Up@dawn 2.0

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The college game

Opening Day is rapidly approaching. Time to re-assemble some reminders of why we play this college game, and some motivation.

An extraordinary legacy (from Aug.14, 2014)

"Gather ye rosebuds while ye may, old time is still a flying, and this same flower that smiles today, tomorrow will be dying."

I didn't know Robin Williams, nor apparently did he know himself well enough when he said bad times always awaken us to "the stuff you weren't paying attention to." But I know how inspired I was, first time I saw him in this role. Extraordinary. Carpe Diem (YouT)... EmzaO On Robin Williams

We are food for worms lads. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die. Now I would like you to step forward over here and peruse some of the faces from the past. You've walked past them many times. I don't think you've really looked at them. They're not that different from you, are they? Same haircuts. Full of hormones, just like you. Invincible, just like you feel. The world is their oyster. They believe they're destined for great things, just like many of you. Their eyes are full of hope, just like you. Did they wait until it was too late to make from their lives even one iota of what they were capable? Because you see gentlmen, these boys are now fertilizing daffodils. But if you listen real close, you can hear them whisper their legacy to you. Go on, lean in. Hear it? Carpe. Carpe Diem. Seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary. Dead Poets Society

A new leaf (8.18.14)

It's Older Daughter's first day of class at her new school, a vicarious Opening Day for me. (My own is just a week away now.) Day 1, a new beginning, a fresh start, a clean slate, a tabula rasa, a rising sun. September in August.

“[T]hat old September feeling, left over from school days, of summer passing, vacation nearly done, obligations gathering, books and football in the air ... Another fall, another turned page: there was something of jubilee in that annual autumnal beginning, as if last year's mistakes had been wiped clean by summer.” Wallace Stegner

"Football in the air" doesn't resonate for me as it does for most, this time of year. But I suspended my Holy Crusade against the game Malcolm Gladwell likens to a dogfight long enough to enjoy the spirited post-New Student Convocation pep rally in the Heartland the other afternoon. Go Dawgs. But, behave yourselves off the field and remember that a student-athlete is a student first.

 The rally was only overtly and ritually and superficially about the game. What matters is the camaraderie, the sense of a shared collaborative project, a mutually supportive singular identity, a common cause. It's jarring to begin all over again, in a new place. But it'll be more than comforting to come back to that place again and again, in years to come, with the old slate wiped clean.

That's precisely what I love so much about my own daily pre-dawn ritual, this game I play every morning. I'm not here to beat anyone, though. I'm just trying to feel the pep and channel it, like old Arnold Bennett who said "you can turn over a new leaf every hour if you choose.” Every dawn seems the steadier pace, for me.

Pretty good sheep (8.22.14)

It's Fall Faculty Meeting day at my school this morning, the annual inaugural summons to congregate in Tucker Auditorium to be alternately cheered and chastened by our leader. Classes begin Monday.

It's Move-in Day for students and their box-hauling families, too. I'll warn them, the schlepping and hauling never really stops. Older Daughter phoned home just yesterday with an urgent request to bundle and ship a bunch of stuff we missed.

With the academic year thus underway, and anticipating another talk from the top recycling the refrain that we need to get 'em in and get 'em out, thoughts turn again to the big question of what it is we're supposed to be doing here.

A new critique of elite higher ed called Excellent Sheep calls out the ivy league for producing conformists instead of freethinkers and leaders. That's the buzz, anyway. I haven't read it. I have read reviews like this one, in the form of an open letter to author William Deresiewicz.

"You trace academe’s troubles to "the Gilded Age," when colleges became engines of social stratification as wealth was created in the Industrial Revolution. But these conflicts about educational purpose in bourgeois societies are cyclical—already in prospering Athens, Socrates and Protagoras were arguing about education as soul-searching skepticism in service of personal and civic virtue, versus education as learning to get ahead in the world by giving the right answers."*

True enough. But excellent sheep at least do the reading and look for answers themselves. The current factory model we've been urged to deploy at our large public university, I fear, falls short even of that faded ideal. We're just supposed to get students out into the world, credentialed for employment. Whether they develop soul enough to engage in constructive questioning seems not to be our charge.

But it will always be mine. I will always tell my students that if they can get both a degree and a sense of self and a life-direction in four years, go for it! But if they need to do what I did, to take a little longer, to switch majors in mid-stream and thus discover an avocation as well as a vocation, and can find a way to fund that exploration, then my board of regents and administrative overlords should have nothing to say in opposition.

In short, my mission is to subvert the factory model. That's what I take "student-centered" learning really to mean.

*'What Ails Elite Education? - The Chronicle Review - The Chronicle of Higher Education

Postscript, August 2015. An alarming, eye-opening sequel from Deresewiecz: "How College Sold Its Soul to the Market"-an excerpt:
As college is increasingly understood in terms of jobs and careers, and jobs and careers increasingly mean business, especially entrepreneurship, students have developed a parallel curriculum for themselves, a parallel college, where they can get the skills they think they really need. Those extracurriculars that students are deserting the classroom for are less and less what Pinker derides as “recreational” and more and more oriented toward future employment: entrepreneurial endeavors, nonprofit ventures, volunteerism. The big thing now on campuses — or rather, off them — is internships.
All this explains a new kind of unhappiness I sense among professors. There are a lot of things about being an academic that basically suck: the committee work, the petty politics, the endless slog for tenure and promotion, the relentless status competition. What makes it all worthwhile, for many people, is the vigorous intellectual dialogue you get to have with vibrant young minds. That kind of contact is becoming unusual. Not because students are dumber than they used to be, but because so few of them approach their studies with a sense of intellectual mission. College is a way, learning is a way, of getting somewhere else. Students will come to your office — rushing in from one activity, rushing off to the next — to find out what they need to do to get a better grade. Very few will seek you out to talk about ideas in an open-ended way. Many professors still do care deeply about thinking and learning. But they often find that they’re the only ones.
Sadly on target.

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