John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

“What Did You Do in the War, Daddy?”

October 10, 2013John N. GardnerInsights0

John N. Gardner

Many of my readers will recognize the title, a lingering carry over from The Greatest Generation. I am a Vietnam Era vet but I am not going to write about my military experience (at least this time, positive as it was). I use this title language to evoke instead another question a child could ask a parent, or more to the point, a college student could ask a professional higher educator like my readers. The question specifically would be “What did you do in college?” And I would translate this to mean in effect, “What difference did college make for you?”

There is probably not a day that goes by that I don’t think about this. We are all shaped by our experiences. And my college experience certainly shaped me. My evoking this line of thinking is timely because I am visiting my alma mater next week, where for me this all took place. This is not like returning to the scene of the crime. In reality, it is like returning to my birthplace, where I think I became the adult I am today.

I think it is important for us to share with our students what were the impacts (or to use the fashionable language of the day “learning outcomes”) of undergraduate school on our development, values, thinking, careers, personal lives. At the very least, this can be a catalyst for reflection and discussion about what our institutions are doing to influence, inform, empower our students—or not doing.

So let me turn to myself as an illustration. I can honestly say that in my college experience, I learned:

– that college is intellectually and personally liberating
– how to have a miserable first term and end up on academic probation
– how to get off academic probation
– an experiential base of understanding the challenges of what I eventually named The Freshman Year Experience®
– the sources and types of prejudice that I had brought with me to college
– the origins and substance of my religious and political beliefs, which were profoundly altered during the first year of college
– that the questions are often more important than the answers
– what are the questions that I should be asking of myself, my country, the organizations of which I am a member, questions like: “what is justice?”
– the value of a liberal arts education
– what were the purposes my family had given me for going to college
– what were going to be my purposes for staying and thriving in college
– that my most empowering experiences occurred outside the classroom, actually in student government, where I had the opportunities to practice the writing, speaking, analysis, problem solving skills, I was learning in my classes
– my models for the kind of professor I was going to become, but didn’t have a clue this was in the cards for me
– how to mentally process an enormous amount of information and create my own synthesis of what I had digested
– how to do very, very hard academic work, and in prodigious amounts
– the value of the mind/body connection learned in a varsity sport and a commitment to maintaining lifelong physical fitness
– how organizations, particularly colleges, function, particularly with respect to dealing with change, promoting or resisting it
– a set of values, skills, behaviors and knowledge that I could use to serve my country
– an unapologetic idealism coupled with old fashioned new deal liberalism to aspire to live a life of service to people less privileged than I was and am
– how to be a change agent in and for higher education
– how to better cope with the world as it would impact me by the knowledge and understanding I gained through the study of history, political science, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and English
– how to develop a sense of personal purpose
– how to stay focused on what matters most for success as an adult
– how to let college develop my few strengths and talents to their fullest potential
and at the same time to build a professional life on one of my great failings: my first-term freshman year experience
– how to respect and treat women college students as my friends and colleagues and not in terms of the stereotypical gender driven roles I had learned in my home and high school
– and why I would want other college students to have the same kind of experiences and learning outcomes that I had been so fortunate to experience

I am just getting rolling here; this is just a partial list!

I suggest you prepare your own list of “LO’s”, learning outcomes. Ask your students to identify the ones they think they are experiencing. Have the students compare and contrast what you find. Have your students reflect and write on what this conversation inspires them to think.

I am so thankful for what my college experience did for me. What would it take for your students to feel the same way?

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