Penn prof pens guidebook for college students

Dustin Brisson of the School of Arts & Sciences consolidated notes from his years of teaching and advising to create a guidebook for undergraduates aimed at helping them achieve success and well-being.

Biologist Dustin Brisson
Building on his interest in philosophy and his years of advising undergrads, biologist Dustin Brisson has written a guidebook to help students live a better life in college and beyond. (Image: Denise Henhoffer)

In one chapter of “In Pursuit of the Good Life in College,” Penn professor Dustin Brisson describes the troubles of a student named “Sara.”

“With only 1.5 semesters remaining to complete her bachelor’s degree, Sara finally admits to herself something she has known for years: She does not want to be a physician. Even though she earned solid grades in the pre-med track, Sara has not enjoyed a single course, and she dreads the prospect of five more years of medical training.”

“Sara” is not a real person, but rather a fictionalized representation of many students Brisson has met and gotten to know in his nearly two decades in the School of Arts & Sciences’ Department of Biology. In what he describes as a “COVID project,” Brisson consolidated notes from his years of teaching and advising to create a guidebook for undergraduates aimed at helping them achieve success and well-being.

Each of the book’s 16 main chapters opens with an anecdote about a challenge faced by a fictional student, like Sara, and offers advice for addressing it. Peppered with quotes from sources as varied as ancient philosophers to modern psychologists and authors, the chapters all conclude with interactive exercises that prompt the reader to put into practice what they have learned.

Brisson spoke with Penn Today about the book’s origins, the philosophy that guides his advice, and why he wished he had such a tool during his undergrad days.

How did this book come about?

I’ve always been interested in philosophy and in the last few years have gotten pretty into areas like Stoicism and Epicureanism. These schools of philosophy are more practical, aimed at how to live a better life. So, these form the philosophical foundation for the book.

This is my seventeenth year at Penn, and I’ve always taught entry-level courses. Because of that I’ve had a lot of first-year students who would come to my office with some question about a biological topic in the course. They would be here for less than three minutes before it became clear that biology wasn’t the thing that they really needed to think about or talk about.

Over the years, students would come in and ask their questions, and I would jot down notes in these composition notebooks. I think I have like 12 of these notebooks full of notes from discussions with students. And it became clear that there were not that many different questions. Certainly, there were specific flavors and individual differences, but there were only about 20 or so core issues that students would bring up. Once I started noticing that I started creating separate files on my computer to keep track of advice related to each of these core issues. From there, I realized that if I wrote these out they could be chapters of a book.

I always figured, too, that, although I usually only get three, four, or five students coming to seek advice each semester, there were probably another 20 or 30 students in my classes each semester who might have similar issues but did not feel comfortable coming to talk. Maybe if I could just put the guidebook out there, they wouldn’t have to ask, they could just find the information and start their own process.

Several of the topics you cover are academics-focused, like on developing better study habits or managing test anxiety, but some are more personal, like how to choose friends and commit to meaningful projects. I wouldn’t think of students seeking personal advice from their biology professor, but it seems like that was the case?

They absolutely did. Sometimes it was in a roundabout sort of way. Someone would come in quite stressed about some topic in biology, but it was the third week of class, and there was no exam coming up and really no reason to be stressed. I might ask them if there were any other topics they wanted to talk about, and they might share how they’re completely overscheduled; they feel like they have no time. And eventually it would come out that they’ve committed to a ton of clubs. So, we would talk about how they could be more selective about where they were devoting their time and the advantages and disadvantages of being more selective with their time.

What sources did you tap to craft advice for students?

I didn’t go about it in an overly academic way. I wasn‘t reading primary literature, for example, but there are a fair number of psychology books, philosophy books, and self-help books that I would start with and then cross-reference.

For example, a lot of studies I cite are from Stoicism. A lot of work in modern psychology, like cognitive behavioral therapy, derives from Stoicism. Stoicism is a practical school of philosophy aimed at pursing a good life by living in accord with your values. A lot of the content I wrote is basically Stoicism, just applied to this niche group: college students.

How much did your own experience in college influence your advice?

The 16 chapters that I have completed are things I very much faced as an undergraduate and to a large extent still face now, though the circumstances are different. For example, test anxiety is a form of performance anxiety, and I have had and still have performance anxiety in my professional life.

I feel like almost everything in this book, once you read it, is not all that surprising, at least in a big-picture sense. But what the book does is bring things that you may have been thinking about in the background and bring them to the foreground. The aim is to have you incorporate beneficial thoughts and behaviors into your life

Each chapter of the book concludes with an interactive exercise. Why did you make the choice to include those prompts?

don’t necessarily see this as a self-help book, but in many ways it is. There are a ton of self-help books out there, and most of them don’t help anybody, even though they have great information and advice. The reason they rarely help people is because people read them and that’s as far as it goes. Even if they agree with the logic, they don’t put it into practice in their lives and so it doesn’t become part of their lives or improve their lives in any way.

By asking people to actually do something, it allows them to have a more tangible connection to the information. I think those sections are the most crucial sections of the book.

How do you plan to keep sharing the book?

Right now, I have the chapters on Google Drive, and I share it freely. I’ve given it to a lot of my students and my colleagues around the world. I’m planning to set up a website for it and hopefully publish it as a true book, maybe later this year.

The working title is ‘In Pursuit of the Good Life in College.’ Some people have tried to talk me out of the ‘In Pursuit’ part, but I think that’s actually the most important thing. You’re never finished. You’re never going to be perfect, but you can always be better. You can always be in pursuit, and it is the pursuing part that is happiness. Improvement is happiness. Improvement is the good life.

In Pursuit of the Good Life in College’ is available online. (Press ‘request access’ to Google Drive.)

“In Pursuit of the Good Life in College”
Table of Contents

1. Attend College for the Right Reason
2. Defining Yourself Is Holding You Back
3. Possibilities are Limitless, and Overwhelming
4. Choose Your Friends Wisely and With Patience
5. Intrinsic Motivation
6. Busyness is Not Productive
7. Effective Studying
8. Test Anxiety
9. Competition among students
10. Ask for Help and Guidance
11. Grade Uncertainty Mid-semester
12. Long-Term Course Planning
13. Growth, Change, and the Authentic Life
14. The Incessant Barrage of Courses Eroding Your Motivation
15. Deep, Meaningful Projects
16. Stop asking what I will do next