Wednesday, February 27, 2008

What do you know?

I've been pondering this question lately. Knowledge, unlike physical stuff, accumulates without taking up any space--and is, therefore, easy to forget about. I would like to believe, that is, that it is just forgotten about and not actually lost. But I know that is a dream.

As I approach my semi-significant birthday (or that year in which I have to accept, once and for all, that I am an adult :(), I can't help but think back to how I have spent my 20s. What have I been doing? By and large, the answer is easy: I have been sitting in class. So I thought it would be fun if, over the next week or so, I reminisced a bit about my educational history. With ten years of class sitting behind me, I should know a lot of stuff, right? I wish. Really, knowledge accumulation is on my mind lately because I am feeling that tinge of conscience that says: You should be pretty good at this by now... so what's the problem?

In 1997 (I know this is a bit more than 10 years ago, but this is where it starts) I enrolled at Pima Community College in Tucson. That first semester in school, I don't recall exactly what my plan was--or if I even had one. I just knew that I needed to take some general courses and so I enrolled in some general courses. I took Writing 101, Western Civ 101, and Sociology 101. My writing instructor was a very quiet woman--and though I did well in the class, I wasn't particularly inspired--certainly I didn't think: "I think this is what I would like to do as a part of my own career." Western Civ was taken as a part of a history or liberal arts requirement. The class was simple. All I remember of the instructor was that he was he looked like Ed Rooney from Ferris Bueller's Day Off and said the word "modernity" a lot. I enrolled in sociology because my dad's BA and MS (MA?) were in Sociology and I kind of considered myself a chip off that block, so maybe I would be into it. My instructor was a part-time teacher, full-time biker, often wore leather to class (oh--and don't forget the Harley doo-rag) and had a long bushy beard. I remember that when he spoke, I thought that the stuff he said was smart. His biker-ness gave him a certain down to earth approach to teaching that I liked.

But I remember nothing knowledge-wise from that first semester. I would wager that I forgot it all the moment that the final test was done. Granted, my mind was on other things. Second semester wasn't much different. Writing 102 also failed to make much of an imprint on me, I took Western Civ 102 from the same instructor for the easy A and also took an intro to guitar class so that I could get some practical knowledge to go along with the self-taught stuff. Again, nothing really stuck. I read Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily" for the first of what would be dozens of times and wrote a final paper comparing my favorite Bradbury novels, Something Wicked this Way Comes and Dandelion Wine.

This first year is significant for a number of reasons, though. First--it represents one of the sad truths about post-secondary education: most of it doesn't sink in, is taken just to pass, and is quickly discarded. At least it was for me, but I have a hunch that I am not alone. Granted, I was at a community college. My instructors were likely underpaid adjunct faculty. None of them were really trained to inspire or guide students in one particular direction or another. Student apathy mixed with good ol' 18-year-old ignorance and garnished, perhaps, with consumer culture ideologies makes education another thing to be purchased, used, and then discarded. Knowledge gathering is barely on the radar and therefore is rarely, at first (if ever), a priority. It is ironic that I am now on the other side of the desk, so to speak. I teach students with similar ideologies. Most are in my 103 an 104 classes just to pass-- to check it off--and why shouldn't they? Why should I expect them to be any different than I was? Because this is a major university and that was just a community college? I don't like that argument. But still, in a culture where education is consumed instead of accumulated and guarded, introduction classes are the most disposable of all, are they not? And while I now realize the importance of the knowledge to be gained in the introductory course--indeed, I am a practitioner of it, my students likely don't/won't/can't.

So part of me wants to blame this consumerism ideology on my difficulty with accumulating or "laying up in store" the knowledge that I desire and now need to be successful in my field. I know it is more complicated than that... but its got me wondering about how I might subvert the tendency as I approach my own students and teaching. Can they be taught to care more about what they know? I don't know.

Stay tuned for the next chapter: "Two Associates Degrees, or How to Waste your Time Expensively with Little to Nothing to Show for It"


  1. in conclusion, the general education system set up at the college level needs to seriously be re-evaluated. I am currently doing this with the GE's I am taking. And if you look at my sheet I have printed off in my room there is literally a check mark next to the GE's I have taken. I'm down to my last year of college here finally "getting around to" taking these classes which seem more like a nuisance to me than an opportunity to learn about how to cross genes to hypothetically figure out if a bunny is going to have spots or not.

    Part of me feels like I'm waisting my money on these classes which are just check marks to me. And I know that if I went and complained about this to someone they would say "well you should be seeking out to learn..." blah blah blah.

    My Media Arts classes ROCK! I learn so much that seems valuable to me. Even the intro classes I've had to take. I think that the university to allow students to challenge this general education core. If they choose, they can meet with a counselor to create a more specific and personal general education set of classes that the student feels will benefit them the most, and with that they would have to back up each class with a really good reason. There are certain history and business classes that I should take to prepare me for a career in Theatre/Film or any type of media job. Let those be my General Education courses. Not stupid biology, the class I am actually sitting in right now as I right this response.

  2. Jon it sounds to me like you need to come to your class in a ragged beard and leather to really get your student's attention.

  3. Anonymous3:18 PM

    I think your identification of students as consumers is insightful. Students do act like consumers.

    (And after all, why shouldn't they? In order for educational institutions to justify their own existence/importance in the world, they really should be able to show that they offer something concretely valuable, that they are not just ivory towers where certain privileged people get to hang out enjoying themselves.)

    The problem, I think, centers around what exactly is being "consumed." Based on the way many students behave (e.g., trying to exchange the least possible knowledge for their money) they are not buying knowledge but rather accreditation.

    And in the average student's mind, the type of accreditation desired is usually pretty specific. I think Nick's comment illustrates perfectly this point.

    The tension is that the university is interested in providing additional training before it will grant accreditation. The university believes some general knowledge is necessary to earn their stamp of approval as a "college-educated individual."

    And by and large, the "real world" agrees. (This is why an Ivy League diploma will usually get you further than an online tech-university certificate.)

    So students jump through "the hoop" of General Education because other people say they have to, not because they want to. These other people promise this education will be valuable to them, but students are not sure they believe this.

    And herein is the tension:
    General Education can seem like an ideal. But students care most about the real.

    The ideal behind General Education is not to educate people to become something specific (whether it be an accountant or a engineer or a multi-media artist).

    General Education is (ideally) intended to educate students to be citizens: accountants who are skilled enough communicators that they can write persuasive political editorials; engineers who know enough about statistics that they can recognize fraudulent statements; or even multi-media artists who know enough about biology that they can participate intelligently in the national debate about stem cell research.

    But for students who are putting all of their energy into the very concrete endeavors of becoming a good accountant or engineer or artist, big ideals like citizenship can seem very nebulous.

    It may be a lesson only time and experience can teach. At some point--no matter what the field--a person's ability to "climb the ladder" will be stymied if they don't have both good communication skills, good mathematical/budgeting skills, and a broad understanding of how society works.

    And so eventually through their own real-life experience, many people will realize how grateful they are that someone taught them to communicate clearly, that someone helped them understand world history, etc.

    (But not always. Teaching for the general good of society can be a thankless endeavor.)

    In the meantime...

    I think the best approach is to do whatever possible to help make a general subject specifically applicable to students' specific ambitions. Explain the real-life application of mastering the subject. (Fortunately, writing is a subject where this doesn't require too much stretching.)

  4. wow...speaking of good writing skills. my fluish symptoms have made my spelling go out the window. "right." Really? I wrote "right" instead of "write" ?


  5. Don't worry, Nick--my post was a hasty rough draft as well and certainly not prepared for the eyes of our articulate and thoughtful anonymous poster (i have fixed a few bad mistakes now conscious-> conscience , Beuler ->Bueller.

    She brings up some interesting points, does she not (and I am assuming a gender here--I've got a hunch)? She certainly provides some depth for my quickly articulated thoughts.

    I am not sure that abandoning the GEs is the best idea--though I also suffered through those sciences... Should we be as hasty as to abandon required sciences? What about the person who is SURE that they are going to be an underwater basket weaver until they take Bio 101--and they're hooked?

    The "better citizen" argument is a persuasive one, though--as Anonymous points out--it is rather idyllic. I didn't mention this in the post, but the freshman comp courses that I teach are vastly different from what I had at the CC. In my current classes we are studying more socially relevant ideas (with rhetorical skill building at the core) whereas WRT 101 at Pima was mostly just an into to lit class. I think, had I taken the classes at the U of A it may have been different (I'll talk about the pros/cons of transferring from a community college to a Major university in my next post).

    I think that the academy may be getting better at citizen building--but it takes a mature student to allow for the seepage. I wasn't ready at 18. But maybe that's why I stuck around. I wanted what I was learning to be meaningful so I just kept plugging away till it started, finally, to sink in. That's one theory, I guess. :)

  6. I agree with your statement that general education courses can help a person decide what path to take. This happened to me, I entered community college as a little 17-year-old right out of high school with a specific career path in mind. After taking an awesome anatomy/physiology class (and after my chosen career path would not let me into their program- twice) I knew I wanted to continue to study the human body.

  7. I really do think that a 4 year degree is a "hoop". I am not a collage graduate, and because of that fact will probably never be able to land a job at a fortune 500 company. Does the fact that I didn’t jump through that hoop make me less intelligent than the frat brother that drinks and cheats his way through a 4 year degree? It is most certainly a culture of “that’s how we had to do it, so that is how it should be done.” I do not discount the importance of education though. I think it creates the opportunity for people to become well-rounded individuals. Institutions of higher learning are also important as a community that fosters great ideas and ingenuity.
    As to the topic of accumulation of knowledge, I think it is all a matter of application. Look at the blog Jon’s students write. I would wager most of them would not write and post things like that to their personal blogs and Facebook pages. Be teaching them that taking notice of the world around them and then writing and expressing what they see and interpret is an important skill. If, in my naive youth, I could have understood the ways to apply what I was learning it may have held my interest longer.
    It can also work the other way. If I want to apply myself to something new, then I am presented with an opportunity to gain more knowledge. I think that is what life is all about. The accumulation and application of knowledge

  8. I want to ask why Jon thinks anonymous is a woman first of all or are you just trying to be pc and call her a woman instead of a man as that seems to be the new trend in identifying pronouns.

    As for me, my experience was like Tina's in that I didn't know what course I wanted to pursue in college when I entered. I had done very well in every subject in high school (I hope that doesn't sound braggish 'cause I'm not aiming for that, just trying to demonstrate that I felt like my options were pretty open).

    That being said, BYU was hard! I mean, we had multiple choice tests in GE classes that would be a-h with options being a) the cell b) the micro-organism... g) a & b but not necessarily leaving out f, etc. etc. It really pushed those who were considering a certain option to really question how much work it would be to pursue that degree. The chemistry classes at the college were legendary. Each class would get no more than 2 A's in a class of 70-100 kids. Kids who were all top 10% of their high schools, used to always getting A's. It was really hard on your self-confidence.

    However, I do agree that it was good to be exposed to all of those difficult classes in the beginning to help me to decide which was the best fit for me. Unfortunately, I think that the teacher teaching the class has a HUGE influence that I don't know if anyone has brought up. I absolutely loved most of my college English classes, but in high school, I dreaded them due in large part to the teachers. Seriously, natural talent plays a role, but if you have talent in areas that are totally different, the presentation by the teacher can make all the difference.

    I also have to mention that I did very well in my GE classes that were taken before I knew my major (I decided the fist semester and stuck with it--I am very much one who goes off of feelings though). The GE classes I took at the end of my junior and senior years were fine except for one science class that I just didn't want to do, so I didn't even try. I don't think there's any way to force someone to care about something they don't see relevant (to be churchy--vting, hting, etc.). The human being is composed that way naturally and unless someone deems something, be it school or any other obligation, important, it's not going to be cared about in the same way. No changing that I say.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking discussion.