This week I was asked to speak with a group of Post Grad students. This is a class of students (BA already in hand) who have entered an intense three semester program (two semesters of study and one of internship) with the serious purpose to begin a career.
I have five one-year PG certificates in my cluster of programs, and all are very successful in preparing students for placement and employment. They are very attractive to applicants with an undergraduate degree that is valuable in terms of knowledge and perspective (History, Sociology, Psychology, etc.) but which may not lead directly to a job.
The students in these programs are usually committed, dedicated, and serious about the disciplines in which they are becoming expert. One section of students in one of the programs, though, is a bit different…and this is the class to whom I spoke. The Coordinator has been frustrated that they (and by this I mean some of the group…perhaps 1/4) are not as serious. Attendance, coursework and practice do not carry for them the importance that we have been used to seeing.
My goal was to address the problem in a sideways fashion (no one likes to be scolded or told what their faults are…perhaps millennials least of all) and give them some good advice that they may remember. So, I began with a comment that some professors forget in this situation: When you chastise a class for poor attendance, you need to remember that you are speaking to those present and not to those absent, so the speech is liable to become tragic early on. This got me a bit of a laugh, so I moved on to our hopes for them…complete the formal studies, have a great experience in the internship, and move on to a good job and good income. Then I expressed our concern that not coming to class and submitting assignments will jeopardize the whole model.
The class had gone dead silent, so I decided to tell a story: My undergraduate degree is in Aboriginal studies, and many years ago I happened to get a chance to participate in a week-long cultural workshop. It was challenging, interesting, and unusual (at the halfway point in the week, we were able to experience a sweat lodge), and I was also granted a short ‘one on one’ session with an Elder. He told me a story (which, honestly, I am still making sense of) and then made a comment almost in passing as our 30 minutes was drawing to a close: “Do you know what is the worst thing about human beings? They never know what’s happening to them until it’s too late.”
This truth has come back to me many times over the years, so although I had not planned to deliver this specific message, I passed it (with a brief set up) along to this class. I told them to do their best to see what’s coming…to make their own decisions before others decide for them.
Not much of a reaction. I asked the professor after the class was over (I spoke for 15 minutes at the start of class) if he had received any feedback; he said that some had mentioned that I had been perceived as a bit negative. Another truth came to me:”the medium is the message”. The atmosphere in a classroom where the Associate Dean is brought in to berate a group of students is not the most positive learning or remembering situation.
So I have been turning this over in my mind all week, what I might have said, how I could have been more effective, etc., and then yesterday I was reading part of a McLuhan book “The City as Classroom” (from York U. Public Journals):
In it, McLuhan questions the validity and relevance of a model of teaching and learning that had been common up until the 70s, and still seems to be present in some ways in today’s classroom 40 years later: students sitting in lines of desks tends to define a classroom,and learning still passes largely from professor to student in a classroom environment. Education is changing though; much experiential learning has been added: There are many opportunities for real world problem-solving; we facilitate interactive sessions with industry experts; we include a variety of learning activities and assessments.
As I read on, McLuhan changes direction and begins a section called “Clocks”. The first line: “Suppose that, sometime between sundown and sunrise tomorrow morning, all clocks, watches, chronometers and mechanical timepieces of every sort disappeared completely and forever.” (see PDF, above). He asks a number of questions, such as: “What would happen to school routines? What would ‘on time’ mean to a student or to a class? Would your study habits be in any way affected?”, which in light of of the importance we place on college schedules and attendance to them, are fair ones, and which compelled me to ask some of myself: Why are some of these students not attending? Why are they not submitting work on schedule? Why are they not listening to what we tell them, why do they not value more highly our advice, when we are only trying to look out for their best interests, prepare them for the wold of employment, and help them know how to be successful?
Of course these are not new questions, but in speaking to this group of students I have found the questions to be reframed. The Elder with whom I spoke years ago was not kidding me when he said we don’t see what’s coming at us until it’s too late, and my challenge as a human being and as an educator is to do my best to heed his warning and somehow look forward. We must find a way to communicate with those students who are not in class to listen.
More on this: City as Classroom