Refocusing on the Connections Instead of Just Making Better Parts

This is the second of three posts about our need to reframe, refocus, and refine the way that we operationalize (i.e., deliver) the liberal arts. Near the end of last week’s post (where I suggested reframing how we deliver the liberal arts around enabling our graduates to thrive in the midst of change) I suggested:

So the learning experiences that matter the most may in fact be the things that we consider the least. Right now we focus the most time, resources, and energy on the classes we offer, the activities we organize, the experiences we sponsor. Reframing the way that we deliver the liberal arts means placing increased focus on the way that students connect these experiences and apply the ideas from one experience to succeed in another. Moreover, it means guiding students to strategically set up the ideal set of inter-experience connections that best prepare them to achieve their post-graduate aspirations.

When Augustana was founded, the connections between classes (at the time considered the primary, if not only, learning experiences offered by the college) were a foregone conclusion because the curriculum was virtually identical for every student.  New content assumed the delivery of prior content and students moved in lockstep from beginning courses to advanced seminars.  Only near the end of their schooling were students allowed to deviate from the central educational path to take courses that fit their vocational intentions in law, medicine, the clergy, civil service, etc.  Furthermore, extra-curricular experiences weren’t seen as potential learning experiences since they didn’t have anything to do with the content delivered through the curriculum.

This earlier version of a liberal arts education and the one that we now endeavor to provide could not be more different.  While the curriculum of yesteryear was almost entirely predetermined both in terms of the courses one took and when one took them, today (although some majors are more prescribed than others) I doubt you could find two students who took the same courses in the same order during the same year – let alone throughout an entire undergraduate degree.  In addition, we now know that students develop, learn, and grow at least as much through their courses as they do through their out-of-class experiences, resulting in the wide support for everything from student organizations to study abroad.

In the context of all of this curricular and co-curricular opportunity, it’s no wonder that students’ effort to convey the impact of their college experience on a resume often devolves into a list where the length of that list is assumed to convey something about an individual’s preparation and potential for future success.  Of course, those considering recent college graduates for graduate school, employment, or long-term service have figured out that these lists are a ruse and can be a red flag for someone who is more surface than substance.

But if we refocus the way that we operationalize the liberal arts so that students highlight “why” they chose the experiences they chose and how they took charge of constructing the person they have become, the grocery list of college experiences (AKA resume) suddenly comes to life as a story of perpetual improvement. This doesn’t mean that they are perfectly constructed when they receive their diploma.  But it does mean that those students can probably tell their own story in a way that shows an emerging clarity of purpose and an accelerating sense of momentum toward it.  We all know from our own experiences that those students stand out even when they aren’t trying to make an impression.

So how might we operationalize the way that we deliver the liberal arts to highlight this new focus?

First of all, we don’t need to go back to the days of an overly prescribed college experience.  With the diversity of our students’ pre-college experiences, learning needs and interests, and post-graduate aspirations, treating our students as if they were all the same would be stunningly foolish.

Instead, we begin by mapping every activity and every course that students can take in terms of what learning is intended to emerge from that experience and how that learning contributes to the larger learning goals and mission of the college.  Since this mapping is intended to be an iterative experience, the exercise may well result in adapting, adding, or even subtracting some courses or experiences.  It might also result in altering some experiences to more specifically meet certain learning goals.  The primary result of this exercise is not just to produce a complete catalog of the learning experiences in which students can engage.  Instead, the goal is to produce customize-able flow charts that show the variety of ways that different types of students can identify a sequence of experiences that together cultivate the learning that each student need to fully prepare them to succeed after they graduate.

These maps become the primary tools for the college to help students construct a college experience that builds upon their pre-college experiences and abilities, fills in the areas in which they need additional opportunities to learn and grown, and gives them the best chance to be the kind of person they aspire to be when they graduate.  Ultimately, the totality of each student’s college experience can be conveyed through a cohesive narrative that tells the story of his or her college journey from start to finish.

The challenges to making such a refocus work are not without consequence.  Most important, we have to actually enact our commitment to student growth and development in everything that we do.  That likely means changing something that we currently do (even if it is something we really like to do a certain way) to make it more educationally effective for students.  We often ask the question during planning conversations, “But what are we going to take away?”  This mapping exercise often identifies things that we could and probably should take away.  The challenge is whether we are willing give those things up.

In broader terms, this means that we have be able to “zoom out” and see the forest instead of the trees.  There will be a myriad of ways that a student could put together the learning experiences necessary for post-graduate success. The most important goal here is that the students can lay out their path, retrace their steps and explain why they took each one of them, situating the reasons for their choices in the context of their post-graduate aspirations. Of course there will likely be students who, despite all of our best efforts, don’t follow the guidance that we provide for them. But if all of our students learn the value of thinking about their own lives as a strategic effort to grow and develop, the chances are pretty good that they will all be on their way to succeeding in life and embodying the results of a liberal arts education when they walk across the stage to accept their diploma.

Make it a good day,


2 thoughts on “Refocusing on the Connections Instead of Just Making Better Parts

  1. Good posts, Mark. The second one calls to mind a moment that occurred in my African-American History course last fall. We were discussing the Stephen Spielberg movie Amistad, about a group of Mende Africans who staged a successful ship revolt against their Spanish captors and then were detained in a US prison (1839) while the courts sorted out their legal status. The abolitionists pleading for the freedom of the Mende appealed to former president John Quincy Adams to take up the case. Why should I? he asked them. “What is their story?” The abolitionists lawyers didn’t know who the Mende were; they had been caught up in the legal technicalities of the case. “Find out their story,” advised Adams. “Then you’ll win your case.”

    Thinking about this, a student commented the advice was good for everyone. “What is my story?” the student wondered aloud. “If I don’t have a story, why would anyone care to get to know me, or to hire me?” The student’s throw-away line is your main point in this blog post.

    I’m all for assisting students to ask the question, What is my story? But we should respect some limits to this approach.

    It is a great burden we’re putting on 18-22 years olds to have to know what their story is. If there is such a thing as Wisdom of the Ages, to this I hear The Traditions say: 1) Youths are not asked to write their own narratives; they are to live in a story inherited from elders and from the community; 2) “Know Thyself” is the project of a lifetime. What does a youth know about it? From historical perspective, asking undergraduates to make sense of their lives at such a young age strikes me as another instance of what historians call “the cult of personal efficiency” which rose to prominence in the second half of the twentieth century. This ethos values personal peak performance and it is what makes advanced consumer societies like ours not a playground of hedonism but more of an iron cage of work and spend disciplines with the predictable social ills that follow, like high levels of depression. For most people, it is a great burden to be efficient all the time. It is a daunting prospect to be responsible for understanding one’s own story.

    So there are limits here. Will there be 4-5 good, but generic stories, we can instruct students in and allow them to adopt and tailor? What about the students who don’t have a Bill Gates-type of narrative driving them? Some stories are, in fact, better than others. What about those who, like me, are “strangers to themselves” at 22, and even still at 52? Some call it wisdom to say we are the last to know what our own story is. Where does this truth fit in the picture of what we’re trying to do with delivering the liberal arts?

    • Thanks, Lendol.

      All of these are good questions to think about as we work with students. In my mind, the important thing to remember is that we aren’t in the business of creating finished products; we’re in the business of setting students off on a path with the skills and motivation to make their own momentum, no matter if that includes a change of direction somewhere in the future. As undergraduate educators, I like to think of us as conduits that leave a mark.

      If we are trying to get a 22 year old to the place where they can tell a fully developed story, then we are indeed placing a great burden on ourselves, not to mention an unrealistic burden on the student.

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