on any given Tuesday

It’s finals week of the last academic semester for which I have a sabbatical leave. For some reason I spent my Tuesday afternoon on the very campus from which I’ve been sabbaticalized. This visit served a distinct collection of purposes, though:

  • At Noon I met with students who were meeting with their research professor (and my own collaborator). There’s a problem with the instrument they’re using, and I came in to help to see A.) what do we do about this and B.) how does this get described in the discussion section of the paper? And then how does the research inquiry continue forward?
  • At 1:30 I met with faculty, a state parks official, and a student to imagine possible internships for this learner and others who could follow in her footsteps in subsequent summers. Where could we send students, what would they do, how would they collaborate, and what kinds of products would they produce?
  • At 3:00 I went to see the final showing of a choreography class, where dance performances represented the final work of the students. I know a couple of them from the Dance/Science collaboration, and it was fun to see them in another context.

When I think of “finals,” I think of the extra long classroom sessions that are filled with angst and silence, students poring over pages of problems or blue books of essays. Blue books might be antiquated, I admit, but the idea of a Final Exam Period in which our learners have their last gasp, high stakes, comprehensive effort is something that I think is classic, even timeless. Seeing students in thick sweat pants and a thin veil of exhaustion is, to me, charming. It makes me nostalgic. As they’re in the throes of studying for these exams, I tell them, “These are the best days of your lives.” I say it with a facetious smirk, but I’m almost entirely serious. I am fond of those times in my life when I was completely consumed with Calc II and Physics I, buried in symbols and abstraction. Sometimes it’s a smell that triggers a memory, but in these cases it’s any form of severe mental abrasion that brings me back. It was a great privilege to get to focus so intently on something.

But what this week in particular reminds me is that it is not just about the exams. There are all of these other things: papers, projects, and the like. Moreover, there’s so much more possibility for the kinds of things we can learn and how we can express them. As Hamlet expressed to Horatio, “There are more things in heaven and earth … than are dreamt of in your philosophy,” and likewise there are so many other things that students are doing (and still more that they could be doing) to portray skills, knowledge, attitudes, and insights developed during a semester. They’re telling their research advisor that they’ve interpreted the research differently than what we’d originally imagined. They’re proposing work that they could be conducting out in the field or in their community. They’re unveiling an artistic creation, revealing a part of themselves and a completely new entity to the world.

I scoff at course designers who portray the process as “content delivery.” What I’ve seen through my career, studied during the last year, and seen expressed efficiently in an afternoon, is that there is so much more to it than a fact that can be stated or a problem that has a numeric solution. It’s also what we can analyze, how we can apply, and what we can create. We take it for granted that these are the things we’re getting from students on any given Tuesday; but we need to remind ourselves that these are among the most valuable products of an education. Otherwise … well, I don’t care to think about what the alternative might be.