When I started writing about college life, I was stuck. I didn’t know what to cover! I wanted to talk about something that isn’t a popular topic – I didn’t want to just dive into how to organize your dorm, balancing your budget…the typical college talk. Instead, I decided to reach out and talk to a professor and one that I know very well – my mom! My mom has her PhD in Geography from UNC Chapel Hill and went on to become a professor in the department. Here are the questions I asked her, and her great answers.
Why do you teach? Why do you teach at a college level?
This is a difficult question to answer. I teach for many reasons. I enjoy engaging with others in the field of my research, I enjoy teaching undergraduates, teaching allows me to be creative… and the list goes on. One of the most rewarding moments for me is when a student emails or returns to see me and says my class expanded or changed their perspective on how they view the world around them. That is the biggest compliment. I feel I’ve made a huge impact to a person’s life – to change or broaden how they see their world. That’s big.
I enjoy teaching undergraduates the most, from the freshman 100 level seminar courses to the upperclassmen in 400 level research courses. The period of undergraduate education is one of the most transformative periods in a person’s life. People are beginning to experience and engage with the world independently from their parents or their home communities. They are shaping who they will become as adults. Because of this, undergraduates are at this edge of enormous possibility. It is exciting, and it is contagious.
Describe a day in the life of a professor.
Most mornings I arrive at my office well within an hour of my first class. I like to have that hour to look over my lectures for the day, read over the news to see if anything in the headlines pertains to course concepts, drink coffee, and just reflect for a few moments. Since I teach a full load, the remainder of my day is spent in lecture or in office hours visiting with students. When I arrive home, after I’ve taken care of family business, I usually spend about an hour or two reviewing for the next day. Standing at the front of a room full of people (sometimes 150 or more people) is a daunting experience. I give a lot of energy to my students during the day, and because of this, I am usually exhausted in the evening. It can also be a bit intimidating to stand in front of such a large group, knowing that anyone can ask any random question. The pressure to think on my feet, so to speak, is a lot of pressure.
What is the hardest thing about teaching/what has been the most challenging?
The hardest thing about teaching is understanding that I cannot reach everyone. There are going to be those students who are in my class to simply get the credit hours they need, and they are not interested in the topics of the course. They are checking off a box, so to speak. I have to be ok with this and teach for those who are present. The most challenging aspect to teaching is to create an environment wherein students are learning, but learning doesn’t feel like a chore. My hope is that students leave my class having learned something without feeling like they are in school. I want them to feel as if they just left an entertaining and engaging conversation. That is by far the most challenging aspect to my job.
What do you see college students struggling with the most and how do you help them with this struggle?
One of the biggest challenges for college students is making that jump from “high school learning” to “college learning.” The big difference is critical thinking. In high school student do well with memorizing material and giving that material back on a test. In college, students are asked to not only know the material, but be able to apply that material in a variety of contexts. This is an important step, and I would argue probably the biggest benefit to a college education – learning how to think, learning how to critically analyze material, learning about complexity.
What is your #1 study tip for college students?
I don’t think I have a single piece of advice. Instead, I think it is more of an approach. Be present. College is about many things – learning to be independent, learning to interact and negotiate in many different social situations – along with study within a major. There isn’t another time in a person’s life quite like the college experience. This can be both exhilarating and exhausting. Therefore, it is important to be present. When in class, be present in class – take notes, think about what is going on. Last night’s sports reel can wait for 50 minutes, right? When studying, be present in that moment – learn to determine what you know and don’t know, learn to connect course concepts with what is happening around you. Go to office hours and get clarity about concepts that are challenging. Find the balance so that you can gain the knowledge necessary for success and also enjoy this very exciting time in life.
In your opinion, what is the most unappreciated campus resource?
The research librarian. Hands down, the most underutilized resource on campus. Research librarians help students find the information and data they need to complete assignments. These people know so much about how to find information. Go to them. Learn from them. Being able to find information – knowing where to look and how to determine good sources from bad sources – will serve you well in all walks of life. In fact, I believe the most intelligent, most successful people in life are those who are good at getting the information they need to accomplish their tasks.
The most popular campus resource?
Maybe the coffee shop? I know that’s one of my most popular resources. Caffeine is a savior to me on many days, and from the tired looks on my students’ faces, they too worship the caffeine goddess.
If you could go back to college again, what would you do differently?
Wow. There are so many options here. I would take my own advice and be present.
What was your favorite class and why?
The Cultural Ecology of Disease, taught by Melinda Meade. That class changed my life. I entered university as a History and economics double major. Graduated with a geography degree with an emphasis on medical geography. I enrolled in that course because I needed the credit, it sounded interesting, and it fit my schedule. I wish I could say there was a better reason, but alas there was not. Melinda was a fascinating lecturer. She was a true trailblazer in her field, and it showed. She was captivating. I had never considered an interest in disease ecology until that class. She changed the way I view the world, profoundly so. I changed my major, wrote an undergraduate thesis with her, completed my MA with her and then went on to complete the PhD. All because of that class. Never underestimate the last minute elective course.
Any advice for incoming freshmen?
1. Sleep. I know, I know. But do yourself a favor and make sure you put sleep as one of your priorities. Your brain doesn’t function well without it.
2. Eat and eat well. You are asking a lot of your body – treat it well and it will treat you well.
3. Go to office hours. No kidding. Your relationship with your professor will be one of your first professional relationships. These are the people who will write your letters of recommendation for study abroad, for graduate school, for that summer internship…give them something positive to say.
4. Go to class. Be present in class. I know it is tempting to surf or text during class. But if you can’t put aside Snapchat or Twitter for one hour, you might want to rethink your priorities. Snapchat won’t get you a college degree or get you a job. Doing well in college just might.
5. Soak it up. Enjoy every minute. Don’t get so caught up in the small things that you lose sight of the journey you are on. It really isn’t a big deal that you made an A- instead of an A on that paper. Read the feedback, learn from it, and move on. Watch what other successful students do – and mimic those behaviors. But don’t beat yourself up about it. It is college. It is supposed to be harder than high school, yes?