Wednesday, October 04, 2006

What Really ARE the Needs of Our Students?

When considering any notions of reform, it's normally helpful to make an effort to define one's terms and intentions.

As a college instructor, I've a personal interest in defining the role of today's universities. My academic backgrounds--the fields in which I have undergraduate and/or graduate degrees--are in Writing and Poetics, English, and Secondary Education.

However, I'm also a member of the business community. In the past, I've served as Director of Online Marketing and Content Generation for a national powersports dealership (we sold and delivered new and used ATVs, motorcycles, jet skis and jet boats to consumers all over the US), and I've just accepted a position at a recently launched Tech startup. This means that I've a professional interest in the "product" of universities/colleges--namely, the quality of the students' education--those whom I'll make the decision to hire, or not.

I suppose this situation gives me a somewhat different perspective than many of my collegiate colleagues (though of course there are many others like myself out there--particularly in disciplines such as Business or Engineering). Like Tiresias, I feel I've been given the opportunity to simultaneously approach this issue from differing sides.

The old ideal of the Liberal Arts Education still holds sway among most academics--particularly in disciplines regarded as among the Liberal Arts (i.e., the Arts & Humanities, my own area).

We want our students to receive a well-rounded education. We want them to be able to think critically about various problems, and to approach solutions from an interdisciplinary perspective. We stress collaborative learning, tolerance for opposing points of view (academic, or otherwise), and want our students to be effective and enthusiastic life-long learners and communicators.

Many academics want the university to hold a place of respect, approaching reverence, in the popular culture. We value education (having personally devoted the bulk of our adult lives to it) above mundane concerns such as "What are you going to do with a major in English? Teach?"

Education is something we pursue for the beauty of it. We like the idea of education for education's sake. It is its own reward; deepening our experience and understanding of the world around us. Intrinsic motivation is our primary motivation.

Our students, particularly those from Lower- or Working Class backgrounds (like me), take Liberal Arts classes largely because they're requirements for graduation. These students are interested in what's "practical" for their future careers.

Certainly there are many of these students who share the educational values I mentioned earlier, but the statistics are grim for traditional Liberal Arts disciplines, like Literature, where the number of students pursuing the major has been in steady decline for the past decade (see the many studies/reports conducted by the Modern Language Association at MLA).

Is the rising cost of a college education, and proportionately rising amount of student loan debt, forcing a shift in the way we teach as well as what we teach? How do we satisfy the expectations, and needs of our students? What really are the needs of our students--and are these also the needs of employers?

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