• Just Visiting

    A blog by John Warner, author of the story collection Tough Day for the Army, and a novel, The Funny Man, on teaching, writing and never knowing when you're going to be asked to leave.


Unbundled and Out in the Cold

As the polar vortex of disruption descends, why do we wish to be unbundled?

November 16, 2014

We’ve just exited what I see as a delicate time in the semester.

The 10-12-week mark always feels precarious to me, particularly in my first-year writing classes. The bloom is off the rose of the college experience, any initial excitement and anxiety that drives academic conscientiousness having burned off as students realize that despite the promises of the glossy brochures and the campus tour, college can be every bit the grind of high school.

Some students are disappointed in their grades and are beginning to question whether or not college is a good value proposition. Others are discovering what I experienced, that if you’ve chosen courses wisely and take paths of little resistance, B’s aren’t too hard to come by, but you’re also not learning much.

Some have disappeared down the rabbit hole of social opportunities. They probably aren’t coming back up without a timeout from academics.

This is also when students get sick – bronchitis, strep, flu, mono, scurvy…you name it. I’ve long ago stopped asking for proof of illness from absent students. On the one hand, the proof is often apparent, bags under eyes that rival my own (hard earned over 44 years), flushed faces, snuffling noses, obvious fatigue.[1] On the other hand, if a student is feeling so pressured by school that they feel the need to fake an illness (or a dead relative), they may be experiencing even more distress than the genuinely ill.

I see my students struggle – physically, mentally, spiritually – and I wonder about the disrupted future of higher education and what the futurists propose to do about these things. Their idea, as I understand it, is that if we “unbundle” higher education, all of the unnecessary expense of human support will be stripped away, and students will thrive in a marketplace of freely available credentials and competencies.

Maybe this is true of adult learners, who are indeed a significant component of the higher ed universe, but whenever I hear talk that the traditional college and university experience is an agency of oppression, as something whose time has passed to make way for the new, new thing, it makes me mental.

My students need help in these periods. Some of them need forgiveness and encouragement, a reminder that falling a little bit behind doesn’t mean they’ve lost the race. Others need a tougher love, a reminder that coasting to the finish line risks running out of momentum before breaking the tape.

This is the time of the semester when I have a lot of conversations with my students. We have individual conferences about their researched essays. We have informal chats during work sessions scheduled during our laboratory hours. We have the six minutes prior to the start of class for me to ask how they’re doing. When they say, “Not so good,” I can ask, “Why not?”

I am not a big believer in student coddling,[2] in rewarding the old college try with a decent grade, particularly when there wasn’t all that much trying.

In fact, I think school should be something closer to a crucible, where students are melted down, forcing them to shape themselves into something new, but in these precarious weeks, when we are balanced between retreat and advance, I know that being a human being who acknowledges their existences, who recognizes their struggle, can go a long way.

Education that seeks something beyond credentialing will always be a collective, messy, inefficient, utterly human enterprise.

But maybe we don’t have room for this anymore.

To unbundle something is to leave it exposed and alone. Clayton Christensen has recently reiterated his belief that “half” of universities will be bankrupt inside of 15 years.

Maybe he’s right, but that sounds like an awfully cold world to me.


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[1] I’ve had several students show up to class with the wristbands from their hospital stays still affixed to their wrists.

[2] As my students will probably testify.



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