Friday, August 15, 2008

Back in the Saddle

Long time no blog. Yup, I've been doing "real" work like cleaning up mailing lists to send out posters announcing our Conway Lectures in September and the SIEPM conference in October. My labors have been aided by a couple of helpful young grad students. However, for those of us working in the second half-century of our existence, it is a bit of a shock to realize that today's graduate students do not know how to use a typewriter. The delight I still get from using the automatic "white-out" correction key is an unknowable emotion for those to whom "white-out" mean a climate-based visual condition. Can I really have learned to type (and on a manual typewriter at that) before my grad student helpers were born? Worse yet, can I really be older than some of their parents? Yipes. I even have clothes older than some of these whippersnappers.

While I have been doublechecking zip codes and codifying our editorial label style, I've also been mulling over topics for bloggability. A number of things have come to mind, and one thread in particular has been recurring in the back of my head. It's the theme of entitlement. Lots of disparate connections have been forming in my head. One piece comes from the experience of a first-time college-level instructor who was going through the angst of teaching his students that "class participation" required more than mere classroom attendance during a discussion period. He bemoaned the fact that some of the students seemed to carefully limit their discussion responses to a minimal one comment per session, in order to get the requisite "checkmark" for participation. In the course of my commiseration with him, we talked about the apparent misperception that doing the minimum amount of required work was sufficient to garner an "A." The proposition that one had to do MORE than the minimum AND do it exceptionally well in order to earn an "A" grade did not seem to be a commonly held principle among his students.

"Earning" the grade, rather than being given the grade seemed to be the basic issue. Now, of course, we weren't talking about anything that hasn't been debated and discussed many times in current essays about trends in higher education. Yet, it did come home in a very visible way because summer session also brought a young scholar to our Reading Room who quite happily spent long hours poring over his paleography studies into the double-digit evening hours (and perhaps into the single-digit really early hours, too, I suspect). What a striking difference in attitude! Admittedly, the comparison here is between undergraduates taking a course to fulfill a requirement and a highly motivated graduate student, so the contrast was probably exceptionally pronounced, but it was a vivid dichotomy, nevertheless.

In thinking about the difference I observed, it occurred to me that, like the never-before-experienced manual typewriter, the undergrads probably didn't see people actually struggling to educate themselves very often. For most of the students, a college education was an acquisition like a car--something presented to you by your parents for meeting a minimal set of requirements (or maybe not exceeding a minimal number of school suspensions/fistfights/or drunken post-party hangovers). A "present" rather than an "achievement."

As I move farther into that second half-century I mentioned before, I find myself understanding more clearly my Depression Era parents' sense of mystification about the factors motivating me and my peers. I listen to National Public Radio pretty regularly and I especially like their weekly tales from the StoryCorps project. These wonderful vignettes frequently make me tear up and force a pause in my morning routine so I can blot and smile. Many of the stories deal with "then v. now" contrasts in lifestyle, upbringing, and all sorts of matters taken for granted about the norms of behavior. In a great many of the stories, the speaker talks about an "achievement" that is almost beyond the comprehension of the listener--working 3 jobs to keep a family together, travelling to a new country with one's worldly goods in a satchel, foregoing a holiday break in order to earn money for a child's college education. In the same way, the daily tragedies of war, violence, and natural calamity being reported during other parts of the broadcast sound unimaginable to those of us with jobs, housing, and caring social networks.

All this mulling on entitlement and achievement really seems to hinge on our degree of familiarity with environments outside our own. If all one has known is joblessness, warfare, or at the other extreme, surfeit and excess, one has a hard time properly calibrating one's expectations of "normal" or "typical" or "proper" behavior. My father used to quote something he'd heard that seems apropos here: "experience is what you get when you don't get what you want." Not getting what we want can put us in the position of having to look for a way to get it that enlarges our capacity to "think different" and come up with strategies to achieve our desires. Perhaps there is something more than workout encouragement to be had from the "no pain, no gain" philosophy.

My goodness, I feel like some Late Antique Roman bemoaning the passing of the Republic. Well, I guess that's what we second-half-centurions do. Interesting. I had no idea that I really WOULD understand when I got older, just like my father said I would.

No comments: