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    A blog by John Warner, author of The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.

Process not Product
May 7, 2014 - 9:05pm

Turning in my final grades for the year I am visited by a familiar emotion, disappointment.

It is possible that I wish for too much from my students, from myself. At the start of each semester, the potential seems endless, and when the reckoning comes, inevitably that potential isn’t met. If I was hoping for raging brushfires of learning, the reality is closer to small sparks.

Of course, it’s hubris to believe that what I hope for is even possible. The list of things that can derail a student’s semester is long, with many of them out of the student’s control. It’s as though I wish to suspend the demands of life so we can tackle these problems of learning, a desire so ridiculous that to even voice it makes me feel like a fool. And as much as I may think I'm wielding a blowtorch of learning, maybe I'm actually armed with a stick and some half-dried tinder.

Moreover, as I lift my head from the day-to-day work of the semester, the systemic problems in higher education – student debt, the corporatized university of commoditized degrees, adjunctification, permanent austerity – are all very real and have the potential to be fatal.

Champions of MOOCs and the other disruptionists mean to tear down whatever is worth saving in the name of efficiency. That which can be turned into a product and sold will be.

I think their vision of higher education is wrong, dangerous and immoral even, a guarantee of cementing existing inequality. I would lament this even more if it weren’t something like probable that education isn’t the engine to reduce inequality anyway.

It gets worse. A Princeton study says we’re no longer living in a democracy, but an oligarchy where “rich, well-connected individuals on the political scene now steer the direction of the country, regardless of or even against the will of the majority of voters.”

Thomas Piketty believes we’re in a new Gilded Age, that the post war prosperity was only made possible because the war ruined so many old money fortunes.

A three-year review by 300 climate scientists and experts compiled into the third Climate Action Plan has the same conclusion as the first two. We’re doing very little to slow down the destruction of our planet.

One of my students wrote about sea level rise in Charleston for her researched essay. My house will be under water inside of 100 years.

Also, the novel is dead (again).

It is this last bit of news that actually rekindles my hope, reminds me what really matters.

I plan to spend a good chunk of my summer trying to write a novel. It should be daunting to think I will spend so much time and energy on something that is dead before it is even born. Worse, having successfully completed and even published a novel in the past, there is the distinct possibility that no one will want to publish a second one, either because it will be not a very good book, or because based on the performance of my first novel, I am a bad sales risk.

By any objective cost/benefit measurement, writing a novel is a stupid thing to do. It will only end in disappointment.

And yet, every ounce of my spirit says that writing a novel, even if it lives only on my hard drive, is worth doing. I have something nagging at the back of my brain and it needs to get out. The novel inside of me is world changing, I just know it. Unfortunately, I lack the skill or gift or magic necessary to deliver the work in this world changing form, so at best it’ll be, you know, not bad.

Disappointment everywhere.

While the object of the novel, the thing itself is turned into a commodity, it is the process of doing it that is most meaningful. The act of writing, provided I try my best to do it well, is its own success, regardless of the outcome.

It turns out that something similar may be true about education. The recent survey from Gallup reporting the links between college experiences in deep learning and future well-being and happiness shows that the most meaningful part of higher education isn't where you go or the degree you earn, but the things you do.

Students who reported that they had a professor who made them “excited about learning,” and “cared” about them as a person, and “encouraged” them to pursue their goals and dreams were significantly more likely to feel engaged in their post-collegiate work and happy in their day-to-day lives.

At semester’s end, I am over-focused on product - portfolios or final essays - and forgetting the process that led to them

If the Gallup survey is correct about what matters, then we’re doing better than okay because I’ve spent all semester encouraging them to follow their hopes and dreams. I’ve done my best to convey that I care about them and not their grades or their academic performance.

When I’m back in the classroom in the fall, my students and I will get back to the work of disappointing each other. We will fail in uncountable ways, but we just might be better for it.

--

Twitter is often disappointing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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