Going out with a bang

How to make the most out of college

Some gifts are universally bad. The do-I-even-know-your-name present of scented candles, for example, or anything obviously purchased on the first floor of Urban Outfitters.

Even worse than these minor money-wasters, however, is a neatly gift-wrapped reminder of having disappointed your parents. My mom presented me with such a gift in the summer of 2001. It was a book. A book called Making the Most of College and she did not actually gift wrap it.

It’s not that the book is bad. It’s just that my mother gave it to me after my first year of college, after I had clearly, in her eyes, failed to make the most of anything. Unless you count the fact that I made the most of the number of 9 a.m. French A classes I could sleep through without the teacher forgetting my name.

Needless to say, I was less than enticed to read it. But now, in the bizarre introspection that spring semester of one’s senior year engenders, I picked the book up for the first time.

The author is a genial man named Richard J. Light, the Walter H. Gale Professor of Education at the Graduate School of Education. He is a cheerleader masquerading as a statistician, and the tone of his book began to convince me that maybe all was not lost. I could still Make the Most of something. But of what? And what does that even mean? According to Light it’s somewhere between getting your money’s worth out of the academic experience and being personally happy. In his surveys he asks people to rate both academic and personal happiness on a scale of 1 to 10. Making the Most, it would seem, means to score a 20.

The book itself scored pretty highly for Light and Harvard University Press (HUP). It has sold more than 90,000 copies since it was published in March of 2001—strong figures for an academic press, according to Kathy Duffy, a sales representative at Harvard University Press. I mentioned the book to at least a dozen people and everyone who graduated from high school after it was published had heard of it. Many had received it as a graduation gift from their mother/father/high school forensics coach. Several had picked it up on their own per the recommendation of Harvard orientation materials. It was unclear how many people had actually read it.

Which is where this little venture comes in.

Richard Light is perhaps the best possible person you could meet your first week in college. Constantly smiling, deferential without actually ceding the floor, he has more concern about the happiness of the chronically unhappy college student than perhaps anyone who is not running for a leadership position in a student council. He is complimentary about the most basic things—as if tying one’s shoelaces were something to be quite proud of. One of his first tips to students was that it’s very important to make an appointment before going to see a professor. I had made an appointment to see him. And my shoes were tied. I was on the right track here.

I explained my idea to him—I would take the recommendations in his book and try to apply them in a very short period of time. He did not take offense or say it was ridiculous. Instead, he helped me solidify my plans, which basically entailed him agreeing with the fact that everything he had written in his book was good advice.

The book weaves extensive testimony from surveys of Harvard students (all anonymous) with overall statistical analysis. Light’s intention is to situate his policy suggestions within candid accounts of student experience. He explores three major themes: academic success, how extra-curricular involvement affects happiness and the often-confusing way diversity works in both academic and extra-curricular contexts. College is not paint-by-numbers, of course, and Light’s book doesn’t pretend to prescribe a singular path to success. It does, however, include enough specific examples from student interviews that I could cobble together a roster of activities from the book for my two-week blitz. I would try and do everything specifically mentioned in the book and then improvise when only broad categories (i.e. athletics=happiness) were listed.

That was my plan. I was ready to optimize.

The (not quite) 10,000 happiest men (and women) of Harvard?

One of the most vivid examples of extra-curricular success in the book is used to illustrate the suggestion that “advisors should encourage students from their very first days on campus to find a group to join.” Light tells the story of a student who felt overwhelmed by the adjustment to college. Her adviser told his young charge that even though she couldn’t play an instrument, she should try out for the Harvard Band. “Just tell them you want to hold the drum,” he said.

So, true to heartwarming form of most of the anecdotes included in the text, the girl did sign up to hold the drum. She reported that joining the Harvard Band was the “single event critical for keeping her here.”

After reading the particular pro-Harvard Band passage in Light’s book, I decided I wanted to hold the drum too. I e-mailed Matthew H. Katcher ’05, the manager of the band. Unfortunately, he told me, Bertha—the 6-foot tall drum I’d been hoping for—would not be making an appearance until commencement. Instead, Katcher graciously invited me to play percussion with the band in an upcoming performance. He said I could play a bass drum, but Mindy E. Snitow ’06, the percussion section leader, suggested the cymbals. I think she called them “safer.”

In the band room, the world’s largest playable tuba stands guard in a corner behind the foosball table, taking up the entire height of the room. Katcher explains that there’s a larger tuba somewhere in Eastern Europe, but it’s in a museum, so this tuba gets the “largest playable” title. They play it every five years or so at band reunions. The band room, like many other student organizations, is decorated with aging, inside-joke ephemera and pilfered street signs. There’s a television and a soda machine (“the cheapest coke machine on campus,” Katcher notes—a soda costs $.50).

One of the most important things that the band room underscores—and that Light’s book sort of ignores—is the idea of a physical space as important to reporting a feeling of happiness (or a high grade on the 1-10 personal happiness scale).

Band members say they often just come down to the room to hang out. When percussion sectional rehearsal ends on Wednesday night, a small crowd trickles in to say hello. Within about 10 seconds people are playing foosball.

It’s fairly obvious that the feeling of community that students report as so important in “making the most” of college has something to do with, quite literally, having a communal space to call one’s own.

The news that Light’s book contains a glowing anecdote about band does not surprise anyone milling around in the band room in the basement of the Office of the Arts building on Mt. Auburn St. a few minutes before noon on a Saturday. It is pre-frosh weekend and a modest number of “bandies”—member of the band—have showed up to play in front of Byerly Hall in the hopes of getting some new blood.

Matthew C. Dewitz ’05, currently the drum major, explains that he joined the band after talking with a fellow flautist during his freshman week. “When you come and audition they just grab you because you get a jacket right away,” he says. “The social machine starts working immediately.” I look admiringly at the maroon band jacket that I am wearing.

Dewitz comped the Crimson briefly, but left it for the band room. On hearing that I’m writing this story for FM, he says: “We have a sympathy in spirit—like the over the topness.”

The bandies have a brief discussion of Guys and Dolls, the Cabot House musical. Someone points out that they dressed the missionaries in band jackets and everyone laughs. Band members talk a lot about how social the experience is—and being social seems to involve many activities contrary to what the Guys and Dolls missionaries were preaching. “We’re missionaries of music,” someone offers.

The only setback to playing the cymbals is that it takes two hands. I can’t take notes. And I’m so nervous that I can’t fully absorb the experience. I could be missing some crucial togetherness and community that making a unified sound creates, unity that transcends the loneliness and competition of college. But I am not unified. I am a beat behind and I keep missing notes. A bass drum player arrives late and squeezes in next to me in the concert shell (technical term for the vague semi-circle we are standing in). He was not at the sectional rehearsal I attended earlier that week and may or may not know what I am doing there. At one point I stand too close to him and his mallet hits my cymbal. He scowls a bit. I move back, sideways in the shell. All I can look at are the cymbals that first cymbalist Alisha Creel ’02, a local alum, is playing. They are, unfortunately, crashing just before mine do.

On the Garden Street side lawn of Byerly Hall the hordes of eager pre-frosh that Katcher and his companions were hoping for don’t arrive. There are a few young families, some little girls spinning around to “Ten Thousand Men of Harvard” and it occurs to me, happily, that they can’t tell that this is the first time I’ve ever warn this spiffy maroon jacket and tie.

At one point Joshua H. Rissmiller ’06, the student conductor, leaves his perch on a bench to warn me to be careful with the big cymbal crashes on a song called “Veritas.” I sit out the first round and then, feeling confident, go for a big crash when I see Creel ready to lean forward into one. I stop to congratulate myself on this triumphant sound—and promptly miss several more crashes. At this point, even the sundress-clad toddlers may suspect I am faking it.

After the Byerly Hall show someone decides that we should march through the Yard. Some bandies start to grouse. I guess not everyone is as totally, freakishly elated to be in a band uniform as I am. They, after all, probably wore theirs all football season. But the point was to play for pre-frosh, to recruit for next year, and so a Yard-jaunt seems reasonable. I have a stupid grin on my face the whole time. We play “10,000 Men of Harvard” which involves singing in both Latin and English. I am singing in Latin while banging cymbals while marching past the John Harvard statue while wearing a maroon blazer.

I give the day a 10.

Sink or Swim

In addition to my pedestrian dabbling in the arts, my plan mandated that I pursue some sort of athletic activity. After all, as Light reports: “While varsity athletes have slightly lower grades than average, they also are, as a group, among the happiest students on campus. They have many friends and feel closely bonded to the college.”

I could have watched a varsity sports practice, but I have always wanted to row on the Charles. I decided to count learning to scull for free with the recreational rowing program as my foray into athletics.

I walked into the deserted boathouse on a sunny Friday morning. On the walls of Weld Boathouse hang photographs of oarswomen of days of yore. They were not only making the most of college, but also of their deltoids.

Here is as close to intercollegiate athletic bliss as I got: sitting alone in a leaky wooden box anchored to the dock. This experience offered inconclusive proof as to the happiness factor of playing sports.

I used to know how to row, just like I used to know how to play the clarinet. But the band people wisely gave me cymbals to play instead of a more complicated reed instrument. And I figured the training-barrel is kind of like the cymbals of rowing. Seemingly foolproof. How much damage could I do?

Kind of a lot, as it turns out.

After dutifully watching me practice rowing in the leaky wooden training box/boat without too much trouble—at one point even saying “that was a perfect stroke”—my kindly instructor left me sitting alone in the box to practice some more while he went to attend to whatever pressing things one attends to in a completely empty boathouse.

A man with a camera strolled along the dock. “How ya’ doin’” he said to me. I don’t know why he asked. I was sitting in a sinking wooden box. I smiled at him and hoped he would trip and fall into the river.

I wasn’t really going to share this next part, because it is embarrassing and could potentially cost me money. But this is not about me and my personal shame. There is an important moral here: sometimes it is worse to have tried.

I fumbled my way out of the training-barrel and insisted that I was ready to try rowing in a boat that moves. I carried the oars down the dock and my instructor and I carried the wherry, or beginner sculling shell that is less-difficult to tip over, down together. He showed me how to get in and then sculled around in a circle, showing me how to turn and land on the dock. At this point, I just wanted to get it over with. I wanted to Make the Most learning to scull for free with a Harvard ID and a swim test card, to say something trite about how it made sense that athletes report higher levels of happiness because of the endorphins or groupies or secret handshakes or whatever.

To do all this, however, I had to get in the boat. This was a problem. The maneuver I had been shown was simple enough—one foot here, hand there, settle down on the seat and glide away. But I could not contort like that. It might have worked better if I hadn’t assumed that it would be easy. But when I finally got one foot in the hull and another clinging in a panic to the dock still, I decided to improvise.

I stepped into the boat where it made the most sense to me and not, say, where the instructor had told me to stand. When the wood crunched underneath me I knew I might start to cry. Embarrassing things rarely happen in isolation. I made hurried apologies and slinked away soon as I could. The instructor said I should come back when the director of the program was there—maybe he could show me a better way. But that will not happen. A more shameless magazine writer would plumb this experience to its metaphoric depths, but I prefer to move on. There are other lessons to discuss apart from knowing one’s limits or coping with disappointment or various notions of failure that may not fit into the Harvard paradigm. But the longer I write about this the more likely it is that I may be asked to pay for damages.

Office Space

The awkward thing about discussing the value of office hours while visiting a professor during office hours is that it puts some pressure on the conversation. If this is what we should strive for, face time, then what has to happen during that time for a transformative transfer of wisdom?

Light’s research offers several specific instructions for making the most of one’s academic experience: take small classes, if possible pursue one-on-one mentorships or individual supervised research, work in study groups, take writing very seriously and so on. But none of these things could be accomplished in a short period of time.

So instead I took a what-if tour through the office hours of eight of my current and former professors. We chatted about student faculty interaction, especially the emphasis on one-on-one relationships. Most people agree, of course, that mentorship is important, but that the emphasis on a one-on-one relationship that Light makes is not ideal for everyone.

“I don’t think forced intimacy is good. [You shouldn’t] force football players to meet the jerks they take courses from,” deadpans Kenan Professor of Government Harvey C. Mansfield ’53.

Few of my professors were familiar already with Light’s book, but I summarized the importance he places on really getting to know faculty well. Doing this made me feel a bit sheepish. After all, there I was several years later, having clearly not followed this advice.

The best office hour meetings were the ones with my professors from this semester. Not only did I find out that Yeretz Professor of Yiddish Literature and Professor of Comparative Literature Ruth R. Wisse used to work “40 hours a week” as the features editor for the McGill Daily when she was in college, and that Professor Louis Menand eschews outlines for academic writing, the conversations were, obviously, the most productive: we still have course material to discuss. Retroactive office hours are not as effective.

Rothenberg Professor of English and American Literature and Language Homi K. Bhabha, whom I talked to as the Chair of History and Literature, says he’s best equipped to talk about “making the most” of college from the perspective of a parent: his son, Ishan K. Bhabha, is a member of the class of 2004. “I really feel he has maximized his opportunities,” Bhabha says, listing off his son’s roster of college activities: “Classical music, radio, model U.N., a certain amount of inspired time wasting.”

This appreciation of his son’s experience reflects a sense most of the professors I talked to had about their students: the classroom is certainly not the place one “makes the most” of anything.

I called his son to ask if he agreed with his father’s assessment. The younger Bhabha says he is flattered by what his father told me. “I think I’ve really really enjoyed my four years here a lot. [ What he said] probably represents a congruence between me doing stuff that I’ve really liked and stuff that interested him. I feel like I have really enjoyed it.”

Pod People

In his book, Light includes many lengthy anecdotes from student surveys; the majority of them are about experiences with racial and ethnic diversity. Often the study of great literature is involved in the cross-cultural connections. So discussing how campuses capitalize on diversity is a clear priority for Light.

But for my project, the diversity angle was the hardest to address. Most of Light’s evidence reinforces the basic point that a diverse living situation is one crucial way for students to benefit from Harvard’s racial and ethnic diversity. His message to “campus leaders” is that carefully engineered first-year housing and randomization are crucial.

Because Light emphasized the importance of diversity in first-year living arrangements, I decided to reconvene my freshman year roommates to take advantage one more time of the idyllic mosaic of freshman year housing. Well, actually, roommates is not the technical term. I lived in the pod on the 3rd floor of Hurlbut my freshman year so technically the women I reconvened were my podmates. But that’s a word we like to use sparingly.

Gathered in the common room of Quincy 301 were: Jane Rhee, Thenjiwe N. Nkosi, Ingrid A. Liff, Alyssa R. Berman, Anne M. Morris, Eva Laier, Krystal C. Law and me. Missing was Jessica D. Murphy.

At first we sort of danced around anything substantive, talking instead about freshman year, housing woes etc., and then I realized that there wasn’t really anything else to say. The whole point really was that we were sitting there in the same room, on the same uncomfortable futons, talking gently around the issues of racial and ethnic diversity at Harvard.

People were not guarded—that’s not what I mean. It’s just that to articulate the meaningfulness of living in a diverse community with specific anecdotes (like Light’s students do) is difficult to do without descending into Passover-inspired schmaltz. (There are two separate anecdotes in Light’s book about Passover seders.) But generally speaking, sometimes it is good simply to be reminded of why a diverse community is good. Morris talks about how important it’s been for her to live in a large black community for the first time. For Laier, moving from Denmark to Cambridge gave her exposure to ethnic and racial diversity. “I came from a completely homogeneous society,” she says. “The only Asian people I’d ever seen were adopted Korean children.”

Ultimately we retreat to something safer to talk about: how there is no socioeconomic diversity at Harvard. We are all, it is fair to say, comfortable enough to be able to talk about this with the self-righteous indignation of the somewhat-removed.

I started the evening by asking if freshman year was the best (and perhaps only) way to benefit from diversity at Harvard, as Light seems to suggest. Had we missed the boat after our first year? The answer seems to be a disappointing yeah, sort of. It’s hard to recreate the ease of getting to know someone only because the Freshman Dean’s Office thinks you should—not for any other more self-conscious reason.

Seeing the Light

I have been Richard Light’s disciple for a few short weeks. That is nothing really. A select group of sophomores took a freshman seminar with Light last fall and have been working with him ever since, surveying students over all four years in college. I wanted to talk to them about what it meant to be thinking about how to make the most of college from day one. What sort of blissful collegiate euphoria did they exist in, having met Richard Light from the beginning of their experience?

When Light gives me the name of Kiernan P. Schmitt ’06 as someone to interview he proudly notes that Schmitt co-wrote this year’s Hasty Pudding Theatricals show. In fact, in naming eight of his research assistants whom I could contact, Light was able to tell me (correctly) where they all lived and what activities they did. When he talks about faculty working closely with students, this is what he means.

Later, when Schmitt himself tells me about his Pudding work, he credits Light. “It’s hard to say whether I would have gone through with it without Dr. Light’s advice about extra-curriculars, exposing yourself to opportunities outside the classroom.”

The five other former students of Light’s whom I speak with are equally grateful to him, and I understand why. He is a reassuring presence to have in one’s corner. For the most part, however, no one seems to think that life would have been drastically different for them had they not met Mr. Making the Most of College their first semester. They are perhaps more reflective than most, as they interview 10 students each semester about their Harvard experience, but it doesn’t necessarily translate into deliberate choices. In fact, several people say that sometimes good advice is nice to hear, but impossible to follow through on.

I e-mailed my mom the introduction to this story to make sure it was okay to talk about her (and my lack of gratitude) in print. Here is what she wrote back:

I don’t mind the reference to me-—it’s mostly accurate, except for the pointed reference to failure. I think “unhappiness” was the operative word which was clear to me and the condition which the book was to address and improve.

I like her description of “unhappiness” as the “condition which the book was to address and improve.” Like the panicked malaise of freshman year could be systematically treated with one Light-tip a day. But, in a way, my systematic channeling of his advice this month succeeds on that count. The whole premise of the book, and this story, was to purposefully do things that survey respondents say made them happy.

Light reports that students who do volunteer work (25 percent in any one semester) say that volunteering positively affects their “social life and overall satisfaction with college” and so I tagged-along with my friend Alice when she tutored pre-schoolers at the Fresh Pond Enrichment Program (FPEP). Watching a three-and-a-half year-old plant petunia seeds in a paper cup is incredibly adorable—certainly added to my “overall satisfaction.” Light also talks about how important writing well is to making the most out of college, so I spoke with Nancy Sommers, director of the expository writing program, who told me what I have known all along: deadlines are hard to meet. Her enthusiasm, however, and kindness make me almost want to start one of my term papers ahead of time this semester.

I went to a couple of talks, including a fiction reading where only three people showed up. This reminded me of all the professors I talked to who say that no one ever shows up for office hours. It illustrated, like the whole two weeks (and 4 years, really) have as well that there are these immense resources being totally ignored.

At the end of every interview for this story, I asked everyone what they would do if they had two weeks to make the most of college. Phillips Professor of History Laurel T. Ulrich, a former professor of mine, enthusiastically mentioned museums (“I’m high on museums” were her exact words). Dean Gross wrote in an e-mail that if he had just two weeks he “would attend all the talks and exhibits that take place here. Not to mention the Mather Lather.” Most people suggested some version of the same advice, essentially amounting to: “talk to people,” which I did.

The best advice came from Christopher J. Catizone ’06, one of Light’s former students and researchers. He said he was worried for me. “I would not get down on myself if I discovered things that I wished I had done four years earlier,” he says. “I’m not saying that the advice in the book will change anyone’s lives, but say it did. Say you just discovered all these things. That would be so sad. Be happy with your four years here. They were unique and good in a way that you should be able to give a 10 one way or another.”