I offered a few thoughts on Twitter recently about advice to students looking to enroll in classes. It became popular advice, and then some people added nuance or qualifications, so I thought an extended discussion here might be warranted. While I teach at a law school and think specifically about that, the advice can work well for higher education generally.
1. Take the professor, not the course. In my seven years of higher education, I never regretted a course I took with a professor I liked in an area outside of my specialties or interests; and I’d say all of my least-favorite courses came in courses I felt like I “had” to take or “ought” to take for one reason or another. The quality of the professor often makes or breaks a course. In my conversations with students about their favorite and least favorite courses, it usually turns on naming the professor rather than the contents of the course.
There is a risk that this becomes some kind of cult of personality around faculty. But I do think we are inclined to learn best from the people we best understand, or whose teaching style is most interesting to us.
There is a risk, too, that we ignore courses that are essential for our major or for an area of legal practice. But I don’t worry too much about that (but it does give me some pause). For one, if you like all the faculty in a different area—criminal law when you want to be a corporate attorney, for instance—maybe you picked the wrong field or the wrong school…. And there are some courses that are simply unavoidable, often because they are required. And there are courses I really value taking as courses I felt would help my career—federal courts and criminal procedure in anticipation of my clerkship, for instance (even though I did like the professors!). But I advise students to be cautious when thinking about course selection.
2. Find courses with writing and substantial revision requirements. Who hasn’t been the student relieved that they have no exams and only paper courses? But school—particularly, again, I think of law school—is a tremendous opportunity to improve one’s writing ability without the pressures of, say, a demanding client or boss frustrated with your writing ability! Writing opportunities, then, are terrific places to improve this craft. But it’s not just dumping words onto a page at the end of the semester. Find courses that also include revision requirements—a draft due early, a professor’s feedback about the piece’s strengths and weaknesses, and an opportunity to improve it. In law school, this is an essential component of legal research and writing. But finding such opportunities in the upper-division curriculum requires you to seek them out—and requires faculty willing to incorporate draft revision in the syllabus rather than simply expecting some paper at the end.
3. Pick a schedule with course times that help your self-discipline. I loved 8 am courses in school. In college, they helped keep me on a disciplined schedule and ensured I didn’t skip breakfast on my meal plan. In law school, they kept me and my wife (who worked) on similar schedules. I liked morning courses because I paid attention best then; I liked doing homework in the afternoon. I liked scheduling classes every day because it forced me to get into school every day to study. In short, I found out what worked best for me and made sure I planned schedules around it. Too often, it’s tempting to develop schedules around what is convenient. Convenience may be important, but self-discipline—developing habits that will help you avoid your own weaknesses or temptations, like procrastination or laziness—is crucial to future success.
4. Do not assume an elective will be offered next year: take it now. You’re looking at the schedule, and you see a neat course with a professor you like. But it’s an inconvenient time, or it runs up against a requirement in your discipline, or whatever it is. And you think, “Well, I’ll just take it next year.” Don’t do that. Don’t! Schedules are fickle things. Faculty lateral to another institution, go on sabbatical, visit elsewhere, take parental leave, or retire. There’s a deficiency in another area, so faculty give up the elective to help teach something else. Research interests shift. Low interest means the course isn’t offered again. There are a thousand reasons that there is no guarantee that next year will allow this course to return. So take it now (if you can).
There are of course many, many factors to consider when scheduling courses. (Many on Twitter have been suggesting other considerations, too.) But these are four of my most common pieces of advice and things that can help improve one’s experience.