It’s the start of the semester, so I had a look at the advice I give to undergraduates. It’s pretty good, if I do so say so myself.
During your undergraduate studies, I strongly suggest you develop a sustainable habit of reading, writing and searching the literature. Make an effort to become academically literate by familiarizing yourself with the resources that a university provides. Set aside time on a regular basis, preferably at least half an hour every day, to read some scholarly prose, to write a paragraph or two about something you know, and to use your library’s databases to find a relevant book or article.
Learn what paragraphs and references are and how they work. A paragraph takes about one minute to read, during which it supports, elaborates or defends a single, well-defined claim. It will normally consist of no less than six sentences and no more than two-hundred words. For everything you know, you do well to learn how to write a paragraph about it in under half an hour. This includes providing the proper references, which provide information about the sources you have used. You should learn the difference between the “in-text citation”, which you provide in parentheses within the paragraph you are writing, and the “reference list”, which goes at the end of your paper and provides all the information your reader needs to locate your source. Paragraphs and references are governed by convention, and part of being a good scholar (and therefore a good student) is knowing what those conventions are.
As a general rule, every paragraph has a “key sentence”. This means that every paper you write can be summarized simply by listing your key sentences. If you’ve written an eleven-paragraph paper, you should have made eleven key claims, each of which can be stated in a simple declarative sentence, and supported, elaborated, or defended by five or more further sentences. If you copy just your key sentences (one for each paragraph) into a separate document, and list them in order, they should make sense, separate from the paragraphs you have written. This “after-the-fact outline” is a good way to see whether you have produced a coherent line of argument in your essay. It’s also obviously a good way of keeping track of what you’ve learned.
One of the most important things to learn as an undergraduate is that “knowing” something in an academic setting is the ability to discuss it reasonably with other knowledgeable people. Your authority to claim that something is true stems from the reasons you are able to provide for believing it. In your studies, then, you are not just acquiring a new set of “truths”, you are learning how to support your beliefs with reasons, and how to discard them in the face of better reasons. All of this happens within a “conversation” among scholars we call discourse. It consists of everything that can be reasonably said (and written) about a subject, and since there are always arguments and disagreements among scholars, the discourse doesn’t just consist of true statements. That’s important to keep in mind. You will have to get used to being told that something you believe is wrong, and to telling others that they are wrong. One of the most essential functions of scholarship in an academic setting is to correct our errors in thinking.
In academia, we call people are who qualified to tell us we are wrong “peers”. You do well to keep a clear image of these people in your mind as you proceed. Think of them as the best and the brightest in your class, the most serious students in your cohort. Don’t always imagine yourself conversing with your teachers and examiners or their peers. One day, of course, you will begin to do so. In fact, your teachers are trying to make you into their peers — they are trying to qualify you to one day tell them that they’re wrong. It’s fine to experiment with this possibility, both in your thoughts and in your conversations, but don’t think that your teacher’s judgment is the only thing that matters. In your assignments, your teacher is testing your ability to converse with your intellectual equals, not with people who have read and thought much more about the subject than you have. Focus on the conversation you could reasonably have with students in your class, then, not the conversation you may one day have with a Nobel Prize winner in your area of expertise.
It’s not just about what you know but how you know it. Your discipline is defined by a set of theories and methods as well as a vast body of accepted facts. In every class you take, you will improve your understanding of them. But you will also improve your ability to discuss them, to participate in the discourse in your area of expertise. Your awareness of “the literature” will improve through your reading, and your literacy skills will improve through your writing. Keep track of your references — the ever-expanding store of sources you draw on to support your reasoning about the questions that you and your peers are trying to answer. Your theories and methods, too, have a history; and your sources — all those names and dates you invoke in your in-text citations — tell the story of the struggle of the people who came before you to make sense of the world in which we live. Using a theory and a method doesn’t give you any simple answers, nor any final authority. Rather, they frame your questions and ground your answers in a conversation with your peers, who know the same theories and methods on the basis of the same sources. Having that conversation is what a university education is all about.