01/29/2013 02:25 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2013

Collegiate Life, As Full Colleagues

To grow a professor: take an inquiring spirit, add equal parts determination and creativity, sprinkle liberally with panache. Grease pan with publications, then shove into grad school for a few years.

Professors are of a special breed. Tweed-wearing and generally bearded, they've been slightly wrinkled by time -- curiosity, however, springs eternal in the Eternal Student's breast. Especially when our Student is ensconced in an Ivory Tower.

Not long ago, I had the pleasure of reading Professor Stephen Stearns's brilliant Designs for Learning. It tells the story of his long and distinguished teaching career, distilled into easily digestible headings and subheadings and presented as a singularly useful repository of teaching advice. I recommend it highly to all members of the academy: undergraduate students, graduate students, and full professors alike. (He's also written an advice manual especially for grad students -- titled Some Modest Advice -- that is equally good.)

Fanboy-ism aside, I think Stearns's view of collegiate life is one that everyone can appreciate. We're all here in our towers in order to achieve a lofty goal: to contribute to -- and learn from -- the sum total of human knowledge.

Designs proffers a vision of the instructor as a unique combination of teacher and mentor, with the ultimate goal being to mold the student into a fully socialized (if young) colleague. This year, Professor Stearns is my senior thesis advisor. I've taken various courses with him before: a lecture, a seminar, research. In each, he's emphasized the qualities of an intellectual equal -- independence, creativity, and insouciance. (Learning when to be insouciant, however, was left up to the student, with occasionally disastrous results.)

All this has conspired to change the way I think about undergraduate education: we're here to grow into fellow intellectuals, to become full colleagues of those sophisticated bookworms we admire. I won't be so bold to make the claim that college is the only time in one's life to do this, but it certainly is one of the best. Most of us aren't yet burdened with the obligations that creep in slowly with age, while we're also equipped with spry mental facilities that respond pretty well to stimulation.

So: make the effort to sip from that proverbial fire hose. Though I hear post-collegiate life only gets better (and I will admit here that I have my suspicions), it might be a little while before you find another good hydrant.

Drink long, drink deep.*

*(This also applies to education.)