The scariest portion of any job application is a little section that should be simple: references. For many people, I'm sure, the reference section is the easiest. You just shoot off an e-mail to your favorite couple of professors and bosses and ba-da-bing, references done.
For me, and for people like me, the reference section is incredibly daunting. It is awfully easy to go through your entire Duke career without ever really getting to know your professors well enough to ask them to write a letter about your good qualities.
It is well nigh impossible to get to know professors in large lecture classes-the teacher-student ratio is simply too unbalanced.
In smaller seminars, it is obviously a little bit easier for teachers to learn names and faces. Nevertheless, it is often still difficult for the professors to really get to know their students' strengths and weaknesses.
Now, I know that many people get to know their professors, even in large lectures. They talk with them outside of class, ask questions they didn't want to ask as part of the group and come to their professors when they need help.
I was never one to meet with a professor outside of class unless absolutely necessary. Instead of inspiring me to go in for extra help, poor grades inspired me to work harder. That's just the kind of person I am.
And I am not alone. Instead, I am one of a type, sharing the same gene as those who refuse to ask for directions even when hopelessly lost.
In short, the fact that many of us struggle to find someone to write us a letter of recommendation does not reveal whether or not we are smart, hardworking or engaged in a subject. It does reveal that we are do-it-yourselfers rather than help-seekers, but somehow I do not think that is what future employers and graduate schools are looking for when they ask for letters of recommendation.
Duke needs a more formalized system through which students and faculty interact with and learn about each other. So far, I have focused on a practical effect not knowing faculty might have on our career or educational futures. But not knowing whom to ask for letters of recommendation is not the worst outcome of our current system.
Last semester, I decided to write a distinction paper in English. In so doing, I had to choose advisers to help me through the process. Meeting with my two advisers is a simple necessity because composing a thesis is a new and very challenging endeavor for me, and I honestly need the help. What's more, my advisors are actively engaged in my work; even at this relatively early stage, our meetings have proven invaluable in this unfamiliar, scary experience.
Through these meetings, I have come to realize how beneficial face-to-face talks can be to the learning process. I cannot simply decide not to participate one day and avoid their eyes, a trick familiar to anyone who's taken a seminar. Instead I must come ready to engage every time I go to their offices.Sometimes my ideas take a little bit of a beating, sometimes they are praised, but they always seem to come out better for it, and I know that I am learning a great deal about researching, writing and working.
I am sorry that I missed the opportunity to work with faculty in this manner earlier. Duke's current curriculum features too few occasions when students and faculty must meet one-on-one. The only required meeting occurs around this time of the semester, when we must meet with our advisors to receive a PIN in order to register for classes.
Most advisors, I think, make a good faith effort to guide their students towards a timely graduation, but many professors simply do not know all of the requirements necessary to graduate. They are not the most logical people to be advising us on our course selection, and the 15 minutes spent with them each semester is not really sufficient to create a connection.
We need to increase individual student-faculty interaction. Each of us can try to meet with our professors more, but the University should also provide more opportunities. I doubt the efficacy of increasing faculty-in-residence; having a professor in the dorm my freshman year made little difference. A real solution would have to be more sweeping and academically focused. Requiring lab time or independent studies or even adopting a tutorial system would greatly enhance the quality of our education, and it is time for the University to further consider these options.
Jordan Everson is a Trinity senior. His column runs every Wednesday.