A Review of The Elements of Academic Success by Gene Kizer, Jr. Charleston: Charleston Athenaeum Press, 2014. Reviewed by Michael Potts

I wish I had read a book like Gene Kizer Jr.’s The Elements of Academic Success when I began my undergraduate work. If I had followed his helpful advice, my grades in first-year Classical Greek may have been As (or at least Bs) instead of Cs. Kizer’s book is filled with practical advice for the college or university student to follow in order to maximize performance. Following such advice will lead any student to improve his classroom performance whatever his intellectual ability might be.

The best advice Kizer gives is for a student to keep a calendar and follow it as religiously as possible. The calendar, he suggests, should not only contain the due dates of assignments, but also the date a student plans to begin an assignment, useful advice for completing take-home essays and term papers by the due date. Kizer urges the student to include in the calendar class times, extracurricular activity times, and study times set aside for each class. Setting aside more study time for more difficult classes and sticking to that schedule should also help a student improve performance.

Another good piece of advice is for the student to buy a notebook with a pocket in which to store syllabi and other class handouts. He also recommends listing all class requirements and the percentage of the grade for each requirement on the first page. Placing the notebook, textbooks, and all other class materials in a convenient place in the student’s room and only using that place lowers the risk of losing materials for classes.

Kizer also gives good advice on how to use a research library and suggests that the student get to know all local libraries along with library staff who help the student locate research sources. When it comes to writing a paper using a word processor, he suggests saving a backup file on the main drive as well as at least one copy of the main and backup files on a jump drive. His suggestions on writing a term paper are similar to my own steps in writing academic papers: locating sources using search engines, checking the bibliographies in articles and books to find more sources, organizing the research in terms of an outline and writing and revising a draft.

Regarding notetaking in class, Kizer suggests writing down every word a professor says. As a professor, I partly disagree—a student with limited experience in notetaking in a college setting might do best to record nearly everything a professor says. However, professors often say many things not relevant to the test, such as telling a joke or taking an aside in a lesson. Sometimes professors make small talk with students before class to help the students be more comfortable. I recommend writing down the asides for the learning experience. Writing down small talk is not recommended, and perhaps the student should only write down the good jokes. As a student matures, he will learn to pick out what is most relevant to copy into his notes in any given lecture.

Kizer discusses political correctness in academia, which is a practical concern for students given the extreme leftist bias of some professors. He is correct, at least from my own experience, that most professors, though liberal, will grade fairly any student paper with a conservative position that argues well for its conclusion. However, as Kizer also recognizes, there are exceptions, and Kizer is correct in suggesting that a student avoid, if possible, professors who are totally intolerant of expressions of conservative thought.

As an example of political correctness, Kizer discusses the extreme anti-Southern bias in academia. I would say this has gone beyond bias to outright hostility. Kizer explains how such bias distorts history by an appeal to primary source documents pointing to the chief causes of the War Between the States being economic. One of the chief economic causes was the burdensome tariff placed on Southern cotton and other products, a tax that did not apply to the northern states. The North enriched itself at the expense of the South. So much of the Northern economy depended on exploitation of the South that the South’s seccession resulted in an economic crisis in the North, as Kizer shows with quotations from editorials in Northern newspapers. Kizer’s book provides an inoculation of truth so that the student will be prepared to explore the issues surrounding secession and war further and better identify Northern bias in the classroom.

There is at least one factual error in Kizer’s book: Vince Lombardi did not say “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Rather, he said that “Winning isn’t everything, but wanting to is.” It was UCLA Coach Red Sanders who used the phrase attributed to Vince Lombardi. Sanders’ phrase assumes a zero-sum game in life that is unwarranted in actual human experience, and Kizer should point that out to avoid students having unrealistic expectations in life. This is a serious problem with Kizer’s book, especially in the final chapters, which sound like a late nineteenth and early 20th century motivational speech. Some of the problems with Kizer are (1) he does not adequately understand the range of human abilities, and that different students have different talents. Even in overall ability to obtain a college degree, students vary—some will not make it, period—they are so underprepared that they fail even when they try to study. In addition, (2) Kizer’s beloved magna cum laude is based on grade point average. Grades are, to some degree, political, as Kizer himself recognizes. High GPAs are also easier to obtain in easier majors, such as education, sociology, and social work. Programs such as Classical Greek in the Humanities and engineering in the Sciences have a level of difficulty such that even excellent students who try may not reach a magna cum laude GPA. Many of my most intelligent students did not have a perfect GPA—but they could think, and since thinking involves taking risks, their thinking was not impressive to some professors. I have also had students with perfect GPAs who knew how to excel enough to get an A, but they were not my brightest students. Finally, (3) grades often do not reflect intelligence, ability, or the amount of study a student does. That said, a student should follow Kizer’s practical advice—such advice, if followed, will help a student improve performance.
I am also not as inclined to consider the gurus of the mythology of prosperity to be the “great philosophers” Kizer considers them to be. Not everyone succeeds in his chosen field, and yes, luck is often involved in attaining one’s goals. Even the year one graduates often makes a difference regarding his chances of getting a job in his field. If chemical engineers are in demand a certain year, then graduates in that field are more likely to find a job; if they are not in demand, then some good students will be unemployed in their chosen field, at least temporarily.

Despite such lack of realism, Kizer’s practical advice and his notations of political correctness and anti-Southern bias make this an idea purchase for any current or potential college or university student, especially those of a conservative and pro-Southern bent. Even though politically liberal students may not agree with Kizer’s political views, they can still follow his suggestions on how to study and improve college performance

Michael Potts

Michael Potts, Ph.D., is Professor of Philosophy at Methodist University in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

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