Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

College Requirements Past the Application Stage

My 15-year-old is taking a summer writing class with a focus on rhetoric and composition. She's one to thrive in a congenial class atmosphere, and she particularly likes the topic, the other students (all homeschoolers) and the teacher. And she's learning valuable classroom skills, such as, "Don't wait until the night before class to start your paragraphs," "How to double-space a paper (and what is double-spacing, Mom?)", and "How to make a four-page composition out of the experience of first watching Jurassic Park".

All this reminds me that our rising sophomore is going to have to start thinking about college requirements. We've probably already been remiss in prepping for application expectations (for someone who thinks a good deal more systematically about such things, check out Bearing's thoughts on transcripts and letters of recommendations), but since it currently seems unlikely that we're raising a crop of future doctors or engineers, I can't help remembering that my homeschooled self made it into college based on little more than a basic parental transcript, an ACT score, and a required essay. Maybe standards have become more stringent for incoming liberal arts freshmen in the past 20 years, but I also don't expect that any of ours are going to be interested in the Ivies or any school that's going to give tons of application hassle.

At any rate, although we'll need to jump through the application hoops, I fell to reflecting on various complaints I've heard over the past year from college professors I know, who have to deal with students after admission. Several recounted stories of blatant plagiarism, or cheating, or various forms of dishonesty and incompetence, or just plain rudeness. It comes as no surprise that the skills needed to ace an application and the skills needed to actually be a good student don't necessarily overlap, and yet it seems like a lot more weight is given to the former than the latter.

And so I ask: if you are a college professor, even if you don't deal with freshmen, what are the skills you want to see in your incoming students? What are the traits you pick up on immediately? What are the red flags of a problem student? What sort of qualities help students click with you? What would make you want to write a future letter of recommendation for a particular student?

And in case you are interested, here are the formative effects of watching Jurassic Park on the oldest Darwin, in her own words.

My Experience With Jurassic Park

It was a dark and stormy night. The palm trees were whipping about in the wind and rain. Slowly, a giant crane comes into view. Everyone is watching as the crane lowers a cage; the consequences could be deadly if a mistake is made. The cage touches the ground and the scene bursts into action. The workers quickly prepare everything to unload the cargo. The outlook seems certain, the end is in reach… Something inside the cage is moving about. Bang! The animal has caused a worker to fall down near the cage. Everyone on the couch jumps as a velociraptor grabs the man and drags him into its lair.
A garage sale is a great place to meet up with people and browse the random piles of stuff that happen to be there, and even more so at a moving sale. These places are the perfect center of neighborhood gatherings with people coming to wish the moving people a safe and happy trip. My friends were moving away to Arizona soon, and they were getting rid of their excess of old stuff and toys through just such a thing. There was a bag stuffed with beanie babies, a table covered in small cars and crafts, and many other odds and ends. There were also a few cassette tapes with interesting titles. Ben-Hur and the Star Wars trilogy were among them. I glanced over the titles, looking for something that would serve the purpose of entertainment for a good many years and would not just sit collecting dust. The other members of my family were looking after our cousins who were visiting from Maryland. They were looking at the bag of beanie babies and deciding which ones they wanted to get. I was not paying much attention to them because someone else was keeping an eye on them. As I was browsing among the movies, the title of Jurassic Park with its silhouette of a Tyrannosaurus Rex on a red background caught my attention. I picked it up and studied the back of the box.
I love dinosaurs; they are the closest thing to dragons that Earth has ever had. They dominated the skies, seas, and land. They were magnificent. It is no mistake to say that I was completely ecstatic when I came across this movie for seventy-five cents. And so at the end of the sale we went home with many stuffed animals, Ben-Hur, Star Wars and Jurassic Park. From that evening on there was only one question in my mind. When could I watch my movie? I soon tired out my parents who (and not without reason) worried that I was too young to watch it without having nightmares. I did not get to watch my movie for a long time after this and I would have to be patient.
The day finally arrived. All the little kids were sent to bed and only a few older people were left awake. Popcorn was made and the people gathered in the living room. The tape player was made ready and everyone sat down. The lights were turned off. It was a dark and stormy night on an island of the coast of Costa Rica… A paleontologist and a paleobotanist came to the island, people were worried and their fears were temporarily soothed, dinosaurs broke free during a storm, and many people died. The movie dragged me into it and kept me firmly held there. I couldn’t have broken free even if I had wanted to.
I went to bed that night with my head full of dinosaurs, and from that night on I was hooked on Jurassic Park. My friends came over to watch it sometimes although they were not as into it as I was. Sometime after that, I was given a soundtrack for the movie and I listened to it over and over again. The music was almost my favorite thing about the movie. The thrilling helicopter ride, the haunting tones of the Brachiosaurus, and the suspenseful music of the velociraptors. I could pick out when Denis was in the embryo chamber and soon after when he was eaten. The awe and majesty of the dinosaurs was captured perfectly in the violins and horns and woodwinds. Then I read the book and I saw what parts Spielberg had changed and I began to appreciate Michael Crichton for his book, the inspiring factor that had made a marvelous movie. The second movie disappointed me even though it brought back some of the characters who had been in the first movie. The actions of the people were not wise and even though there were some bad decisions in the original, the plot of the sequel just did not seem as probable. I never watched the third one because of the second. But when Jurassic World came out, I was in at almost the first showing at a nearby theater. It told the story of what happened next in a convincing way and drew me back in even more with it’s familiar sounding music. But it left many things to the imagination, such as: how had they controlled all the dinosaurs from the original park? And where are the original characters from the first movie? Wouldn’t they have something to say about the whole thing? But despite the weird questions it leaves hanging, the only thing that could’ve made Jurassic World better is if they had had the velociraptors ride the motorcycle.
Later I bought a Jurassic World Monopoly game and played using my favorite park attractions such as the Mosasaurus and the Indominus Rex. And a few years ago I was very excited to play the theme for Jurassic Park for a piano recital piece. Before I watched Jurassic Park, I had not watched many action movies at all. Now I have seen many Marvel movies and lots of action ones. Jurassic Park was the starting point of my new taste in movies and it has stayed as one of my favorite films of all time up there with Independance Day, The Martian, and all the Avengers and Captain America movies. The soundtrack is still in good shape too. It has been preserved through careful treatment and handling. And I am proud to say that none of the pieces to the Monopoly game have been lost. I have, of course, appreciation for other movies and their music, but Jurassic Park has stuck with me the most and will probably continue to be there for a long time to come. The dinosaurs have made a permanent picture in my head for the personalities of the particular species that were featured in the film: the gentle Brachiosaurus, the smart Velociraptors, and the ferocious Tyrannosaurus Rex, and the little poisonous dino (but we don’t blame him because Dennis is a bad guy.).
In conclusion, the Jurassic Park movies have not always been the best, but it is always hard to match the quality of the first in any series. They tried and fell short of the mark in this particular case. But nevertheless, Jurassic Park will always be my number one dinosaur movie with Jurassic World as a close second. These movies will always hold a special place in my memory as the beginning of an era for my taste in movies and my interest in John Williams's music. Jurassic Park has opened up a whole world of things I didn’t know about before. It has made a major impact on my personality and interests. Jurassic Park has made me who I am today, and it will stay my favorite for a very long time to come.


Brandon said...

At the admission stage, as Bearing notes, you'll need to make sure you have options for letters of recommendation, just in case; extracurriculars can be important too (although that won't be a problem for y'all). Beyond that, it's still mostly just a matter making sure to put out fishing lines to a number of different places.

As a college professor, what I most hope to see that is often lacking:

(1) Good citation practice. In my field format doesn't matter, but students have a bad habit of not grasping that in most academic contexts 'citation' means that people can see immediately that THIS information comes from THAT source -- a common error is just to list sources at the end, which can sometimes be fine for informal writing but is not acceptable for formal writing that involves extensive research or close analysis of complex problems.

Just recognizing how a style format works -- whether it's MLA or APA or some other -- is the big thing; if you know how one works, you can easily adapt to others.

Students often fall into what is technically plagiarism, without any intention to plagiarize, due to a failure to cite sources properly; it's a common problem.

(2) Grammar and spelling, although judging from the essay in the post, I don't think this will be a problem at all; since I teach at a community college, with a wide diversity of students, it's better than some papers I get.

(3) Library research! One of the most exasperating things is that students today have immensely richer resources for research than used to exist, and instead they usually settle for using the first thing that comes up in Google. Part of it is look-things-up-in-books, but also some of it is being able to find and use online resources that are proper research materials (periodical archives like JSTOR, or book archives like Hathi Trust or Internet Archive). Bright students who like to interact with people can usually learn these things from the research librarians, but it helps if you already have some familiarity with this sort of things.

College and (occasionally) public libraries will often generally have materials on their websites to help students do better research; some of it can be quite good.

(4) As I always tell my students, by some cosmic coincidence I happen to know everything they need to know in order to pass my course; just being willing to ask questions, while not 100 percent reliable, is one of the best indicators that a student will do well -- asking questions in class, of course, is relevant to courses with a participation grade, and far too many students never get help from the professor because they are afraid that asking for it would make them look stupid. I've had students who were not naturally great as students who have done splendidly just because they asked for help when they needed it.

(5) It's increasingly common to have multi-part or complicated assignment instructions in order to avoid problems like plagiarism or cheating; thus it can be very important before turning in any assignment to go through each point in the instructions to make sure you've done it all properly. I don't particularly know the best way to get into that habit, but it's a habit that would make the lives of a lot of professors (and students!) easier.

(6) The big thing, though, is that college education is a cooperative venture; at that level, the student is expected to do the primary work in their own education. And it's very much a case of getting out of it only what you put into it. The student who goes into a course understanding this will have less scrambling to do.

Anonymous said...

Like Brandon, I am a community college professor. I teach more English composition than anything else. Brandon's advice is excellent. I agree with him that your student will have very little trouble with grammar and mechanics--a rarity these days!

The reluctance of students to ask for help or information from a professor is a great mystery to me; the advice to talk to the prof is great!

One thing I'd like to add: willingness to work, to put in effort, is vital to success in college. Persistence and effort are rare, but they pay off for the student who is willing to invest in her own education.

The Ironic Catholic said...

Reading for an argument would be the most useful skill they rarely have. Willingness to explore, question, and discuss with civility would be close seconds.