Greetings to students, and some things to think about

John and Scruffy

With his not-very-smart-but-friendly-and-faithful boon companion, Scruffy.

Hello to my students, both new and returning, this fall.  If you are reading this, I want to affirm your natural curiosity: A crucial part of being truly, fully successful at the College Thing is curiosity, and I encourage you to give free rein to that impulse in you–not just in your classes, either, but in Life more generally.  You can’t know whether something is going to be boring until you give it a chance to bore you, now can you?

As long as you’re here, I invite you to have a look around, and even leave comments if you’re so inclined.  Under the “About” tab you’ll find a brief bio and some basic assumptions I have about college.  The various tabs that have Domestic Issue in their title are concerned with my ongoing book project.  The “Teaching” tab is a round-up of examples of paper assignments for my classes; you’ll be seeing some of these as the semester progresses.  Finally, in addition to these posts, the “Home” page has links to various things that you may find of interest, if not actually helpful to you.

Now: if you’re really curious, below the “Continue reading” link you’ll find a long-ish discussion of what I think are some of the important questions that community colleges and their various audiences–students and their families, faculty and administration, businesses, and governments–are encountering and need to give some serious thought to.  All of those audiences will say that students are here “to get an education,” which is the right answer.  But if you ask them what that means to them, they may all list pretty much the same kinds of things, but I suspect that how they prioritize them will differ.

So.  If all of that sounds intriguing to you, by all means continue reading.  If not, that’s okay, too–as I said above, these ideas will still be showing up in various ways, mostly indirectly, as the semester progresses.

I wish you all the very best this semester.  It is my privilege to be teaching you.  I will try my best to do right by you.

What follows is a kind of framing for how I’d like to approach what we do in class, and how we do it.  What I mean by “framing” is that we won’t be talking about all of this every day, but it does provide a context for our readings and assignments.

Community colleges these days find themselves caught between three dynamics.  One: several guest speakers have told us faculty over the years that we are preparing students for jobs that don’t yet exist.  What is left unsaid but has become clearer, especially in the past five years or so, is this: in many cases, we’re also preparing students for jobs that may cease to exist before too long.  The other dynamic: Public rhetoric and that of most of my students is that community colleges are, in essence, the locations of our new voc-ed programs.  Our primary job here, even more so than that of 4-year schools, is to train you for jobs.  Meanwhile, most community college faculty members see that word “college” in their school’s name and say, More needs to be going on in community colleges than just preparation for jobs that, as I noted, may in some instances fade away into obsolescence as all kinds of workplaces become more and more automated and digitalized.  None of these are incompatible with each other, necessarily, but finding the sweet spot among them is easier said than done.  But doing the work of finding that sweet spot is crucial: These are existential questions compared to which the issues of funding, assessment, the challenges posed by online education and MOOCs seem relatively small potatoes to me.

Paul Mason’s recent long essay in The Guardian, “The End of Capitalism Has Begun,”  is not exactly despairing, but he does argue that much of our politics these days still reflects the familiar dynamics between labor and capital, when in fact that dynamic, slowly but surely, is devolving into something else, something that community colleges, at least as they are understood by most people, are not preparing students for.  True, the changes Mason is describing will not completely come to fruition for another couple of generations; but, as he notes, they are already in motion.  It seems to be the answer to the question that serves as the starting point of Hannah Arendt’s book, The Human Condition: “What are we doing?”  Her question is based on the social fact that in Western civilization, an individual’s role within (and, thus, his/her value to) the community traditionally has been premised on the kind of work that person performs.  She could see, a year before the invention of the integrated circuit, that the more automated workplaces–and not just factories, either–became, the less work (traditionally defined) would be available for people to perform, leading to “a society of laborers without labor.”

“So,” you may be thinking, “what does all of this have to do with little ol’ me, sitting in classes at Butler Community College, scared and excited by what lies ahead of me?  I’d just as soon not have some guy–a professor, no less–telling me that my education isn’t, or may not be, worth very much before too long.”  Sure–that’s fair.  So, here’s what I’d like for you to give some thought to.  Arendt and Mason, and many, many other writers in the 20th and 21st centuries, have said something along these lines: There’s nothing at all wrong with wanting a job, especially one that pays well and makes you happy for reasons other than your paycheck.  But somewhere out there are people working on designing machines whose purpose will be either to make it unnecessary to have a human being doing that job, or to require fewer people to do the same job.  (Teachers of writing are not immune to this, by the way: people are seriously trying to build machines and write software that can scan and evaluate papers for both their mechanical correctness and the quality of their content.)  So, yes, pay close attention in those classes in your major and/or career area, but also remember to think of yourself as someone not defined by your major or career.  What makes you–and all of us–human?  What does it mean to be a human being in the physical world, and as a member of a society or culture?  What can you–and all of us–do better than a robot or computer can do?  Do you value those things in yourself and in others, no matter what their job titles (or lack thereof) might be?  You don’t have to value all of those things yourself, of course, but if your criterion for valuing something is not what you personally find interesting or boring but, rather, whether this is a manifestation of human expression, then the world (both the natural world and that which humans have built) becomes a richer place for you.

The so-called gen. ed. classes you will be taking are, in their various ways, at the very center of your starting place for developing your answers to those questions.  Indeed and with good reason, many other colleges and universities call such classes their “core curriculum.”  All of those classes, no matter their subjects, value careful reading, writing, and thinking: all skills that you will be developing in your English classes.  Those skills, if you value them and work to become better at using them, will be more valuable to you, as a student and as you make your way in the world beyond college, than any machine you can own.  If you take ownership of that, if you believe that and conduct yourself accordingly as a student and a man or a woman, you will most likely be happier, more fulfilled as a person, than someone who does not.  I truly believe that, and that belief is at the core of everything I do–that I have control over, at least–as a professor.

If you’ve read this far, and if you find all of this at least a little compelling, you should be just fine, and not only in my class.  Welcome!

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