Friday, May 1, 2009

Notes From A College Tour (Part 2)

6. I've argued with people about this: my argument is that the most important part of a newspaper isn't actually the stories themselves, it's the editorials; after all, what actually happened is fine and all but what people think about what happened is the stuff that has the power to create change. So as soon as I got my hands on a student newspaper I flipped, immediately, to the editorial page.

Student editorials in particular are interesting to read because, with slight adjustments for technology and celebrity references, the topics never change. I've been reading student op-eds for over a decade, and professors still shouldn't take attendance ("if I can get the material from the book, why do I need to go to class?"); group projects should still be banned (it's funny how every undergrad seems to believe that they are the one person doing all the work); and when all else fails, a squirrel anecdote will fill the page. (This works for Ira Glass, too.)

Today's editorializing was a point-counterpoint on teaching v. research; the professor on one side writing that research is an essential part of the university community and the student on the other side writing "well, maybe if you didn't spend so much time in the lab doing your own research you could spend more time teaching me which is why you're here."

The thing is that the student has a point, but it's the wrong one. This student knows he's getting shafted. He knows that the giant lecture hall he finds himself in isn't the experience he signed up for. But he's aiming his argument at the wrong target. This student's education isn't why the professor is here. The student's education is why the student is here.

"But how does a student get a high-level education without continued, close interaction with faculty, and how do faculty balance that with their other demands?" you might ask. Well, if that isn't the very question universities have been dealing with for the past twenty years...

7. Being on this campus is a bit like taking a cruise with an extended family who were all, once, my former in-laws. To rephrase: I have a liberal arts degree; and, like every brochure statement about a liberal arts degree, it has taken me places. It has taught me to be a thinking person. It has given me job skills which are applicable to a variety of industries. None of them, however, are the industry in which I was originally "trained."

So when I visit my old academic buildings and say hello to former teachers, I find myself in the company of people who are living a particular discipline and who are both surprised and (perhaps) disappointed to learn I am not working in that discipline. Never mind that most people with this particular degree do not, in fact, work full-time in that discipline--that it would be more of a surprise if I were than if I weren't. And never mind that I really love the work I'm doing now. At every turn I am being asked the equivalent of "but why didn't you marry our child???"

8. But see, I'm living proof that the liberal arts degree works!!!

9. At the same time I have to admit it was ridiculously comforting to spend yesterday with current students who are all working to pursue the discipline I did not marry. They're all extremely talented. It was equally comforting to spend yesterday with the other alumni who have returned for this particular event and learn that none of them ended up marrying that discipline either!

10. And so what do universities do with these segments of the liberal arts which are... um... better lovers than husbands? (Isn't that the other question universities have been wrestling with for the past twenty years?)

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