Finding the calm in New York City. Photo credit: Teresa Brown
This year winter break has been a bit shorter than usual. Finals ended late in December and we returned early in January. While this schedule change has been due to the unusual circumstances of this academic year, having less time off from school has made me appreciate the time I do get all the more.
As students, we are often taught good study habits in the context of how to make maximum use of every hour we spend doing school work. We learn how to make flashcards, how to make study guides, what kind of problems to do to prepare for an exam and how to edit an essay. There is also often pressure to stay up late doing work, sometimes sacrificing sleep. Learning how to work efficiently and how to stay focused are no doubt valuable skills, but working at full-capacity for as many hours as physically possible is unsustainable for most people. Managing a college schedule, one where I spend fewer hours in the classroom but have more work to complete outside of the classroom, has taught me the value of taking intentional breaks.
What came before and what comes after aren’t always clear. Photo credit: Isabel Wong.
Registration always seems to sneak up on me, even this semester’s when the date was pushed back. As I juggled Core requirements and classes I’ve been eyeing since sophomore year, I kept circling back to one course in particular, Senior Seminar. In my very first post, I talked about why I ultimately chose to conduct senior research. The first leg of the journey behind me, I now must decide whether to continue.
My decision to end where I am was seemingly easy to make despite its rather unreliable basis. What made the decision easy was that, if I am completely honest with myself, I didn’t particularly enjoy conducting research this semester. This is not to say I didn’t enjoy Senior Seminar. I loved Senior Seminar. It was one of my favorite classes. The professor was enthusiastic and rigorous and understanding, everything you could want in a professor, particularly during a pandemic. Our seminar was quite small, and I genuinely enjoyed talking with my peers, hearing about their projects and lives. While I’ve had classes with each of them before, I now feel like I have genuine friends with whom I can eat lunch, stress, and rely.
Photo Credit: Glenn Carstens-Peters// Unsplash.
If I had a dollar for every time I’ve seen a STEM-major post in the Columbia Facebook group, asking for a Global Core that required only a short paper or no paper at all, I’d probably have enough money to afford at least 2 Joe’s Coffees, because wow, is that place expensive. Okay so maybe that didn’t have as dramatic of an effect as I was hoping for, but the point is, some STEM-majors really hate writing papers.
Cars gathered at the drive-in movie theater. Photo Credit: Isabel Wong.
Before this semester, I always thought of presentations as research’s final hurrah. Paper written, edits made, the presentation is simply the bow, the final flourish completing the package. As I’ve learned from this semester, that isn’t always, or even often, the case.
A couple of weeks ago, I found myself needing to give a presentation on a paper I hadn’t yet finished. Perhaps this is a typical predicament, but it was new to me. While I figured I’d limit my presentation to the portion of the paper I had done the most research and work on, I couldn’t simply read aloud those couple of pages. Despite being the most thoroughly researched part of my paper, the pages hadn’t exactly reached clarity nor coherency. Quotes from scholars, while there, were simply plunked in between paragraphs of my own writing, unattached and unanalyzed. I hadn’t gone back and edited the section, which sprawled across the page, repetitious and unnecessarily detailed.
Professor Emmanuelle Saada (Photo credit: Columbia University)
Professor Emmanuelle Saada is the Chair of Contemporary Civilization and Professor of French and of History at Columbia. She spoke with me in October about adapting to teaching the Core online, the direction in which Contemporary Civilization is headed, and connections between the Core and research skills. (This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.)
On the Core, online: We have thought long and hard about what it means for students to study and learn online. The first priority was to lighten the reading load because we know that many students are in difficult situations and that it’s difficult to study [during remote learning].
A second adjustment we’ve made regards the balance between the work that students do outside of class and the work that they do in class. Because Zoom can be frustrating, and because less can happen in the Zoom room than in a traditional classroom, we have developed forms of collaborative work that can happen outside of the Zoom room context: forms of collaborative work, like annotating passages or chapters of books together; preparing readings in small groups, in collaboration with the instructor. For the students to have a meaningful experience, more things need to happen outside of class.
We think about the Core as a community building experience. We want to create a sense of intellectual community beyond the classroom. We want students to be able to discuss Plato, Aristotle, all these important texts together, and in a normal year those conversations might take place over breakfast, outside of Butler, playing Frisbee on a Sunday afternoon. We really want the texts to continue to be part of students’ common experience. We don’t have this online, so we have created spaces for the students to collaborate together outside of class.
Days on Campus, April 2017. Photo credit: Teresa Brown.
A professor recently asked me if, when I was applying to Columbia as a prospective math major, the Core scared me. His assumption, a common one, was that as someone who prefers math and science, the idea of committing a significant amount of my undergraduate experience to courses in the humanities was not something I would be inclined to want.
Truth be told, I don’t quite remember what I thought of the Core before I arrived at Columbia. It’s one of those things that is hard to fully grasp until you’re immersed in it. Looking back at my application to Columbia College, I seem to have been most interested in the discussion based aspect of several of the required Core classes. Even if mathematics lectures were where I envisioned myself, I was intrigued by discussion based learning. Beyond broad characterizations of the Core, however, I don’t seem to have known much about which specific classes were required or what exactly I would learn. But, clearly, the idea of a required Core did not deter me from applying to or committing to Columbia.
photo credit: creative commons.
Isabel recently posted an excellent blog post about flowcharts: what they are, and why you should be using them. (I’m definitely trying that method out on my next long paper—thanks Isabel!) I’ve been thinking these days about something related, which came up at the first meeting of my department’s senior thesis cohort: when you’re doing a lot of reading, how should you take notes?
I think it’s worth being mindful of your note-taking methods even in a project that is shorter than a thesis. Taking notes may seem rote (couplet unintended), but it’s a skill like anything else, and it might take some practice to help you hit your stride. Earlier in college, I took notes exclusively in the margins of my papers. Even in in-class discussion, I would record my thoughts by continuing to annotate, rather than writing in my usual notebooks. I figured I was going to be looking back at the text I was writing about anyways, and it was too laborious to try to copy everything important out of the texts and into a separate notebook.
Finding one’s path. Photo Credit: Teresa Brown.
It’s the end of the semester. That point where it feels like the end is in sight, and yet there is still so much to complete before we can say we’re really finished. And, for a lot of us finals season means long essays and research papers.
In writing my final assignment for my thesis class this semester, a chapter of my thesis, I found myself completely stuck. I had some ideas, I had all of my primary and secondary sources, but I just didn’t know how to put words to my thoughts. I forced myself to get 6 pages of writing down, and turned in a preliminary draft. But I was unsatisfied.
Photo Credit: Columbia University, Eileen Barroso
One of the primary things Columbia College is known for is its “Core.” A set of requirements that all CC students must complete before graduation, parts of the Core resemble what might be described as general education requirements while other parts are courses specific to CC. How does the Core work and how much say do students have in deciding what courses they will take to complete the Core?
Photo credit: Sara Bell
One of the most daunting parts of research papers—and, admittedly, of college humanities courses at large—has been secondary reading. I had read journal articles for some classes in high school, but mostly for science classes: academic papers in the humanities were new to me, in particular highly theoretical ones. If you’re just starting out in college, or maybe taking an intense class in the humanities for the first time, you’ll benefit from being strategic about how you read. These tips carry through to humanities research, where secondary reading abounds.