As my time at St. Vlad’s is coming to a close, I was asked by a student who is arriving next year how you become valedictorian at St. Vlad’s. I replied, “Tip #1 is that you should have a BA in Theology and do the St. Stephen’s course before you get here!”
I said that because, while I did work very hard, I don’t really feel that the playing field was level. Some students come here never having studied theology, and they manage to graduate with distinction. I had a bit advantage having already studied so much. So while I was honored to be valedictorian, there might be plenty of people who worked harder than I did. But here are Fr. Herman Fields’ tips for doing well in seminary:
When I was an undergrad, my grades improved immensely when I got married. I was doing my school work on a 9-5 schedule and didn’t fool myself into thinking that I could do quality work starting at 10pm.
If you take advantage of every minute of non-class time during the day, avoiding as much as possible the time-wasting but oh-so-fun opportunities to just sit and talk to people about nothing in particular, you will get more done than if you’re up till 3 AM. Even if you only have an hour (say your class gets out early and you have extra time before your next activity) take an hour and read one article, or write that one little tiny assignment you’ve been putting off. The best work I ever did was when I knew that I only had 45 minutes or an hour to work. There’s a saying in Swedish “many small streams become a river.” It applies here! No matter what your family situation is, if you use your time consistently with discipline you will get more done in less time.
I used Google Calendar and had all my classes and chapel times blocked out. Sometimes I even put deadlines in the calendar. I don’t think I ever missed a deadline, or at least not by mistake.
And get some sleep! Get a minimum of 7 hrs per night. If you’re sleep deprived your work will be much less efficient and you won’t remember what you’re reading.
I used Quizlet for flash-cards. It was indispensable. And free. And you can use your phone to work on your flash cards anywhere you are, just for five minutes at a time. Short periods of work, two-three times per day are much more effective for memorization than long sessions once in a while. Quizlet lets you squeeze it in anytime, and that’s the kind of memorization work that will succeed.
COLOR is the key to mind-maps. Also big ledger-sized paper. Get that paper on Amazon, along with some colored markers or colored pencils. Your brain will remember color.
When you think about this blog post in three days, the only thing you will remember is the colored text: that will tell you that I’m right. Come back and re-read the rest of the blog when that happens. Do you think I’m being overly confident? Well that will be the second thing you remember because it’s kind of funny/quirky/odd/annoying. Something with an emotional or humorous connection is much more likely to stick to your brain. My memory palaces and mnemonics are full of humor and tom-foolery. They have to be.
Special thought about using Quizlet for Greek:
Use Quizlet for Greek – both for the letters and for words. Even for phrases. Figure out how to use it just as a flash card, without having to write in the answer. Just make it show you one side and you have to come up with the other side. Quizlet has many other functions, but if you play around with it you can make it just do what you need it to.
Here’s how to use Quizlet:
οἶκος is the Greek word for house. It’s something called the “lexical” form or “Lemma“. It’s the form of the word that you would find in the dictionary.
DO NOT use lexical forms in your flashcards, or at least don’t ONLY use the lexical form.
Here’s a map of all the inflected forms of οἶκος. Have one flash card for each word (okay vocative is probably overkill).
If you memorize the lexical form, when you see the inflected forms you then have to figure out if what you’re seeing (say, οἴκῳ) is dative or genitive. You have to do an extra step of decoding.
But if you memorize twenty inflected genitives you will get remember what genitives look like because your brain notices the patterns. It is a much more effective way of internalizing the logic of the language. This, by the way, is how you learned your native language. When you were two years old, no one was talking to you about paradigms (the table above is a paradigm).
Here is John 1:1 in Greek
ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.
ἐν ἀρχῇ: in the beginning
ἀρχῇ: beginning (dative)
ἦν: it was (imperfect 3rd person singular)
ὁ λόγος: the word (nominative)
πρὸς τὸν θεόν: with God (literally: towards the God)
θεόν: God (accusative)
θεὸς: God (nominative)
Keep the accents, breathing marks and other diacritics (the little dots around the letters). They are not just decorations, and you will begin to get the hang of them over time. Don’t discard them. A mistake a lot of Greek teachers make is to tell you the accents don’t matter. They do.
Use Perseus to parse any Greek word.
This is a WAY bigger deal than you think it is. If you take one piece of advice in this Greek section, click on this link for Perseus.
This Greek lexicon is useful as well.
Figure out how to write Greek on your computer and use your computer to help you learn.
Oh, and take every class of Greek they offer at Vlad’s. You’re never going to get as much out of the bible if you’re not engaging with the original texts.
Email professors when you don’t understand something. Maybe I had the advantage due to my age, but I can admit when I don’t know what something means (I’m now 40). I was writing something the other day and my brain said that the word I wanted was “equanimity.” I wasn’t entirely sure I really knew what it meant. I’m grown-up enough to admit that to myself (maybe you are too) so I googled it. I think I looked a lot more things up during this degree than I did when I was 19-22 years old. It’s also way easier to look stuff up now because of how much better the internet is (and how much better I am at using it) than back in 1999.
Ask people in the classes above you. They probably took the same class with the same prof and they might have notes or practical tips like, “make sure you read X, don’t worry about reading Y.”
Rule #1 of organization: Thou Shalt Use DROPBOX
Rule #2 of organization: Thou Shalt Use DROPBOX
Rule #3 Google Drive is also okay, but I prefer DROPBOX. Use an account you own so that you’re not storing all your important things in a place someone else can lock you out of.
Figure out the scanner in the library and scan book chapters and articles and save all the articles that are ever given out in class. Save them all electronically, and in Dropbox. Then when you need to look for something, wherever you are, at whatever time of day, you can find it.
Learn how to search for a word in multiple PDF’s – I did this all the time for Canon Law: which of the 20+ handouts had the text of the 3rd canon of 1 Nicea? Found it every time.
How did I learn how to search mutiple PDF’s, you ask? I consulted Rabbi Google and his assistant Youtube. Ten minutes of instruction-manual reading will save you hours and hours later on. Trust me.
Get ABBYY to do OCR on scans. It has saved me a TON of time.
This hole-punch that fits in your back-pack to put holes in hand-outs and file them in binders right away.
I used big 3-ring binders to keep all my hand-outs and notes and articles: one binder for each class. I regularly ripped out the notes from my notebook, and filed them in the corresponding binders. It’s really important to be able to find your notes at finals time.
Get your electronic resources game up to snuff
Get Bibleworks or something similar. I use Accordance and I believe that the seminary should provide students access to this or something similar free of charge. I linked to both because Bibleworks is much cheaper.
Using these tools will get you reading the bible at much higher level. Yes, it costs money. It’s worth every penny if you can get it. Tell your parents to give it to you as a “congratulations on starting seminary” present.
I can honestly say that three fourths of all my essays would have been impossible to write without Accordance. You will be missing out big if you don’t have a good bible resource. Here’s why.
What you’re looking at here is a search for the instances of the Hebrew word יד (hand) in the Hebrew Bible. Accordance showed me every place that word is used. I held my cursor over the Hebrew word מצאָה. On the top-right I see a definition (it means “to find”). Along with the definition, Accordance parses the word (qal perf 3 fem sing). In this context it means that “she found.” “She” is the dove Noah sent out.
Look at the left column again and see the little menu that came up. That menu shows that I can search for the word מצאָה either in that specific form (qal perfect 3rd person feminine singular) or the root of the word (i.e. in any form). When I put the cursor over the Hebrew word, the English word “found” became highlighted (middle column). This helps me navigate the Hebrew. I can do the same things with the Greek text of Genesis over on the right side.
If you want to study the Bible and really get something out of it you need a tool like this. Also, as an aside, St. Vlad’s should not only be offering Hebrew but requiring it because the tool won’t do you much good unless you know some Hebrew basics. But that’s just my opinion.
Use New Advent for your patristic texts in English, especially canonical texts. Write something like “First ecumenical council site:newadvent.org” in the Google search field. Generally Google does much better searches of websites than the site’s own search engine. Go to Google, write “thing that I am searching for site:website.com” This works much better most of the time.
Use Οικουμενικές Σύνοδοι for canonical texts in Greek.
Get super familiar with ATLA and JSTOR (see library website). Ask someone if it is hard to understand how to use them.
GoogleDrive-ing Me Crazy
So Google Docs, Sheets, Drive – they’re great tools and all. And they’re free (especially with your seminary account). Figure out how to use them to collaborate on projects with your classmates. We shared notes and files using these tools all the time.
(By the way, share notes! Grading at Vlads is NOT a competition (says the valedictorian, sic.). Share your notes, help each other out. You’re not going to loose anything when others do well.)
If you’re doing your thesis or your important essay, Google Docs just can’t compete with Word. Here’s why.
- Footnotes work better in Word
- You can automate your bibliography in Word (this is a huge deal)
- You can save your bibliographical references from one essay to the next in Word (use the “source manager“).
- You can manage styles much better in Word (learn how to manage styles)
- Excel is still way better than Sheets.
- You need to be SURE you’re going to have a good internet connection to use Google docs, and (lots of love to my IT-peeps at Vlad’s but …) at St. Vlad’s I wouldn’t always count on that being top-notch. Word works offline.
- When you’re doing a PowerPoint – Microsoft is going to be better than the Google alternative, and again the whole being online and having a good connection thing can prove to be an Achilles heal.
How to read
I have never been a fast reader. But I did get some tips on speed-reading which help. Use a pen or pencil to point at the text, and move the pen along faster than your eyes want to go. You’ll be surprised how much faster you can read when you force yourself to do it faster. You can always go back again.
Speed reading is this word that might sound far-fetched. It might sound like something only a savant can do. People think that if you practice for ten years, maybe you can read a whole dictionary in ten minutes, and remember every word exactly.
No, that’s not speed-reading. Speed reading is being able to read maybe 1.5 – 2 times as fast as you do now, and retain close to the amount of information you retain when you read slowly. You should read much faster than you can say the words in your head. So stop saying them in your head.
You start out by sacrificing some information retention for speed. As you keep up the speed you begin to retain more and more information. If you can read 1.5 times as fast, that’s fantastic. It’s enough. And it’s realistic even if you’re not a savant. Read a bit more here.
I used head-phones to keep my focus when reading. I have a good study playlist on Spotify. The library is not as quiet as it should be. Find a space that is quiet and calm. Get away from the crowd. Also don’t study where you sleep. That might be the only room in the whole seminary where you can shut the door and be left alone. I recommend not studying there anyway because science. Some people say that their brain works different, and that they need the hustle and bustle of a loud public place to keep their concentration going. I have my doubts that you and I really are that different. I think we all absorb more information if we first manage the things around our reading experience (the environment and gadgets and tools). Then your reading will be more rewarding.
As much as I like to do many things electronically, I don’t recommend doing the actual reading on your screen. I always printed out articles and made notes by hand. Yes, it does get expensive. I also always had a notebook handy to write down quotes and notes with page-numbers in the margin. For an article that was, say, 20 pages long, I might have 6 pages of notebook paper filled with notes. Get in the habit early of writing down all the biographical info on the first page of your notes, and then writing the page number (i.e. where in the article you got the quote from) for each note. Write page numbers in the margin. It makes footnotes much easier.
<<When I’m going to write something that is my own reflection or opinion about what I’m reading I put it inside << and >> to make it easy to distinguish>>
Don’t underline whole paragraphs. Underline a maximum of five words per page. If you must, use a vertical line to point to a paragraph. Do you like reading this? No? That’s because it’s all underlined.
If I copied out one hundred quotes from articles, I think I might have actually quoted two or three of them in actual essays. As I developed my own style of note-taking I got better and better at summarizing what I was reading in my notes instead of writing out quotes.
Finally, I would get to the end of a chapter or article and just put the book/article away for a moment and write half a page of the most important things I could remember in the article. This did wonders for not only remembering, but figuring out what the most salient points were for my own argument.
I found I got the most use out of what I read when I:
- Read a physical copy
- Wrote notes by hand
- Underlined sparingly (almost never highlighted)
- Jotted in the margins liberally
- Summarized the article afterwards
Save your neck and shoulders
I use this contraption (Hands-Free book holder) to save my neck when I’m reading (I like it so much I named it after the Yoopers’ Betty Lou) This is really important if you’re going to be reading a lot, say the experts, and I can’t function without one.
And this contraption to hold books open.
Pay it forward
Seminarians at St. Vlad’s have a fantastic culture of helping each other in all kinds of practical ways. Be the person who carries that torch. If you get an article or a set of notes that are fantastic – share them!! Show up and help someone move in or move out. Be a hero to your fellow seminarians.
Well that’s probably a no-brainer for you. But then you will be asked to do an unreasonable amount of “volunteer” work for the seminary. Make no mistake: it’s not voluntary. You have to. But don’t get bitter about it. The reason you’re doing that work is that if they hired someone to do it your tuition would be double or triple. Maybe that’s not a problem for you, but there are students here from countries that are very poor. Those students get scholarships because the tuition is affordable. Less volunteer work = less scholarship money available for poorer students. Even if the way St. Vlad’s asks you for your “volunteer” work is sometimes disorganized or heavy-handed, pitch in and do it for your friends. You can still do the right thing even when the person asking you to do it is asking you in the wrong way.
But when you know that you have done your fair share, and you’re being asked to do more, say no. Not being able to say no is a terrible handicap, and is always self-inflicted. I have seen ninety-nine cases of being too reluctant to say “no” for every one case of someone being too fast to say “no.” Only you can change that, with God’s help. Learn to draw a boundary line when you have to.
Personal Prayer Time
Father John of Valamo says, “with regard to your rule of prayer, arrange it yourself but in such a way that meaning is not lost for the sake of completing the rule. Try to pray attentively. Is it not better to shorten it than to complete it in agitation and be a slave to this rule?” He also says, “We should strive for virtue to the limit of our strength, but to stand firm in virtue is not in our power but in the Lord’s. The Lord preserves us in virtue in response not to our labors but to our humility.” (From “Christ is In our Midst: Letters From a Russian Monk,” SVS Press)
Church fathers are great. Making prostrations and fasting and trying to “mortify the flesh” is great, and strictness and order and rules and working hard are all great. But if you think you are becoming more like Jesus because of your own efforts you have fundamentally misunderstood Jesus. And if you’re not completely clear on the fact that all the rules and efforts are put in place as tools to make you more like Jesus, above all in his humility and love and tenderheartedness, then you’ve completely misunderstood Orthodoxy.
Grow in love. Do whatever it takes to do that, and be humble if you, like me, still need to grow in your habit of prayer.
It’s hard to have the full-time job (as in the case of a student) of finding all the answers, and making sure you are right (in order to get the grade, and in order to be able to teach well) and then at the same time excel in humility and not talk to people like you have all the answers. How can we not talk like we have all the answers? How can we not sound convinced that we are right? We spending several hours every day trying to have all the answers, and we are being studious so that we have the right teachings to give to others!
Only God can give us humility. One of the best things I ever heard at seminary was when a teacher said, “Don’t try to stop sinning. Decide to do something good. Something radically kind and loving. As soon as you decide to do something good a thousand distractions will come up; reasons why you can’t, reasons why it’s too hard, reasons to say ‘never mind.’ Work hard to make sure you succeed in doing the good thing, and the sin will disappear eventually.”
Why are you going to seminary?
I got a really good piece of advice early in my Seminary career: the guys that skip chapel, the guys who are so busy they don’t have time for chapel … they don’t ever seem to be less stressed out or have more time just because they skip chapel. Just go to chapel. Take the time to pray and listen to the hymnography. The Oktoichos and Triodion are some of the most important parts of the curriculum even if you’re never tested on them.
We’re learning how to be professional intercessors, so we have to spend time interceding. Don’t “do” services. Never. Stop talking about “doing” services. We offer services. We are there to pray, not to “do” services.
Seminary makes you dig down deep and find out what you really believe in and why you’re really doing it. Start asking yourself that question early. If you know why you’re here, then whenever someone at the seminary is bad at their job or inconsiderate or annoying you have a sure foundation to stand on. The person annoying you is human. It’s much easier to forgive and move on if you have a clear vision of what God is calling you to do. Okay the other person was wrong, but that’s old news when you know you have a calling to follow.
The Best and the Worst and the Best
I was told when I started seminary that, “the best part about being at seminary is the community, and the worst part about being in seminary is the community.” Okay, I admit I have found some people difficult. But the truth is that the good aspect of the community experience so outweighs and dwarfs the negative experiences that the saying is misleading and just plain wrong. The community is just the best part.
Invest time in your friends, listen to their problems, practice pastoring them (not patronizing, not fixing them). Practice listening and interceding for them (see above). For many of us, these are the last group of friends we will have who knew us before we were priests. They’re the last circle of friends who can relate to us in the way that almost no one else will ever relate to us, once we leave here. These friends are more precious than gold, and you will probably never again spend all day every day with a large group of people who share your values and all want you to succeed.