In my experience, there are two main kinds of schoolwork. The first is schoolwork that’s like, "Ughhhh I’m sinking into the floor as my brain shuts off and my pores clog and my heart fills with dread because I'm tired and this was never worth my time." The second is schoolwork that’s like, "Yeah, I’m tired, but only adrenaline-tired because this is my life's purpose and the stars are aligning as I push through it because I need this background information for everything I ever want to do and it relates to everything else I ever wanted to know."
That's a big difference.
One of the most exciting transitions I noticed between high school and college was how much of the second kind of schoolwork was suddenly available to me. I have had my fair share of each kind in college so far, and sometimes it's a shot in the dark, but I do believe there is a strategy to finding classes that compel you as often as possible.
Here is my advice:
1) Choose based on the professor, not the subject
If you're not sure what a professor is like, ask someone who has taken a class with them.
If you have a sense of the professor, ask yourself questions like— Do you like the way they conduct a classroom? Do you like the way they structure assignments? When they talk, does it make sense to you? Does it keep you awake? If the professor assigns dense academic readings, does the way they discuss the readings make them more digestible or more inaccessible? Is this a professor who will make you feel stupid, or is this a professor who will make you feel empowered?
There could be some professors who teach subjects you're really interested in and don't do a good job, and they could kind of ruin the subject for you. There could also be professors who teach subjects you have no interest in at first, but bring out some aspect of it that makes it worthwhile.
If you took one class with a professor and didn't like it, don't take another class with the same professor, no matter how interesting the course description sounds. Listen to me. Do. Not.
2) Know who you're asking
Only rely on someone else's opinion of a teacher or a class if you know that they learn like you do. For example: I am not particularly STEM-minded. If a chemistry major told me that a biology class wasn't hard, it would change nothing for me. If an English major told me that a biology class wasn't hard, then I'd seriously consider taking the class.
At Oberlin, we don't have certain departments that everyone is required to take classes from. We do have distribution requirements, which make sure that everyone takes a certain amount of classes that make you think in different ways. Then there are whatever classes you need to take for your major and minor. I think the general goal for most people is to get requirements out of the way so that at some point you can take literally whatever you want.
4) Time of day
Be sensitive to your body's needs. Sometimes it won't be an option, but when it is, take classes that are scheduled at the points in the day when you're most energetic.
5) Balance in kinds of work
This semester, the names of my classes are Theories and Methods of Comparative American Studies, Capoeira Angola, Environmental Biology, and Sanctuary, Solidarity and Latinx Practices of Accompaniment. That covers a lot of mental ground— an academic look into the research methods and main ideas of one of my majors, rigorous physical activity (not without powerful historical context), the study of a specific set of social movements that I care about, and a healthy splash of science. If you want to stay interested and feel less dead as the semester goes on, I recommend a balance in the kinds of thinking that your classes will ask of you.
6) Overlapping material
As great as balance can be, I've also found it really nice when the same ideas are echoed class to class. Last fall, I was taking Intro to Queer Studies, Improvisation in Dance and Mind, and Environmental Humanities at the same time. At one point in all of those classes, we talked about sight being privileged over other senses in our dominant society. From the viewpoint of those three classes at once, I unexpectedly found myself thinking about the idea of sight being privileged in relation to disability, in relation to living in a disembodied culture where intellect is seen as separate from emotion, and in relation to distancing humans from nature and nonhuman animals. Drawing the connections between a bunch of structures coming together to fuel one pattern I saw in the world around me felt important and intriguing, and it might not have stuck in my head if I hadn't taken those three classes at the same time. This was an overlap that I couldn't have seen coming, but there are definitely times when overlap between two classes seems inevitable based on course descriptions, titles and departments. I would recommend choosing overlap on purpose when you can. It can keep you on your toes to understand concepts from multiple perspectives and in a deeper way each time.
7) Ask for the syllabus
If you're really unsure about a class, you can always ask the professor for the syllabus. Unlike the syllabi that I received in high school, syllabi in college tend to be really full and accurate descriptions of the course material, how demanding it is, and in what ways you will have to work.
8) What you are interested in!
At the end of the day, it's an incredible privilege to be able to choose from such a huge range of classes. It's okay to follow your gut and study what actually excites you.
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