Binghamton University

Friday, April 18, 2014

Woven together

Recently, I was one of the hundreds of thousands of students asked to fill out the National Survey of Student Engagement. For those who don’t know, the NSSE is a questionnaire that’s widely used to measure the quality of college education across the country. It asks lots of questions about your university’s resources and about the things you do as a student. Some questions were easy, like “How many papers, reports, or other writing tasks of 11 pages or more have you been assigned this school year?” (Four, if you’re curious.) Other questions were harder—for instance, “During the current school year, how often have you combined ideas from different courses when completing assignments?”

After having discussed the concept of the parrhesiastes, a kind of truth-teller, in my Banned Books class, I’d written an essay for Humor and Film applying the concept to Charlie Chaplin. That definitely counted. But beyond that, things got murky. What if I had combined ideas from different courses for class, but not for a specific assignment? For example, I took Modern U.S. Women’s History as a freshman, and that course helped me to grasp fully that history, rather than being a bunch of events that fall out of the sky, is the pattern emerging from the things that millions of real-life individuals feel and do. This helps me understand everything in Blacks & Jews in American Culture in a more mature, nuanced way. I haven’t explicitly incorporated source material from Modern U.S. Women into any Blacks & Jews essays, but the way I’ve approached every assignment I’ve done for Blacks & Jews has been touched by what I gained from it.

Also, creative writing, as I’ve mentioned before, is a pretty fluid endeavor. If in one class we talked about the importance of setting, and that reminded me to pay more attention to setting when writing a story for another class, does that count? Last year, noticing my tendency to write really long sentences, a professor lent me a book (number nine on my list!) so I could read a work made up largely of long sentences written well. I’ve adjusted, or am adjusting, my writing to be more like the prose in the book. So am I applying an idea from that course every time I write anything?

And then what if I combine ideas from different classes just to give myself a better understanding of the world? Readings for both my independent study and Blacks & Jews have explored the idea that the U.S. is, distinctively, a nation based on the future and shared beliefs. My independent study is helping me learn how that differs from a nation based on history and shared bloodlines, while Blacks & Jews is giving me more perspective on how American peculiarities have played out within America. I’m not writing a paper or anything on this two-pronged understanding, but it still really matters to me—so should I count it for the NSSE?

This questionnaire came at the right time for me. For a while, I’d been feeling sort of like I’d missed out on some college learning. I’m pretty sure part of this is just anxiety about graduating (ONLY ONE MONTH LEFT AHHHHH). Part of it is that I really didn’t learn everything I would have liked to—I wish I could have fit in more Italian language classes, for example, and while I did learn from the individual classes required for the English major, I feel like they didn’t form a very cohesive whole.

I ended up putting down an arbitrary answer to the survey question, so NSSE, sorry for the low-quality data point—but thank you so much for asking the question in the first place. It gave me more perspective on the classroom parts of what I’ve learned at Binghamton. Yeah, there are parts of it that could have been improved. But I’ve taken some really great, mind-expanding classes, and over the course of my four years here, they’ve woven together to bless me with an education that is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Old and new mediums

The rumors are true. Sometimes, when you write a paper in college, you might need to use books as references. And some of those books may not be available in full text on the internet. And then, my friends, you are going to have to go to the library.

This happened to me last week, when I was working on a paper due today for my Banned Books class. It had happened to me before—needing print sources in order to write an essay is still, contrary to popular belief, kind of common, at least if you’re majoring in the humanities. But this weekend I discovered something new. If you go on the Bartle Library part of Bing’s website and look up a book, you can have its call number texted directly to your cell phone.

Not a huge deal? Okay, maybe not. But especially if you’re trying to take out multiple books, it’s a little bit less of a hassle than writing the number all the way out on a scrap of paper and then digging through half the shelf anyway because you realize you must have left out a number.

Thanks, Bartle—I know you’ve always got my back.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Writing by Degrees

This weekend I was lucky enough to be able to attend Writing by Degrees, an annual conference organized mostly by grad students in Binghamton’s creative writing program. I was really impressed by the work of the three guests at the fiction panel I sat in on, Mitch James, Cindy Keil, and James McAdams—like, gonna-go-Google-them-and-read-more-of-their-work impressed. I also learned a little more about how to get published (mostly: get used to getting rejected) at a publication roundtable with editors of literary journals including Bing U’s own Harpur Palate.

I attended both keynote addresses as well. Last night’s was given by Jill Bialosky, whom (to be honest) I’d never heard of before this. Now, though, having listened to her read from and discuss her memoir History of a Suicide, I think I’m a little in love with her writing.

Tonight’s keynote address, as well as a craft talk, was given by Stephanie Powell Watts, whose book, We Are Taking Only What We Need, I’d read for class last semester. I loved her book, so naturally I was really excited just to have the chance to hear her read from it in person. It was even cooler listening to her talk about her personal approach to the writing process and finding out some behind-the-scenes information about the stories that I love.

If you’re thinking of majoring in creative writing at Binghamton (or even if you want to come here and just like stories), definitely keep Writing by Degrees in mind. It’s aimed primarily at grad students, but it’s also an awesome way for undergrads to get an intimate peek into the “real” writing world.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

The most underutilized resource on campus

Last week, I got an assignment back in one of my creative writing classes, and I was surprised to find I’d gotten a B. The quality of my work, the professor’s comments said, was good, but it turns out that I had not followed the correct instructions.

We creative writing majors don’t generally see creative writing classes as individual pursuits for good grades or even specific knowledge. We all have our own fluid systems for improving our craft, and taking classes can be a part of those systems. The point of me taking this class is for me to learn to write better, so I redid the assignment correctly to see what I could gain from it. Then, hoping to gain even more, this morning I took the redone assignment to my professor’s office hours for review.

Office hours, for those who don’t know, are times that professors (or teaching assistants or whoever) sit in their offices waiting for students to go talk to them. Every professor has them, a lot of students don’t bother to go to them, and they’re actually super useful. You can go to office hours about anything related to your class. If you’re confused or falling behind in a class, go ask your professor or TA for help. If you think something you learned in class is cool and want to know more about it, go pick your professor’s brain. If you don’t have anything in particular to say but want the benefits of getting to know a professor (like a good recommendation letter or possibly insider knowledge about what’s going on in their department), go ask your professor what projects they’re working on. They will probably be super-flattered that you’re interested in their research or creative activities, and you’ll get to learn more about what goes on in academia.

I think the main reason students don’t go to office hours as much as they could is just laziness—very few professors ever require you to visit them, so you do have to be slightly proactive. Another reason is that some people might be intimidated by the idea of just going to a room and talking to a professor. It helps to plan things to ask and say ahead of time. It also helps to know that, for the most part, professors loooooove having the chance to build relationships with students. Think about it: you’re paying all this money to have access to experts in all different fields, and they’re really excited about talking to you. You have every reason in the world to go to office hours.

This morning, my reason was to get feedback to help me with my short stories. My professor gave me some really helpful feedback—he helped me realize some of the not-super-desirable tics I have when it comes to writing the beginnings of stories, came up with punchier ways of phrasing certain things, and highlighted the places where my voice was the strongest. He also bumped my grade on the assignment up to an A-. I’m telling you, office hours are almost always a win-win situation.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Days off

Even though I decided, in the end, not to drop any of the courses I’d signed up for this semester, I still have classes only on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Sometimes people assume this means I’m basically on vacation this semester, which isn’t really true—I’m doing the same amount of schoolwork as anyone taking 18 credits of class spread over five days a week. Still, I like my two-day-a-week schedule. Because I have four classes in a nine-hour period, I can really get into the mindset of taking notes and being part of class discussions. I have more flexibility to go home or visit friends on weekends (though not to go home early for breaks…thanks, RA responsibilities). Plus, having such big blocks of time free on the other days means I can schedule extracurricular duties and other things for days when I’m not worried about what’s going to happen in my next class.

Well, theoretically anyway. Sometimes things just pile up on a Tuesday or Thursday. Yesterday, for instance. Here’s what I got done immediately after my first class:

-Picked up a package
-Grabbed lunch at the marketplace
-Greeted prospective students at the open house as a Student Ambassador (nice meeting you guys!)
-Took the treasurer’s exam, a requirement for the president and treasurer of every Student Association-chartered group (which I should have done last semester…oops)

I then went immediately to my second class, from which I went directly to my third, from which I went directly to my fourth. Half an hour after that ended, I attended a reading by Nahid Rachlin, an Iranian author of one memoir, one short story collection, and two novels. I’ll admit that I went partly because I need to attend a certain number of readings for one of my classes, but also, Rachlin’s writing was so intimate and beautiful that I was very glad I’d gone to her reading instead of back to my room to sleep.

After the reading, I went to talk with a friend and then answered some emails. Then I was really tired, and really grateful that I had the next day off to relax, do homework, and plan out the rest of my week.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Things you can’t learn online

Today during RA training (yup, I’m back at Binghamton!), the Multicultural Resource Center gave a presentation. It involved a few different activities that touched on a bunch of topics, but one activity in particular stuck with me. This activity started with every RA being given a sheet of paper with moral-judgment statements about issues such as abortion, drug use, and corporal punishment. On the sheet, each person had to mark whether they agreed or disagreed with each sentence. The papers were then collected and redistributed so that everyone had someone else’s.

One side of the room was marked “agree,” while the other was marked “disagree.” When the presenter read one of the statements, each person had to walk to the side of the room that matched the way their paper had been marked for that statement. We then had to think through the issue from our assigned point of view and argue in favor of our assigned opinion. It was a bit of a sixth-grade-style activity, but hey—training is tiring, so presenters need to get creative to get us engaged.

Having us argue positions we may or may not have actually agreed with was smart. Not only did it make us see things from different perspectives, but it also prevented the arguments from getting too heated. At the same time, because we were using only the answers of the people in the room, it let us get a feel for what the people around us actually thought.

This training session reminded me of one activity we did back in my first-year experience course, during the unit on diversity. For that activity, the facilitator would say a sentence, and then everyone in the class had to stand by a sign reading either “strongly agree,” “agree,” “slightly agree,” “slightly disagree,” “disagree,” and “strongly disagree.” One sentence was something like “Women’s responsibility to be breadwinners is equal to that of men.” All the students—male or female—chose either “strongly agree” or “agree.” A lot of the guys had expected the girls to disagree, while a lot of the girls (myself included) had expected the guys to do so. Realizing that our assumptions about the opposite gender (women want to put the financial burden on men; men have a macho thing about making the most money) didn’t apply to the people around us, as well as finding out about other people’s assumptions, was definitely a good experience. Personally, I tend to get annoyed at forced-interaction educational activities. Even I have to admit, though, that stuff like this can sometimes be a part of what makes going to college a better learning experience than just reading a textbook or something, because it makes you think about things in a way that sticks with you.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Recommendations for recommendations

I have come to a conclusion: getting your letters of recommendation submitted is the most frustrating part of the grad school application process. Essays you pretty much have control over, and your resume you should have updated all the time anyway. But recommendations involve coordinating with your recommenders, and that can become difficult. Here are my tips to make the process go as well as possible.

1. Build relationships with people who can recommend you. As life advice, it’s good to build relationships with everyone, for tons of reasons, but for recommendations you want to make sure you’re building relationships with professors—even the best TA may not be considered a legitimate recommender in some situations. Also, be aware that some professors are really popular and get a lot of recommendation requests. If you have a particularly good relationship with one of them, go ahead and ask, but pay especial attention to the next tip.

2. Ask for recommendations early. Writing recs is time-consuming, and it’s not like anyone is required to recommend you. You’re asking someone for a favor, so be respectful of that person’s time.

3. Build relationships with more people who can recommend you. You never know when someone is going to leave Binghamton and magically become unreachable, or go on sabbatical somewhere, or have some big life circumstance change that otherwise prevents them from recommending you.

4. Ask in person. It’s friendlier and less awkward. Also, it shows you’re not just messing around if you accidentally end up asking on the late side, and it can help a professor who maybe doesn’t know you that well get to know you a little better.

5. Consider Interfolio. Binghamton’s CDC recommends using this online credentials portfolio. It lets recommenders submit letters to one place online, and you can distribute the letters from there (though of course you can’t read them). Personally, I find Interfolio to be kind of user-unfriendly, but it does save the recommenders some trouble, which is a thing you want to do. What’s really good is that it keeps your letters there for a long time—so if a professor recommends you for an internship during your junior year, let’s say, and then you want the same professor to recommend you for grad school, all they have to do to find their old letter is go to your Interfolio.

Good luck to everyone applying to college or grad school or anything else—it’s not fun, but we’ve just got to keep thinking that in the end, it’ll be worth it.


Binghamton University's Admissions Blog is written by current students for students considering, applying, transferring and enrolling. Here you will find real-life points of view and personal opinions about campus life, classes, faculty and more! The opinions expressed by the bloggers are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the university. So, if you want to read more about Binghamton University students, you've come to the right place.