Quinnipiac University College of Arts and Sciences

Advising Creative Minds

In Campus, Students on October 24, 2012 at 9:33 pm

Creative Minds Advising – Advising Creative Minds

by Seán P. Duffy, associate professor of Political Science, CAS Director of Undergraduate Advising, and Chair, Department of Philosophy and Political Science

Last month, Chris Kluwe, the 30-year old punter/kicker for the Minnesota Vikings, made news even for those of us who don’t follow football: his well-constructed, eloquent-though-profane open letter to Maryland state delegate Emmett C. Burns, Jr., achieved viral status in the social media and then received a considerable amount of attention in traditional media such as the New York Times and National Public Radio. Kluwe spoke out in favor of marriage equality and–more importantly–the right of anyone, in any walk of life, to speak out publicly. It seems to me that Kluwe provides us with an important example of who (and what) we hope our students will become as educated graduates of Quinnipiac–and even, perhaps, how we should think about achieving this goal.

In a recent Times story (Saturday, October 20, 2012, p. D1), Kluwe is quoted as saying: “Football is what I do for a living, but it’s not even remotely who I am.” The story goes on to detail how Kluwe was raised (in a family that valued discussion, learning, critical thinking and exposure to diverse cultures; with an understanding that a balanced life includes sports, music and the arts) and educated (partially home-schooled during high school in a curriculum that included Latin, Shakespeare and the Federalist Papers; a dual major in history and political science at UCLA). What lesson does Chris Kluwe provide for us as we attempt to communicate to our students, and inculcate in them, the values we profess in deep learning, critical engagement with the world, and the development of interests across the wide range of human experience? This, it seems to me, is a question we should all be wrestling with as we turn our attentions, once again, to advising our students on how to consider their curricular choices and how to construct an education over the short, medium and long terms.

Much of my recent attention has been focused on meetings and conversations with students, in the semi-annual ritual we call “advising.” This year, I have assumed responsibility for working with many in their sophomore year who have yet to declare a major. My work with these students has newly focused my attention on an aspect of our institutional culture that I believe is as much a hurdle to, as motivator for, our students: the vocational telos. I have met with some students who seem to be paralyzed in their educational journeys because they cannot link what they’re doing at Quinnipiac to a defined vocational objective. Some students come to me, their general education requirements nearly completed, as if to say “Now what do I do? I still don’t know what job I want, so I have no idea what courses to take.” I have had conversations with a second type of student too: these appear to be paralyzed by the vocational focus of our higher educational culture in another way. One student expresses a clear interest for the focus of her education in one of our departments, but she is so interested in learning that she is reluctant to declare the major; she articulates a fear that once she declares a major, she will have constrained her educational choices. This leads her to a second concern: what if she makes the “wrong” choice and doesn’t find a life-long career in this field?

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I was recently asked to contribute my thoughts at a meeting of the Senate Ad-Hoc Committee on General Education. At this meeting, the student representative described what he believed to be the standard orientation students have toward their education: in high school, they meet with their guidance counselor who asks them what they want to do for a career. They then work backwards from that to a major they should study in college, which in turn guides their search for a college to attend. Almost everything we do at Quinnipiac reinforces this approach. Our admissions events give prospective students the choice to attend any number of “careers in” programs–but there is little focus on the larger values of the higher education experience. Once here, we encourage students to build their educational structure around the major, rather than using the major to allow them to delve more deeply into one area of focus in a larger, broader, more comprehensive education. Ken Bain, in What the Best College Students Do, asserts that college students take one of three basic approaches to their studies that determines what they get out of their education: surface, strategic, or deep approaches to learning. Surface and strategic learners focus on the end-result-defined-as-grade; they approach college with a checklist, and they often learn procedurally rather than conceptually. In facing a problem, they look for getting the “right” answer, and become frustrated when it is not easily evident; when adopting this approach in their studies, they often become bored, anxious or depressed. It seems to me that playing into the depiction of the college degree as preparation for a specific career in the workforce plays right into this level of engagement with education. Deep learners, on the other hand, approach a problem-solving task “with all the enthusiasm of a five-year-old on a treasure hunt but with the added skills of analysis, synthesis, evaluation, and theorizing” (p. 36). In his depiction of deep learners, Bain then goes on to describe their child-like curiosity: “As they discovered their personal passions, our subjects found ways to build on [their] initial interests, constantly integrating new subjects with old ones and expanding their relevant world. These best students discovered how to explore human society, the arts, and nature, and how to find links among their interests.” (p. 47)

As we consider how, and why (to what ends) we advise our students, it seems to me that we should consider structural as well as cultural factors. Should we continue assigning students a primary advisor in their major, or does this reinforce the teleological focus on vocation our students have already been inducted into? Should we place so central a focus on the major (and ultimate vocation), or should we re-focus our advising mentality to developing deep learners across the many areas of the curriculum? How, in other words, can we help students to become people who claim “This is what I do for a living, but it’s not even remotely who I am.”

  1. I think you’re circling around the right tree. I am a returning student, picking away at a degree that I first began more than 20 years ago. It wasn’t until VERY recently that I discovered that I still don’t have to know what I want to be when I grow up, but rather what I want to equip myself with. I’m an artist. But what else will I need for the journey? For me, the realization that I could have three minors (psych, art, and Spanish) was extremely freeing. It’s not what ONE thing I want to be, but what do I want to make sure to bring into the next stage of my life. For many, like me, that “one thing” kept me from taking the next steps. Now, I am more motivated than ever. The new attitude is clearer, completely without the fog. Keep advising in this fashion, I’m a whole new student!

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