By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published August 8, 2022
I am convinced that Southern students and educators will spend less time in Purgatory than perhaps any other breed of either pupil or academic. Anyone who has to go back to school in August endures penitential suffering.
Yet return we do, and this fall—if August can be termed fall—I mark my own autumnal rite of passage by beginning my 30th year as a college professor.
I have already discovered that one of the temptations of middle age is a compulsion to share with others what you have learned in decades of experience. I also realize that most people don’t want to hear it!
In all seriousness, however, after a long career in higher education, I have developed a deep sense of vocation. I truly believe that my work as a teacher, writer, scholar and public servant represents a unification of mind, body and spirit and therefore compels me to share with others what I have learned. This is a classic interpretation of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” as well as a response to Christ’s “Sermon on the Mount” from St. Matthew’s Gospel.
My sense of calling also stems from other examples of what we call a desiderata, a list of things to be desired or needed. There are many classic examples of desiderata; perhaps the most famous, and one well known to Catholics, is the prose-poem by Max Ehrmann from 1927. It has been included in Catholic devotionals for decades and is almost always sold in Catholic bookstores. You probably know it even if you think you don’t; it begins “Go placidly amidst the noise and haste and remember what peace there may be in silence.” I actually discovered it in the bookstore at the monastery in Conyers right at the time I began my college teaching.
Another famous desiderata is found in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in Act I Scene 3, when Polonius addresses his son Laertes. Laertes is going abroad, and before his departure, Polonius gives his son several excellent bits of advice, among them “neither a borrower nor lender be,” “give every man thy ear but few thy voice,” “apparel oft proclaims the man” and—most beloved—“This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” Though Polonius can be a meddlesome windbag, his intentions are sincere, and the wisdom he offers is universally relevant.
The University System of Georgia is as fallible as Polonius, yet it too has good intentions. This fall semester, campuses are particularly concerned about new freshmen, the incoming class that has been shaped by two years of pandemic upheaval. These students have unique needs and anxieties; they also have developed remarkable skills of coping and adapting. Yet as the product of an especially challenging high school experience, they need empathy and attention.
Five pieces of advice
In the spirit of both a Catholic sense of vocation and a respect for the desiderata tradition, I want to offer a few insights that may help students as they adjust to their first year of college. I will limit myself to five pieces of advice; after all, even Polonius says that “brevity is the soul of wit.” Also, I write from the perspective of a professor. There are other highly qualified University System staff who are experts in all aspects of student life. Regardless of the college you attend, whether in-state or not, I particularly encourage you to listen to those who work in mental and physical health services, from counseling centers to clinics, and student organizations to recreation.
First, go to class. Show up. The old maxim that eighty percent of success in life can be achieved simply by showing up is true. My college dormitory room was like a prison cell; yours probably resembles an extended stay suite. At any rate, get out of bed and go to class. Truth be told, I say this as much to myself as to you. I’ve got early classes this semester, too. Yes, you can Google everything. Yes, your professor probably posts notes and other materials online. Yet there is no substitute for being in the company of others, in a shared endeavor. Even if you only listen, be there. If you do contribute to discussions, have respect for other perspectives. Try to sit up front, or in the back. I have been in school my entire life, and I have learned that those in the front and the back are the ones who most often get noticed.
Second, get to know your professors. Make this a habit. On the very first day, after class, introduce yourself. Most professors will love this. Professors could be doing just about whatever they please, but they’re teaching because they care about people, and they care about helping you. A simple introduction means the professor knows your name. Then they get to know you. Then you might have a mentor, and mentors become among the most important people in your life. Mentors help you get things done. Further, the line between an A and a B, or a B and a C, is often drawn because the professor knows who you are.
Third, do more than required. Read a little beyond the syllabus. Write a bit past the required word count. Trust the freedom to use your own ideas. Embrace the opportunity to learn for the sake of learning. Follow the implicit advice of the best professors and learn from them how to teach yourself. In all things—even those subjects you may not like—learn to think objectively as well as subjectively. Don’t accept everything at face value. Ask questions. The Catholic novelist and essayist Walker Percy implores us to wake up, pay attention and seek.
Fourth, go easy on yourself. We all make mistakes in college. We all fall short sometimes. Sometimes, we fail. You have been through some tough times. Ehrmann reminds us that we all have a place in the world; that God is in control whether we know it or not, and we should therefore try our best to be “gentle, at peace, cheerful.” We should, in short, “Strive to be happy.”
Finally, seize the independence and autonomy afforded by college to not only be yourself, but grow into yourself. Stay true to the values you cherish. Try to practice your faith. Most campuses have excellent Catholic Centers or Newman Clubs. Forget about the baggage of high school cliques and pressures and try to explore new interests. You’re young, and your tastes are still developing. Nurture and explore while you can. Be a part of your campus. If you can work on campus, do it. I worked all through college as a campus garbageman, dining hall food runner, groundskeeper, and eventually a research assistant. All of those positions enhanced my identity with the campus.
The great American writer—and Catholic—F. Scott Fitzgerald opens his masterpiece “The Great Gatsby” thus: “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.’”
In 30 years of college teaching, I have sadly watched so many students take for granted their opportunity for an education. I hope that if you read this, or someone in your family texts or emails it to you, that you will at least try to live up to the privilege you have been given. And if you’re coming to my campus, look me up. I would be honored to meet you. I’ll even let you buy me a coffee before my early class.
David A. King, Ph.D., is professor of English and film studies at Kennesaw State University and director of RCIA at Holy Spirit Church, Atlanta.