Friday, October 14, 2011

Author! Author!

Every person is the author of her own adventures.

This is a point I try to make to all of the students in all of my courses, in which I downplay my own authority and up-play the students'. "I've got no more claim to the truth than you do. The only difference between you and me is that I've been doing it for a few more years."

It's a point I've tried to make to my colleagues, most recently this afternoon at yet another CRTF meeting. This one was a meeting of the "Big Picture" Subgroup, at which the leaders of the other subgroups (including yours truly) were asked to make presentations on our ongoing work. I had a bit to say about our review of department responses to our "information request," and about our intended review of various ILS components.

I hope that our review will be guided by a handful of basic principles:

1. Our curriculum will function most efficiently and effectively when ILS learning outcomes and departmental learning outcomes (and the means of achieving those outcomes) are brought into fullest alignment.

2. Our curriculum will be most sustainable when the resource demands it places on faculty, staff, and students are minimized.

3. Our curriculum will offer the most rich and most meaningful learning opportunities to our students when they are allowed to plan and pursue their own courses of study, navigating course requirements that are rigorous but flexible.

This last principle places a high value on non-prescriptive curricula, featuring both general education programs and degree programs with relatively few specific requirements...programs that ask the students to play an active role in putting their own academic houses in order. I don't feel that our current curriculum features such programs.

The other day, in a hall conversation with a colleague, I referred to our role in the current system as "helicopter professors": our requirements are structured in such a way that our students' academic careers are micromanaged stringently. Students are tended to carefully, led from year to year in flocks, protected and prepared (for graduate study or real-world employment), but rarely challenged to set out on their own. Based on analysis of student behavior over the past several years, the Research and Evaluation Subgroup of CRTF discovered that only 18.5% of the courses our students take count as "free electives," taken for no purpose beyond academic exploration (such courses satisfy neither major nor ILS requirements). All other courses, all but little more than a semester, go toward putting a check in some bureaucrat's box.

"We need to make sure that our students who want to do graduate work are at least well enough prepared to get into a decent masters program," one of my department colleagues insisted at tonight's meeting. I agree, wholeheartedly. But I disagree with the means he suggests we must use to get them there. Many of our peer institutions offer much more flexible programs, with far fewer explicit course requirements, and still manage to send higher percentages of their graduates into prestigious programs. (The fact that this friend of mine is shortsightedly using graduate school enrollment as the be-all-end-all measure of an academic program's success is a topic for another post...)

More important, students completing more self-directed courses of study gain authority over their own actions. They grow in competence and confidence as they're asked to take on more responsibility for their own lives. They mature more quickly. They learn how to ask and answer important questions concerning their coursework and their careers. Forced to connect the dots for themselves, they become more authentic experts in their own disciplines.

This isn't to say we shouldn't offer our students some kind of guidance: nothing can supplant informed academic advising. Good advising can take the place of stringent requirements. If a student should wish to pursue graduate study, she should be encouraged to take courses that will most well prepare her for that study. If she fails to follow up on the advice her professors give her, she might be sunk...but she might not. She may succeed in her ambitions, but even if she doesn' what? Even if she doesn't end up where she'd originally set out to be, she's had a chance to plot her own path in the meantime, learning from whatever mistakes she's made on the way. Life is what it is, and each of us is who each of us is.

In my second section of Precalc (and again in my Abstract Algebra class), I read an excerpt from Rainer Maria Rilke's 6th letter to the poet Franz Kappus (Letters To A Young Poet, translated by Joan M. Burnham, Novato, CA: New World Library, 1992, pp. 53-55):

You should not be without a greeting from me at Christmastime, when in the midst of festivities your feeling of aloneness is apt to weigh more heavily upon you. Whenever you notice that it looms large, then be glad about it. For what would aloneness be, you ask yourself, if it did not possess greatness? There exists only one aloneness, and it is great, and it is not easy to bear. To nearly everyone come those hours that we would gladly exchange for any cheap or even the most banal camaraderie, for even the slightest inclination to choose the second-best or the most unworthy thing. But perhaps it is exactly in those hours when aloneness can flourish. Its growth is painful as the growing up of a young boy and sad as the emergence of springtime....Think, dear friend, reflect on the world that you carry within yourself. And name this thinking what you wish. It might be recollections of your childhood or yearning for your own future. Just be sure that you observe carefully what wells up within you and place that above everything that you notice around you. Your innermost happening is worth all your love. You must somehow work on that.

Let us reflect, my friends. What is it you find within yourself? How can you make your life your own?

1 comment:

monalisasmile said...

Thank you for sharing this in class, Patrick. It was very nice to take in some words of wisdom and reflect in the midst of a busy week. I appreciate all you do for us, your students, and I hope that you continue to have the great outlook on life that you do.