What freedom do we gain when we learn that education has become a loss leader? Does that not open up space for us to reject job preparation as the sole function of the university? If education is just the thing that gets people in the door, then why not fill it with experiences that are meaningful to students beyond a credential or job training?
Kathleen Fitzpatrick reminded us of the potential of the university to set an example of community and generosity, to remind people that good things exist outside of economic markets. And when market logic is so explicitly embraced by the institution it inadvertently opens up space for the opposite. If I’m allowed to think about education as only a secondary function of my institution, then it seems like I have a lot more latitude in how I go about interpreting and fulfilling that function, and I find Kathleen’s interpretation quite appealing.
In his on Kathleen’s work, Matt Cheney proposed that we focus on students having good experiences now, here, in this present moment rather than on their preparation for a future so uncertain it defies preparation. When I think about what meaningful experiences I might try to facilitate, I think about things that I most looked for in my own education: opportunities to get to know my peers and share myself with them, opportunities to learn about myself, and exposure to unusual experiences or ideas I couldn’t have arrived at on my own. When these things happened, education didn’t feel like work. They were nourishing rather than extractive or demanding.
Matt’s suggestion is not only the only sane reaction to the burnout and malaise of our students, but oddly enough also completely compatible with both the goal of higher ed as stated by its board of trustees (preparing students for future jobs, contributing to the economic success of our state) and its real goal (perpetuating itself. Note: I just about fell over when Kathleen pointed out, and I’m paraphrasing here, The institution is convinced it is more important that the people in the institution.) While the board might see a contradiction between meaningful experiences in the now and job preparation, I don’t, (nor do I think Matt was presenting it as an either/or choice.) Experiences that are meaningful now are the only ones that have any chance of sticking. Memorize all the content you want, but if it wasn’t meaningful to you, it won’t still be in your brain by the time you get to your first post-graduation job. Even experiences that are self-reflective can contribute to career success. Self-knowledge can help you identify the kinds of work where you would have the most to give and feel the most fulfilled. Likewise, the building of community among ourselves and our students is compatible with the continuing existence of the university. How often has Marlon told us community and connection are why students stay, are the most important factors in retention?
I participated in the Academic Rebalance program this semester. (If you’re not familiar, this is a pilot program where freshman who would otherwise have been severed due to a low first semester GPA go through an 8-week program designed to address some of the challenges they faced and the resources available on campus to help, and upon completion have their GPA reset.) Spending time with my cohort of students both reminded me of what I already knew and taught me new things about the hardships students are up against. And I desperately want those students to get from their degree whatever is necessary for them to get jobs, to get their basic needs met and claim whatever security is available to them. But in the Rebalance guide debrief meeting, we all agreed that it was the community and interpersonal connection aspects that students expressed the most appreciation for. These are the students most in need of the kind of healing, restorative experiences that a community-building, self-reflective, experiential education can provide.
Of course, it’s easy for me to say from my position in the library that we should emphasize meaningful experiences in the present. The library was never about job prep anyway. We have no content we must teach, no accreditation guidelines. Still, I started my journey as a librarian wanting students to know how to do what I knew how to do and was confused when only a small handful of students seemed to want this. I have moved slowly but steadily towards a sensitivity about what students find to be relevant to their lives, to the parts of what I can share that will be meaningful for them, (read: less library catalog, more data privacy and understanding algorithms.) This year in CPLC inspired me to look for even more ways that I can engage students in the parts of what I know that really matter to them and to do it in ways that will be meaningful and nourishing right now.
It’s up to every individual instructor to determine what kind of classroom experience will best serve their students. But for me, both my profession/position in the library and the framing of education as only secondary to renting real estate and selling meal plans gives me permission to follow my own values in constructing experiences for students.