Thursday, September 9, 2010

Optimism: How are we going to teach it this year?

One of the ways I try to live my mental life is to avoid letting commercials register on my consciousness. To achieve this aspiration it means I watch absolutely no commercial television; try not to read billboards and ignore print ads. Admittedly, it is very hard to ignore these damn things.

Today, I failed while in an airport. I noticed a billboard featuring Michael J. Foxx which communicated his courageous optimism that Parkinson’s can be beaten. For some reason this led me to think about levels of optimism in this year’s crop of new college students.

Perhaps I made this association because I have heard several anecdotal reports over the past few days of declines in community college enrollments this fall. These may be a mere blip of an exception to the pattern we have been seeing. But what has particularly caught my attention is the hypothesis being offered that students are so pessimistic about the economy that they simply don’t see the value of starting college because they do not believe there will be jobs for them if and when they finish. So why take on all the debt and work?

Optimism, of course, is an essential part of the American ethos. It is fundamental to who we think we are. This makes me wonder this year, who is going to be more or less optimistic and what are the behavior patterns that college students are going to exhibit towards the growing sense of pessimism about “the new normal?”

At the risk of great oversimplification, I predict that the female students are going to work even harder, take even greater advantage of optional opportunities that colleges offer than they have been doing—all in contrast to male students. And, as for the them, I predict that we will see far more hedonistic behaviors—and to evoke that wonderful metaphor that Art Levine used several decades ago in his book When Dreams and Heroes Died: A Portrait of Today’s College Student, the image of college students partying on the deck of the Titanic.

So if we wanted to encourage or students this year of all years, to take more advantage of all the opportunities that college still holds out for the, how would we do that?

I have observed enough campus cultures to know that some have the culture of learned optimism, and some the opposite, learned helplessness. While I find that financial resources are related in some respects they are in no ways determinative.

Of course, it all starts with the attitudes of campus leaders. How can we project optimism and still be realistic and pragmatic? And it has to do with institutionalized core values that are public, prominent, and intentionally taught. Rituals matter too, rituals that inculcate students to consider lives of purpose and meaning that transcend their own individual measures of success. But where this optimism can be most directly taught is in the learning interaction settings where faculty and staff interact with students. This all comes down to you, me, us. And this year, we are needed more than ever.

-John N. Gardner

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

College Made Me Vacation Like I Do!

I constantly think about the outcomes of college. How are college educated people different than non college educated citizens? In the Foundations of Excellence action planning I do with college campuses to help them develop a plan to improve new student success, we use an aspirational standard we call “roles and purposes.” It asks institutions to measure how they are introducing to new students to the “roles and purposes” of higher education in general and the institution in particular. The idea here is that if we were more intentional and successful at this we could improve student motivation. And then if we improved student motivation they would be more likely to adapt the kinds of behaviors that lead to being more successful, like going to class for starters.

I know as a college educated person that that experience influences me in a myriad of ways, including what my wife and I do on vacations. And we are on an annual vacation and so this is on my mind.

So, what have we been up to? Well, we went to New England to attend three concerts at a Jazz Festival at Tanglewood in Lennox, MA. And we are going to two plays at the Berkshire Theater Festival in Stockbridge. And we are going to a favorite country inn, The Inn at Shelburne Farms on Lake Chaplain in Vermont. There we will achieve our definition of a great vacation which is to get a lot of pleasure reading done. And because I am college educated and developed the motivation to practice rigorous physical exercise discipline, I will more than double the amount of time and distance I spend running. And we will visit several museums and take in still another play. And we will venture over the US/Canadian border for a cross cultural experience in Quebec at another favorite inn, the Manoir Hovey, where we can be treated like we are in France but with no accompanying jet lag.

And while I am on vacation, I plan to do something I learned to do in college, practice “reflection,” the deepest kind of thinking on the current status of my life, and I am sure will generate some new ideas for personal and professional ongoing regeneration.
But perhaps the most important thing I am going to do-- I didn’t learn in college: to disconnect myself electronically, ignore my laptop and smart phone. I didn’t learn this in college because it didn’t exist, that is the kind of technology we now have which both imprisons and liberates us.

Sometimes when Betsy Barefoot and I vacation we even practice “mystery shopping” of colleges we spot along the way. We see a sign for a college we haven’t visited and we do the drive through tour and occasionally even go into the Admissions Office and interact and collect information. Now who but a college graduate would consider that a form of recreation?

Yes, I am aware every day that college shaped my roles and purposes and still does to this very day, for how I spend and derive meaning from every day, to the fullest. In the most generic of senses, I wish the same for my students.

-John N. Gardner