Teaching Thursday: Five Tips for Every College Student

I know that this week, my blog is drifting perilously close to becoming one of the strange, autobiographical teaching blogs, and for that I apologize, but it is the beginning of the semester. And, as a great mean once said, “just my thoughts, man – right or wrong.”

I have spent some time at the start of the semester trying to get my undergraduate students to anticipate some of the challenges that they will face this semester and to plan according. I tell them that five things will happen to them this or any semester.

Here is my advice.

1. You will get sick. College is a hive. Going to college is like flying on an airplane continuously for four years. You breathe each other’s air, you consume each other’s germs, you live, work, and play on top of each other. You are going to get sick and miss class. Realize this and plan accordingly.

2. Close relatives will die. It doesn’t take hours of analyzing U.N. Model Life Tables (although I believe that they support my argument) to recognize that our students’ grandparent’s generation is likely to begin to die while they’re college age. In fact, our students’ parents will generally enter an age in which the odds of death at any one year increase significantly (at least this is how I’ve read this table.). These are statistical models developed from vast pools of population data. You should expect death to visit you in college and make plans accordingly.

3. Your computer will die. It doesn’t take complex statistics to know this. All of our computers die every year or our hard drives crash or the internet vanishes or Blackboard does not do what it was meant to do. In fact, just this week, I had a mighty wrestling match with Blackboard and while no one really wins in these situations, I at least managed to adapt my class to this almost inevitable situation. Technology is not reliable, make plans accordingly.

4. North Dakota has bad weather. Invariably, when you go to Crosby in Divide County to visit your dying great aunt Myrtle this November, there will be a blizzard. We go to school in North Dakota where “the weather is bad or it’s fixin’ to get bad.” While I won’t ask you not to attend your nephew’s first hockey game or your grandmother’s 75th birthday party, I will tell you to anticipate being stuck in some small town, without internet, for 72 hours whenever you travel in North Dakota between October and early May. These months see snow and bad weather, anticipate this and plan accordingly.

5. You will have “personal issues”. If the 14th-century Europe witnessed the devastating effects of the Black Death, the 21st century has paid the horrible price for personal issues. They strike the college aged among us and like the various flu epidemics that appear with the changing of the leaves, they leave only sorrow and destruction in their wake. You live in a hive, breathe each other’s air, and form volatile relationships with people you are forced to endure for four years. This will inevitably lead to “personal issues.” Every student has them every year. It will lead to sleepless nights, missed classes, and poor quality work. Anticipate an outbreak of personal issues every semester and plan accordingly.

By placing these realities on the table, I’m making it clear that I expect students to develop habits that allow them to adapt quickly to the common challenges of college age life. I’m not unsympathetic to the death of a close relative or a prized USB drive, but, at the same time, I am not responsible for these things either. Students have to anticipate, communicate, and adapt.

I also tell students that if they can document that their significant other ran off with their school laptop, while they are snowed into Slope County attending their great uncle’s funeral with the flu, I’ll give them an “A”.


  1. One semester at The New School, a student managed to lose 3 grandparents. All in San Francisco. He still wrote a very good paper & go A on the final . . .


  2. Christos G. Makrypoulias August 29, 2013 at 11:53 am

    Oddly enough, only 4 and 5 were issues for me, and still did not keep me from doing well. I stayed relatively healthy (despite the cold and dump weather), my grandparents were considerate enough to stay alive until I came back from university (my parents are still around, thank God!), while owning a computer in the early ’90s was a bit out of my league, financially speaking. So apart from the rain, the snow, and a couple of failed relationships, I never really had the “full college experience” – including those wild spring-break vacations we see on TV and in movies, more’s the pity!


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