Saturday, July 03, 2010

My career fork in the road framed as what to do in entering college

I've been thinking a lot about developing a personal philosophy and that perhaps the most important thing we can do in Higher Ed is assisting students in developing their own personal philosophies. A lot of this thinking is a selfish sort of reflection. I'm faced with options and opportunities because of my retirement, and I'm finding that instead of simply plopping into what's next I feel a need to give some definition underneath to what it is that I want and what it is that I value. So I suppose it is not surprising that I've been reading older texts to look for wisdom on this - Thoreau, Hoffer, and Maslow. And I've been thinking about the choice of what to do in college, partly because it seems so similar, partly because I struggled with that and ultimately transferred from MIT to Cornell at a time when I had a lot of trouble coping, and because my son is entering college now and while I know I can't push any of this on him I'd hope he would have some of the same sort of questioning. So, without further ado, here's my set of answers to what I'd do if I were going to college for the first time.

If I were attending college this fall for the first time, I would…

…find an intellectual hero to serve as my guide. The hero need not be in the field of study I will pursue. Maybe it’s better if he isn’t. But he must have a personal philosophy I can embrace. My entire college experience will be richer if I can frame it within a coherent personal philosophy. A current hero of mine is Abraham Maslow. I believe his humanistic psychology, particularly his emphasis on self-actualization via peak experiences, provides a very good norm that would serve most students quite well. Maslow’s book, Toward a Psychology of Being, is a great read. I’d hope most students find time for it, though it may be a bit much for an entering freshman. This transcript of an interview with the great man, Remembering Maslow, is more accessible and can be read in one sitting.

…discover the treasure trove that is the University Library, particularly its electronic resources. As wonderful as the Internet is as a ready source of information there will be much to read in college that I won’t be able to find on the open Internet, including most of the work of my professors. On occasion I will end up using the University Library without even being aware of it, simply by having been logged into the campus network. But that will not always be the case, so I must learn to use the electronic catalog to find full text articles that I want to read. The Remembering Maslow piece is freely available to students on my campus via the license from the publisher that the Library has procured.

…regularly place myself outside my comfort zone intellectually and socially too, where of necessity I’d have to take on my shyness, but not to the extreme of making me neurotic. This means persisting at reading things I’m apt to find more than a bit difficult. It means attending lectures and performances in areas with which I’m only vaguely familiar. It also means having one-on-one and small group conversations with faculty and with students of other cultures, even when there is some initial discomfort in doing that. Struggling in this manner provides a good source of empathy for the struggles of others. Over time, it likely will breed confidence though progress is apt to be gradual. Consequently, the admonition not to overdo is imperative because slow and steady does win the race.

…keep from over programming myself to assure enough free time for writing, reflection, and serendipitous conversation. I need some down time to chew on my experiences and what I’m learning. On days where every hour is scheduled with an activity, there is no opportunity for such introspection. Sometimes that will happen, but on an ongoing basis I want to carve out time for inward looking learning so I can keep in touch with myself and have a sense of what progress I’m making as well as to reckon with the challenges I’m facing. I also want to engage with others who are similarly situated so I can learn from their experiences and their thinking. Students are apt to become extremely competitive with one another. The over programming is one consequence of this competition. Alternatively, students can bounce the other way, becoming cynical and nihilistic. The habit for reflection provides a healthy alternative to both of these extremes.

…refrain from looking at the finish line to maintain as broad a perspective as possible and to recognize that I’m getting an education for a lifetime, not just to prepare for the first job that comes along. I know I will narrow later, as I get deeper into the major, where attending graduate school or getting a job becomes more proximate. I need not narrow straight away even if there is a tendency for my classmates to do otherwise. And even when I do narrow I want to maintain some balance by pursuing other interests in my leisure time. Ironically, students will find that having a diversity of interests unrelated to the field of study will help them greatly with their critical thinking and communication skills.

It is perhaps strange to frame my upcoming choices with an attending college metaphor, but it is helpful to me. One particular need I have is to be open in my social environment and not feel a need to be guarded. In college the social environment is where I learned, in some sense more than what I learned in my classes. Particularly since I've gotten involved with learning technology I've tried to emphasize an approach that stems from social environment at 509 Wyckoff Road in Ithaca. I want to do new things as I move forward. But I want to retain the feel that I had my junior and senior years in college.

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