Professor’s advice for making it in college? Common sense.

Paul McCord

I was, and I suppose I still am, that UT chemistry professor whose advice on the first day of class is, “try not to be a dumbass.” It’s OK, we’re all grown ups here, so let me elaborate on that theme. We all know what is meant by that word, and we know the negative connotation that it carries. I happen to like that word — it works for me. In the grand scheme of one’s education, avoidance of being a dumbass is, in fact, a major goal.

 We education types like to talk about learning how to learn and developing your metacognitive skills. You are going to hear that theme over and over in your college career. It is all true, and you should do your best to take that advice. I’d like to tack onto that idea that you also need to recognize and embrace your shortcomings. That is a nice way to say for you to know your inner dumbass self. The whole point of going to college is to learn and gain knowledge. It is very difficult to do that when your ego gets in the way and keeps pointing out just how smart you are. Befriending your inner dumbass will get you far. Those failures that so many hide in shame become notches in your belt that you wear with pride. Plus, the very fact you are willing to call yourself a dumbass in those situations shows that you have a sense of humor and don’t take yourself too seriously — that’s a good thing.

 This brings me to the part where you get knocked down but get up again — or maybe you know it as a song (thank you Chumbawamba). Athletes do this all the time … up, down, win, lose … you must maintain a positive attitude and push through the bad to get to the good. Your education will work the same way. You will have those classes that kick your ass. You will even probably make the dreaded dumbass mistake on a major exam. You know, the kind where you really knew the answer but then had some sort of brain fart and totally blew it. That is human, and to make dumbass mistakes is human. You must take that and build on it.

 You need to identify what went wrong. You should retrace your learning patterns leading up to that point. Plot a new course to better avoid such mistakes in the future. Lather, rinse, repeat. This is the process that will get you closer and closer to that metacognitive state of self-awareness. Know what you know and know what you don’t know.

 Seek help from others. Don’t be afraid of looking foolish. I’ve seen students guard their wrong answers like they are a precious thing that only they shall keep. Please put those things out in the open so that you can share and see the light. Let go of any shame in putting that answer out there. Just do it. Laugh about it and then learn from it.

 One more thing. College is certainly a place for discovery. Find your place, your joy –  not the one your parents carved out for you, not the one you just assumed would be a good choice. There are many paths to this destination. Some are longer than others and that is OK. Stay true to yourself and find your passion. Everyone at this university wants each and every student to be successful. Stay the course, try to not be a dumbass, and when you finally get there, you’ll be proud to raise your hands over your head and yell “hook ‘em!”

McCord is a chemistry professor.