantly for me, teaching introductory chemistry has made me a better researcher.” Cornell Professor of Mathematics Louis Billera writes compellingly about how even properly taught introductory classes are informed by the need to explain how specific material fits into the context of a larger field: “Early on, I noticed that my research benefitted each time I taught a course I hadn’t taught before. Organizing a subject in order to teach it, especially to undergraduates, meant you had to really know it, not just have what we call ‘a nodding acquaintance’ with the material (which means you can nod sagely when hearing a colloquium lecture about it). Conversely, I think it is important to know where a subject is going as well as where it has been to be a truly effective teacher. Those not involved in research tend not to know much, if anything, about the former. Where a subject is going, which includes how it might be used, is essential to get and keep student attention, again, especially that of undergraduates.”

What follows is not, I hope, a boastogram, but an informal account of my own experience. Had I not taught James Joyce’s Ulysses many times and worked through my approach in a classroom, I would not have been able to write Reading Joyce’s Ulysses. Following my mantra, “Always the text, Always historicize,” teaching other modern writers–including Joseph Conrad, Wallace Stevens, D.H. Lawrence, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and E.M. Forster–certainly helped in writing chapters and books about them. Doing research–learning these writers’ historical contexts, their lives, and the ways they have chosen to present their material–immeasurably helped my teaching. Much of my literary and cultural research has been shaped by the interaction of studying the aforementioned authors’ work and my presenting what I have discovered to both graduate and undergraduate students. Indeed, one of the joys of teaching is learning something new every day both in the preparation of classes and in the insightful response of students.

Years ago during the high tide of Deconstruction I wrote an influential book on the history and practice of the Anglo-American literary method and theory as it pertained to fiction. I refined the ideas for the book not only in upper class and graduate classes but also in an informal colloquium attended by graduate students with whom I was working and anyone else who wanted to come. Directing several Summer Seminars for College Teachers for the NEH gave me chance to present the ideas for the aforementioned book. Later, teaching NEH Summer Seminars contributed to the book I wrote in the 1990s about the relationship between modern art and modern literature.

When I write for a professional audience or for lay readers, I write as a teacher imagining my audience as those interested in knowing what I have learned. What effective teachers and good scholars have in common is a joy in the process of learning and of sharing what they have learned with others.

My Cornell colleague George Hutchinson, Newton C. Farr Professor of American Culture, observes: “My book on the Harlem Renaissance resulted from teaching African American literature surveys on the one hand and advanced courses on Whitman and the American Renaissance on the other. I wanted to see how these fields intersected and it resulted in that book.” He adds: “Every time I teach a course, I teach some stuff I’ve never taught or even read before, and in the process of preparing to teach it and then actually teaching it, I do research, take notes, perform in class, and then take stock of where I’ve ended up. Even if I never end up writing an article about the new text I’ve just taught, I learn a lot from teaching it and it adds to my knowledge of the fields in which I am engaged.”

Research has also driven my own syllabi. As soon as Imre Kertesz won the Nobel Prize in Literature, I put Fatelesnesss in my syllabus for my “Imagining the Holocaust” seminar even though I had not yet read it. If my past work and book on Holocaust memoirs, dairies, novels, and films, helped me interpret Fatelessnes, teaching it brought me new insights. As I learned more about Woolf, Forster, and Wilde for my books on Modernism, my syllabus for my lecture class changed. A few years ago I gave an invited lecture on Darwin and Modern Literature, and realized much of what I though I knew about Darwin’s theory of evolution was out of date, and that affected my presentation of intellectual and cultural history in the same course.

Curiosity, the desire to share knowledge, and enthusiasm for watching young adults develop their potential are essential to effective teaching at the college level. Similar qualities drive research. Good scholars must find ways to convince other scholars that their scholarship matters and that their findings are to be taken seriously, and this presentation of research is a kind of teaching. Indeed, as Nicholas Kristof has argued, for researchers to reach our to larger audiences and be public intellectuals, they must be lucid writers and not simply produce dry scholarship dressed up in a incomprehensible jargon: (http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/16/opinion/sunday/kristof-professors-we-need-you.html).

I have always been skeptical about a scholar from another field who can’t tell me in layman terms what she or he is doing. If the scholar’s explanation is so abstruse, how is that person going to teach undergraduates–or even graduates– to say nothing of freshmen?

Often the best teachers leave a mark that lasts for decades, sometimes in ways that can’t be quantified, such as arousing an interest in literature, art and music that grows into a passion or arousing a desire to find scientific and technological answers to significant problems and perhaps contribute to solving issues that sustain life. Truly inspiring teachers–who, among other wonderful results, often teach students to become teacher-scholars– are unforgettable and accompany us throughout our lives.


“Are Teaching and Research Mutually Exclusive?” Feb. 26, 2014, Huffington Post. http://t.co/2abwQaKeXu


Teaching Freshman Humanities at Cornell: Toward a Community of Inquiry

I. Prologue

I have taught a wide variety of undergraduate courses during my thirty-eight years at Cornell, but I shall focus on English 270, The Reading of Fiction, and a course I frequently teach in the freshman seminar program. This course is one of three 200 level courses offered by the English department; the others are English 271, The Reading of Poetry and English 272, The Reading of Drama. Currently the 270 classes are reserved in the first term for those entering students who have a “4” or “5” on the Princeton AP test or who have scored “700” or better on the English Composition or English Achievement tests; in the second term, the 270 classes are open to those who have taken a freshman seminar program, but the students understand from fellow students and advisors that these classes are more demanding and in the second term the principle of self-selectivity works well. Thus the students in English 270 rarely if ever need remedial writing instruction.

Under the current ethos, each 270 section has different reading materials. Originally the course had a common reading list, and that common list encouraged colleagues to discuss pedagogical issues including how to integrate the teaching of reading and writing. I would prefer to return to this format, or at least have half of the readings be the same. Not only does the teaching staff learn from one another when they teach a common syllabus, but, according to recent data, students taking common courses learn from discussing the material.

II. Teaching Goals

The challenge is to get students to think in sophisticated terms while they write on subjects generated by the reading assignments. Let me say at the outset that I believe in directed discussions focused on the material we read and the papers we write. I think of myself as an orchestra conductor trying to get the most out of each player and working with each individual to bring out his or her talent. We know that if a student finds a mentor or two in his or her college career, that student will usually have a better experience, and we faculty teaching freshman seminars need be accessible to fill that role.

My pedagogical goals are:
(1) To teach our students to write lucidly and logically and to teach them to make an argument that uses examples of close reading to support concepts and uses historical and cultural contexts. I seek o teach precision of thought, clarity of expression, logic of argument, an individuality of voice—individuality that may include controlled passion.
2) To encourage our students to think independently and challenge accepted truths when they think them wrong or in need of modification.
(3) To teach our students how to compare, contrast, and synthesize. While I use 270 course materials as a paradigm, this skill is transferable to other courses and inquiries beyond our particular subject matter
(4) To teach our students to read closely and well, alert to nuances in language, and to see the value of reading in a visual age. Close reading–attention to verbal nuances from tone to phonics– teaches attentiveness to language in writing and in speech. . (My mantra is: “Always the text; always historicize.”)
5) To teach our students to articulate ideas orally. We need as teachers to develop student skills that are transferable not only to other disciplines but also to their future careers. Within the humanities, we need place less emphasis on pre-professional skills and more on skills that will make students productive citizens who might participate in civic life.

III. The Freshman Seminar as Intellectual Opportunity

I like to think of the subtitle of my 270 class as Cornell Optics. I continue to think of my class as a process of opening doors and windows. I believe every freshman section of the writing program should in part be a course in opening eyes and helping the students see more. I call attention on a regular basis both on the course list serve and in class to the vast variety of concerts, lectures, films, and writing opportunities for newspapers and magazines that are part of Cornell University.

I also utilize the resources on campus: the art museum as well as, more informally, the plays performed at the Cornell theater, films shown on campus, and the architecture and design of our campus. I invite the students to join me at some of these sites and provide complementary theatre tickets, tickets that the Weiss-Community Life Partnership underwrites. I hold at least one class session in the Johnson art museum and generate an assignment in which I ask the class to compare specific works they have read with specific paintings or sculptures. Before that class I ask each student to select a work that he or she will discuss. The class at the art museum emphasizes the distinction between the spatiality of the visual and the temporarily of literary arts, while also showing students that, contrary to what many have thought, painting and sculpture may have a narrative element, and literature may have spatial organization.

IV. Teaching Writing

By having students participate as a community in carefully constructing paragraphs on the blackboard, the students learn how to discuss difficult and sophisticated texts in lucid sentences. In this, the workshop aspect of the course, I stress strong conceptual topic sentences, a taut evolving argument, and the ability to integrate a specific story–or experience or piece of knowledge–with other stories and knowledge. Usually, the focus is on one or two problems derived from the prior set of essays such as the need for more use of the active voice or ways of for organizing evidence to make forceful arguments. Thus we might work together to examine how to use evidence from the text, and how to structure a paragraph that moves sequentially from concept, to a middle level of discourse that negotiates between concept and specific, to specific evidence including perhaps a quotation, to precise comment in terms of the argument, to perhaps more evidence and comment, and then back to middle level of discourse, and finally back to concept.

I should make clear that I teach two 75 minute classes a week, and that the classes meet Tuesday and Thursday. Graded papers are always handed back the class after they are received. In the first few weeks when the students are not overwhelmed by other work, I assign shorter papers with shorter intervals between assignment and due date. When we begin the longer assignments, we have nine days between assignment and due date, and I correspond on email with those seeking input on outlines and drafts.
I do what I call needs based assignments–that is, assignments based on the students’ progress. Some students might continue to write shorter essays; some might revise more essays than others; some might propose topics that are a little outside the typical rubric of papers for an assignments. In addition to one stipulated revision assignment, each student may revise as often as she or he wishes. The original grade is not erased, but the second and subsequent grades are recorded. I also give students the option of writing a short story so they can see how to handle point of view, characterization, development, and beginnings and endings. Most take this option.

V. Teaching Reading

My interest in narratology and in modern art informs my teaching as it does my writing. I acknowledge the place of resistant reading perspectives–that is the perspective that resists the point of view that an author (or painter) thought he was expressing and built into his text. Often these resistant readings contribute rich feminist, gay, ecological, minority and other multicultural perspectives that the author ignored. Certainly our student body has evolved over the years I have been teaching here into a much richer and more varied group where difference is respected. With these changes came changes in how we discuss reading assignments and the writing topics we assign. For example, discussion of the homoerotic implications of male bonding plays a larger role in my discussion of “The Secret Sharer” than it once did. Thus the canon changes even if the names of the texts are the same.

Without using much of the jargon of contemporary criticism, I differentiate in one semi-lecture class between different traditional and more recent critical approaches and define deconstructive, Marxist, new historical, cultural studies, and, especially, feminist approaches. When we discuss texts I try to make the students aware of what approaches we are using. Thus when we do the full length Woolf novel, To the Lighthouse, we particularly focus on issues of writing and reading as a woman and what that gender difference means.

VI. Building the Bridge between Reading and Writing

Close reading of complex creative texts teaches that style enacts values, that the expectations of audiences change, and that every choice a writer makes affects how an audience read his or her text. I discuss the first stories we read in terms of formal issues of point of view and show how they reveal the world in which the speaker lives. Because these texts address problems of unreliable and imperceptive narrators, we discuss degrees of reliability and perceptivity. Later I move on to third person omniscient narrators. I stress voice and persona as a way of getting students to be aware of how their structure and choice of language enact their voice and persona.

While acknowledging that scientific writing has different requirements than expository writing, I stress the need for the active voice. If students use the active voice to describe the author’s creative decision and the narrator’s self-dramatizing role, they become more aware of how creative and polemical authors make decisions that affect readers’ responses and they learn the difference between authorial and resistant readings. In discussion, to increase the emphasis on the creative act of writing, I insist that students use more accurate terminology to describe what is going on within a text than the clichéd and unspecified “it says” or “they say.”

While discussing the literary works, I not only emphasize the issues I want discussed in the papers, but demonstrate how a paper on the assignment or–if I give a choice among topics, as I do after the first paper or two–assignments might be structured. Sometimes I assign papers asking students to discuss works we have not yet discussed in terms of issues we have been discussing. Other times I ask them to build on issues within a text that we have been discussing–particularly when we are addressing complex texts, such as Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, that they need to revisit to understand.

VII. Creating a Community of Inquiry

I wish my classes to be more than a site where I set assignments and the students do them to fulfill a course requirement. Needless to say this is a goal to which we reach and often fall short. But I should like to suggest how we might develop a community of inquiry where each student understands learning as a process, takes responsibility for being prepared each day, takes assignments seriously, feels part of a functioning group, and writes assignments with a sense of pride in her or his work and her or his evolving writing voice.

When we do a short reading assignment, I ask about half the class members to report orally on specific subjects; when I do a novella or the one longer novel, I might ask the entire class to prepare different subjects. Thus for James Joyce’s “Araby,” two students might address the retrospective telling, another the beginning, another the end, someone else the theme of Catholicism, another student the theme of Empire, two others might be asked to think of the issue of guilt and how it shapes the retrospective teller, another would focus on the role of women, yet another the speaker’s prepubescent psychosexuality. When two students are assigned the same subject, I encourage them to talk to one another and work together. The students are resources for the subjects when they arise or they might be called upon to make a very short presentation.

Indeed, I teach writing in the spirit of, “This is true, isn’t it?” and try to eschew the dogmatism about writing to which my generation and some of our students have been exposed. For does not the House of Good Writing have many rooms? My goal is to encourage each student find his or her own voice rather than homogenize their voices into one Proper Compositional Style. While I do not require it, I suggest keeping a loose-leaf journal, alternating days of writing about personal life with days writing about political and campus issues–or whatever is of interest to the student. I offer to read the latter pages during and/or after the course is over. Interestingly a number of students have taken up this suggestion after the course–and after the demands on their first or second college semester have lessened– and brought me their journals to read.

My goal is to have every student take part in discussion in at least two classes out of three. Once students begin to participate they rarely stop. When they participate (rather than sit in the bleachers and watch), they feel better about themselves and the class. The class becomes the student’s own experience, not something she or he observes as a bystander. More importantly, when a student articulates ideas, the student often clarifies those ideas for himself, and that clarification continues when listening to ensuing responses to his or her contribution.

Email has changed teaching for the better, opening up new ways of bridging the gap between the dorm room and the classroom and creating an exciting nexus between the two sites. On the first day I collect email addresses and establish a course list serve; each student is expected to make a substantive contribution to an online discussion of at least one text or recurring issue; most contribute more often. Indeed, as the term progresses and the students become better readers, the colloquies on email are often stunning not only in their thoughtfulness and sophistication but also in the precision, lucidity, and energy of their writing. At the end of the term, along with their essays, the students submit their email contribution in their folders. I might add that students are overwhelmingly enthusiastic about the list serve.

I encourage both email comments addressed to the entire class and individual dialogues with me. Freshmen–and except for an occasional transfer student or a student who has postponed one writing seminar, my 270 students are freshmen–look to their teachers in small classes as mentors more than they do to their formal advisors. We teachers need make clear that we are accessible to them in office hours and open to email and phone inquiries. I answer email several times a day from home, and I am also accessible by phone from 8 am to 10 p.m. The students tend to write each other “off list,” and that is exactly what I want. I have no problem with a student showing a draft to a friend or roommate or other class member as long as the student writes his or own paper. But the email has another important function in building a community of inquiry. Students are also encouraged to share with the class information about concerts, plays, or sporting events in which they participate; as a result students attend one another’s activities and build commitment to our community.

One way that a class becomes a community of inquiry is regular and prompt attendance even for classes beginning at 8:40. We need to have rules for attendance and make a show of knowing who is present. The last time I taught English 270 I had over the entire term less than one absence per student, and more than half the students did not miss a class. I usually arrive early and, as the class assembles, I ask what films they have seen and share my views of films I have seen; at other times we might discuss Cornell theater plays or campus issues, or adult choices with which freshmen are faced such as whether to join a fraternity or sorority and how to organize time among the demands school work, activities, and part-time jobs.

In these pre-class discussions, which, on occasion, overflow into the first few minutes of our 75 minute class period, I might mention such freshman anxieties as what resources are available students are having trouble with any of their courses. Or I might discuss how to address difficulties with study habits or time management, particularly at hectic times before midterms and finals. At the end of each month a few students or myself bring a little food for a brief class party, and, while nibbling for 15 minutes, we discuss films, course issues, or Cornell and even national issues. At the end of term I give students an informal reading list, suggesting further reading in authors we have read as well as authors we have not read, especially authors related to those we have read. I offer to read the students’ work in the future. I remind them that when they read they should always be aware of the way apiece is written. For examples of good (but not always faultless) writing, I suggest that they should continue to read the editorial page and the Op-Ed page in the New York Times and perhaps the New Yorker. We have class reunions the next semester, and sometimes these reunions continue for four years. Since the list serves remain in place, class members and I continue to write one another after the class is over. Many of the 270 students take other classes from me, some become my major advisees, and quite often we keep in touch beyond their graduation, sometimes for decades.

What, finally, is a community of inquiry? It is a class in which students commit themselves not merely to the teacher, but to the material and each other in a spirit of learning. In a community of inquiry the class does not stop when students and teachers separate and the course ends. The students speak to one another outside the classroom and on email about their reading and writing, and carry their intellectual relationships beyond the life of the course.

What I described in terms of building a community of inquiry is an important in all my classes. For example, in my lecture course on Modernism—a class that averages in the mid fifties in enrollment but can reach 75– I have a list serve to which all students are required to make contributions and I respond rapidly to off list queries and discussion and reading assignments. I get to know each student in the course and try to come early and chat with a few different students before each class. As in English 270, I offer them a chance to join me and my wife as our guests for Cornell theatre as well as dance and musical events.
Especially in the humanities, we need to stress learning as an end itself and as a lifelong odyssey so that our students as, Constantine Cavafy put it, “Keep Ithaka always in mind. / Arriving there is what you’re destined for. / . . .Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey/ Without her you wouldn’t have set out . . .. /Wise as you will have become, so full of experience, / you’ll have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.” The students need understand that Cornell–and life– is composed of many Ithacas and that these Ithacas represent the wonder of learning.


“Teaching Freshman Humanities at Cornell; Towards a Community of Inquiry, ” Words of Wisdom: Essays from Weiss Presidential Fellows, Cornell University, 2006, 30-36.


Does it Make Sense to Pursue a Humanities Doctorate? The Pros and Cons of Graduate Education in the Humanities

I. Introduction

You loved studying literature in college and thought how much fun it would be to be the teacher leading the discussions you enjoyed. What if you could turn your love of reading and thinking about what you read into a lifetime career? Maybe even write a novel or poems? Spend your days on a beautiful campus?

These dreams were my dreams and for the most part college teaching fulfilled them, but is that opportunity still available in the first quarter of the twenty-first century or has the Golden Age of Higher Education passed when young Ph.D's had a reasonable expectation of joining the tenured faculty of elite universities or colleges?

What you need to know before deciding to pursue a Ph.D. in the humanities is that when you finish your degree you will be entering a very difficult job market, in part because many colleges and universities supplement their tenured faculty with adjunct professors who are usually poorly paid. Even if you do get a position at an elite college, it may be only after post-docs, some years off the tenure track, or after taking a first job at a much less prestigious school, or some combination of the above. Young faculty are often getting tenure at Cornell ten years later than many in my generation did because they had post docs and positions that did not offer tenure or they began teaching elsewhere.

The job market becomes even more difficult if your personal circumstances--say, a partner whose work is in a specific place--constrains you from looking throughout the US and perhaps even abroad. Subtracting yourself from all but one geographical area makes the job search all that much more difficult.

You will have a better chance if you are also open to community college teaching or secondary school teaching, perhaps at a strong private school or even a first-rate public school. Clearly it will be more difficult to do research or write that novel or play in positions where you are teaching a much heavier load, but it is not impossible and has often been done.

II. How To Proceed If You Are Sure Graduate School is for You

Often a gap year is a good strategy. If you make Phi Beta Kappa as a senior and graduate with honors, you will be a more attractive candidate when applying for admission during the year after your senior year compared to applying in the middle of your senior year. Furthermore, you will have time to study for the GRE exams that many top schools require.

Be sure the people who write your recommendations are enthusiastic about you. Also, be sure they are reliable since, alas, some professors do not do this task in a timely and conscientious manner. If a professor comes to class prepared, meets office hours on time, returns essays with alacrity and shows interest in the students--and particularly in you--you will have an better idea how reliable and committed that faculty member will be in writing your recommendations. Since the genre requires some hyperbole, it is good to choose people who know how to write recommendations.

Getting a masters degree first can be a good idea for several reasons. For one thing, it allows you to see if grad school is for you. For another, if you are not admitted to a top tier graduate program, a masters can prepare you to be a strong candidate at a more prestigious school. But be aware that if you transfer for your Ph D. to a different school, you probably will lose time. That is, students entering with a masters degree do not finish two years sooner and often not even one year before students beginning right after taking their B.A. The process of transferring, getting used to a new place, and putting together your doctoral committee not only can be time-consuming, but so also can be course requirements -and suggested courses--as well pre-dissertation exams.

Apply widely to graduate schools and choose some that are not in the first tier and a few that are safety schools where admission seems very likely. You can always decide not to go to the latter, but in my experience those who apply to only elite schools and don't get admitted-- even if they knew that might happen--were devastated. If your finances are tight, most schools will waive the application fee. Although the job market is discouraging, applicant numbers are still very high, and many of the elite schools, in recognition of the difficult job market situation, are taking fewer students than they once did.

While you are applying to universities, admission and fellowship decisions are actually made by the department in which you wish to study. Your application should show that you know something about the department faculty and programs to which you are applying. This means that you will need to fine-tune each application so that it shows a personal awareness of and interest in all the departments to which you are applying.

You do need study for the GRE exam. One way to study for the literature subject exams is to read the Norton Anthologies of British and American Literature. How well you do will make a difference, particularly in this era of grade inflation where most applicants have similar grades. Some schools take the subject exam (in the case of applicants to English Departments, "Literature in English,") more seriously than others, but in my experience, the majority stress the Verbal and Analytic Writing scores.

Corresponding with professors with whom you might study may be helpful to your application, but be aware that only a small number of professors serve on the graduate admissions committee each year and they have the final say. Also be aware that admission is quite subjective, in part because it is not easy to differentiate among strong candidates. On virtually every selection committee I have ever been on, I can say that if one person in the room were different, the outcome would be different because the dynamic among those making these decisions would be changed.

A big variable is who is on the committee and what their inclinations are. I have been on committees where foreign language facility mattered a great deal to one member, and I admit to thinking myself that if a student cannot do reasonably well on the quantitative GRE, the student may not have the best reasoning power.

What the foregoing means is that you will probably be admitted to some programs and not to others, and you may be offered a more generous aid package by one school than others. If the more generous offer is not from the most prestigious school that admits you, you will have a difficult decision. Sometimes, you can tell a school you have had a better offer and that school might come up with a bit more.

If you are thinking of an MFA (Master in Fine Arts), you should know the numbers of applicants are even higher at top programs than they are for Ph.D. programs. For the 2015-16 entering class, the Cornell English department extended admission offers to 22 Ph.D. students and one joint MFA/Ph.D. student out of 258 applicants. The MFA program extended offers to eight students of 810 applicants, less than one in hundred.

What the MFA does is give you a chance to write; at Cornell the MFA is a two-year degree with an additional two years as a teaching assistant with his or her own section of freshmen humanities class stressing writing. But you need to know that unless you are recognized as an important talent on the basis of already published material, your getting a position at the conclusion of an MFA is even more difficult than at the conclusion of a Ph.D program.

After admission, prospective graduate campus visits are much more valuable than 
undergraduate ones. If you are admitted to a number of schools, you might want to visit the ones that you are most likely to attend and to speak to the professors with whom you might study and the students who are in the program. If professors seem uninterested in you and morale among students is not good, you might think of going elsewhere, providing that you have that choice.

III. What Students Need To Know

Be aware that you will be investing five or six years of life in a process that may not yield a place in the college teaching profession and that a job in a major research university is even less likely. Those who do get such jobs often begin elsewhere and get noticed by writing important articles and books. Graduate students in the humanities are usually those who loved learning as undergraduates, but--and these categories are not mutually exclusive--they may also be people who didn't know what else to do.

Many grad students convince themselves that the joy of learning is enough, but when they don't get positions, they are heart-broken. Students may convince themselves jobs don't matter when they are accepted in graduate school at 22 or 23, especially if they have a five-year support package, but they are often devastated when they can't find a position at 29.

If your goal is to be a professor, you need to be aware that colleges and universities tend to hire from the top graduate schools and this is even more true of the elite schools.

On the other hand, in my experience some community colleges and smaller colleges and satellite regional campuses of some state universities are more likely to hire those with strong teaching credentials who may not have Ph.D.'s from elite research universities.

IV. Crucial Decision: Choosing a Graduate Mentor and a Graduate Committee

In most doctoral programs you have a graduate committee composed of three or four members. I actually in most cases prefer three because it is less cumbersome to get people together and to function as a team. An alternative is to have three but have an informal fourth who reads dissertation chapters and gives advice when needed.

Whom you choose as chair of that committee is essential, even though the other committee members should also be mentors. In general you should choose faculty with whom you have taken classes and received positive feedback. Each member will represent a somewhat different field. One way of preparing yourself for the job market is to have range; small colleges are looking for people to cover their curriculum rather than research scholars who can best teach graduate seminars in their dissertations subject.

As much as you want a match for your specific interest, I would recommend that wherever you go you should seek mentors who are fully interested in you and your progress. I have been, I think, as effective a mentor for those working in my exact areas of interest as I have been for those whose work was reasonably close to my expertise.

You need to choose as your Graduate Committee chair:

1) A mentor who is interested in you and your subject and who knows the difference between mentoring and creating a clone. The best mentoring is helping a student find his or her own way.

2) A mentor who thinks of mentoring as an essential part of his or her professional responsibility and is not only there for you when needed while you are a graduate student but also understands that mentoring does not stop with the Ph.D. You want someone to whom you can always turn at every stage of your career for advice and timely recommendations. Be aware that professors who have trouble giving back papers and chapters within a week or so will be equally unreliable when you need them for other things later.

3) In general choose someone who answers emails promptly, keeps office hours, and also has reasonable social skills. It is not easy to deal with eccentrics, and there are many in academia. Ideally, you want someone who is a good listener, advocates for you when necessary, and is enthusiastic about both teaching and research.

V. Necessary Skills

The most important skills for graduate success are similar to those for undergraduates: time management (knowing where your time each day goes) is essential. So is your knowing your program's requirements--including whatever qualification exams precede thesis writing--and making a schedule with your graduate committee to meet them. You need to be proactive in discussing these requirements with your committee members because on occasion some graduate faculty may be inattentive to their students moving forward.

Begin projects when they are assigned, leave time for drafts, understand expectations, and participate in seminars. Go to department and university lectures, but realize they are significant time investments--often with Q&A and reception stretching to 2 ½ hours--and ration how many you attend. Make sure you take time every day to do something that is fun, whether that means going to the gym, practicing the guitar, or taking a walk. Take time to make friends at your new school.

First-year graduate students often have a little trouble adjusting to their programs. They have been validated stars in their undergraduate programs but now they are all, in some sense, beginning students in programs where the older students are the stars. Especially in the first term, some first-year graduate students feel like freshmen. If students come from less prestigious schools they may worry about whether they can compete with students from elite schools.

Keep in mind that you were selected in a rigorous selection process because the department committee thinks you can do the work. It is up to the graduate program to help in the transition, but you should be aware that feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt are almost universal. If you are having problems, speak to your Graduate Field Representative or, better yet, a professor with whom you are taking a seminar. Be aware, too, of the mental health facilities on campus, and use them if necessary.

VI. The Doctoral Program's Responsibility

I would like now to address graduate departments.

Training College Teachers should be an important focus since teaching college is the position most grad students want. At Cornell we have an excellent freshman writing program and graduate students in several humanities fields spend the summer between their first and second year as apprentice teachers. In their second year, they usually teach their own class under the supervision of a course director. While commendable, this still leaves us with inexperienced teachers. To some extent we at Cornell pretend the teaching is better than it is and that one summer of training makes a master teacher.

Mentoring teaching should continue throughout the students' graduate career, but this responsibility is not always fulfilled in doctoral programs, despite the fact that most of humanities graduate students aspire to be professors. Every doctoral committee should have a teaching mentor who visits the graduate students' classes and meets one-on-one with the graduate student to discuss what has been observed. The mentor and student should be having a continuing dialogue on teaching methods throughout the student's graduate career. Needless to say the mentor must be a skilled teacher. Ideally, funding would be available to enable the student to work with the mentor as a teaching assistant not only in large lecture classes but also in smaller classes.

Programs that put skilled teachers on the market will have a placement advantage, especially for positions at small liberal arts colleges. The emphasis on quality teaching at research universities has improved and has always been important in English departments. Thus research universities will be looking for those who will be able to teach undergraduates as well as to give specialized seminars and mentor graduate students. Certainly, the chances of getting a position at a small liberal arts college, a community college, a regional campus of a major state university, or even a secondary school is increased by having mentored and supervised teaching experience.

VII. Moving Forward or Taking Time to Build Credentials?

Let me segue to a complicated topic: the current length of graduate school in the humanities and whether it is necessary. Given the lack of jobs, should graduate programs be speeding up the process rather than slowing it down? We are dealing often with adults in their mid to late twenties and it can be demeaning and lead to arrested development if they remain students for six or seven years prior to seeking employment. If they are going to get a position after years of trying, do we want them to be well into their thirties when and if they finally get a tenure track position?

Now because students need publications and conferences, they often take longer than five years to complete their degree. But perhaps we should streamline that process. Too many graduate students take weeks off preparing a conference paper for a tiny audience or belong to several reading groups. On the other hand, as my young Cornell colleague Greg Londe contends, if one chooses to give conference papers that lead to dissertation progress, they may serve a useful purpose. Perhaps a balanced approach is to recommend, prior to entering the job market, a few conferences within five years but also to stress the importance of getting one or more of those conference papers published. One publication in a reputable journal is worth a great deal more than multiple conference presentations.

We need, I believe, to figure out a program that lasts five years, including teaching assistant years and a fellowship year. Admission to candidacy exams should take place no later than the sixth term. We should encourage students to find a dissertation topic as early as possible and encourage course essays that become early versions of dissertation chapters. Sometimes faculty are dilatory in grading papers, encourage incompletes by raising the bar unreasonably for course papers when they should consider course essays as necessary exercises, and fail to push students to take exams and submit chapters.

VIII. Career Preparation

We need, as I have been stressing, to make clear that many if not most Ph.D. students are not going to get tenure track jobs at research institutions and that many of those getting jobs will be teaching heavy loads at small and not elite liberal arts colleges and community colleges. We need to warn them about a system that can exploit them by offering low paying adjunct jobs.

I recommend that graduate programs in the humanities have an informal continuing colloquium for our grad students about alternative careers to academic teaching/research positions. Such a colloquium should be a component of Ph.D. programs in the humanities.

We need to present other opportunities for graduate students in the humanities, including positions in non-profit charitable foundations that support educational initiatives as well as positions in student services, cultural institutions (especially museums which publish catalogues and also require research and writing skills for their exhibits), journalism, publishing, and the new media.

As we open more doors to what Ph.D.'s might do, we should consider whether we can train them to write for a larger audience as a serious journalist or staff writer for a major and influential magazine. Graduate programs should invite non-fiction writers to give classes or even short terms training sessions and suggest that graduate students enroll in journalism classes on campuses that have them.

If they have not done so in their undergraduate years, graduate students in English and other humanities, should be taking courses in communication departments and even computer science departments in order to develop skills transferable to the Internet world. Those who have taken such courses could explore other art forms as well as economics and sciences with the idea of expanding the areas on which they might write for a general audience.

Part of the problem is educating our humanities colleagues to be aware of these other career paths as they prepare and advise graduate students. Many are so deeply immersed in their own narrow research and academic politics that they have a frog's perspective on other opportunities.

In some fields people with doctorates can move back and forth between industry and academia. Celebrity public figures and some creative writers have been able to do this, but it is rare in the humanities. In STEM fields there are many more opportunities for positions in private industry, especially in fields like pharmaceutical and computer engineering where research is paramount and publication encouraged. In some areas within the new digital economy, English Ph.D's have found places where their writing and editing skills are valued.

IX. Literary Scholars as Public Intellectuals

We humanists need to speak to those outside the academy and strive to be public intellectuals who communicate, by means of ideas and lucid prose, with those in the larger community who are interested in the various arts as well as to those making political and economic decisions that have an impact on public life, including on cultural institutions and universities. We need to think of our graduate students of today as potentially the public intellectuals of tomorrow. We need to teach graduate students to write for a broader audience so that they will bridge the gap between academia and those in the public who are readers and thinkers as well as those who are members of influential political and cultural communities.

I applaud Kevin Birmingham's effort in The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce's Ulysses to write for a larger audience rather than to join those academic ostriches who pretend there is no audience beyond specialists. I also applaud his Harvard mentors, at least one of whom, Louis Menand plays, with his pieces in The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, a role in public discourse. To shift metaphors, Birmingham eschews academic mole work that makes readers think: "Something must be going on down there because of the small pile of dirt next to the holes, but what exactly it is we cannot ascertain." Indeed, much of my considerable enthusiasm for Birmingham's project derives from his efforts to write as a literary intellectual reaching out to an audience that goes beyond Joyce scholars.

We need to eschew jargon that interferes with communication, and we need be wary about assuming that we are moving teleologically forward in criticism and scholarship, an assumption that leads to patronizing past scholarly approaches. Chances of placement outside academia increase when one can write lucid precise prose without reveling in specialized academic speak.

X. Conclusion

For me, the academic life--teaching bright and committed students--and writing about literature and culture has been a perfect fit. But I am hesitant to advise students to pursue an academic career in view of the job market. With financial exigencies caused in part by a decline in state aid for public universities and in part by rising expenses, some of which are mandated by laws, as well as a decline in humanities majors, I cannot foresee that the job market will improve. Add to this the often exploitive hiring of underpaid adjuncts and you see the reason for my hesitance.

For one thing, there are too many already minted Ph.D.'s hoping to get the opportunity to occupy a tenure track line. For another, starting a tenured job in your later thirties after post-docs and short term lectureships or non-tenured assistant professorships limits your career development compared with those of professors in the past who had tenure track jobs ten years sooner. I see people getting tenure in their mid-forties which delays having children and some of the other pleasures of an economically and socially stable adulthood.

Nevertheless, if you are willing to immerse yourself in your studies with the knowledge that the future is indeterminate, and you have the good fortune to get full support from a strong department, I would caution you about the odds of getting an academic position, but I would not discourage you from trying.


“Does it Make Sense to Pursue a Humanities Doctorate? The Pros and Cons of Graduate Education in the Humanities,” June 27, 2015, Huffington Post, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-r-schwarz/does-it-make-sense-to-pur_b_7151004.html