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On Your Mark:
Getting Better Grades without Working Harder or Being Smarter


152 pages,
ISBN: 0771574657


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Universities & the Higher Flattery
by Michael Clarke

Probably the last thing the world needs is another tedious book on the idea of the university. Certainly it's the last thing that the world's students need. For the difference between what higher learning should be and what it is is so great that students who let the idea blind them to the reality are more likely to fail than to succeed. Or at any rate that is the view of David Kinahan and Harry Heft, in a book that promises, only somewhat ironically, to give students the secret of improving their grades "without the sweat of working harder or the inky mess of tampering documents."
Now, to be fair, the authors never promise to work miracles. Instead, they offer advice to the reasonably diligent student who wants to turn those sluggish B-pluses into zippy A-minuses. She might, if she's particularly adept, even learn to elicit an extra bit of enthusiasm or sincerity in a letter of reference. Such distinctions can make a world of difference in the increasingly intense competition to gain entrance to graduate and professional schools.
Part exposÚ, part how-to manual, On Your Mark undermines the myth of objectivity in undergraduate education and teaches the newly disenchanted how to take control over a certain grey area that exists in all college grades. Since that grey area is in the power of the person assigning the grade, Kinahan and Heft focus on the student's relationship with his instructor. The key to the mastery of academic fortune, we learn, is to understand the role of subjective factors in the assignment of grades. Writing with considerable wit, the authors provide some helpful pointers about the thought processes, working conditions, and marking strategies of the average professor. More to the point, they offer some practical hints on how a student can use this "inside dope" to her advantage.
On Your Mark provides clear and sensible advice on a whole range of topics that might be loosely described as "academic etiquette". Kinahan and Heft apparently share more than a decade of teaching experience at various universities. Add to this their years as students, and it seems clear that they know what they are talking about. Although they over-dramatize when they promise to show "how to negotiate the political minefield of college and university education", their book offers younger students the capacity to understand in a very short time all that the authors have learned and understood in all those years (with much hair loss, to judge by their photos).
There is a chapter on strategies for the classroom, which gives sound advice on seating strategies, attendance, body language, and participation. There is a chapter on encounters with the professor outside of class, which covers the office meeting, the chance meeting, and the phone call. Most of the advice is the sort of thing any reasonably diligent or perceptive student would figure out eventually: go to class regularly, sit up straight, try to ask questions that show you've prepared at least a little bit, don't pester the prof. Kinahan and Heft clearly want to save students the pain of learning those lessons the hard way.
On Your Mark also contains a sensible chapter on how to get the most out of essays and exams, a hilarious account of the care and feeding of teaching assistants, and some thoughts on how to distinguish yourself in correspondence courses, where the greatest problem the student faces is relative anonymity. This last chapter should be of particular interest to students who find themselves caught up in the rush to move to on-line and other forms of distance education.
Nothing is beneath the authors' consideration. My own favourite bit of advice concerns that notorious tooth-pull, the end-of-term visit to the pub: "Never", the authors caution potential revellers, "be the person to instigate this small celebration because it won't be appreciated by your professor. If you must go, then sit as far as possible from her at the table. That way it will register with the professor that you were actually there, but you will not be associated, in her mind, with the excruciating quality of the evening."
The book is full of this sort of thing. Kinahan and Heft write in a humorous and ironic style clearly meant to purge their readers of whatever lingering respect they might have had for academic life in the wake of Maclean's rankings and pitches from college marketing-officially known as "admissions"-departments. University students are increasingly encouraged to conceive of themselves as consumers of a product provided by the university. As practised consumers, they have long since learned to laugh at consumer culture, even as they rush to buy its products. From a certain point of view, Kinahan and Heft's book is an ironic and irreverent guide for the savvy consumer of education, waking her up to the fact that, all the cheesy neo-gothic fašades notwithstanding, she's really just engaged in a series of transactions no different than investing in mutual funds. Better know the ropes.
I don't want to belabour this matter. After all, there's a lot to be said for the mutual funds industry. And much of what On Your Mark says about academic life is true, however painful it may be to admit it. Besides, the book's very irony may itself be ironic. The authors warn their students repeatedly that the arts of flattery-and that's ultimately what their advice comes down to-are doomed to fail as soon as they become visible as flattery. The successful practitioner of their methods, it is clear, is the effortless flatterer: the student who can draw on her reading to make an intelligent point or ask a probing question, the student who prepares for his meetings with professors so that they will be productive and interesting, the student who shows evidence of taking her course assignments seriously. Yet the objects of all this flattery-the professors-are presumably expert practitioners of it themselves. Considerable energy is thus required to be a successful flatterer. Ultimately, the strategies Kinahan and Heft advise won't work unless the student puts effort into her studies and shows some respect for other members of the university community. There's a chance that in doing so she might catch a glimpse of the fact that university life is more than simply an exchange of cash for credits.
Kinahan's and Heft's advice, if followed conscientiously, might end up making students serious about their studies after all. For those capable of understanding this, they have written a very useful book. 

Michael Clarke is a post-doctoral research fellow in the department of political science at the University of Toronto.

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