Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Job # 1: Dispensing Wisdom

John N. Gardner
Much has been written and much said on the roles and purposes of college, and about what we have been able to measure as the empirically verifiable impacts of the college experience. And, we all know that when asked, the first thing that the majority of entering college students will tell you when asked why are they in college—well, something to the effect of being able to get a job, earn a decent living, etc.
But when pushed, and given the time to be more reflective about it, I think there are many students with us for far more than just eventual access to a better job. I think instead they are on a search for wisdom. And I think that should be our job # 1 to dispense it. So where would they find wisdom? Oh, so many places.
They can find it in great literature, in research, in the teaching of all disciplines, and in the counsel and advice they get from people like you.
Back in 1985 my colleague at the University of South Carolina, Jerry Jewler, and I did a book (now out of print) called College is Only the Beginning. And in it we had a chapter entitled “Decoding Professors.” We would require our University 101 students to read this essay and then go out and interview a professor to see what they could learn, and if they could obtain and discern any wisdom.
I was reminded of this recently when I was contacted by an instructor  of the first-year seminar at my alma mater, Marietta College, to tell me her students would like to conduct an interview with me. I agreed and asked them to prepare questions in advance for my preparation. We did actually have this interview and the following are the questions posed to me, all of which I managed to address in the 50 minute class period:
1. Why is it that you choose the career path that you are in now?
2. What is it that made your first year so bad?
3. What is the deciding fact that got you thinking about starting this program?
4. Who was your mentor and what did your mentor do to turn you around?
5. What did you do at Marietta?
6. Why did you choose Marietta?
7. What did your mentor say when he thought you were not coming back?
8. What is your greatest accomplishment?
9. Who are your influences?
10. Why did you decide to say at Marietta?
11. Did your family support your decision to stay in school?
12. What didn't you like about Marietta?
13. How did you discover Marietta?
14. Is there anything you regret about your experiences here?
15. What are some negative events that motivated you?
16. Who was your favorite teacher?
17. What are some positive events that motivated you?
18. What advice would you give current students?
19. What do you like most about what you do now?
20. What do you dislike about what you do now?

Both before and during this activity what really interested me was/were the questions the students posed, what they had decided they wanted to know. They had done some research on my background on the internet which influenced some of the questions they asked. When we finished all of their pre-interview questions, they had one more for me: what is your philosophy of life?

I have to believe that what these students wanted to know about me, are exactly the same kinds of things your students wonder about you. If you ever hear people say that students aren’t interested in us, don’t believe them. They are troubled about many of the figures they see, hear, and read about in the media and they are in search of models that they could emulate.

To close the loop on this, the instructor of this class wrote me several hours after the interview and had this to say about the student reactions to the class:

“Their initial comments were along the lines of, "he's a cool dude," "he isn't THAT old," "I want to be like that guy," "he could have definitely been in our class," "I want him on my mud volleyball team for Doo-Dah Day," and "where can I sent him a thank you note?"

We are processing it in writing, so I hope to be able to send you some more solid thoughts (again-if they survive Doo-Dah Day-ha ha!).  Again, I can't tell you enough how much I appreciated you taking the time to do this.  It actually made me start to think about how I can incorporate this kind of discussion with other alumni who can share their experiences and wisdom.  I already have the FYE 105 "Survivors" talk to the class, but it may be motivating for them to see any other students who loved their time at MC or have grown to love it be able to discuss their process.  You inspire and motivate me, and I was glad to be able to share you with the students.

Thanks again!”

So what are you doing these days to “inspire and motivate” your students? They really do need and deserve it.

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