266. The Secret Syllabus

Students transitioning from high school to college, especially first-generation college students, are thrust into a new environment for which they are often under-prepared. In this episode, Jay Phelan and Terry Burnham join us to discuss strategies that students can use to successfully navigate the hidden curriculum of college.

Jay is a biologist at UCLA and the author of What is Life? A Guide to Biology. Terry is a finance professor at Chapman University and the author of Mean Markets and Lizard Brains. They are the co-authors of the international bestseller Mean Genes. They have also recently published: The Secret Syllabus: A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of College Success.

Show Notes

  • Hertweck, K. L. (2014). Mean genes: From sex to money to food: Taming our primal instincts, by Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan.
  • Phelan, J., & Burnham, T. (2022). The Secret Syllabus. In The Secret Syllabus. Princeton University Press.
  • Charles Plott
  • Vernon Smith
  • Brickman, P., Coates, D., & Janoff-Bulman, R. (1978). Lottery winners and accident victims: Is happiness relative?. Journal of personality and social psychology, 36(8), 917.


John: Students transitioning from high school to college, especially first-generation college students, are thrust into a new environment for which they are often under-prepared. In this episode, we discuss strategies that students can use to successfully navigate the hidden curriculum of college.


John: Thanks for joining us for Tea for Teaching, an informal discussion of innovative and effective practices in teaching and learning.

Rebecca: This podcast series is hosted by John Kane, an economist…

John: …and Rebecca Mushtare, a graphic designer…

Rebecca: …and features guests doing important research and advocacy work to make higher education more inclusive and supportive of all learners.


Rebecca: Our guests today are Jay Phelan and Terry Burnham. Jay is a biologist at UCLA and the author of What is Life? A Guide to Biology. Terry is a finance professor at Chapman University and the author of Mean Markets and Lizard Brains. They are the co-authors of the international bestseller Mean Genes. They have also recently published: The Secret Syllabus: A Guide to the Unwritten Rules of College Success. Welcome, Jay and Terry.

Terry: Hello.

Jay: Thank you. Good to be here.

John: Today’s teas are:… are either of you drinking tea?

Jay: I’ve never had tea in my life, I’m sad to say… or coffee. But in the spirit of caffeine, I’m having a Diet Coke.

Rebecca: A very popular choice on this podcast for sure. How about you, Terry?

Terry: British mother, a lot of tea in the house at times, but very little in my body.

Rebecca: [LAUGHTER] We’ve got tea deniers around here, John.


John: As usual.

Rebecca: I have a black tea blend today. It’s just called All India Tea.

John: That’s a new one. And I am drinking ginger peach black tea.

Rebecca: So we’ve invited you here today to talk about The Secret Syllabus. Can you tell us a little bit about how the book project came about?

Jay: Sure, I’ll start. I was thinking about this because earlier today I was looking at what I think of as maybe the origin document, and it’s from about 25 years ago, it was maybe 1997. It’s a document, it’s 136 pages long. And it’s this collection of emails and other student interactions that Terry and I had had over the years where students are sincerely trying to get stuff that they want. And they, more often than not, go about it in completely the wrong way. It’s either unprofessional, or maybe it’s rude, or maybe it’s just bizarre, or for whatever reason it’s not likely to get them the outcome that they want. And at first we’d laugh at them. But after a while you start thinking, “no, this is kind of tough for them.” It caused me to look back to the 1980s, where I had been a student. And I had been a very promising student coming in from high school. I had done well, and then I got to college, and I just was a terrible, terrible student. And I got bad outcomes. And it was all a big surprise to me, because it just was a different world than I had expected, and I was not equipped for it, sort of those two things together. Terry and I’ve talked about this and laughed about this a lot, but finally it came to a point where we said, “well, we should be doing something about this, we should at least try to help them.” And that was maybe how the ball started rolling, but it had a long, long gestation time.

Terry: Right, I would add to that… idea is to help students be more effective, when in this sort of promotional view… work half as much get better outcomes, and outcomes are not just grades, but grades are important. And as Jay noted, both of us came from great undergraduate schools and we both stumbled. We ended up getting masters from MIT and Yale respectively, then our PhDs from Harvard. And you might think that we had no troubles as undergraduates, and we did. So almost everybody has a problem adjusting to college, even if they end up doing fine. For me, I’m going to admit that I vandalized a lot of classrooms at the University of Michigan. So I sat in these classes with up to 400 people, I usually sat in the back. It looked to me like the professor was like a little puppet down there on stage, and I felt completely disconnected. And these old wooden desks that you would bring the arm down on, and I wrote on those in my days of discontent, “Frodo lives,” “Frodo lives.” I scratched it into the wood. I went back and taught there many years later, and there were still some of the desks [LAUGHTER] that said “Frodo lives” in there. And I took a semester off from school, and anyway, so almost nobody has a dip when they get to college, and it’s not for the fact they’re not smart enough. It’s because they don’t understand the world of college. And having noted, literally now thousands of students who have had the same problems that we had, and sometimes worse, thought we would write a book to help students.

John: So you came in with a lot of advantages and experienced trouble, but many of our students come in and don’t make it through. And that’s especially true for students from low-income school districts where they’ve had few resources and very little college prep in terms of the coursework they had or guidance in terms of how to be successful in college, and many of them are first-generation students. So we’ve got all these students who come in, they borrow a lot of money, and then they end up without a college degree and a huge burden of debt. Would a book such as yours help these students in learning to adjust to the new culture that they’re suddenly being thrust into?

Jay: Well, that is certainly the hope, I’ll tell you. I’m a first-generation student, and my parents are both very smart, and I think could have done college, but they didn’t. And when I grew up, we were extremely poor. I had never been out of Northern California. I’d never been on a plane when I applied to college, I had to apply just sight unseen, and all of that. And I think that was a factor maybe in why I struggled so much when I first got there was that I didn’t have a world of people around me that that was just part of their life, “Here’s what you do, oh,” or “here’s how you struggle,” or “oh, here’s the story about how I figured out how to take notes or I figured out what my major was going to be,” …any of those things. I had no idea that those obstacles even were laying ahead of me. I had succeeded in high school, but I had done that, I think, just through brute force method. I put in the hours studying, I didn’t know how to study, but I put them in, and I did well. I had very lame interpersonal skills with the teachers, but they were a little bit less lame than the other students at my school. Together that allowed me to get through and even to get the message, “Hey, you’re okay, you’ve got it figured out. College might be harder, but just use more of the same.” And I at least now I think coming from that perspective, it makes it a little bit easier for me to get inside my students’ heads and realize the struggles that they’re maybe going to have. Terry talks about sitting in the back of the classroom and vandalizing the desks. For me, I wish that I had gotten inside the classroom. But the idea that I was somewhere that nobody was checking up on me, I would walk to where the class was, and then I’d hang out outside, I talked to friends or I’d just sit out there, and it was this very empowering act that I was in charge. And that for me led to most of the problems that I wasn’t even in the classroom. And I had this idea then that the teacher was just going to smash me down to show me that they were in charge or something like that. It was all misguided, but I think a lot of that came from, as you say, John, that I had no background, this was completely foreign to me. And because of that, it’s hard enough certain obstacles to overcome them when you see them ahead. But when you don’t even know that they are in front of you, it gets really difficult.

Terry: The Secret Syllabus is a Princeton University Press book. So it went out for academic review. And there were a number of comments: “This book should be directed only at first-gen students, because that’s really where the problem is.” And our response was, “It’s probably more important for first-gen students if they’re able to understand it and we’ve written it in a way that they can use it.” So I have three daughters, one is a freshman in college, and the other two are, one’s in high school, one’s in middle school, and they get the knowledge from The Secret Syllabus directly from me. Now they don’t listen very often to that, but they at least have around them all the time both explicitly, like “how would you interact with your teacher on this topic?” And then in the air, in the gestalt of “how do I interact with the pediatrician?” and so forth. And so if you’re not in a household like that who knows how to navigate this world, where are you going to get the information? Well, one answer we hope, if we’ve done our job, is The Secret Syllabus. So even though it’s not explicitly targeted only for first-gen students, I think it actually has more use to a first gen student who doesn’t have access to a family member or a friend who knows the secret rules.

Jay: If I could add one thing, also the students, yes, who are not the first-gen students, or who have a world of experience college graduates around them, sometimes that sort of turns out to be a negative, because they might imagine that they’ve gotten the message “Oh, I don’t need this.” And in a lot of cases, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, Secret Syllabus. Yeah, something like that would be great for the remedial students.” And I think “what do you mean, the remedial students? You took when you were in high school, or even your first year of college, you took chemistry or history or English, or whatever, but who taught you how to study? Who taught you how to make a to-do list? Who taught you how to develop long-term career goals? Who taught you how to just plan your time?” all these different things, how to develop professional relationships, and a lot of these students who maybe have tons of advantages that causes them not even to realize that there is this whole secret syllabus of other stuff that they have no training in whatsoever. So they needed just as much.

Rebecca: I would actually recommend it as reading for faculty and administrators. Because when I was reading it, like yes, I actually knew these things. But like, I don’t typically explicitly state all the things because it’s the hidden syllabus [LAUGHTER] …these are all things that if we’re a part of the Academy, we have learned over time, but we don’t actually typically articulate necessarily or make explicit to others. And so reading this was like, “right, yes, of course, that is a rule that nobody knows about.” And so I could see a real advantage to having a faculty reading group, for example, around this book just to get insight into the missteps that students make simply because they’re not aware, and again around for administrators who may be in similar situations, like, thinking about policy, or easily blaming students, or easily blaming faculty for something, and just becoming more aware of all the unwritten rules around the academy seems really beneficial.

Terry: Amen.

Jay: That reminds me of a term that my wife, Julia, she’s an educational researcher, she knows all the official terms for everything, but expert blind spot; that you get so good at something that you don’t even realize that you know it or that you’re doing it. And it helps if you’re talking with other people, you can see it in them and at least call it out. So you’re right, you have a reading group, and you’re like, “oh, yeah, we do know that.” Or “we do have that whatever practice that we haven’t told people about.”

John: One of the things you describe early in the book is sitting in the back of the classroom, feeling completely disconnected from the experiences that the professor was describing. And you also talk a lot about how students come in for office hours and ask questions that faculty find really annoying when the students are really just trying to get some help and they don’t know how to phrase it. They’ll come in and ask questions like, “I really don’t understand the material we’ve been talking about for the last two weeks. Could you explain it to me?” [LAUGHTER]

John: And it’s really frustrating for us, but clearly the students are reaching out. And reading your book reminded me a little bit about how they must feel in these types of circumstances where they’re feeling a little bit awkward asking these questions. They really would like some help, but they don’t quite know how to phrase it. And I think part of our responsibility is to help bridge that gap a bit. And reading your book, I think, as Rebecca said, would be really helpful for that.

Jay: That’s funny, I always laugh when someone will say that, “Oh, I miss class. Can you just quickly tell me what happened?” I’m like, “If there was a quick way to do it, class would have been quick, then we would have been done.” [LAUGHTER] But you’re right, though, you have to immediately stop yourself from mocking them or looking down and think, “this person actually just came to me, they want some help.” So office hours is an unusual thing. And full disclosure, I only have experience with it as a faculty member, because the total number of times I went as a student: zero, and I regret that very much. But as I was going through college and struggling, so many people would even say, “well, you got to go to office hours,” I would think to myself, “okay, I hear you. I’ve heard lots of people say that.” But in my mind, I thought, “well, it’s okay. I know I have the textbook. I can read it or someone’s notes. So I’m okay.” Because I was making this assumption that office hours was for me to say, “could you re-explain everything about photosynthesis again?” Or “could you solve this problem?” Terry always makes me laugh about the student who comes into the office and says, “I need help with problem number three, and number seven, and 11 and 14 and 21 and 22. Can you redo those?” And they sit there and I think, “okay, yes, we do know the answer to those. And that is something that can be done in office hours.” But the insight… that it took me about 20 years to have… is that office hours is the first time, maybe the only time, where you as the student control the agenda. You are able to talk about anything that you think is relevant. And for that reason, yes, you can have them re-explain a concept, except that there’s Khan Academy, and there’s videos and there are textbooks, and there are other people and there might be a teaching assistant for the class, that might not be the best use of the time, because you have alternative ways. On the other hand, you’ve got this instructor here who has some insights that could really help you. And we try to give very concrete examples of things you as a student could ask. You could say some questions designed to help you be a better student… ask something like, “hey, if you were a student in this class, how would you spend your study time?” Or “you’ve had a lot of students, if you could change students in one way, what would it be?” Or if it gets close to the exam time, you could say, “to you, what are the elements of an ideal exam question?” Or “how do you create a lecture?” Or did you struggle ever? Did you always know that you wanted to be a biologist” or an economist or whatever, and you ask these questions, and in my office hours, which is usually a group of people, they be around and most students are like, “wow, this is really good and unexpected… the conversation we have helping them with professional development” or whatever. There are always a couple students who let out these heavy sighs, like, “ugh” because they have their list of 26 questions they want you to restate. And I have to usually directly address them and say, “I can do those. But this is actually some useful information that you’re not going to be able to get anywhere else, and might help you out, so think about that.” And I’ve even started now, in class, I’ll say, “hey, in my five years as an undergrad, I went to office hours zero times, you should just go even if you have nothing to say, just listen, just come and say hi, and you can leave” that I think has lowered the threshold a little and I get a bunch of students they come they say “hi,” they stay for a few minutes, and they realize, “oh yeah, this isn’t just a cram session” or something like that.

John: And once they come that first time, they’re much more likely to come up to you other times and ask questions in the hallway or just stop by for brief visits. And it makes it a much more pleasant interaction, I think, for everybody.

Jay: Yeah, they realize that you’re human, you’re a regular person, that you like to laugh, you have outside of class things that you can talk about. And that really does, I think, demystify who you are, and maybe what motivates you and other things that are relevant.

Rebecca: One of the things that’s really interesting, I think about this particular book is that we often deal out advice to students all the time that’s kind of generic and probably not that helpful. But when you really think, it’s like, “you need to manage your time better, you need to study more, you need to whatever the thing is,” without much explanation. Can you talk about some of the examples of maybe bad advice that students receive and how maybe you’ve addressed and provided a different kind of advice in this book?

Terry: Well, the office hours one is an obvious example. But we already talked about that. So it’s probably not the best example to continue on. I might say, I don’t know if it directly addresses what you said, but if the student and faculty member, or instructor, can have a relationship, professional relationship, as opposed to a transactional view, that’s a better solution. So I’ll give one cautionary story, which will make me sound really mean. And then I’ll tell you another story. So the mean story is I have a student come and he says, “I’ll talk about my grade on my presentation.” I’m like, “well, do you want to learn how to do a better presentation or do you want a better grade?” “Uh, kind of both.” So he just wants a better grade, but he’s kind of mealy mouthed about it. So he sits there for 11 minutes and goes through it. And then as he’s leaving, he asks, “oh, and is there any chance to get a job?” and I’ve gotten hundreds of people jobs, life-changing jobs, and I said “just took 11 minutes of my time, I could have gotten your job in those 11 minutes.” But he goes, “what about now?” I said, “no, you had your time. Get out.” So conversely, I had another student who used to just come by and chat with me. And we would talk about anything but the class. And I remember he bought me, this was years ago, an Austin Powers lifesize mannequin to put in my office with a frilly cravat. And then towards the end of the semester, another faculty called me and said, “Oh, you know, this person is in trouble in this stats class, what do you think?” and I said, “I think they’re an excellent person, that they are really trying hard. And I would give them the benefit of the doubt.” And so I don’t think explicitly, the student was doing anything to try to manipulate me, but because he came by and talked to me, and I got to know him a little bit. Interestingly, he’s running for Senate… in an important race. I won’t say his name, but he’s running for Senate next week, the same person, so his effective techniques for interacting with people…. So I don’t think bad advice people give you, it is just not advice that you get. And when you treat the person transactionally, then they treat you transactionally. And so if the faculty member is a fair and honest person, you’re going to get whatever you deserve as a student from them, they’re going to look at your grade, I’m going to talk to my student about his 8 out of 10 on the presentation, but you’re not going to get the next level relationship benefits, which can extend to the career and so forth if you go down that path.

Jay: Something that I’d like to add to that… when Terry and I first wrote our book, Mean Genes, people would read it, and they’d be all excited about it. And they’d come to us, and they’d say, “you guys should be on Oprah.” And that was their advice to us about “here’s what you should do. Because I know you’re trying to sell books, you should be on Oprah.” We’re like, “Oh, let me write that down.” And you see advice like that in books, oftentimes, where it’s well intentioned, and it’s actually accurate… we should have been on Oprah. But it wasn’t helpful, because it’s like someone saying you should go to office hours, they’ve already heard that. You have to tell them why should they go to office hours. What are the questions they should ask? Or someone says, “you should get a faculty mentor.” Okay, they know that, but how should they do that? And I think that oftentimes, you’ll also see in these books where they start doling out advice, that it’s just patently offensive, because it’s so obvious. Get to class early, be prepared, read the assigned material, try not to cram for tests, avoid procrastination. You might think then that alright, whatever, that’s harmless… that advice, but I feel like advice like that actually does extract a cost because you’ve only got so many words in a book and you’re either going to convince someone, maybe someone who’s reading Strunk and White, how to be a better writer, and it’s this very concise, precise book, so you get the message. But if the message is buried within stuff that the person thinks is obvious, they’re likely to put it down, or they’re likely not to trust you as much as the author because clearly, you don’t understand the reader if you think that they need to be told “avoid procrastination.” We all know that. That was a big part of our goal in writing the book. We didn’t want it to be a giant book filled with either obvious stuff or not helpful stuff. We wanted it to be a high density of material.

John: One of the things you talk about along these lines in terms of providing tips that may be different from the advice a student’s had is in terms of planning your pathway through college, because you note a lot of students are told they should pick a major early, focus on that, and work very quickly towards that goal as efficiently as possible and get their Gen Ed out of the way, and so forth. Your advice is a bit different. Could you talk a little bit about some of the advice that you recommend concerning what types of classes students should take and how they should plan their career in college?

Jay: As students are making their way from high school to college, we’ve seen this common pattern where someone will have, I don’t know, maybe when they were in fifth grade, thought, “Oh, what are my options when I grew up? I could be an astronaut or I could be a racecar driver or a pop star or professional athlete or a doctor. And if you happen to hit on Doctor, which is maybe the only realistic hope among those for most kids, your family responds better, like, “Oh, yes, very good.” And as the kid who it’s nice to have, it seemed like your family now loves you slightly more than they used to, that seems great. And then you start to stick with it, “Oh, yeah.” And then I get these students, they’re at college, and there may be a first year and they’ll say to me, “I’ve wanted to be a cardiothoracic surgeon since I was 10.” They want that to convey their commitment to it and their maturity and all that. But all I can think of is “do you really want to let a 10- year old make this most important decision of your professional life?” I think that maybe you should come to college with a more open mind, because when you were 10, you didn’t know all the options. If you look at these lists, and anytime there are published lists of job satisfaction, I love going through them because all the top things on job satisfaction, you’ve never even heard of as a 10-year old, or even as a college freshman, whether it’s software quality assurance engineer, or physical therapy director, or risk manager or security director, whatever. So from that, it’s caused us to realize that it shouldn’t be a race… who can identify their career goal first? …and then have them make other students feel bad because they’ve gotten to college and they can’t articulate it. It’s like, “oh, what do you want to do?” And the other person just talked about all these great things they want to do. And you’re like, “I don’t know, it sounds like you’re behind. It sounds like you’re worse off,” except that when you get to college, you don’t know what linguistics is, or applied math, or anthropology, or in many cases, psychology, or these majors that are huge, rich worlds that might interest you. So we want to encourage students to resist that temptation to have a plan. Because it seems so good, because everyone is so relieved and happy. But instead, you can’t just be passive, you have to explore the options that are open to you. That’s part of what you should be doing there. You have to learn about possible career paths, you have to investigate fields that might be of interest to you, you have to reflect on what is it that makes you happy? And what is it that stresses you out, maybe not in as good a way? …and that should be your plan because if you can’t explore things in college, then when do you get to explore? You stick to your 10-year old dream, and then you have the midlife crisis at 35 when it’s much harder to change your plan. And I think that message has not gotten out as much. Often students will even say to me when I say don’t worry about articulating a plan, but be active in exploring it. And I say, “you might have been experiencing parental pressure for a long time.” And they’re like, “oh, no, no, I haven’t at all. My parents are actually really chill about what I do.” I have to respond, “your parents are chill about what you do, because you’re still a biology major and that’s what you were when you came in. And you’ve articulated the same plan. The only way you’ll know if they’re chill is I want you to send them an email or call them today and say, “Hey, I’m changing my major to English,” then see if they are, because you may have been responding to subconscious signals about how much they love you when you have a plan versus not having a plan. And if we could get that message out that this is the time to learn about what you like and who you are, and that you might be becoming a different person than you were when you were younger.” That has a lot of value, I think.

Terry: So I invite my alumni to come back. I teach at Chapman now, and I have all these students who have graduated and have good jobs. And one semester, one of my students said, “I’m going to come back and I will talk to you students and I want to go to lunch with them. I want to interview them and I want to hire some of them.” So I tell my students “here it is, this great opportunity. The firm is local, if you want to live in Southern California. They pay well. The person who’s coming graduated four years ago. You want a connection with somebody who’s not remote from you? What could be better?” I said it’s only going to be room at the lunch for six people. So sign up and I’ll randomize publicly who gets the sixth slot.” So the person comes, Alan, and I go to do the randomization in front of all the students. There’s 70 students in the class. I look at the list, the sign up list, there are three people on the list. So all three of them go to lunch. And one of the kids, Mitchell, I just invited him back. I gave a talk to all the new Chapman students, all 2000 of them. And I invited him as the guest speaker to talk about this story. He comes. And I said, “why are you here?” And he goes, “I’m not even interested in real estate finance, but I just thought it was a great opportunity to learn something and come to lunch and talk to somebody.” He now works for that firm since that lunch. He got an interview, he got an internship, he loved it. And now he loves his job there. And it’s just hilarious that people miss this opportunity. And then again, showing my mean side, [LAUGHTER] a year later another kid writes me and he said, “I was in that same class. And now I want a job with that company. I’m interviewing with them. Can you connect me?” And I’m like, “no, you had your chance to connect.” I mean, of course, I didn’t say no, but the reality was, it’s much less effective to connect when you want something than when you’re just going to go learn something. So you have to look for those opportunities. In my own case, I was riding my bike through Harvard yard when I was in grad school on my way to a microeconomics review session. And I saw a poster for a talk by Caltech professor Charlie Plott. And I thought it looked really interesting. It was about experimental economics. I’d never heard of the field before. I’m like, “Okay, I don’t know what this is. I’m probably going to get a worse grade on my micro test, but I’m going to go to this talk by Charlie Plott.” And I went and was like, “Wow, I didn’t know any of this stuff.” And then I ended up doing my PhD with another experimental economist, Vernon Smith, and how I ended up at Chapman and I did get a worse grade on the test too.

Rebecca: You want all the things [LAUGHTER].

Jay: Can I add one other story that Terry has told me about one of his students who came in wanting to be a doctor, and was all excited that he was able to get this internship shadowing a doctor. And he goes, it was an orthopedic surgeon, and he gets to go, follow her around, even go into the surgery, theater, and all that. And what he discovered was, even though she loved her job, she was great at it, he was bored to tears. He thought, “Oh, my God, this would not be good at all.” And in some ways that felt like a failure, like, “oh, no, I don’t like what I’ve picked.” But in other ways, think about the cost of realizing that now when you’re in college and the cost of realizing that when you are in your fourth year of medical school or you are 10 years into your career. So the idea of exploring also carries with it that you’re not just trying to get the things to add onto your resume. You’re exploring because you’re going to find some things you don’t like, and it’s low cost to get to rule them out at the earlier age. So people don’t always realize that, that trying something out might give you information about what you don’t want to do. And that that has maybe as much value as finding out what you do want to do.

Terry: Right. So here’s something else that’s interesting. These people that we’re talking about are not made up things, this is a real story. So that person who Jay just talked about who was my student, who wanted to be a surgeon, here’s his most recent posts from LinkedIn, he now works as a product manager in London. He literally just posted this “when I was 10, I thought that my goal in life was to shoot for the stars. But today I understand my destiny is to come into the office today, every day for the rest of my life. Why do I say that? Because I came into the office this morning, and it was the best feeling in the world.”

Jay: That’s so great.

Terry: Isn’t it? I just looked them up while you were talking, Jay. And yeah, they’re all real people. And these are real stories. And we have hundreds of them that we draw from to synthesize the themes there. And that theme is very clear, which is, for most people, picking your job when you’re young and sticking to it is a bad decision. And if you’re talented, there’s so many different things you can do in the world. I had another friend, which was funny, he was a very talented guy too. And he said he realized when he was about 25, he didn’t want to be anyone’s boss. He didn’t want to have a boss. So he end up becoming a journalist, one you’ve seen on TV many times, but he was like, you don’t know those things when you’re 10. He didn’t know that at 10, he figured out when he was 25. Like, “this is gross. I hate giving performance reviews. This is terrible, even worse to give them than it is to get them.”

Rebecca: Another thing I really like about your book is these stories that you include, and that they are based in reality. And it’s a nice way to bring students into the conversation. And a lot of the stories have this thread of needing relationships [LAUGHTER] or a chapter on seeking out good teachers when you’re choosing your classes. And a lot of times those good teachers lead to good mentors in other things. And as you’re telling these stories, I’m thinking about the internship that I went on that I discovered what I didn’t want to do, or the mentor who told me I should take advantage of some of those opportunities that I probably wouldn’t have done had I been left to my own devices without a little bit of nudging.

Terry: So what was it that you didn’t want to do?

Rebecca: Well, interestingly enough, I didn’t want to be a graphic designer in the traditional sense. I do teach in a graphic design program. But what I discovered is I wanted to do more experience design and interaction design, which I hadn’t really been exposed to. I didn’t want to do marketing and branding, which is what the internship was. I hated it. I hated every second of it.

Terry: And when you changed your mind, was it difficult internally or externally to change what you want to do and have to tell everyone a different story?

Rebecca: Yeah, I mean, I think the first thing afterwards, it was like, “I’m quitting this major.” I actually ended up finishing it. But I ended up curating some of the other experiences around it in a different way. Because at first I thought I was gonna have a graphic design major, and I was gonna have a business minor. This is what many students have this combination of things. And I quickly discovered that wasn’t going to work for me and I needed to explore some other things. And I went more on an exploratory path for a while to figure out some other things, really in a field that was just starting to come into being.

Terry: Yeah, and did it feel bad, though? Now it sounds cool. Like, I went exploratory and it felt okay then?

Rebecca: No, it was really nerve racking and I was really stressed out and I tried to go to the counseling center and I talked to every mentor I had about how it was having a crisis. I mean, it felt really bad initially. [LAUGHTER]

Terry: We also tell three stories in The Secret Syllabus of people who found their passion early and stuck to it and then were very successful in an area, Steven Jobs among them. And the myth that they project is that you’re a loser if you don’t know what to do when you’re young. And they have this idealistic: “there’s one job for you, there’s one passion for you.” And that is not true for most people. And it’s a destructive myth out there. Most people are more like your experience, Rebecca, or my student, where you’re not sure. And if you’re introspective, you learn and you find something different.

Jay: I think, as an instructor, and as a parent, and just as a grown up in the world it’s very hard to internalize the message that Terry just said, which is that something inside of us when we meet a kid who says, “Oh, I’m applying for college,” or “I just started college,” we ask questions like, “Oh, what do you want to study?” These are questions that I think can subconsciously convey the message that if you have a plan, it’s slightly better than if you didn’t have a plan. So you have to really undo that and ask more about what kinds of things interest you or as you were saying, Rebecca, [LAUGHTER] when you describe something that was a bad experience, I find that if I ask people: “Tell me about your worst job experience,” or ask students “tell me about your worst classroom experience,” that can be more educational than hearing 100 stories about someone who saw the path illuminated and followed it and now enjoys success. If we can shape discussions in that direction more, it can really help a lot of students who I think don’t want to acknowledge that they’re not sure or they don’t have a plan.

Rebecca: I recently had a conversation with a colleague about a conversation she had with a student that she was mentoring. And the conversation went something like this, “I can’t wait to meet your parents at graduation.” And the student says, “my parents definitely are not going to be excited to meet you.” We were talking about this and how that really reveals how there’s a disconnect about the pressures that might be happening at home or from other sources that are happening to a student that aren’t always visible to us as faculty or mentors. There’s so many other things going on. So although you may have convinced the student of a particular thing or suggested they do this activity, or maybe you’ve helped them discover a new major or something that might suit their passions, they’re also having this internal dialogue with themselves about how am I going to break this to my parents or whatever needs to happen. But I just thought that conversation we had this week was so enlightening.

Jay: I love that because I was finishing my PhD, and after having struggled for years and years, and really things were touch and go all the way till the end, I’m getting my PhD at Harvard, and my parents come, and neither of them had been on a plane before I went to college. And they come now to Harvard. And I’m feeling all great about this. And just as I’ve gotten the diploma, my mom says to me, “Do you think you could get into medical school now?” …and she was still clinging to this idea of when I was maybe in grade school that I could be a doctor because then that would have some job security and respect or whatever. And so if I’m not a doctor, it must be because I couldn’t get in and maybe the Harvard PhD will help. And I had to tell her like, “I don’t want to be a doctor.”

Terry: And Jay, did you know that I got into medical school?

Jay: I did know that. I can only imagine the pressure because I know your dad. Yes. That’s just brutal. If my parents heard that I had gotten into medical school and didn’t go, the disappointment would have been overwhelming.

Terry: I had an excellent job as a busboy in one of the finest restaurants in La Jolla that I went to instead of going to medical school.

John: For many years, I taught in a program for gifted high school students at Duke University in the summers. And at the end of the term, we met with parents and many of the parents had very definite career plans for their 15- or 16-year old children. And they typically asked, “do you think our son or daughter has a future in,” I was teaching economics classes, “in economics?” And I’d say “clearly, they’re doing very well at this and it’s one of many things that I’m sure they could be very good at.” What I normally would say is, “over half of the students who enter college change their major within the first couple of years.” And what I’d recommend is that they explore as many different courses as they could now and when they go into college, and parents who didn’t generally like that advice very much. As you’re talking, I was thinking of two of my former students who I’ve known, now twenty-some years later, one of them actually was one of the best students I ever had in an economics class. Then he ended up at Stanford, he changed his major to religious studies and as he put it, “path of least resistance,” and he became a musician, and he’s a very, very successful musician today. Another student, his parents had plans for him for medical school, and he was on a Freakonomics podcast because he’s now an economist who’s become an expert in some interesting areas in economics. And they didn’t intend for him to go on in economics, he was clearly ending up in medical school.

Rebecca: I’m wondering if a good audience for your book is parents. [LAUGHTER]

Jay: Possibly not, I have sometimes thought about that. I might, if they saw me in class, wearing a nice shirt and tie and I looked very formal about the whole thing. I might be the most dangerous, subversive element in their life, because I’m the one telling their kid your parents already had the chance to live their life, you get to decide now. If they truly believe that you are wise and mature and smart, as they say they do, they should trust you to make good decisions. But it does feel like yeah, the parents… in the long run, they might… but in the short run, they might fear this kind of thing because parents want the best. And sometimes that means a little bit of risk aversion.

Terry: I would say I am a terrible parent. [LAUGHTER] So I have three daughters. Two of them are sort of introverted, and one is super extroverted. And I’m always nervous about the extroverted one, even though she’d probably be very good at navigating the world. But I asked her today, I was driving her to school today, and I asked her, “do you ever read your history textbook?” She said, “Absolutely not. It’s so boring.” I’m like, “yeah, it is boring. The content is good, but presentation is terrible.” Yes, so once you study hard, and don’t go out very much. I’m like, Yes, things are gonna work out okay for them. And then my middle daughter who’s doing well and super outgoing and loves to talk to people. I’m just nervous about the downside for her. So I see the attraction of neurology or being a was it, Jay, a…?

Jay: [LAUGHTER] A cardiothoracic surgeon? Yes, they don’t even know what that is. [LAUGHTER] I should validate. Yes, Terry is a terrible parent.

Terry: Yes.

Jay: And yes, his daughter is starting at Stanford this year. So that kind of terribleness.

Terry: One of the introverts?

Jay: Yes. [LAUGHTER]

Terry: The extrovert’s not going there, except to visit. [LAUGHTER]

John: You mentioned boring history books, one of the things that I really enjoyed about your book was how powerful the narratives are in it. And I think that’s something that perhaps we could all use when we’re writing books about our disciplines, or when we’re teaching these subjects, because storytelling seems to be really an important way of communicating information, and we don’t always use that in our classes.

Terry: It’s a failure of our ability to understand other people. So one of things I laugh about is, when I have my students comment on other students’ presentations, they are very good at finding the problems. And the problems are always exactly what you said, not enough storytelling, no eye contact, not engaging, not straightforward, not humorous. And so it’s easy for us to critique somebody else. But then when you’re doing the presentation, it’s hard. And if you do it for a long time, you get better at it. But your first instinct is not to tell stories, it’s to get the facts and get all the data. So I’ll tell you another story. So I had a student come back, Chad, he was the first Chapman student of mine to work at Goldman Sachs. And he came back to talk to my students. So I coached him before. And I said, “Chad, this is what you want to do. You want to tell a story. And then you want to tell a message.” And it came up and he was shy, even though he was now working at Goldman. And he told some stories, but he didn’t really do it in the way that I thought he should do it. So he told the story, which was funny, he said “at Goldman, everybody uses Excel all the time. But you’re not allowed to use the mouse because the mouse is slower than the keystrokes. And because you’re in this financial factory, it’s important to work as fast as possible,” and his boss would sit behind it and yell at him. “Don’t touch that mouse. Don’t touch it.” Overall I said, “Thank you for coming. I think you could still work, do a better job on your presentation skills.” The end of the year, I’ve given 36 brilliant lectures, [LAUGHTER] and I asked the students in the formal reviews, what was the best part of the class? Half of them said Chad’s presentation… [LAUGHTER] which was entirely story based, and God, I’m just the dumbest person in the world. People love stories.

Jay: I completely agree. And I think that’s what Terry and I bonded over in our very first first teaching experiences. I got asked to apply for some award at UCLA, but part of it was I had to write a teaching philosophy. So I thought, “alright, I’ve been here for a little while, I’m gonna write it down.” And I started listing all this stuff. And later on, I thought, and someone said, “you should try and publish this just in a teaching journal, all these ideas about teaching.” So I do, and I find the references for everything. So everything I do, if it’s about take-home messages, here’s the research that shows this is good. If I do this, here’s the research for this. And I had 10 of these things that were going to help people be better teachers. And the last one, I’m like, “I don’t have any evidence for this, but I just know that it’s good.” And it was “you got to tell stories, you have to reveal stuff about your own personal life, you have to somehow bind the material, the ideas, to your students’ lives.” And just as I was about to submit it, someone says, “I just heard the phrase ‘self disclosure’.” And I just hadn’t looked for that literature, because I’m not an education researcher. And I look and there’s a whole world and thank God all the evidence says that the extent to which you’re telling stories about your own life in ways that are meted out in the proper magnitude and that they are relevant to the stuff you’re talking about. It’s hugely successful. That is what the students remember. And so as long as you can do that, I think, yeah, Chad’s story, “use the keystrokes.” Every time, you can come up with an idea from your own life, if you can make it clear, so the student is going to be able to construct the knowledge later on in their own head, why they were saying that, that’s a huge win for the teacher.

Terry: So I tried this, I try to copy Jay’s stories. [LAUGHTER] So one of my early teaching experiences was Jay was the head teaching fellow for this biology course known as “Sex at Harvard.” And he would give his class, his section on Wednesdays, and I gave them mine on Thursdays. So it was the first time teaching it, and he had done it for many years and was great at it. And so I went to his section on Wednesdays, I took notes, and I would try to replicate. So he would tell these anecdotes, which every time would backfire for me. So I’ll tell the one, the one he is talking about stabilizing selection, why babies can’t be too small or too big, too small, because they’re not viable or too big, because pre-Caesarian you can’t get out of a mother. So he tells the story. “Oh, my brother Patrick, he weighed 13 pounds at birth. But now he weighs 600 pounds. No, he’s perfectly normal size.” So I try that anecdote the next day. Now, it’s saying it’s my brother, Patrick. And a very large person says I was kind of a big baby too. [LAUGHTER] And I’m like, “okay, be careful on the self disclosure.” So, it didn’t go well, anyway, stories, yes, they’re the best. You can’t forget them, right? You’ll never forget that Jay’s brother weighs 13 pounds.

Jay: [LAUGHTER] It is true, and he is normal size now.

Rebecca: We usually wrap up with the question: “What’s next?”

Jay: I’ll say what’s next for me. When I first got into teaching, I thought, “Oh, I get bored of things fast. I’ll do it for a couple of years, and then I’ll move on.” But it turns out that I’m endlessly fascinated by it. Because in order to improve, there is an almost infinite number of things that you can do. So for me, right now, I’m thinking a lot about the pandemic, in many ways, was just this horrible thing if you were a teacher, but we had these constraints that in a few cases, caused people, including me, to discover, “Oh, this is actually useful.” So for instance, the discussion window, and I would have these students who never in a million years would have raised their hands or spoke in class, and they’re typing stuff in the discussion. And other people are responding and they’re engaging. And I thought, “Wow, this is good. That’s what I would have done.” So I’m trying to figure out how to take the various things I learned from teaching in the pandemic. So how can I incorporate a chat window in class so that I get the same effect or things like these just richer learning activities, I had a lot of assignments where they had to go out with a camera and take a picture, just of something and talk about how it was relevant to whatever the lesson was, or these discussion boards were, instead of turning in a paper, they had to post it, and then everyone else got to comment on it. So suddenly, we had this community. So I feel like right now I’m trying not to return to some bad habits from teaching, but instead to say, “Wait, I have ways that I could be better.” So that’s sort of my hope, is that I’m very slow at incorporating new innovations, but I’m a steamroller. So if I could just figure out a few ways to get better now based on those experiences, I’d be happy.

Terry: And for me, Jay and I, our first project together was the book called Mean Genes, which we call a Darwinian self-improvement book. So how to be a better, more effective, happier person by understanding natural selection, biology, etc. And I still think about that all the time. So you probably know this famous 1973 study, to survey people’s self-reported happiness who win lotteries and other people who become permanently physically disabled because of accidents. And you survey their self-reported happiness and after about six months, they get very close back to where they were before the incident. Now, you don’t have the same people, There are methodological issues. But that notion makes sense from an evolutionary point of view, it’s probably the most important chapter in Mean Genes. And it’s to me the most important notion for your own life, which is that the setbacks aren’t permanent. Jay’s a steamroller. And things that seem like they’re terrible, they may very well be terrible, but your ability to recover from them is probably greater than you think at the time. And so for myself, as I said, I’m a terrible parent, I’m always initially disappointed if my kids aren’t brave, and they don’t do the hardest thing first. And I try to do the hardest thing first, every day, because it’s surprising. And the other day, I thought, we had rats in our garage, because we had rat poo in our garage. And so it depressed me, like this is just a horrible thing. So I got up early, I took every single thing out of the garage, I had the exterminator come, and six hours later, I find out there are no rats in the garage, he could tell immediately, it was at a minimum of 12-months old, and my garage was completely reorganized. So literally, from the time that I was the most depressed about my house that I had been in years to the time when I was happiest about my house was about six hours. And it came from not hiding from the rat poo, from addressing it. So what’s next for me is to continue investigation of human nature, how to do things along the lines that we talked about in The Secret Syllabus and in Mean Genes, which is how to make realistic changes in your life, to be a better person for yourself and for the people that you care about.

Rebecca: Well, thank you so much for joining us. I really hope that a lot of first-year seminars and other kinds of opportunities to get this book into students’ hands will happen.

Terry: Well, thank you. Thank you for having this podcast and for having us on.

Jay: Yes, I concur. Thank you very much. It’s been a lot of fun.

John: Thank you. It’s a great book.


John: If you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe and leave a review on iTunes or your favorite podcast service. To continue the conversation, join us on our Tea for Teaching Facebook page.

Rebecca: You can find show notes, transcripts and other materials on teaforteaching.com. Music by Michael Gary Brewer.