Each of these tactics will help you make full use of the personal freedom and tremendous learning resources that a four-year college provides.
(This section is adapted from the appendix of College Without High School, entitled “Uncollege”. Note that I used this term prior to program now called Uncollege, and the author Danielle Wood used it before me.)
Skip Unproductive Classes
If a college course stinks, just skip it. You’ll run into a few such classes on your way toward any major. Get a friend to deliver homework assignments (or find them online), show up for mid-terms and finals and learn on your own.
I wouldn’t state this seemingly obvious tactic if I hadn’t seen so many UC Berkeley students sit through hours of mind-numbing lecture (most often in the math and sciences) where the professor essentially read from the textbook. Auditory learners benefited, perhaps, from this rote lecture, but the majority of students sat there because they thought attendance were mandatory. It wasn’t.
Lower-division, lecture-heavy classes with 100+ students rarely give grades for attendance. The chore of taking role is simply too big for the teaching assistants. If a class does require lecture attendance, you’ll find out in the first class or the course paperwork. The vast majority of classes provide lectures for your optional benefit only.
What is the alternative to learning via lecture? Some students can learn directly from the textbook. For the rest of us, let’s first ask what a lecture is supposed to accomplish. Ideally a lecture walks you step-by-step through the logical train of a subject, pausing to answer common questions and illustrate difficult ideas along the way. You can reproduce this on your own schedule.
- Download the lecture via webcast (if available) and fast-forward to specific parts.
- Find web tutorials on specific subjects (if written by graduate students, they tend to have excellent quality).
- Join or organize a study group with other students.
- Supplement the textbook with higher-quality books, e.g.the Feynman Lectures on Physics for introductory physics.
- Use professor and graduate student office hours (discussed in more detail below).
Unlike lectures, weekly class discussion sections (one-two hours) are typically mandatory. Go to these.
Custom-Design a Major
I kicked off my uncolleging life by designing my own major, and it was the best thing that I ever did for my education. Major design is more of an option for liberal art and soft science majors (like literature, history, political science, psychology and art). The hard sciences (like math and engineering) typically have rigid curricula that make self-design difficult.
At UC Berkeley, I wanted to combine two years of math and hard science (my astrophysics background) with a future two years of alternative education history, philosophy and pedagogy. The IDS (Interdepartmental Studies) department initially gave me bad news: they only customize majors by crossing one liberal art with another – not a liberal art with a hard science. And per departmental requirements, they would also require me to take an additional three mysterious Interdisciplinary Study classes. No thank you! Don’t give up at the first gatekeeper.
After a week of pushing, probing and generally making myself a nuisance, an IDS secretary tipped me off to the program that I was looking for: the Independent Major. This unpublished program, which enrolled seven students out of Berkeley’s 20,000 undergraduates, let students design a major from scratch. The program’s office was an IDS advisor’s file cabinet. I walked into this advisor’s office and, after asking how I found her (!), she told me what I needed to draft for the Independent Major: a proposal letter and a course list. Additionally, I would need two Berkeley professors to sign off as my advisors and eventually grade my required senior thesis paper. Within three weeks I researched and wrote my proposal and course list, had them signed off by two favorite professors and filed to officially change from Astrophysics to the Independent Major. The whole process took no more than two months.
You can discover your own major design options by searching your school’s website or walking into the office of the Interdisciplinary Studies, Interdepartmental Studies or similar department. What you’re looking for may be a hidden sub-department; ask around and don’t be afraid to approach deans, chairs, provosts or any of the other esoteric officers of your college who may hold the key to your success.
Take Professors to Lunch, Chat up Graduate Students and Seek Advice from Seniors as a Freshman
The vast majority of college students don’t talk to their professors or graduate student instructors outside of lecture and discussion sections. This makes competition for one-on-one time with these potential mentors incredibly low. An uncolleger uses this fact to go straight to the intellectual heart of college by tracking down professors, grad students and experienced older students for guidance, inspiration and insight.
- Start with dream map questions.
- Do your homework (investigate targets’ accomplishments and research interests).
- Walk into the office (you’re an enrolled student, after all – no need for cautionary e-mails or phone calls).
- Be brief (30 minutes max).
- Ask for follow-up e-mail permissions.
- Actually follow-up within one week.
It may take change of scenery to get your grad student or professor to open for a real conversation; to that end, take them out for coffee. College towns are loaded with coffee shops, and a $4 latte is unquestionably worth an hour of picking a particle physicist’s brain.
If you’re a freshman, find a senior in your intended field of study to act as an informal mentor. Smart seniors often hang out with grad students and professors, and you can meet them at department colloquia (these are also good places to meet graduate students and professors). Colloquia are one-two hour presentations given by local or visiting researchers, typically followed by a snacking-and-socializing event. Look for the person who looks youngest in the room (most likely to be an undergraduate), introduce yourself and ask about her research interests. Ask who the best and worst lecturing professors are, ask why she chose this field and what she intends to do after graduating. And once you’ve got the ball rolling, you can pop the question: can I have your e-mail address to ask you more questions about this major?
Exploit Pass/No Pass, Independent Study and Thesis Options
In all but the most rigid majors, you have a wide variety of elective options. Want to learn about ecology as an English major? No problem. Spanish as a Statistics major? It can be done. But elective classes that you take out of interest – not as a part of your major program – are less fun with the looming threat of a bad grade. The solution is to take these courses ungraded, a.k.a. pass / no pass or pass / fail. Often you can take up to 1/4 or 1/3 of your total units as pass/no pass. Alternatively, you can also use such classes to take the weight off your schedule if your other courses are sucking up more time than expected.
Independent study and senior thesis courses are two options for doing serious self-designed work in college, and they also give you units in your major field. They typically require only a sponsoring professor and a written proposal on your part. Ask your major advisor about doing either, because often these opportunities go unpublicized.
Join High-Level Research Projects
The distinguishing factor between universities and colleges is where on the totem pole a school places research (of the high-brow academic variety). At a university, professors are researchers first and teachers second; at a college, they are teachers first, researchers second. And in community college, teachers are typically only teachers.
If you’re a university student, at some point without fail you’ll hear this line: “This professor stinks. They don’t care about teaching here, just doing research.” And chances are good indeed that you’ll run into university professors who indeed are terrible lecturers – but prolific researchers. Don’t moan. When life hands you researchers, make research.
Research is the cutting edge of academia where intellectual breakthroughs are made and papers are published. Researchers work in groups, typically one or more professors with a handful of graduate students. These groups will have two needs: inducting new talent into their circle and finding free help with field research, data crunching and other time-intensive activities. This is where you, the undergraduate research assistant, fit in.
You have two options for getting your hands dirty in a real-life, high-level research project: the front door and the back door.
The front door is university-sponsored undergraduate research programs. These programs will match you up with a research project of interest and take care of the paperwork. Search your university’s website for its undergrad research program and see what they offer. The potential downsides of the university-sponsored program are competition, red tape and the fact that not every research group registers with the undergrad research program.
The back door is the uncollege door. Find a particular research project that fascinates you and show up at one of its grad student’s offices. Say that you’d like to make yourself useful. And if they don’t have a place for you at first, offer to get coffee or make photocopies.
Getting your foot into a high-level research group is like getting an internship at a desirable enterprise: because you’re new and untested, you’ll have to first prove that you’re dedicated to the project. No self-respecting research team will let you get coffee and make photocopies for a year. They’ll take pity and start giving you real research tasks. And then you can begin to make yourself indispensable, and the biggest research opportunities will follow.
Intern, Volunteer, Work and Study Abroad
Opportunities for interning, volunteering, working and studying abroad abound in college. You can spend a semester in Patagonia, volunteer in Costa Rica or apprentice as a stagehand for a summer. When sponsored by your college, adventures like these can be financed by your financial aid.
My friend David found a particularly valuable internship opportunity during his undergraduate years. David studied engineering at Northwestern University under a university-sponsored co-op program with Caterpillar (a.k.a. CAT, the company that makes the giant yellow construction vehicles). He alternated between semesters of academics at Northwestern and paid internship work at the CAT headquarters in Peoria, an hour away. David’s dream is to build an ultra-efficient, clean-burning car engine; the co-op program gave him the real-world experience necessary to jump straight into his desired field after graduating.
Teach a Course to Other Undergrads
Finally, the grandest uncollege tactic (and perhaps the most challenging) is designing and leading your own college course in which other undergraduates will enroll for real credit. Self-initiated courses fit the uncolleger personality perfectly. Designing your own course demands a passion and deep knowledge of your subject, a willingness to confront professors and college administrators and a desire to share your insight with others. The savvy uncolleger, by junior or senior year, is highly qualified for the job.
Starting your own course requires a lot of paperwork and hoop-jumping, but the payoff is worth it. In 2003 I created a course on critical education theory called Never Taught to Learn with a friend. The following semester I led the course myself, followed by a short personality typing course. Each of these courses forced me to learn more about my subject than I would have in self-study.
The most difficult part of starting your own course is having the framework for it in the first place – only a handful of colleges have student-run course programs. But these colleges can help you start a similar program at your own school. Search online for SIC at Stanford, the Experimental College at Tufts and Oberlin, USIE at UCLA. The oldest and best program to consult is De-Cal at my own alma mater, UC Berkeley.
If you can pull it off, teaching your own class will be grandest college adventure possible.
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