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US Higher Education: A "Local" Introduction

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Beyond quality writing and high test scores, success at the college and university level requires students to be familiar with the rules of the academy—to respect the norms subscribed to by colleges and universities. Some of these rules are found throughout various aspects of the American "culture,"1 well beyond the walls of educational institutions; others are specific to educational contexts, and are meant to foster certain kinds of relationships between members of the academic community. These norms, in part, determine what is considered appropriate in the interactions the average student experiences during his or her studies, in big and small classrooms, in one-on-one meetings, in an e-mail, and even in instant messages and on blogs. Unlike other countries where students’ academic lives may be separate from their social lives, US universities typically offer a learning environment that combines both the social and the academic sides of the students’ lives by creating opportunities that combine both of these aspects.

This handout presents some basic concepts that may be unfamiliar to students who are starting their college or university studies in the United States. A few of the standards of US schools are identical to those found in higher education in other countries—but not all of them, particularly regarding interactions with professors and other instructors.

As with any cultural norm, something you feel confident about knowing could easily turn out to be quite different, leading to complications in your academic life. This handout covers:

  • A few common norms
  • A short academic glossary
  • Forms of address
  • Maintaining lines of communication
  • E-mail and websites
  • A few things to avoid

A Few Common Norms

There are a number of values and practices that are common throughout the higher education system. A significant number of these could be applicable to many workplaces in the US. As with any kind of community, you might find that some of the traits of the academic community can be contradictory from time to time.

It’s about more than a good job

While professional status is an important goal of many students, the instructors and curricula of the US university system place at least as much importance—if not more—on the more traditional goals of individual learning, the building of new knowledge, and the creation of an informed and well-rounded citizens . Reflecting this, undergraduates at many institutions are required to take as many as half of their courses in fields outside of their major, and much of the work that is done in most of these classes are not going to be immediately or obviously relevant to the job market.

Classrooms are often participatory

A number of undergraduate courses, particularly mandatory freshman-level courses, are conducted in large lectures halls where dozens or hundreds of students listen quietly to the instructor for an hour or more. Nevertheless, a good number of the courses that you will take are much smaller than this, and quiet is NOT the preferred approach. Instructors expect students to actively participate, asking questions and offering informed opinions and even openly (but politely!) disagreeing with instructors from time to time. Professors often assign readings where the students are expected to read and critically (to reflect on and evaluate what is being read) understand what is in the reading and not necessarily memorize the reading it. Part of showing that you have actually done the reading is to participate in class discussion. When students are talking actively about the subject matter of the class, instructors feel more confident that students are growing from passive recipients of information into individuals who are thinking critically and who are contributing to building knowledge. When you find yourself in such an environment, look for opportunities to speak up. Don’t be intimidated by perceived flaws in your English; instructors and students alike are interested in what’s on your mind, the kind of ideas you have and not the accuracy of your grammar and vocabulary, and definitely not your accent.

Students often collaborate

Participation happens in small groups as well as on the whole class level. Many instructors rely on small group work to break up class time, and peer review (getting and making comments from fellow students on papers/ assignments) to provide added perspectives and unique insights, and to give students practice with intellectual authority and responsibility. In moments such as these, be thoughtful about your collaborative contributions, and take your peers’ suggestions seriously. Some students who come from academic backgrounds that value the teacher’s role as the primary source of knowledge should keep in mind that it is part of their academic growth to interact with their peers in a productive manner.

Collaboration is limited

When it comes to term papers and exams, most professors ask students to work individually rather than in groups. Other than peer review, where problems are pointed out but the writer must come up with his or her own solution, evidence that others provided answers or wrote for you will lead to severe penalties. This includes plagiarism, which means taking other written sources or ideas and using them as your own.

Diversity is a strength

Diversity or the individual’s/the institution’s ability to accept difference regardless of the student/teacher’s country of origin, gender, age, social status, sexual orientation and spiritual belief is considered as an important cultural value in US colleges and universities. Respect for those from other intellectual positions is a priority for many instructors, as is respect for those whose gender, race, ethnicity, age, religion, language, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic position are different. Formal institutional guidelines allow instructors to deal severely with displays of disrespect towards others in the classroom.

Having said this, there are still incidents in classrooms where an occurrence of disrespect or marginalization is overlooked. This is sometimes done even by instructors themselves. If you see such an incident or are affected by it, bring it up with the instructor after class or during office hours.

A Short Academic Glossary

  • Add/drop: The time period in which students may register, or de-register, from a course. The term may also apply to relevant documents (such as an add/drop form).
  • Final: An examination (“exam”) administered at the end of a course, that usually (but not always) covers all the content of a course.
  • Mid-term: An exam conducted sometime before the end of a course. There may be more than one mid-term in a course.
  • Pass/fail: A grading option that is not based on traditional letter grades, but only a judgment of satisfactory or unsatisfactory work.
  • Pop quiz: A surprise test, usually only a few minutes long.
  • Progress report: A mid-semester notice of failing or near-failing grades.
  • Pre-writing: Activities done before writing, to help make writing easier and clearer. These include, but are by no means limited to, brainstorming, negotiating, outlining, and researching.
  • Reflective writing: Short, informal writing designed to help your thinking and your formal writing assignments.
  • Rough draft: An early version of completed writing. These drafts are concerned more with ideas and the overall organization rather than grammar accuracy. Most rough drafts contain grammatical and mechanical errors that will be improved in later drafts.
  • Term paper: A longer and significant piece of writing for a course, usually due in the middle of a semester or later.

Forms of Address

Instructors, advisors, and other authority figures that you encounter in the classroom and in administration all have their own preferred forms of address, that is how they would like to be called. A small number prefer formal titles (Dr. Last name or Prof. Last name), but many are more comfortable with the implied sense of mutual cooperation and lack of emphasis on hierarchical control that comes from using their given names (“first names”), and will feel uncomfortable if you use a title. This varies from instructor to instructor. Follow these guidelines:

  • When in doubt, ask. If the person you are speaking with doesn’t explicitly tell you their preferred form of address (although many instructors will on the first day), just say, “What should I call you?” or “How should I address you?” It’s a certain way to get it right.
  • Not all instructors are professors. Many of the instructors you will meet are graduate students who are working towards their doctoral degrees, but have not received them yet. In such cases, “professor” or “doctor” isn’t inappropriate, it’s inaccurate.
  • Who cares if she’s married or not? In recent years, women without a doctoral degree have shifted away from “Mrs.” and “Miss” toward the more generally applicable “Ms.” (pronounced “mizz”). Single men in academic and professional spheres are addressed as “Mister,” and after getting married they are still addressed as “Mister”— gender equality means that marital status is just as unimportant for women. Use “Ms.” unless the person is explicit about her preference for “Miss” or “Mrs.”
  • Titles are used only with family names. Some people will mistakenly apply a title to a given name (for example, “Ms. Nancy” for a graduate student named Nancy Krajenski). Addressing someone this way comes across as unusual, and even as a bit of a joke. Instead, use only family names (“last names”) with titles (“Ms. Krajenski”).

A Few Things to Avoid

  • Don’t lavish gifts. Gifts and their significance in the academic setting vary from country to country. While in some countries it is absolutely acceptable or even imperative to give your instructors gifts, in the US there is no expectation whatsoever on the part of instructors that they will receive gifts of any sort. If, however, you are inspired to give an instructor a token of your gratitude, do not give money or anything of economic value. In other words, keep it small and cheap. Anything expensive or extravagant might be interpreted by others as bribery.
  • Don’t lavish praise. Plain language is preferable, especially in personal communications. When you communicate with your instructors, avoid words that exaggerate their position like “sir” or “esteemed.”
  • Don’t be preoccupied with grades. Of course, grades are a vital part of your academic work and getting a job afterward. Grades, however, are only a symptom of deeper underlying performance. If you are concerned about your grades in a class, don’t ask the instructor how you can raise the grade; it’s better to ask about the weaknesses in your work, and strategies for dealing with those weaknesses. Once that is addressed, the grade will take care of itself. If you are unhappy with a grade, under no circumstances should you ask an instructor to revise it just because you want or need a higher grade. Instead, talk about specifics in your work that deserve more credit. Also, don’t wait until the last assignment to express your concerns about your overall grades to the teacher.
  • Don’t be late. Instructors by and large have very little tolerance for tardiness.
  • No cell phones. Put your cellphone on vibrate and don’t look at it during class times or in one-on-one conferences.
  • No need to ask to go to the bathroom. You’re an adult; just go. If you want to leave for some other reason, though, it’s a good idea to explicitly excuse yourself. If you can’t stay for the whole class period, tell your teacher beforehand, either by email or talk to them before class and inform them that you would be leaving early.

Remember that many universities maintain centers and/or offices dedicated to international students. Some of these student centers are autonomous, but some of them work through the office of the dean of students. In addition, many universities maintain tutoring centers, which are also helpful in addressing the needs of international students. These organizations exist to help you, so use them if you have questions. People who work in these places enjoy helping students adjust to their new lives in their schools away from home.

1Please note that the use of the term "American culture" is not meant to suggest that there is some monolithic, unchanging "American culture" out there that can be seen, visited, or that can apply to all Americans. Rather, the "American culture," like all national cultures, is an amalgem of various regional cultures and subcultures. The term culture, as it is popularly defined, is a rather problematic term.