Writing to Reach You

Those of us who believe in and espouse the merits of a liberal education are often products of one. When forced to describe the composition and merits of said approach to education, though, we often fall back on squishy platitudes: “breadth and depth,” “inquiry,” “critical thinking,” “active reading” are all phrases we employ to try to describe something that we all believe in, but can’t quite put our finger on. I’m not going to engage here in an attempt to define it, but AAC&U, one of the staunchest institutional supporters of liberal education, tries here; I have quibbles, but it will do.

From my own experience as a product of a liberal education, what I valued was all of what I listed above: I took courses in a bunch of different stuff that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with my major, but I also wrote a senior thesis that went deep into one topic; I asked a lot of questions, some of which were dumb, but that’s kind of the point; and, I took a ton of notes while reading, so that I was really engaging with the material.


What I also did a ton of, though, was write. I wrote short essays, long essays, and that damn thesis (that went well over 100 pages; I had an indulgent adviser). The writing is where all of the above was brought together: it was where my thinking was made manifest, where I had to make the connections that were only in my head, and where I had to answer those questions, dumb or not. Even if the questions were dumb, the answers couldn’t be: the answers had to be rational, well-supported, and contextualized.

This article detailing a recent AAC&U study indicates that the answers part is where we seem to be falling down on the job in educating students:

Regarding critical thinking, students tended to explain issues well and present related evidence. However, the study says, students have more trouble “drawing conclusions or placing the issue in a meaningful context (i.e., making sense out of or explaining the importance of the issue studied).”

One of the questions I would always ask out of my students when I taught writing was, “So what?”. I asked this partly because I’m can be kind of a jerk, but I also asked it because I wanted to succinctly demand of students why I should care about their answers: what am I going to learn, be convinced of, changed by their writing? This is what I think I got out of a liberal education: that I can ask questions all the livelong day, but if I don’t attempt to answer them, communicate those answers(likely through writing) to others, andexplain to those others why I’m right and what that new rightness all means, then it doesn’t really matter that much.

The next piece then is to be receptive to those other people coming back and asking me (ideally not dumb) questions about my answers and starting this wonderful loop of questions and answers that begets knowledge, understanding, and insight. I also feel like we’re not very good at teaching students that next step of how to be receptive to questions. I think too often we teach writing (and by extension critical thinking) as an end to itself, rather than teaching students about that loop. The loop is the fun (and scary and sometimes ego-damaging) part, and the loop is what is great and important about education.

(Sometimes I title posts with a song lyric, which was a procrastination technique my senior year in college, where every title of an essay was a song lyric; this one is from the band Travis.)

The "Hidden Curriculum"

My first job after earning my doctorate was teaching writing at a community college. My parents met while attending a community college, so I went into the position with an inkling that I was genetically attached to community colleges and the students who attend them. 

This turned out to not be the case, in part because both of my parents went on to receive bachelor’s degrees, find good jobs, make a good amount of money — enough to eventually send their son to a very good small liberal arts college without any concerns about finances. In other words, I was pretty disconnected from the students I was teaching — and the versions of my parents 35 years earlier. 

I remember when that disconnect was brought home for me. I was meeting with a student in one of my classes who was failing the class because of missed classes and missed assignments: there was no way that he was going to pass the class, even with it only being six weeks into the semester. When I met with him, I suggested that he withdraw from the class to save his GPA from being dragged down by the F he would eventually receive. He looked at me with a blank look that told me he had no idea what I was talking about. I then proceeded to go through the ramifications of withdrawal and the process — down to writing out directions to the Registrar’s office and every step thereafter.

I realized then that my parents’ path had allowed them to pick up nuggets of information along the way about how to “do” college — that they eventually conveyed to me. I didn’t have a class that told me what a Registrar’s function was, what “withdrawal” meant, how my GPA was calculated; these and other nuggets wormed their way into me throughout my childhood — perhaps on the drive down to the University of Washington with my mom when she attended a night class while completing her degree, or in the car with my dad when he told me the story about how he got kicked out of his first college.

I haven’t really had a term to label these pieces of information about how to “do” college, but while reading a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on access to experiential learning opportunities, I came across a perfect label, expressed by a professor at Cal State Fullerton: 

Internships, study abroad, and research are part of what he calls a “hidden curriculum,” one his students often don’t know how to navigate. “No one tells you that you should have an internship, that you should study abroad,” he says.

There are whole swathes of information that aren’t taught by colleges that enrich a student’s experience in college. The reasons for not communicating this “hidden curriculum” are numerous, but I think it is important for colleges to be more intentional about exposing this curriculum for all students.

I don’t want to leave this article without discussing its main point about the importance of providing not just access but equal access to experiential learning opportunities like the one our organization provides, and this gets us back to intentionality: as the professor above implies, colleges cannot just simply offer these opportunities, but must promote them and explain them to students who may not understand at first glance their importance and value.

One of the benefits of taking this position has been witnessing the enormous growth in all of the students who have participated in the program, but particularly those students who are first-generation college students. One of our long-term goals is to provide more opportunities and expand access to our program while still maintaining the quality of the program.

In this article, she isn’t talking about our program, but one of our board members could be: 

there doesn’t have to be a trade-off between scale and quality, says Jillian Kinzie, associate director of the National Survey of Student Engagement Institute, at Indiana University at Bloomington.

She goes on to say that 

Colleges are best served when they offer opportunities that align with the ethos of their campuses, she says. Buy-in from faculty members and administrators is greater when proposals conform to the institution’s mission, and it can lessen the lift needed to get students involved. . . . [C]olleges should focus on equity of access and the quality of the activities they do offer.

One of my goals has been to broaden our base of partner colleges, and I have sought to do that with institutions whose missions suit our program. One of the reasons why our partnership with the New American Colleges and Universities has been so promising and appropriate is because these institutions’ missions explicitly connect liberal education with professional preparation — just as ours does. As Dr. Kinzie notes, when mission and program are aligned well, opportunities for students are easier to create, promote, and integrate — making it that much easier for all students to participate and benefit.


The Pressure to Measure Success

This week, our students start the first week of their internships, bookended by two civic events: the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. and the inauguration of our forty-fifth President. It is an interesting juxtaposition because of just how far our culture has extricated professional success from one’s success as a citizen or member of a community.

That statement is perhaps overblown, but an article from last year has remained in my thoughts months later. Titled “Living in an Extreme Meritocracy is Exhausting,” the article outlines how employees’ performance is increasingly ruled by algorithms, impersonal metrics, and an expectation of perfection. The author outlines how it wasn’t always this way, but that technology, the diminished role of unions, and other factors have created a professional culture that is potentially damaging for both employers and employees — and for our culture and democracy:

When society fetishizes measurement and idolizes individual merit at the expense of other things, however, it reinforces a go-it-alone mentality that is ultimately harmful to . . . egalitarian ideals.

Among the “other things” that are sacrificed in this obsession with individual employee performance is an in-depth analysis of whether the employee is set up for success by the organization itself: is it providing the tools, resources, and environment that allows the employee to succeed? 

By “reinforc[ing] a go-it-alone mentality,” this approach not only diminishes other professional skills (like the ability to work as part of a team) that employers say they want in employees, but it also makes individuals their worst critic. Further, it starts early; a dean at Northwestern University discusses how, when he asks students “who their most critical voice is, their answer is almost always ‘myself.’” I think this current approach to evaluation is felt by students early on and reinforces students’ fear of failure that he discusses

In our orientation last week, I emphasized to our students that they need to remember that their internships are learning experiences: that their hosts expect them to make mistakes, because through mistakes we learn how to improve. In many ways, I wish we could bring some of that approach into the corporate world: I feel like the ideal of perfection they inculcate needs to be tempered with the ideal of trial-and-error for the health of both employees and employers.

Returning to my earlier proposition, I think this approach to employee evaluation ultimately harms civil society: if it is constantly reinforced that we are only successful based on what we do individually, then success as a community — a success that can be messy and compromised, but also ultimately more far-reaching and egalitarian — is regarded as less valuable. It is almost as if we are inverting our nation’s motto of e pluribus unum: rather than out of many, one, we emphasize many, many ones.

In some ways, it is hard for us to go back: we cannot suddenly throw away our phones and robots, for example. However, we can try harder as employees and employers to not make the financial bottom line the only metric we use for success.

Making Language Messy

One of the topics we focus on during our orientation for students is communication: not just tips about workplace communication, but about actual, face-to-face communication, the kind of communication we are increasingly kept from as we bury our noses in our phones and earbuds into our ears.

When we discuss discussion, conversation, and communication, we talk about the fear that I think many of us have of actually engaging in conversation because it can be messy: unlike a text message, we can't edit it and we can't just stop it. We have to respond (out loud or through body language), and we have to sometimes clarify what we mean.

I think that we aren't very good at that anymore because often our conversations--in person or online--tend to happen in private: our texts, our tweets, our Facebook messages, our Snapchats are often to people who know us, who know what we mean, even before we say what we want to say. It makes us a bit lazy, really: it keeps us from having to explain ourselves because our audience already knows us.

In the context of this year's election and some recent goings-on at universities, writer Nathan Heller put forward a call that I wholeheartedly agree with:

I’ve increasingly found myself a supporter of messy public process: the legislation pushed through government slowly, in curtailed form; the interminable, fruitless-seeming town-hall meeting; many of the government’s lumbering, error-prone efforts at regulation. These processes are cumbersome, often wasteful, and inevitably infuriating. But at their best they have the virtue of occurring in a common arena, the place where all parts of a population meet. They force us, if we hope to get anything done, to translate our values and thoughts into language that communicates broadly. The more I observe, the warier I grow of privatized efficiency: in time, it indulges clannish thought. Let’s drive our language out of private circles, back toward the public sphere.

This kind of public talk forces us to build bridges, to explain ourselves, to clarify thought, and to teach. What I mean by that goes back to that old adage about not really knowing something until you teach it; when you have to teach something to someone else--translating that topic into something easily understandable to another who may have no experience with that topic--it forces you to be clear, comprehensible, and balanced. Let's teach each other to talk again, and drag our private, closed, and insular conversations into the light of the public square. As Heller notes, our founders relied upon this kind of discourse and saw it as a bedrock of our democracy; I also think it's fundamental to us as students, workers, teachers, and human beings.

Seeing College as Job Training

I have written about the liberal arts, about majors, and about preparing for a career on several occasions. And yet, I feel compelled once again to write about it--this time spurred by a recent article in the Washington Post by Steven Pearlstein perhaps provocatively titled, "Meet the Parents Who Won't Let Their Children Study Literature."

We don't actually hear from the parents in this article all that much, though the article does discuss the role parents increasingly play in the academic careers of students. This development is the opposite of what my experience as a student was. Both of my parents earned college degrees after starting at a community college (where they met), but they were not involved in my choice of major. I don't think they didn't care; I think it was more that they thought it wasn't their place to tell me what to do. Though their education was very different from mine (local community college to flagship state school versus small liberal arts college), I think they thought that since it was my education, that I should be the one deciding it--for better or worse.

I think it turned out better of course, but I'm sure they fretted no small amount when I told them I was going to be an English major and did not want to be a K-12 teacher. Thus, I understand at an abstract level the concerns parents of students I meet have when their children are deciding what to pursue.

That being said, I wholeheartedly agree with the author's point here:

This focus on college as job training reflects not only a misreading of the data on jobs and pay, but also a fundamental misunderstanding of the way labor markets work, the way careers develop and the purpose of higher education.

I feel like I am beating a dead horse here at times, but I think these are crucial points. First, he is right to point out that the reports of underpay and underemployment for majors outside of pre-professional programs are overblown.

Second, training for a specific job with specific skill sets in this economy is short-sighted at best and irresponsible at worst. I like to tell students about a friend of mine who is an internal social media manager for a major pharmaceutical company: that job didn't exist even five years ago (and there certainly wasn't a major for it). We have no idea what jobs will exist five years from now, let alone twenty-five years from now. To spend one's college career taking classes that teach skills that will be obsolete in five years rather than skills like writing, reading, and thinking that will always be useful seems like a missed opportunity.

And also a little sad. At no other time will students have the freedom to explore ways of thinking and subjects like they have in college. They have the chance to grow and change and even fail. And those are the best things to learn in college: who you are, what you like, and how to deal with failure. 

Yes, my job is to provide students with opportunities to further their professional growth--to expose them to the "real world" of work. However, I always keep in the forefront that this is a learning experience, not job training. I want them to gain some job skills, but more so develop the lifelong skills of critical thinking, writing, perseverance, and independence. I want students in our program to explore their career options, but also our nation's capital, their assumptions, and who they are. 

Reading Matters

As I have likely said before, I was an English major and went on to get my Ph.D. in English. Among the things that tells you, I have read a lot. A LOT. For most of grad school, that reading consisted of novels. To be honest, I'm not a big fan of poetry: I think I need stories and characters to keep me interested. 

After graduate school, I taught for a bit, so my reading often consisted of reading student papers. Once I didn't teach as much, my interests turned toward nonfiction and reading generally in higher education issues. At this point, the rise of blogs and tweets and podcasts and other mobile pieces came about, and my interest turned to those media. 

This New Year's Day though, I resolved to return to my first love, as it were: novels. I resolved to read more in general, but to read more novels specifically. I got myself a Kindle and started to read more before going to sleep, something I really hadn't done since I was a child.

I am sleeping better, but also loving returning to the novel. I feel my brain being more restful and engaged in other pursuits. I also, as strangely as this sounds, feel a bit more engaged with the people around me. It turns out, this isn't just me; as this author states, what you read matters in terms of what it does to your brain. 

Much of what I read on a daily basis is what she terms "light reading": not very deep emotionally, but also simple in terms of syntax and vocabulary. That kind of reading doesn't exercise our brains as much as deep reading--like poetry (what I still will likely avoid) and literary fiction. Deep reading not only helps us write and think better, but it also likely makes us better people, as "reading literary fiction led to better performance on tests of affective theory of mind (understanding others’ emotions) and cognitive theory of mind (understanding others’ thinking and state of being) compared with reading nonfiction, popular fiction, or nothing at all."

So, I would encourage you to take a bit of time away from your tweets, blogs, snapchats, and everything like them, and pick up a good novel. If you need any recommendations, just let me know.

10,000 Pieces of Grit

I am pretty skeptical of any overarching schema that the authors of which tell you will revolutionize your life and automatically lead to success. Thus, I have not read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers, which outlines his 10,000 hours=mastery theory, nor Angela Duckworth's recent book Grit, which is seemingly all the rage. The latter details how "passion and perseverance" are the main determiners of success, not necessarily intelligence or aptitude (again, I haven't read it, so that might be a gross oversimplification).

It's not that I don't believe that 10,000 hours of work can lead to success or that you have to persevere to succeed: those both seem entirely plausible. What I stumble over is the presumption that this is the one thing that will lead to success. And, it turns out I'm not alone in my stumbling: as Jeffrey Selingo outlines here, researchers who have dug a little deeper have concluded that there are multiple paths to success. As Selingo points out, that's not very reassuring to students, families, and educators: we want the one thing that we can apply to everyone that will guarantee success.

On its face, though, that's just ridiculous. In education, we value diversity--of opinion, of background, of perspective. To assume that one approach will suit every student is antithetical to our ideals.

Much more logical, it seems to me, is to provide many avenues of opportunity for students to find their own approaches and paths to success--with the understanding and teaching of those students that those paths might be dead ends. As one of the researchers notes,

what we found is that they started down one path because they thought that was what they were supposed to do, and then at some point they realized that they didn’t like that path at all. 

Choosing one path and sticking with it no matter what (which I sort of addressed in my previous post) is the definition of insanity. It's understandable though because we want to avoid disappointment, failure, and wasting time. However, not one person who deems themselves successful can honestly say that they haven't taken a few detours along the way.

Head Versus Heart

When students talk to me about what they are majoring in, I often suggest to them that they should major in what they love--what they find most interesting, what energizes them. Admittedly, this advice is based pretty heavily from my own experience. I entered college as an International Relations major, but after taking a horrific History class and discovering I would have to take Economics (which I regret not doing in hindsight), I was on the lookout for other options. My first semester, I took a class called "The Art of Writing" and was hooked: I'd be an English major. It wasn't just that I liked reading, talking about writing, or accumulating books; I was also pretty good at all three.

What Brianna Wiest says in this blog post might contradict me, or at least temper my statements. Her argument is that we can't just pursue what we love to do because passion and desire only get you so far; as she says, a passionate but ineffective pre-med student is not going to become a doctor you want operating on you. 

And, we see this sometimes in students applying to our program: they have ideas of what they want to do based on experiences from their networks or from media, and they want to pursue them--regardless of whether they are well-suited toward that field. It's a difficult conundrum to face: whether to continue to follow your heart or to follow your head. 

When the choice is presented like that, it seems that only one path leads to joy while the other leads to drudgery. However, I really liked how she reframed the discussion in her post: 

The real joy of daily work is in what we have to give. We are not fulfilled by what we can seek to please us, but what we can build and offer. It is not fame, or money, or recognition that makes for a thoroughly meaningful life, it is how we put our gifts to use. It is how we give.

Pursuing our passions is certainly a worthwhile exercise: doing so refines who we are and what we know. However, pursuing our passions without understanding that we may not actually be good at those things has to result in a series of disappointments and frustrations. 

By no means would I dissuade students from pursuing majors that they love because I think there is still a correlation between academic success and engagement (i.e., I think you'll do better at something you like versus something you hate). However, I may also temper that advice with the suggestion that, just as much as they follow their bliss, they should also follow their skills.

Together Alone

Last year I read Sherry Turkle's Reclaiming Conversation, and I've been preaching its findings ever since. This article in my former hometown newspaper spurred me to take some time to blog a bit about it. It is also timely because I spend a fair amount of time with our students during orientation talking about some of its contents, and our students arrive in two weeks!

Turkle covers a lot in this book, but basically it comes down to the negative effects technology has on our ability to converse with each other--and the effects that has in the workplace, in our relationships, and in the classroom.

One of the moments that struck me was when she introduced this paradox of modern life:

When we are apart: hypervigilance. When we are together: inattention.

This articulation of what I see all around me really hit me. What she so pithily describes is how, when we are apart from friends, family, and work, we are hypervigilant about remaining virtually connected: we are constantly checking email, Facebook, texts, Twitter, Instagram so that we are connected to those people who are not actually physically next to us. Thus, when we are actually with other people in person, we are completely inattentive. I cannot tell you how many times I see couples in restaurants checking their phones instead of talking to one another.

I know that after reading this book, I have tried to keep my phone in my pocket when I'm with friends or in meetings, because Turkle cites a study that found that the quality of conversations suffer when a phone is even physically present--not just when people check it.

I could go on, but I'd encourage you to think about how you act with those around you and what impact that has on your relationships: if you get annoyed when people check their phone around you, imagine how they feel when you do it.

PS: the title of my post is stolen from a song from one of my favorite bands.

Credits, Costs, and Internships

Over the weekend, the Washington Post published an article on the question of "Should Colleges Charge for Academic Credit for Unpaid Internships?", and Inside Higher Ed published today an article covering the same topic in which I am quoted. I wanted to flesh out some of the issues raised in both articles, and provide some thoughts that weren't included in the IHE article (I know, the article wasn't about me, so I'm not offended every little thing I said wasn't included).

First, in the IHE article, I am quoted saying that I don't know of any colleges who don't charge tuition to receive credit. This is placed in the context of internships, but what I also want to point out is that this is the case for anything: I don't know of any college that awards credit for free. Some of what I read in these two articles seemed to try to say that internships are cheaper for institutions: that institutions do not actually provide the internships--internship hosts do--and are thus of no cost to the institution. Tuition does not just pay for a faculty member's salary, but for everything at an institution (there may be arguments to be made about how an institution decides to spend a student's tuition, but that's a far larger and more complex discussion). Thus, to say that internships are cheaper than regular classes is something of a red herring and leads us down a dark road, where students would pay less for a 200-student lecture class than a 15-student seminar. I don't think we want to have that or similar pricing models (English classes are cheaper because they don't use resources like Biology classes?). 

Second, what I constantly try to emphasize is that internships are learning experiences. Here is my slightly inelegant quote, 

If you see this as work that is strictly to gain professional experience so you can get a job, I think the best kind of internships are not like that.

(I may have said that, but I hope you don't think I would actually write like that.)

What I was trying to say, is that I can understand student frustration at the idea of paying for credits for "work"--which was a word I saw repeatedly in both articles. However, an internship should not be "work," but a learning experience that connects to the rest of the academic career, that encourages putting theory into practice, and that produces learning outcomes both academic and personal. I think some of the debate here is predicated on viewing internships as not valid learning experiences like a class or research; I obviously disagree with that view.

Institutions play a large role in ensuring that students receive the kind of learning experience I described through their internships by providing support before, during, and after the internship experience--and that support costs money. Certainly, there are issues to be resolved about accessibility to quality internships for all students, and we work hard with our institutional partners to make our program as affordable as possible. However, I think students who participate in our program and other internships where learning is thoroughly emphasized and supported find the experience valuable academically, personally, and professionally--and worth the cost of tuition. 

Skills Gaps, Soft Skills, and the Promise of Potential

As I am now the age of my parents were when I was in college, I find that anytime I start to talk about students in college today, I sound like an old person: “kids these days,” “in my day,” and other indicators of massive generational difference and bias start to creep into my speech.

When I came across this article about a “skills gap,” I expected to find someone also using the same sort of parlance. However, her assertion--that students lack “soft skills” like discipline, punctuality, and other markers of the loosely defined concept of “strong work ethic”--is backed up by data: employers find a significant gap between an employee’s skill level and their performance.

Let me say first that I am not the arbiter of what constitutes a strong work ethic, nor an exemplar: I basically spent the first year working on my dissertation watching lots of game shows. I did learn from that experience though, thanks to a wake-up call from my adviser and a more alert sense of my own pride.

However, there is something more than pride at stake here. And there is something more here than the author’s assertion (with which I largely agree) that faculty do a disservice by giving students leeway, free reign, or second chances. When there is a gap between what students can do and how they actually perform, not only are employers losing out, but so too are students; there is nothing worse to me than students not realizing their potential. Our new tagline--”Capitalize on Your Potential”--is not a mere play on words, but a call for students to take their potential and run with it. If what holds them back is a lack of discipline, responsibility, or “sticktoitiveness,” then I agree that we have a responsibility to teach that to them.

Those teachable moments can of course take place in the classroom, as the author advocates; however, I would (perhaps with little astonishment to you) also argue that those teachable moments about these soft skills can happen far more effectively in the workplace through an internship. Being late to class and being marked absent is one thing; being late to your internship and missing a presentation or failing to complete a task has far greater ramifications--and impact on students.

Often, I think we (rightly) focus on the professional skills students gain through internships, but I think perhaps the most important skill students learn is being professional. In my travels last week, I met with two recent alumni who both told me that they were changed by participating in the program. Yes, they gained professional skills, made new friends, and expanded their network; however, they both stressed that they changed personally: they became more responsible, more intolerant of slacking, more mature. I just know that, by gaining these “soft skills,” these students will be more productive and more content.


English Majors Can't Get Jobs, and Other Fallacies

Earlier this month, the Modern Language Association held their annual convention. The MLA is to English and Foreign Language professors, as the American Medical Association is to doctors. I have fond and harrowing memories of attending the MLA convention, as it's where English grad students go to hear from the stars in the field, but also where aspiring English professors go to interview. It's kind of a huge mess.

Anyway, one of the topics discussed at this year's convention was "selling the English major." I went into college as an International Relations major. I soon changed to English major because, in my first semester, I took a really difficult history class, found out I had to take Economics to be an IR major (and I didn't want to, which was a mistake in retrospect), and took an English class that was revelatory: it was fun, made me improve my writing quickly and markedly, and introduced me to writers whom I continue to this day to revere and return to, like Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence

When I became an English major, I didn't really think about what I would "do" with it: I just knew I liked reading and was good at writing about what I read. I know now that I was perhaps being foolish (or at least not forward-thinking) and benefited from the luxury of  having my college paid for by my parents, and thus not having to pay back student loans as soon as I graduated.

However, from my previous work with students and talking to students now, I do wish more students would consider a bit more how much they actually like their major, and not just how much they think they will earn from it. First, as one MLA attendee mentioned, "students who love their majors are more likely to succeed": if you hate what you're doing, you're not going to do well at it. Second, certainly some majors will go on to make more than other majors, but just having a degree will likely ensure you will make a good living; one enormous misconception students have is that employers care a lot about what you major in: they typically don't.

Regarding specifically the English major (and, really, other traditional liberal arts majors), it gives you three skills that will help you in any workplace. The first is the ability to communicate well, especially in writing. Every employer wants that. The second is the ability to think critically, which will put you in good stead for a future where jobs we can't even imagine will exist; a friend of mine is an "internal social media manager" for a major pharmaceutical firm--that job didn't exist three years ago. One professor

spoke of the need to constantly be talking with students and parents about the many paths for English majors. She said that means not only the student who goes on to become a published poet or to earn an M.F.A. (although she talks about them, too). It also means the insurance agent and real estate agent who use critical reading and thoughtful writing in their jobs. 

Finally, an English major will make you a better person; or, at least "research shows that those who read literature have more empathy for fellow humans than those who don't read." Will that show up in the statistics for highest salaries? No, but it will show up in the quality of life you will have, which has to be considered.

I'm really not saying that everyone should become an English major (though many more should!): what I am saying is that your choice of major is less important than doing well in school, learning about who you are and what you want to do, and gaining experience to show future employers that you are ready (and willing) to work hard. A certain major is not going to get you a job, just as an English major will not make it hard for you to get one.

As Virginia Woolf says, "Growing up is losing some illusions, in order to acquire others."

Road Trip: Unrivaled

The Memorial chimes at St. Olaf College

The Memorial chimes at St. Olaf College

I love college rivalries. I like the passion with which my family cares about how the University of Washington does in football. They are so passionate not just because we are native Washingtonians, but because pretty much everyone in my family went to UDub (except for my cousin, who went to Washington State (otherwise known as Wazzu) and is consistently ridiculed). I will always be a UDub fan, even though I haven't lived in Washington (THE STATE) in over twenty years. 

I also love college rivalries that may manifest themselves most commonly in sports, but really are grounded in other differences. I went to Pomona College in California, and our sworn enemy was Claremont McKenna College, just across the street from us. Such proximity no doubt bred hostilities, but the rivalry for me was always more ideological: Pomona was a bastion of liberalism, while CMC was a more conservative place (they had a conservative newspaper, and Pomona certainly didn't). Thus, it wasn't just that Pomona wanted to beat CMC in football, but we wanted to prove they were wrong or worse than us. That's a much higher-stakes game.

I visited St. Olaf College and Gustavus Adolphus College a few weeks ago, one after the other since they're a short drive apart. They share many characteristics: small liberal arts colleges on hills overlooking the towns below them with incredibly bright and ambitious students, served by committed staff members, and taught by highly involved faculty members. However, Oles and Gusties are not friends. Sure, there's a natural rivalry between similar colleges near each other, but this rivalry runs much deeper.

The chapel at Gustavus Adolphus College

The chapel at Gustavus Adolphus College

Before I left St. Olaf for Gustavus, I told a staff member my destination; she replied, "oh, it's a nice enough campus, but, you know, they're Swedes, so it's not as nice as ours." Yes, the rivalry is rooted in that very Minnesotan conflict between different northern Europeans--in this case, the Norwegians versus the Swedes who founded each college, and whose culture and contemporary citizens still remain very much a part of the colleges. To an outsider, the roots of this rivalry seem adorable, probably because I don't know much about the differences between Norwegians and Swedes, but also because the commonalities seem so much more important. However, rivalries are irrational constructs we use to push ourselves forward, so the end may justify the means. 

I will not take sides here though: both campuses were beautiful.

Road Trip: Citizen of the World

As I've discussed before, our program really combines two different experiences: study abroad (or, more accurately in our case, study away) and internships. Study abroad has obvious benefits for students in terms of expanding worldviews, experiencing cultures firsthand to increase understanding, and providing opportunities for shifting perspective from what one always knew. Certainly, the latter was what was most affecting about my time abroad: taken outside of my normal context of college, I thought differently about my own perspective and my future goals. 

I love flags.

I love flags.

One of the possible benefits for colleges and their students who do not go abroad is the hope that, when students return from being abroad, their experiences will infuse a sense of global understanding across campus: that their experience will help to "internationalize" the campus. I cannot speak to whether this acculturation through osmosis actually happens, but the other way to produce this effect is to bring actual international students on campus. It is of course not all that easy to do: there must be something to attract international students to come to (and stay on) campus. 

Well, it seems like Lynn University has found a way to do that, because I have never been around such an international campus--especially at a school of its size. Walking around campus, eating in the dining call, looking at faces in classrooms, I was struck by how diverse a place it was. I was constantly hearing different languages (most of which I could place, but several I could not). 

Lynn University has a butterfly garden. Yep.

Lynn University has a butterfly garden. Yep.

The question is--and one which I didn't really ask--was how they do it. I assume that the allure of Florida is one reason, but there are many schools in Florida. I doubt the butterfly garden is a huge selling point, though it should be. I think one reason is its diverse curriculum, one that responds to the area around it but also looks beyond its borders. I think another might also be as simple as word of mouth, or perhaps that, if you are an international student visiting Lynn, you will see and hear people like you: maybe not like you exactly, but people who are not American. It's hard to be a trailblazer or an infinitesimal minority; I think sometimes it can feel like that for international students, who already have enough barriers to contend with when studying here. Thus, Lynn probably took some extra care to ensure that those first intenrational students felt at home and got a good education, and it has grown from there. 

Whatever the reason, it's a pretty special place...even if it was ridiculously hot (by all accounts, not just by this Northerner).

Road Trip: You Can Go Home Again

There is an old saw about how you can't go home again. I think the idea is that when you return to a place that has been formative in your life, you cannot merely return as if nothing has changed--neither you, nor the place that you left. To a certain extent, that may be true. At the same time, places where you have spent a lot of time at--where you have grown up, where you have learned, where you have been changed--will always be with you, and there is something that is reassuring about that.

I worked for ten years at Ursinus College before joining WII, and so I was excited to return to the campus that I knew so well, and especially to return to see old friends and colleagues. It was a bittersweet return, as the campus was still mourning the death of its amazing president, Bobby Fong. Bobby was a man possessed of a heavyweight intellect, a genuine care for students and the cause of liberal education, and a quick wit. He was a great mentor to me, and I am still shocked by his death and sad that I cannot learn more from him.

Thus, it was helpful in some ways to return to campus to share memories of Bobby with colleagues, but also to remind myself the lessons I learned from Bobby. It was also great to meet students who had obviously taken to heart Bobby's concept of "Liberal Arts Plus": that Ursinus (and many other liberal arts colleges) offered students a great education grounded in the values and practice of liberal education, but also provided opportunities for students to gain experience outside of the classroom to see those concepts put to work--exactly the kind of opportunity students can find in our program. 

So, you can go home again--you'll be different, home will be different, but there is still so much of a connection that the return can still be wonderful.

Road Trip: The Local and the Global

I love quirky campus features, and this mound definitely qualifies. The plaque describes a tradition at Adrian where students from graduating classes add ribbons to a pole that is then handed down to the next class at this site. It's apparently been going on for a very long time. I'd like to see that.

I love quirky campus features, and this mound definitely qualifies. The plaque describes a tradition at Adrian where students from graduating classes add ribbons to a pole that is then handed down to the next class at this site. It's apparently been going on for a very long time. I'd like to see that.

In my last position, I became involved in work led by the Bonner Foundation to engage students in the community--variously called civic engagement, community engagement, civic learning, or many other combinations. At their high-impact institute last summer, I had something of an epiphany. It was stressed at these meetings to ground a college's work with its community in the specificity of the place. This may sound obvious, but I guess it wasn't for me. 

To dig into this idea a little deeper, what was being argued is for us to consider when engaging with the community, what its distinguishing or even unique characteristics are. It is vital to understand that ideas from one place may not work in another: they may necessarily have to be adapted or even thrown out because they just do not translate to a different context.

This concept came back to me during my visit to Adrian College when I was speaking to a class of Social Work majors. These are students who want to finish college and return to their communities and start making real change. As part of their major, they are required to do an extensive internship--a requirement that could be fulfilled through our program. Some of the students in the class asked why they should go to Washington to do this kind of work, when what they wanted to do is work in their community--often their hometown. 

On its face, it seemed like the obvious answer was that they shouldn't: they should start the work they wanted to do down the line as soon as possible, in the place they know, with issues they are already aware need to be addressed. However, part of a liberal education is perspective taking, and I argued to those students that to go to Washington to do their internship would provide them with a better opportunity to help their community: if they only know the specificity of their community, of their place, they won't be able to address the challenges that face that community as fully as they would if they have a larger perspective on those challenges.

Hey campuses: every student center should have fire pits...

Hey campuses: every student center should have fire pits...

For example, if they were to intern for a semester at a local organization devoted to improving access to healthy food options in Detroit, they would get great experience in how that issue works in Detroit; however, if they were to intern for a semester in Washington at a national organization devoted to those issues, they would be able to see what is working in other places--and be a part of the national conversation about that issue and see how national policies were affecting their work on the ground in Detroit. They would be able to take time to approach the issue from more angles than just the local; this perspective-shifting could result in different approaches than had been tried.

Place is important, and it should be emphasized when engaging with communities: just because Adrian might look like the town thirty miles away from it, I'm sure it isn't. At the same time, I think it's important to get outside of the place to which you are accustomed so you can see that place in a new way when you return. 

Road Trip: The Apprentice

No, not that Donald Trump vehicle. Is that even on anymore? I hope not.

Anyway, last week I got to visit Dominican University, which is near Chicago and the suburb of Oak Park. I'll get to the title of this post and Oak Park, but first, Dominican. I had a great visit, having the opportunity to visit with a lot of classes and quite a few faculty members. Dominican has sent a lot of students to DC through our program over the years, so they are very enthusiastic about WII and the opportunities for students. 


Many (if not the majority of) Dominican students are, in academic parlance, "commuters," which seems to have a negative connotation in some parts. Frankly, I couldn't have imagined being a commuter student, because I simply don't think at the time I was ready for college I would have had the stamina, patience, and resolve to live at home (or off campus) and come to school every day. I laud "commuter students" and I'll try to come up with a better term for you folks. I also think that for those students who don't live on campus and then come to DC with us, it must really be an even deeper acclimation: first to living in a different place, and then to living with complete strangers for the first time. 

Anyway, when the students do arrive on campus, they find a lovely one, with a blend of the old and the new, and some wonderful cloisters, which I appreciate. 

Now to the title. I had actually been near Dominican before because on a previous trip to Chicago I made my way to Oak Park to see many of the houses still standing designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright is a real favorite of mine. There is something about his approach to bringing together the human and natural world in a non-cheesy, birdhouse, weird sort of way that is genius and almost spiritual for me. I like how he plays with scale and changes perspectives in a space to make you feel something. 

At one point in my youth, I wanted to be an architect. I loved playing with Legos and drew many floorplans of dream houses. This is probably normal, but I thought it was really something I might pursue. Years later, I got to meet an architect at Wright's school in Arizona, and he talked about the apprenticeships that he underwent and now led. It is a practice really of medieval times: one craftsperson teaching someone everything to do with their craft. There is mentorship there, but also skills and knowledge passed on--often for the good of the craft itself.

In some ways, I wish internships were renamed apprenticeships: I just feel like there is more respect for that term--and more of a sense of responsibility on both sides. Perhaps I can start on that petition once I come up with another name for commuter students.

Road Trip: Fall is here!


Given my previous comments about heat, it will probably come as no surprise that my favorite season is fall. I like the weather. I like the changing leaves (that wasn't always the case. Having grown up in Washington, The Evergreen State, my first fall on the east coast resulted in a deep pining for green once all the leaves had dropped). 

I also think I like fall so much because, for those of us in academia, it is the beginning of the year with all that that entails: new students to meet, new projects to start, colleagues to re-connect with--in general, a sense of optimism. Thus, the usual descent into decay that fall may symbolize to many is completely lost on me: I think of fall as representing just the opposite. 

That's THE Saint Anselm

That's THE Saint Anselm

My visit to Saint Anselm's College made me think about fall because, as you can see, the leaves are right in mid-change. It helps that it's in New Hampshire, but even upon my return to DC, the nights suddenly were chilly, and my preferred uniform of shorts and a t-shirt was insufficient and regarded with shock and astonishment by passersby.

My trip to St. A's (in the local parlance) also made me think of my interpretation of fall because they are a new partner institution, and so the students, faculty, and staff I met with saw our program with fresh eyes and reactions. While I enjoy talking with students who know everything (and perhaps more than I do) about our program, it's also fun to walk students through the possibilities that await them in DC.

So, a chill in the air means new possibilities ahead--and the ability to wear what I want without necessarily sweating.

 I don't know what this is, but I love weird things like this on campuses.

 I don't know what this is, but I love weird things like this on campuses.