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.

“Turning the Ship Around, Part 3. Dual Enrollment

Betsy Barefoot, EdDVice President & Senior Scholar
In Parts 1 and 2 of “Turning the Ship Around,” I reflected on my personal high school experience and the disturbing changes I see today, especially in the quality of the senior year.  But now I want to acknowledge that colleges and universities are taking the bull by the horns and inserting challenge back into high school curricula through dual enrollment programs. 
These programs take two primary forms:  Students can take college courses on the high school campus taught by college instructors or “certified” high school instructors, or students can take these courses on a college or university campus.  With state and private foundation support, the number of dual enrollment programs is expanding dramatically and I fear without too much thought about some of the implications, both academic and social. 
Here is a case in point:  In the state of Virginia, dual enrollment courses are offered through the Virginia Community College System.  Sometimes they are taught by college instructors; sometimes by high school instructors who have been certified by the college.  Students are encouraged to “jump start” their college career by enrolling in these courses.  But not all Virginia four-year institutions believe these courses are credible and accept them for transfer credit.  So a student who believes that he or she is getting ahead may find ultimately that the time and effort was wasted.  Apparently there are no guarantees at the point of transfer to a four-year institution. Every state is different, and Virginia may be the only example of an unintentional “bait and switch” problem.  I don’t know.  
What about social issues?  A recent conversation with a Georgia mother who also happens to be a university employee introduced me to some of the social dynamics inherent in dual enrollment.  This mother has a daughter in high school who has been taking university courses.  The daughter is understandably lonely and isolated on the university campus.  But when she wants to join after-hours study groups at a local watering hole with her college-age classmates, mom is understandably resistant.  Mom wants the daughter to make friends, but in an atmosphere that is more appropriate for a high-schooler.  As more and more colleges open their doors to 16 and 17 year olds, what will be the implications for the social environment? 
I believe that dual enrollment programs may provide an answer to increasing the level of challenge available to high school students.  Early research also shows them to be a promising strategy to increase college enrollment and retention.  But before we rush headlong into this new world, I do believe we need to take a step back and consider the implications, both social and academic.  Are we on college and university campuses ready to take on this new population?  Are college courses delivered in high schools aligned with our expectations through the four-year degree?  How does dual enrollment change our concept of “the first-year experience”?  Lots of questions that deserve our time and attention – so that we can turn the ship around.

Monday, April 18, 2011

How College Affected This Student: Why I Make My Students Make The New York Times A Part of Their Daily Lives

John N. Gardner,

Oh, there are so many ways that the college experience affected this student, now 45 years out of college. One of them was getting into the habit, really the addiction, of reading The New York Times, daily. I owe it all to my political science professor, freshman year. He told me that if I really wanted to get a lot more out of his class, I would make this a habit. He urged me to read the full texts of the Supreme Court decisions, of political candidate speeches, and other important documents. This really jarred my consciousness as The Times was not allowed in my suburban New York City home by my corporate father who saw the paper as far too liberal. Interestingly, my political science professor was from an extremely conservative wing of that discipline, but he really wanted me to experience multiple perspectives. And that I did. And now can’t do without, every day.

Throughout my teaching career I have required my students to read The Times. These are the reasons I give them for this requirement:
1.   I want them to read what is regarded as the most influential news organ in the world.
2.   I want them to see what the President of the United States reads each morning. And many other world leaders too.
3.   I want them to see what The Times is saying that will influence the movers and shakers of our country who check it out faithfully, even if they don’t agree with its editorial positions.
4.   I want them to see not just reporting of the news, but reporting that becomes news!
5.   I want them to read each day a truly interdisciplinary teaching tool—covering a wide range of topics from the integrated perspectives of many disciplines. It’s like having a complete college curriculum all in one paper.
6.   I want them to read one of the last remaining examples of “in-depth” print journalism.
7.   I want them to read challenging prose that will build their vocabulary and stretch their critical thinking capacities.
8.   I want them to read the paper that has won more Pulitzers than any other.
9.   I want them to read something each day that will make the events and trends of our world “relevant” to even the most unengaged college student. The Times is truly “relevant”.
10.  I want to get my first-year students reading and thinking at the level we used to hold back for the upper divisions in the major. What a waste. We need to be awakening to the world our newest college students.
11.  I want to introduce my students to a behavior that I hope they will continue to practice in adulthood after college, just as I did, and I do.
12.  I want to introduce my students to one of the pillars of support for our democracy, to keep our citizens informed and our government honest.
13.  I know that when students look back after college they will remember that I made them do this during college.
14.  I want them to experience what it really means to be “fair and balanced”!
15.  I want them to be teased with the print version and drawn in to the excellent, voluminous web support.

I want them to join the exclusive and inclusive club of educated men and women around the world who read an internationally influential newspaper.