Wednesday, March 05, 2008

What is Learning (and What Are We Teaching)?

This question comes from Shannon over at Loaded Learning. Her recent blog post asks "What Is A Student’s Job?" Steve at Pedablogy has decided to ask his first-year advising students to respond to Shannon's post. I'll be very interested to see if they take him up on it and what they have to say.

Shannon's question about the "students' job" rightly raises questions of students' responsibility for their own education. I was struck, however, by the implications for college professors (heck, for the mission of higher ed itself) in the challenges raised by Shannon's post.
What is college preparing student’s for? Is it to be academics? Skilled people for the work force? Contributing members of society?

For the most part it feels like college is training us to be academics, but I don’t think the college is really aiming for that, or should be aiming for that. Of course some people will go on to be educators and work in a highly specialized area of their major, but most likely the vast majority won’t. I will also say that besides content there are goals and themes that carry through college, being able to critical think, speak well, write well, etc. But at times college can really seem like k-12 redux where the content is just more in depth and the papers about the content are longer.


These issues are not new, but they resonate for me at this particular time. I've been working on making students' work more transparent to others (in and out of the academy) and more (explicitly) relevant to them post-college.* And a new longitudinal study suggests that so-called "career-oriented majors" find their post-college footing more quickly than so-called "academic majors". Now, I'm sensitive to the notion that this focus on post-college work can easily get away from much of what is great about learning and teaching in higher education. But there are real pressures facing the academy in clarifying our relevance (and justifying our high expense) to the larger world. At a minimum, I think it's worth reexamining our goals for particular classes and for the larger collegiate experience.

I'd be interested in hearing people comment on the issue of what you see your classes and our college education as doing, here or on their own blogs. [I don't want to interfere with student comments on Shannon's blog post, because I think that part of the conversation is even more important to get going.]


* [Full Disclosure: Shannon's post says nice things about one of those efforts, my Digital History Seminar.]

UPDATE: Might as well add this post from Inside Higher Ed for one take on what's wrong with Liberal Arts Colleges and we need to do to change to the conversation. (I should say that the post has some intriguing ideas, though I add it only as further additions to the larger discussion.)

2 comments:

mburtis said...

I just downloaded the PDF of the full report. Some of the comments on the article you link to suggest that the conclusions drawn in the actual report are not actually that dramatic. I'm interested to see what I find.

Generally speaking, I don't find it at all surprising that student who graduate with a "career-track" degree are more likely to quickly find employment than those who graduate with an "academic" degree.

I would argue, however, that there is a certain amount of self-selection going on here. The kind of students who seek a career-oriented track are the kinds of student for whom finding a career track right out of college is very important. That's not the case for everyone -- nor should it be.

For me, I was far more concerned in getting a broad liberal arts education, experimenting with as many things as I could, and then finding my path once I graduated. It wasn't an easy path to find, necessarily, but it's part of how I'm programmed.

One of the problems with institutions trying to orient themselves more along careerism goals is that so many professions (paths) don't/can't have a clear "practical" major associated with them.

The job I have, quite frankly, didn't exist when I graduated from college. There wasn't really anything I could major in at the time that would have prepared me for it. Consequently, my path has been a bit convoluted, but it suited my own personality and goals.

Channeling more students into the traditional "practical" majors means we'll be churning out more students who are prepared for those kinds of traditional careers, but fewer students who can adapt to changing career landscapes.

I, for one, think the path I chose was the right one. :-) But, I also recognize that it may have just been the right one for me. On a fundamental level, I balk at the idea of infusing higher education with more "careerism." I think college should be a time for students to explore, experiment, and develop intellectually and creatively. Sure, some students will be driven by more practical goals, and that's fine. But throwing out the "art" of learning for a more scientific, practical approach I fear would result in a watering-down of our educational system.

The question of how to clearly demonstrate our value to our constituents (particularly for public institutions) is a different one. To a large extent, I believe this has very little to do with career-oriented majors vs. academic majors. Rather, it has to do with higher education doing an abysmal job at communicating it's real purpose to external audiences.

The kind of exposure that you're talking about--letting a larger audience witness and address our students--seems like a much more valuable way of both proving ourselves and educating our constituents.

Jeff said...

"On a fundamental level, I balk at the idea of infusing higher education with more "careerism.""

Me too, but it comes up enough that I think we need to address the question.

"The question of how to clearly demonstrate our value to our constituents (particularly for public institutions) is a different one."

Yes, but I think they are very, very closely related in questions of value-added.

"To a large extent, I believe this has very little to do with career-oriented majors vs. academic majors. Rather, it has to do with higher education doing an abysmal job at communicating it's real purpose to external audiences."

No question that the latter is true. But I wonder if higher ed does just as bad a job at communicating their mission with internal audiences like students (or even faculty).



Back on the initial subject, I would also add that I think students feel a great deal of pressure from other students, relatives, and especially parents, to explain what they're going to do when they finish. "Career-track" majors allow an easy answer to the question.