Best Practices for Students #5: Know the System

Universities are complex. Needlessly complex. The modern university represents an accretion of over a thousand years of tradition – why else do you think you are expected to dress like a medieval scribe for graduation?

A lot of students try to navigate blindly, responding to the sometimes almost random demands of the system, hoping at any given moment to find someone – anyone! – who can tell them what the heck they’re supposed to do next. Although a lot of schools offer study skills courses to their incoming students, few offer a college survival course to help students figure out how everything fits together.

And it’s far from self-evident – even the vocabulary of the university is weird: there’s registrars and proctors and bursars and provosts and… Who are all these people, and what do they want from you? And more to the point, what are they there to do for you?

Because that is, after all, their job: to facilitate the process of getting you educated. It’s crucial that you learn how the system works at your school, not only because it will help you make smart decisions about your education but because it will help you plan for your life after college as well.

For instance, do you know the difference between an adjunct professor, an associate professor, a visiting professor, an assistant professor, and a full professor? In the classroom, the difference is negligible: they are all people with a strong background in the disciplines they are teaching, and while a full professor might have more experience than an adjunct (or not – some people adjunct their whole lives while pursuing other, non-teaching work) they’re basically all able to provide expert instruction in the topics they teach. But full, assistant, and associate professors are full-time employees of the school, while visiting and adjunct professors are temporary – visiting professors are usually on a fixed term, while adjuncts are hired each semester or year on a short-term contract. There’s a good chance that an adjunct or visiting professor won’t be there a year or two after you graduate – which might matter quite a bit if you decide to go on to graduate school and need recommendations. Full professors, on the other hand, tend to be the senior scholars at the school – tenured, with several publications, and well-connected in the field; a recommendation for a graduate school, scholarship, or job from a full professor will probably carry a lot more weight than one from an adjunct.

It’s important that you make sure you have strong connections with the senior faculty in your department – which doesn’t mean you should avoid the junior and temporary faculty, but it does mean that you should be careful about making strong ties only with junior scholars. A little research on the department website or in your class catalog will reveal the rank of your professors – it doesn’t hurt to check into them a little.

Likewise, ask someone – perhaps your advisor – to help you figure out what all the bizarre job titles you’re confronted with mean in the real world, or look them up on the Internet. Take an evening and actually read some of your college handbook to see what the different divisions of the school are and who the important players are. Call offices and see what they do. The point is to find out what the university has to offer you and how to take advantage of it, rather than settling for whatever services you happen to come across.

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