June 3, 2005

How-to guide Hardly Working in College joins Cliff's Notes, crib sheets in the slacker pantheon

As the U of C increasingly tries to shed its image as the place "Where Fun Goes To Die," the admissions pool consists more and more of students who can be counted on to get out of the library and into frat parties. As such, there are a growing number of first-years who, for lack of a better word, can be called slackers. These students are taking a bit of a risk in giving Chicago a shot. They may know how to get the party started, but they've got to get past the Core to make sure they're still around to keep it going.

Chris Morran, comic, author, and self-proclaimed "noted ne'er-do-work," tries to show them the way with his new work Hardly Working at College: The Overachieving Underperformer's Guide to Graduating Without Cracking a Book. His satirical guide to higher education offers practical advice on how to get as little out of school as you can while still managing to stay in.

Morran splits the student body into three types of scholars: overachievers, underperformers, and the overachieving underperformers. While his discussions of the foibles of the dropout-bound underperformer and the idealized overachieving underperformers will provide some smiles, it's the image of the overachiever that provides the book with its heart. His description is a dead-on portrait of That Guy, down to the suit and tie on the illustration. Morran goes on to ruthlessly mock these blazered study nerds for the next 160 pages. This joyfully condescending attitude towards the suckers who actually show up to class having done the reading, as contrasted with their craftier, party-hardy brethren, is how the book gets you interested. The author brings substantial insight to the table, hoping that putting these unspoken truths of student life in print will earn him some surprised laughs.

His hopes are realized, as page after page calls up fond memories of extensions finagled and papers recycled. Morran knows the drill on how to survive an elite college education and avoid the psych ward in the process, and it shines through brightly in Hardly Working. Mike Pisiak's illustrations provide a major boost to the book in this respect, tying the text together with familiar images of the sudden jump in attendance that all-or-nothing final exams classes receive during the final study session.

The same insight that earns snickers with its solemn recounting of the pros and cons of sleeping through early-morning classes also earns the book a spot on the required reading list for incoming first-years. Why? Because Hardly Working actually contains some useful tips on how to succeed in academia without really trying. Dedicated slackers will find themselves nodding sagely as they read Morran's advice on lecture hall seating (close enough to be visible, but not so close that the prof can tell you're not taking notes so much as checking your Facebook account) and escaping the consequences of tardiness (straightforward humility, or the more daring good-natured ribbing). His tips on how best to get a great recommendation are legitimately worth a review the next time you have an internship or grad school application coming up. Time and time again, readers of Hardly Working will find themselves either saying "Hey, that's me!" or "I'm totally trying that during finals!"

Some chapters are not quite up to that standard. At times, the readers will find themselves moved to send the author suggestions of their own to replace some of his more nonsensical instructions. In particular, Morran's tactics for borrowing someone's notes and ducking out from under the burden of doing lab work stray from the realism that gives Hardly Working its bite. His discussion of how to explain an absence from class is more recognizable, but will likely leave Chicago readers with the firm impression that the University of Virginia, Morran's alma mater, is a far different place from the home of the Maroons. The book also loses steam towards the end, as the final section on post-graduate options lacks the "trust me, I've been there" charm of earlier chapters.

Despite these flaws, this one is a worth a long, hard look. With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Morran has crafted a chuckle-worthy addition to the library of "how-to" guidebooks college students find foisted upon them by parents and high school counselors. Unlike some of the others, this one might actually come down off the shelf once or twice a quarter. Whether it's just used to relieve stress or to mindlessly survive the Life of the Mind is up to the reader.