Spring semester welcome: Education as oyster-shucking


Oyster shuckers, Bayou La Batre, Alabama, 1911.  Photograph by Lewis Hine.  Image found here.

To my students, both those I have had in class before and those who are new to me and/or new to college, welcome to the new year and a new semester!  I have not required any of you to visit this blog or this post, so your visit here reveals something about you to me: you are curious, inquisitive people who, yes, want to know as best you can what the the path straight ahead of you looks like, but who also aren’t above looking around the passing scenery as well.  Looking at the scenery–or reading this post–won’t get you any faster to where you are going; on the other hand, it just may be the case that the scenery might reveal to you something you hadn’t been aware of before, something that you might in fact find to be of even greater value to you than what you imagine awaits you at your destination.  (I won’t make the same claim about this post.)

Oh–the picture up there.  In a way, it is about you.

Last week, Butler’s full-time faculty began discussing changes to how students will select courses, with the goal of reducing their confusion and frustration as they determine what courses they should take and when.  The first year of classes, as we envision it for students who are interested in majoring in disciplines in my own division, the newly-constituted Humanities and Social and Behavioral Sciences (HSBS), will be pretty scripted.  It will be a combination of the general education classes that all students must have, along with classes intended to introduce HSBS students to what intellectual work is like within that division.  Sounds simple enough.  However, as we talked with an advisor about what classes transfer to what schools (don’t ask–it will just make you angry, I promise), we found ourselves making difficult choices about what courses to include or exclude in that list of first-year classes.  The choices had nothing to do with the courses’ intrinsic value, but with the vagaries of other 4-years schools in Kansas and what they will and will not count toward a degree.  As we talked, I began to fear that we were worrying more about what matters to other schools than what matters to us.  We were paying short shrift to what we think matters for our students and, for that matter, forgetting that no well-designed educational experience, whether or not it fulfills a degree requirement, is ever wasted time for a student.  As I put it to my colleagues, “We should be telling our students, ‘The world is your academic oyster–so let’s go shuck some oysters.'”

That brings me to the picture above.  As you can see, oyster shucking was not the most glamorous of professions 100 years ago, and I very much doubt it has gained in glamour.  But I wasn’t arguing on behalf of glamour.  If we think of the expression “the world is your oyster,” we know it means that the world’s opportunities are right out there, waiting for us.  But those opportunities are not just passively lying out there, waiting to be picked up.  Like oysters, they have to be dragged off/out of the beds where they grow, brought on board the trawlers, taken to the oyster houses, and then forcibly opened.  The same is often true of education itself.  It’s equally important to keep in mind that the shuckers aren’t looking for pearls but removing the oyster from its shell so it can be eaten.  “Knowledge is as food,” John Milton has the angel Raphael tell Adam in Paradise Lost.  Learning and knowing stuff helps keep us alive: it’s vital, essential, earthy work, just like eating.  While I do think there’s value in limiting the academic menu in students’ first year, I and my colleagues know that Butler, and all colleges who want to do right by their students, should also be providing their students access to a not-so-secret menu of other options as well.  My only real argument is that we not lose sight of making those options available to you all as well.

I hope you don’t understand me as saying that worrying about gen. ed. requirements and transferability aren’t important to me or my colleagues.  They are, because they are important to you.  But there are two ways of thinking of time in college as having been wasted.  The more obvious one is, the student thinks of classes only in terms of their utility: Will this transfer?  Will I need to know this for my career?  If you can’t say Yes to those questions for a given course, then you’re more likely to think of the time and money you invested in that class as wasted, and you would not be entirely mistaken in thinking that.  The second way of thinking about time as having been wasted, though, is harder to conceive of.  It consists of those moments when you find yourself thinking, Man, I could have taken that _____ class; it’s something I’m interested in, it would have counted as an elective, too.  What complicates all of this is that, from the distance of a course description, most classes look very much alike before you take them–just like oysters do before they’re pried open.

While I get that you personally might not like oysters, I do hope that you do like learning and will allow yourself the luxury of taking at least one class “just because,” degree plans be damned.  The oyster shuckers in the picture aren’t looking for pearls, but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be looking.

Again, welcome to the new semester.

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