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Braving Office Hours

My first week at a large university made it clear that my academic experience had changed radically. No more small classes and concerned teachers. As I sat in courses ranging from 70 to 400 students, I wondered if binoculars might be a good investment. I also decided that it was going to be up to me to meet those distant figures at the lectern.

That problem - of a literally long-distance undergraduate education at research universities - was blasted in a recent report by the Carnegie Foundation. The schools shouldn't try to duplicate small, liberal-arts institutions, it concludes. But they could dramatically improve by including undergraduates in research, and reconfiguring large lectures to promote "inquiry-based learning."

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No one can argue with that. Such change, where it is happening, is welcome (see story, right). But since it often comes slowly, any student going to a large university should know what I soon found out: that a commitment to attending office hours and lingering after class can go a long way toward giving the college experience a personal touch.

"US Relations With East Asia" was the course that spurred me to action in the spring of my freshman year. I loved the topic and the lectures. In high school, I had used texts by two of the professors.

I was also one of approximately 200 faces in the crowd.

In addition to wanting to talk with some of these luminaries, I needed help. I had been given a three-page required reading list. The list gave no hint as to priorities. So off I went to office hours for clarification.

The professor burst out laughing when he learned of my "naive freshman" mission. I wanted to leave - until he threw his feet up on his desk and said he would love to walk me through the course. His complaint? That more students didn't stop by.

It was time well spent. I got details on the merits of each book, some help prioritizing, a debate about term-paper topics, and the friendship of a professor who joined me at student-faculty dinners and wrote several recommendations over the next few years.

During my college career, I had small courses to balance my large lectures. A major in a small department - East Asian Studies - was also helpful.

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But initiative matters, too. Undergraduate access to professors is not impossible, even at a large school. I proposed a junior-year, independent study to another top professor in that freshman course - and he agreed to it. I was often surprised at how many professors would help me out - if only I asked.

* Write to: Learning Editor, One Norway St., Boston, MA, 02115, or e-mail

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