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Staying sane, sizing up syllabi and making healthy academic relationships

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In any given semester, the first week of classes is like a speed dating session. Now, I’ve never been speed dating, but I’ve been around the syllabus week merry-go-round eight times now and if I’ve learned anything, it’s that first impressions matter.

You have about an hour to evaluate the professor and the syllabus. You take a look at the size of its workload. You check your schedule to see if it’s manageable. You might even look at the crowd associated with your class; after all, ignore them as you might, you’ll inevitably end up spending a lot of time with the other students in the class.

And then you have to make a decision before things get complicated. Spend too much time with a class and there’s no way to get out without a messy “W.” Then there’s the opportunity costs; for a week or two you waste your time and energy in a class that’s not going anywhere, while the spots for the hottest courses are snatched up.

So when you’re running around campus right after a break, trying to gauge which classes can meet your needs, it’s important to strike a balance. That is, you’re going to be spending time with at least four and maybe even six classes for the entire semester, but not all of those relationships are going to be equal.

No class likes to advertise the fact, of course, but some educational relationships are more casual than others. Sure, the syllabus said you’d read 70 pages of the textbook for each class, but after a few dates with the class you reach an understanding and you realize that it’s really not necessary. In all seriousness, this is one of the most vital survival skills you’ll need at a university. It takes a great judge of character to figure out when a professor is bluffing, and trust me, everybody makes a few exaggerations on a first date. Seventy pages? In a textbook? Ain’t nobody got time for that.

Oftentimes you’ll start the year with good intentions. Maybe you begin by reading those 70 pages, or posting regularly in the class blog or getting a head start on your assignments, but eventually, the honeymoon stage fades away. You realize it’s been weeks since you told your textbook those three small words: “I read you.” You tried, you really meant to change, you started out with the best intentions, but none of it mattered. Some of the worst classes imaginable were begun with the best intentions. Sometime after spring break you realize there’s no hope and you enter damage control mode, just trying to get out with your heart and GPA intact.

But it’s not always your fault. Some professors just set their expectations way too high. Everyone ends up in one of those high-maintenance lab classes or seminars, and while it’s often a great learning experience, it’s impossible to maintain something like that for four years. Everyone has had a teacher that was just out of touch with reality.

A word of wisdom for professors: Think about all the assignments on your syllabus. Now multiply that by six, or even just five, and ask yourself whether that’s a reasonable amount of work for a semester. And remember, eating and sleeping have to fit in the schedule, as well. As jealous as you may be, professor, take some advice from the band Fun.: “Now I know that I’m not, all that you got.” Reign in the research projects and tone down the tests; we’re independent students and you’re not the only ones on our radar.

But if you have a rough class on Monday, you probably need a rebound on Tuesday, or maybe even before lunch. So here’s to the classes that come with no strings attached. It’s wrong to take advantage of professors that expect you to work when you consistently let them down; it’s a lot more comfortable when neither of you expect too much from the other.

Here’s to the professors with the one-sheet syllabi; it’s good for the environment, and most of all for the students’ sanity. Here’s to the professors who are OK with keeping your relationship with the class material limited to three hours of instruction each week, with maybe a midterm or a final fling. And if you can’t make it to class one day, or one week, or most of the semester? No big deal. These classes are independent and they won’t come begging for your attention with a failing grade.

At the end of the day, statistics tell us that you probably won’t end up with the class subjects you meet freshman year. Consider each of them a learning experience, but don’t get too hung up on any one. Many a new Billiken has started at SLU starry-eyed and in love with chemistry, only to find that it wasn’t going to work out. Foreign language classes, literary types, science and math courses may all catch your eye for a semester, but your career often ends up being in a field you gave the cold shoulder.

And there’s nothing wrong with that. College is a time to grow as a person, and when you’re constantly changing, how can you expect to find something you’ll stick with forever? Get out there and keep an open mind, and don’t let any one professor force you to give your life over to them. After all, college is about more than just classes, much less any one class. Keep an open relationship with your coursework and maybe you’ll have enough time for some extracurricular activities… You know, like actual dating.

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