During his 30 years of teaching at New York University, James P. Carse saw it all: eclectic students, fiercely competitive faculty members and the inner workings of a major university.
“The university is the noblest creation of Western civilization,” says Carse, a retired professor of history and religious literature. That belief, along with his lifelong fascination with Socrates, led Carse to set his first novel, PhDeath: The Puzzler Mysteries, at a major university in New York. (Intrigued? There's a free book release party happening Nov. 17 at 6:30 p.m. at The Mysterious Bookshop, 55 Warren St.)
As the title suggests, Carse’s book is filled with clues about the death of a newly appointed dean whose passing was assumed to be a suicide until a mysterious note in the form of a puzzle is sent to faculty and students. Everyone then sets out to become amateur detectives trying to crack the case.
During his time at NYU, Carse was enormously popular among students and academics alike, with many undergrads signing up to get on the waitlist for his courses. His 1987 book, Finite and Infinite Games, was considered particularly influential in his field.
However, throughout his teaching career, Carse often encountered students who were either too shy or intimidated to create meaningful relationships with their professors. We asked him for his tips on how students can overcome that fear and make the most of their college experience.
Avoid emailing when possible
While email is a quick and easy way to get in touch with an instructor, it’s important to keep in mind that faculty members get countless messages each day, says Carse. “So they’ll answer in the quickest way possible, and it’s not really a meaningful exchange. There’s too much nonhuman presence in it.”
Face-to-face meetings are better
Instead, be sure to stop by a professor’s office hours or ask if you can meet them for coffee somewhere on campus. “The ideal relationship between a professor and a student is a conversation,” Carse explains. “One thing everyone needs to understand is that professors chose to be in the profession of teaching, and teaching is part of a conversation that is very large and is between the professor and the subject and the student.”
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Many students say they are particularly afraid to approach a professor when they don’t understand something, or worry that their interpretation of a theory or reading is wrong. “But the main mission of a university is to teach ignorance. What I mean by that is that a teacher does the best job when they make students aware of what they don’t know,” says Carse. “So if a student says ‘I don’t understand’ or ‘I am confused by this,’ if a person’s a real teacher, they will help the student work out the problem.”
In fact, Carse says that a sign of a good class is when students start thinking further about the topic and are able to look at it in new ways. “The conclusions come later,” Carse says. “You should leave a classroom with a lot of questions, and then continue that conversation with your professor.