Risk Takers, but only “After Hours”?

There was another article today on the theme of students and learning that interested me. It was on the website InsideHigherEd.com focusing on the “After-Hours Intellectualism” of students, from a faculty member at a liberal arts college in Vermont who, along with his family, also lives with first year students in a residence hall. You can read the article here.

But this paragraph really stood out to me:

“They are earnest, savvy young people who have effectively played the role that contemporary schooling culture expects them to. They have not been rewarded for taking risks with their learning and, because of this, have never really tried. Instead of being a medium to make sense of their changing lives and aspirations, academic subjects become an obstacle to be overcome in order to get out into the world and focus on what they say they really want to do.”

I think this is true for many of our students. They have learned the game and don’t see a value in taking a risk away from the tried and true, or the “find out what the teacher wants and get an A.” I am concerned about this because I do want students to challenge themselves as we well as stretch themselves creatively – to solve problems.

I am reading Laura Hillenbrand’s book Unbroken right now, about WWII pilots who crashed in the Pacific and had to stay afloat and alive on the water for an extremely long period of time. I am amazed at the creative powers they developed to stay alive and afloat. It made me think of the post RSA Animates (the video) about finding things to do with paper clips. These guys on a raft in the Pacific had to find new ways to use very common items – to catch fish, beat off sharks, and keep rafts afloat.

The book is an extreme example, but how do we get students to take problem-solving that involves their creativity to new heights in their LEARNING and not just use it from midnight to 3 AM (or whenever they are up and around)?


4 Responses to Risk Takers, but only “After Hours”?

  1. While I understand the purpose of this blog is for faculty, I want to make a comment on this article. The game of getting the “A” is the one game my peers have mastered. Sadly, learning becomes subjective. Students look at the syllabus and formulate what assignments will need more time. The only comments I get in regards to class outside of the classroom is who’s doing what this weekend or what’s happening tonight. That is not to say that all of the students here at the college have that mindset, though some do.

    What a student learns in the class room should be integrated into the conversations they have during lunch or even when hanging with their peers. Professor Maynes, a Philosophy professor, gave us the tools we needed to examine an argument, which is something I found fascinating. Rather than limiting my newly learned knowledge in the class room, I took the tools back to my dorm and got to work. There is not a story that goes past my eyes without having dissected the argument or lack thereof. Sure, I may not always get the answer right, but I am learning. Nevertheless, I think school is a time to grow and start using your newly found knowledge. Learning should never be limited to the class room.

    Sometimes I wonder if my fellow students consider college as something you buy. Having bought the right to college changes the mindset one has towards school. Their education is something they maintain with as little effort as possible. Why bother applying the newly learned materials outside of classroom if all one has to do is buy thier degree. Sadly, that is the reality we are facing. I can only imagine the hardships professors face as their students can be apathetic at times unwilling to participate.

    Lastly, even though I have felt the sense of laziness this semester,there is still a beacon of hope here at McDaniel College! Not sure what will motivate my peers to do homework with my on Friday nights…but I am trying!

  2. gretchenmckay says:

    Thanks for posting, Derrick. One thing that is often missing from discussions on teaching is the voice of students. I have been thinking of ways to include students in the conversation about learning and education in general.

    One question for you: would you say that students are mostly interested in classes that are in the major, as opposed to one of their core liberal arts inquiry classes? I have had many students take a class from me for a requirement, only to be surprised at what they learned and how interesting it was.

  3. Dr. McKay,

    Unfortunately, yes students do tend to select courses that are a part of their major. Sure, having acquired a core structure of principles via ones major is wonderful. Yet, if one does not exercise their newly found knowledge to other classes, it seems they have stopped engaging themselves. Thus, students who try and adhere only with their major have been able to master the art of manipulating the curriculum, which enables them to achieve that “A.”

    I sometimes wonder if the students attending McDaniel College understand the meaning of a liberal arts education. Multiple comments are made in regards to the McDaniel plan, such as “why do I have to take a stupid science class,” or “Do I really need to take that history class.” My answer would, undeniably, be yes.

    A liberal arts education provides students with a core method of principles, which should be applied to any class thereafter that the student decides to take; whether or not it has anything to do with his or her major. For instance, I am currently taking “Philosophy of Science,” which is pushing students into better understanding what science is and specifically what does that say about the scientific work that is being produced today. Are the methods being used allowing scientist to produce “good” scientific work?

    By no means am I interested in science; however, taking the knowledge acquired from my philosophy class has allowed me to succeed in Astronomy. Nevertheless, a student’s major provides them with the tools to learn, what one does with those tools is a different story. McDaniel, being a liberal arts college, provides the means to utilize the knowledge gained via his or her major in any given class.

    Perhaps this is bias, given that I am a philosophy major, but perhaps students need “Critical Thinking” and “logic” as a foundation to approach his or her major. Before declaring Philosophy as my major, I was the student who only tool sociology classes until I had decided to try something new.

    Having taken classes outside of my original major has changed the way I see education. It has also boosted my GPA, which grading is subjective, but it still feels good. If possible, and you have the time, I am more than happy to meet and further discuss this matter. Sometimes the meaning behind a comment does not adequately reflect ones thoughts.


    Derrick Woolfson

    • gretchenmckay says:

      If students don’t understand the meaning of a liberal arts education, I would say part -though not all – of that is due our lack of effectively communicating the importance of such to them. Of course there is the necessity of knowing the curriculum and why you are coming to a school like this — but I think such questions are easily subsumed under questions as “What are the dorms like?” and other more “atmospheric” concerns that *are* real concerns. I wish I had ONE STUDENT who acted interested in the McDaniel Plan when I explain it to my FYS students each fall. Just one.

      One of the topics faculty are discussing (or at least I’m trying to get them to) is that critical thinking can be taught in many disciplines, not just philosophy. I have my students engaged in critical thinking in several of my courses. I wonder if they know it? I tell them they are doing it. I hope it’s sinking in!

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