Interview with author Jeremy Hyman
A Conversation with Jeremy Hyman, co-author of Professors' Guide to Getting Good Grades in College
Jeremy Hyman just stopped by. He's an author of Professors' Guide to Getting Good Grades in College. Jeremy, what is the Professors' Guide about?
It's a book about getting good grades in college, written from the perspective of the professor. The idea is that if students knew what professors were thinking about grades they'd be able to get really good grades -- A's, we mean.
Is it a 'study guide', then?
No. We don't advise students to study harder or expend more effort. It's a question of studying better -- of knowing the moments in the semester when grades are being won and lost, and marshaling your efforts to those 'grade bearing moments.'
What 'moments' are those?
The book is divided into five 'moments' -- the Start, the Class, the Exam, the Paper, and the Last Month of the Semester. For each of the moments, we give tips, techniques, and strategies designed to help students excel at the things that count for the grade.
At the start, it's a question of understanding the college grading system -- how it differs from high school. In the Class, we focus on making an intelligent selection of courses, and more important, taking really good notes once you're at the class. For tests and papers, it's figuring out what's really being asked -- focusing in on the structure of the question, figuring out what materials bear on an analytical and/or a research paper, and finally structuring your work so as to provide a logically organized answer. Finally, for the last month of the semester -- when most grades are won and lost -- it's important to keep up the motivation -- to not run out of gas just as the majority of the grade is being awarded.
Who are the 'professors' who wrote the book?
Mostly it's me and Lynn. Between the two of us we have taught at eight different schools in the last twenty years -- both of us at the University of Arkansas; she at Vanderbilt, Cal State Northridge, the University of Redlands, and NYU; I at MIT, UCLA, and Princeton.
That's a lot of schools -- you guys sure move around.
Some of them were as graduate students, we were TAs.
Were any other professors involved in the writing?
Yes. For motivational tips, which were beyond our competence, we invited 'visiting professors,' psychologists in particular, to write what are called 'gray boxes.' We also invited colleagues to submit 'extra pointers,' interesting or illuminating anecdotes, and even opinions of their own. Also, at our website we're inviting input from all members of the university community -- professors, deans, and of course, students.
What was it like working with Lynn who, I take it, is your wife?
At last look. No, seriously, it was something great. We've been together for about 30 years now, but had never done a collaborative project. I learned that we had very different work styles: Lynn is a wonderful writer, but also is very disciplined -- eager that our brainstorming for each chapter be completed by Tuesday evening of each week -- no extensions! I, on the other hand, was somewhat more (intellectually) impulsive -- waiting for ideas to gel, then lunging at them when they did gel.
What would you say are your best tips in the book -- the créme of the créme?
There are so many. The book is 368 pages and is brimming over with tips. But if I had to pick two, they would be 'conspire with the professor' -- he or she really would like to give you an A and really will give you an A if you involve him or her in the construction of your ideas ...
Like discussing, and helping you forge your work in office hours, in discussion sections, in e-mail communications, and through his or her comments on your written work. This is one of the places in the book where we show you what's going on 'behind the curtain' -- what the professor is really thinking in the office hour and what he or she is really meaning in the written comments. And we give specific hints about what the student can do about it -- what to say (and not to say) in an office hour, how to make best use of the written comments, and most generally, how to use the myriad of cues the professor offers up both in the lecture and without, to help yourself get realty good grades (we still mean A's).
Any other "4 star" tips?
Yes. "Adjust your attention span to that of the lecture" -- most students, addicted to the internet, TV, and various i-tune devices are used to receiving content in 3 to 5 minute gobbets -- or 3 to 5 second parcels. With the result that they have the attention span of a newt. The professor, on the other hand, is used to constructing his or her lecture in 2 or 3 segments -- each lasting 15 or 20 minutes. It's not surprising, then, that students zone out, or at least fail to capture the salient points of the lecture; and come the test time, have a set of lecture notes that look like moonscape, rather than a faithful transcription of the lecture.
Do you guarantee A's to any student that follows your tips?
No. We're professors, not magicians. But we have graded over 10,000 students (between Lynn and me), and we have seen hundreds of students move from B's to A's (and even a good, if smaller number move from C's to A's). Also, even if a student can garner only a single A -- or move from a C to a B -- that, too, can be a very important achievement. Success breeds success, and a very great -- and far-reaching sense of pride can accrue to even a single good grade -- a true mark of achievement.
What sort of response, if any, have you received from other professors? Have you shown your book to any?
The response has been surprisingly positive. The most common response we've gotten is -- much to our surprise -- that the Professors' Guide isn't really, or primarily about grades at all. It's really about learning: the tips we give, colleagues say, are really about how to learn well -- how to take good notes, how to anticipate and construct imaginative test-questions, and how to use course resources, library resources, and internet resources to construct really thoughtful papers. Of course, we still maintain that it's a self-help book about grades.
Yes, Some professors have thought "students are too geared up about grades (so why rev them up more?); another thought that "college is supposed to be about learning, not gaming the system and playing the professor"; and still another thought that "it's somehow 'unbecoming' for professors to be talking about this sort of thing."
And you think ...
That students have a right to know how their work is being evaluated (and could do better if they did know). And more important, that the university should be rendered more transparent: that we professors should go to greater lengths to 'rationalize'; the grading system and then to demystify for students the more rational system.
Why would that be good?
First, students would learn better: they wouldn't get C's just because they sort-of knew what to do (but not really); or because they were a first-generation, or minority, or returning student, and didn't really know what the 'code' was. Grades, in the end, are the 'currency' of college. And everyone should have a fair chance to earn that currency.
Where do you see Professors' Guide being in, say, five years? Could there be other Professors' Guide volumes?
The Professors' Guide to Getting Good Grades in College is intended to be the platform volume in a broad variety of Professors' Guide- branded products. Concurrent with the rollout of the book, we're planning an interactive website which we hope will morph into a 'community of communities' site -- a place where students at particular universities and particular courses can talk with their professors about how to get good grades. In the end it's about the interface between individual professors and individual students -- that 'moment of truth' when professor's intellect and student's intellect engage (or don't) in pursuit of learning. That's what grades are really about.
Did you have a hard time finding a publisher. We hear that's sometimes difficult for a first-time author?
For those who believe, nothing is difficult. We showed the project to 35 publishers -- each one turned it down for a different reason. Some thought it was too narrow (better to have a college survival guide); others thought students weren't really interested in grades, or didn't read any books that weren't assigned by the professor; still others thought that the tips would never work (for how could there be one set of tips for all universities). But we knew better -- we had seen students clamoring for help. I remember one time Lynn came home, after an afternoon of perhaps 10 minute meetings with beginning students, saying that students were amazed at how powerful, and helpful, even brief tips could be -- that the 5 minutes of directed help was the most important thing they had learned in college to date. And another time, when Lynn had said in lecture that students who weren't sure what the thesis of their paper should be, shouldn't B.S. their way through, but rather should come to see her, during an office hour. That afternoon, in the 90- degree heat in Nashville, the line of students (there must have been a hundred) extended from Lynn's office door all the way back to the parking lot. So I knew there was call for such a book.
There's been a lot of news about college, lately. How, if at all, do you see your book as fitting into American society more generally.
One issue that's received some play lately is the exploding increase in applications to (and enrollments in) colleges -- I read recently that the number of applications to the University of California, Berkeley, has increased by something like 14%. In a time of increasing enrollments, often without commensurate increases in faculty size, self-help, do-it-yourself materials (such as our book) are going to play an increasingly important role at college. Another dimension of our book that bears some societal importance is its emphasis on developing good analytical skills -- learning how to think clearly, write clearly, and discuss intelligently. Barely a day goes by when some CEO in the Wall Street Journal isn't lamenting the poor preparation college students often come with.
When we were writing the book, we had to gather blurbs -- those twenty word expressions of praise that go on the back. We got a note back from Richard Bolles, author of the wildly successful What Color is your Parachute? book, which said that he had always thought that the skills you learned in college were the skills you use in life. So in a sense, our book is the gift that keeps on giving.
If you could sum up the book for a student in one word, what would it be?
YouCanDoIt! (we will show you how).
That's four words -- you, can, do, it.
Not if you say them fast enough.
Thanks for stopping by. Good luck on your book.
It's been a pleasure.