How to Succeed in College (While Really Trying): What Jon B. Gould Knows

Jon B. Gould, professor of law and social scientist has written a practical and no-nonsense guide for students. He answered some of my questions about it and some other things.

June 20, 2012

In a world of countless books that tell students how to get in to college, there are far fewer that help students once they’re there (beyond reminding them to bring quarters for laundry). Jon B. Gould, professor in the Department of Justice, Law and Society at the School of Public Affairs at American University has culled a life’s worth of wisdom based on experience and observation and compiled it into How To Succeed in College (While Really Trying). A previous practicing lawyer and staffer on two presidential campaigns, Professor Gould was kind enough to answer some of my questions about his new book via email.


John Warner: There’s a whole host of college “advice” books out there. How do you see yours as different?

Jon B. Gould:  By my count, there are well over 50 books advising high school students on how to choose and get admitted to college.  Once students arrive at college, however, there are far fewer that provide advice on how to succeed there, and almost none written by the very person who will teach and grade them.  This book attempts to take the mystery out of college from the perspective of a professor, so that students can get the most out of their time and investment.


JW: To be honest, looking at your profile as a lawyer, social scientist, and teacher, on paper you’re not someone in higher ed who looks like he has a lot of day-to-day contact with undergrads, and particularly not first-year students. What was the origin and/or motivation for the book?

JBG:  I like to teach.  I have taught college for more than 21 years now, in positions as varied as a teaching assistant, adjunct, term instructor, junior professor, and now tenured full professor.  I’ve taught at small, liberal arts colleges, large state schools, and things in between.  Along the way, I’ve found myself often emailing students with similar advice, instructions, and admonitions about how to do well in these classes.  I mentioned this once to a friend who is an editor, who suggested that I sit down and compile those thoughts into a book.  Easier said than done, but I’m pleased that the book is out.  One thing students sometimes miss is that their professors really want to see them succeed at college.  It sometimes mystifies us that too many students come to college either not recognizing what is expected of them or unprepared to meet the challenges that will await them.


JW: I’m interested in the fact that you spill some secrets that aren’t necessarily “dirty,” but are the kinds of things universities aren’t normally putting in the brochures, things like professors may not be primarily focused on teaching, or the use of adjunct labor. Why do you see these sorts of disclosures as important for students?

JBG:  A lot depends on the type of college students attend.  My goal here is to help students get the best education they can.  I don’t disparage adjuncts, and in fact there are some adjuncts – like the retired congressman who occasionally teaches a course – that add greatly to a student’s experience.  My larger point is that students should take the time to vet the quality of their instructors when choosing classes.  Read previous student evaluations, download a copy of the syllabus, even go talk with the instructor during office hours.  With tuition running the equivalent of $5,000 per class at some schools, students should be more actively involved in guiding their education.


JW: There’s also some straight talk like on grade inflation or why students shouldn’t be “grade grubbers.

JBG:  Plenty has been written about grade inflation, which in many ways comes down to the pressure that students feel today to “succeed.”  More and more, I see students who envision their grades as a measure of their self-worth.  It really pains me to see this, even if I understand its origins.  As I try telling students, what will eventually get you out of bed each morning in “the real world” is whether you enjoy what you’re doing, whether you have had a chance to interact with people you like and admire, and who feel the same about you.  By the time you hit your second job after graduation, no one will care what your GPA was in college.


JW: In “Choosing a Major” your advice is for students to gravitate towards what interests them. I agree, but to play devil’s advocate, or the governor of Florida, given the state of the economy and employment prospects, shouldn’t they be looking at STEM degrees? Do the liberal arts really have role today?

JBG:  By all means, if students have interests in the STEM fields, they should pursue them.  And, we should be doing a better job of introducing students to fields they might not otherwise have considered.  But, in the end, no one can command your interests.  I love politics; one of my good friends manufactures medical equipment.  While I’m relieved that he does that, not only would I be miserable in his field but I would be terrible at it.  As long as creativity, critical thinking, and communication skills are required in the world, liberal arts will have an important role in preparing the next wave of leaders and innovators.


JW: In a lot of ways, this advice is timeless. I could’ve benefited from it as a college freshman in 1988, but I’m curious if you think there any particular or specific challenges this generation of students is facing?

JBG:  A recent study decried the limited time that students today spend studying.  Although I have concerns about that too, I think the bigger problem is how students actually use their time. Raised on a diet of Twitter and texting, they — like many of us — want fast-paced entertainment and thrill at multitasking. Yet as we know, studying is rarely entertaining, and recent research indicates that multitasking is a recipe for inefficient and ineffective results.  


JW: This might be beyond the scope of your interests or knowledge, but do you think there’s anything different high schools could be doing to better prepare students for college?

JBG:  Funny, I just gave a talk on this at a bookstore in my hometown.  I would distinguish between preparing students academically and with life skills.  On the former, the two most important skills are excellent writing ability and experience in large, multi-step research projects.  I have yet to meet a student who writes well but cannot reason well, and both skills are essential for college.  Large research projects also teach students how to manage time and employ facts and data in order to convince others.  On the life skills side, students need greater practice in assuming personal responsibility.  Helicopter parents need to ground their aircraft and encourage their children to take more ownership over their lives and the consequences thereof.


JW: Let’s say I granted you omnipotent Provost power and you could dictate the curriculum for first-year students, what would it look like?

JBG:  Actually, I think many schools do a good job with the first-year curriculum.  I’m a big fan of freshmen seminars – anything that brings students together in close-knit learning environments in which they are encouraged to test out new ideas and gently pushed to consider multiple perspectives.  I think a number of schools are beginning to realize that the greater challenge these days is sophomore year – the time before students delve deeper into their majors but when the personal attention of the freshmen seminar has faded.  My pet peeve is the large lecture class, which wrongly envisions education as a one-way process with passive recipients.  If I had an unlimited budget, I would eliminate large lecture classes from college campuses.


JW: Early in the book, you discuss how college is “worth it.” Will the same statements hold up ten years from now? Fifty years from now?

JBG:  I certainly hope so.


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