When I was a new teacher, there was a saying among those who had been in the classroom for a while: Don’t smile until Christmas. Basically, they meant that it was easier to ease up after establishing classroom discipline than trying to gain it after your class had gone rogue and wild.
Unfortunately, then as now, I was always smiling, laughing, and joking, so I never got to see how not smiling would work. But there was a nugget of truth in the saying that I’ve carried with me: Start with intensity.
While starting slowly might work for exercise, it’s a no-go for academic endeavors. But too many of us do just that. We tell ourselves that we can catch up on our reading later. There’s plenty of time before the first test. That research paper isn’t even due until July. Why push ourselves?
But pushing is just what we need to do. If we want good grades (or just sanity at the end of the semester), then we need to start strong and maintain the pace. True excellence (actually learning the material) comes from a daily habit.
And let me speak from experience as a slow starter, once you let that work start to pile up, it’s hard to catch up. Not just because there’s a lot of work to be done. But also because you’ve been practicing being lazy.
So today, the first day of the summer term, go ahead and smile. But also make a strong start!
There is a joke in the academic world that there has never been a real question asked during a presentation. Instead, the questioner uses the time to put forth his/her own views and explain why the presenter is wrong.
In his book Wait, What?, James Ryan tells of a question his mother was asked in a grocery store parking lot. Ryan’s family lived in a neighborhood made up of electricians, plumbers, and lawn-care workers. It was surrounded by richer areas that hired the people in Ryan’s neighborhood. When Ryan was in college, his parents did what many parents do: they put a decal with the college name on their car.
In one of those rich neighborhoods, as Ryan’s mother put groceries in her car, a woman noticed the Yale decal. She then looked over the old car.
“Was the sticker already on the car when you bought it?” she asked.
Now, in education, we tell students there are no stupid questions. And that may be so. But there are mean questions, those that are meant to insult and hurt others. And just because the words are phrased as a question instead of an attack doesn’t mean that they hurt less or that the person has disguised the malevolent intent.
So maybe some questions about questions are in order!
- Check your attitude. Are you angry? Do you feel like striking out? (Then maybe this is not the best time to ask that question.)
- Do you really want to know something? (Good time to ask a question.)
- Do you want to show someone how much you know? (Not a good time to ask a question.)
- Do you want to show the other person how little he/she knows? (Not a good time to ask a question.)
- Are you confused and need clarification? (Great time to ask a question.)
And if you are the recipient of a mean question, what do you do?
I’m a huge fan of playing dumb and almost forcing the insulting person to spell out the insult to me. On the other hand, an “Ouch, that was mean” can also be effective.
And if you ever present at a conference and someone does the “diatribe disguised as a question” routine, a simple “Thank you. Who’s next?” works.
This time of year is always bittersweet for me. Students are graduating, moving on to universities and jobs. They are excited and ready for the next phase of their lives. But it’s sad because I will miss those who have stopped by to ask for research help or just complete a move on the never-ending Scrabble game we have going on in the library.
The end of the academic year always makes me philosophical. And everyone knows that philosophers like nothing better than sharing their wisdom. So here’s a little bit of mine:
- Even dream jobs have nightmare days. We do our students a disservice when we imply that, if they only find the right job, they’ll never be unhappy or they’ll ‘never work a day in your life.’ Every job has its dark side. I’m guessing even rock stars don’t particularly like sitting around hotel rooms while they are on tour or going through sound checks every day. Instead of trying to find careers without stress or unhappiness, find a career that is worth the stressful days.
- Set challenges. Mark Zuckerberg famously does this each year: Learn Mandarin, read a book every two weeks, write a thank-you note each day, etc. Challenges keep your brain active and alert to opportunities. They can also keep you from going stale, living the same day over and over again.
- Be kind. In this age of Internet trolls and hateful posts, it’s easy to forget that behaving any other way is even an option. But take advantage of the Jolly Librarian’s decades of experience here. If you are at heart a decent person, the times you’ve been unkind will haunt you forever.
- Find a way to laugh and have fun every day. Every. Single. Day.