It’s that time of year when the students go back, and partly because I am bio-rhythmically set up to expect students requiring help across the autumn, I thought I would extract the salient points from those years of study support and offer them here in a handy guide to the hopelessly at sea. If you are not yet accustomed to the life of the university, or can’t seem to get your expectations straight, I hope this will help.
1. Academics will not be like any other teachers you have met. Up until now, teachers have been in loco parentis – discipline, crowd control, your general behaviour and well-being, have been part of their concern. Now, although the set up seems more personal in some ways than it was before, it’s actually much more impersonal. Academics will rarely know who you are in any meaningful way. You will meet over the work, and that’s the place you interact with them. So, if they seem cold or distant, they do not ‘hate’ you, they are not focused on you in that way and are probably just thinking about other things entirely.
2. You will not get everything done that you are told to do. Again, academics are motivated by their subject rather than by the needs of the individual. They will tell you what you need to do/read/study in order to become what they consider proficient in their subject. You must bear in mind that for academics, the words anal, pedantic and obsessive are compliments. They will also be looking back from the vast heights of their experience and giving you the best of it, but compacted somehow. They will have forgotten how long it took them to read the books in question.
3. Do as much as you can, but don’t waste time and energy beating yourself up over what doesn’t get done. Life will take over, as it always does, and some things will happen and others won’t and some you will do well and some will be shoddy. Try to keep your eye on the big picture – what are you learning here? What do you need to master in order to make you feel comfortable with your subject? Your heroism lies not in scaling vast mountains of work, but in applying yourself to the things you do not understand. Understanding is all. You simply cannot know everything there is to know at this level.
4. Schedule free time for yourself and take it. Students head for the rocks as soon as they decide they have no time for anything but work. Then, the very real and necessary needs of the brain for downtime will start intervening every moment of the day. You will sit at your desk for hours at a stretch achieving very little out of a toxic mix of tiredness and resentment, entirely buried under the anxiety of not getting everything done. This is a disastrous state of affairs. Relax in your free time so that you can work when you want to be working.
5. The very biggest favour you can do yourself is to stop worrying about making mistakes. Mistakes are good. They are the way you actually learn something (rather that what we hope learning will be, which is a process of reassuring ourselves that there is nothing we need to learn). No one minds that you made a mistake apart from you. In fact, everyone who teaches you at university level will be expecting you to mess up, be confused, and completely fail to understand things. They will only be irritated if you do not speak up and say so. Speak up: this allows your teachers to do the work they are there for – helping you understand things they know to be complex.
6. Everyone struggles with the fact that, up until now, being ‘good’ at a subject has been a stable and reliable part of identity. And now you’ll have reached a level where you don’t feel ‘good’ at your subject any more. Psychologists have discovered that starting a course in higher education can provoke the same feelings in people as a major bereavement. Of course – you will have lost, to some extent, the person you used to be. To the best of your ability, let your old self go. Have confidence in the future and your own resources. You are in a transitional state, in the act of learning, and there’s a reason why university courses are at least three years long. You’ll need that time to move up to the next level, so be patient with yourself.
7. Up until now, learning has too often been about pleasing other people – pleasing your parents, pleasing your teacher, pleasing some abstract god of achievement. This is all going to have to stop. What you really need to find is intellectual curiosity. Whatever you are working on, try to find the part of it that actually appeals to you, that makes you curious to know more. Wherever you have choices, take time to make ones that correspond with what you are truly interested in, rather than what you think you ‘should’ do. Follow your gut instincts. It’s time to discover what you really like and what properly intrigues you.
8. Do not compare yourself to others. That way madness lies.
9. When people tell you that you are responsible for your learning now, what they mean is that you are responsible for finding the pleasure, the satisfaction and the reward in it. For some reason these are things we stubbornly sit back and expect others to provide for far too long (often in the form of good grades if all else fails). You probably will be among some of the best teachers you’ve ever had, but unless you engage with the work and find your curiosity, it won’t make the slightest bit of difference. You really do get back what you put in willingly.
10. There is only one thing you really do need to find time for, and it’s the thing that my students always used to insist they simply could not spare time for: you need time to think. Yes, think. Let a problem roll around in your mind, reflect back over what you’ve read, mull over what you’ve been asked to do and why, just let all the information you’ve squeezed in have a chance to digest a bit. Everything goes smoother and better if you spare time for thinking. You can think doing the washing up, or going for a walk, or doing the laundry. You’ll find yourself thinking if you arrange to have coffee with a few friends from class and chat over what you’ve been doing. You’ll think when you are an arts student explaining something you are reading about to a science student. Or vice versa. Thinking: I cannot recommend it highly enough. Will you be insisting mid-term that you absolutely cannot find a moment to think? Undoubtedly, sigh. But trust me, it’s the answer.