After-Hours Intellectualism

It’s when college students are outside the ritualized structure of the typical classroom that many show their true selves, and that we can learn most from them, Mike Kelly writes.


March 3, 2011

In a recent essay published in Inside Higher Ed, Lee Burdette Williams draws attention to just how little we, on the faculty and administrative side of academia, actually know about our students outside of what we see of them on campus.

She writes, “Our students are different people late at night. In our classrooms and offices during the day or the library or practice rooms in the evening, they are smart, charming, ambitious, clear-headed and reasonably nice to one another. But like a collegiate version of Teen Wolf, as the clock ticks closer to midnight, they become unrecognizable to us.”

This year, my wife, three small boys, large golden retriever and I have been privy to these students and their lives as the clock ticks closer to midnight by virtue of my role as Faculty in Residence at Champlain College. As Williams suggests, we’ve seen our share of teen wolves in the form of hideous renditions of the ‘80s pop ditty “Walking on Sunshine” blasting at the wee hours of the morning and pungent aromas (or “skunks” as my four year-old calls them) that mysteriously find their way to my open windows on warm fall evenings.

However, these collegiate rites of passage tell only a small part of the story. There’s another aspect of our experience that illuminates the rich complexities of what it means to be an 18-year-old freshman, away from home for the first time in a schooling environment that looks vastly different from what they left behind in their hometowns. Being around students when the formal filters of schooling dissipate allows access to a world previously inaccessible to me as a professor.

In this world I hear inquiries into ideas about the role of prescription drugs in upper-class American suburbs, the classist assumptions high schools make about what kind of learning is valuable, and critiques of policy that would make for excellent essays in my first-year writing classes. I hear the stories of these students’ complicated lives, their struggles with depression and self-doubt. But I also hear their exuberance, their joys about being free to become the people they aspire to be and, as they pet my dog, their talk about how they long for some semblance of order in a transitional time.

The following morning I teach some of these same students. They come to my Rhetoric class sleepy and disaffected with iPods blaring and laptops opened up to Facebook, and I get a gnawing sense that the passion I saw on display just nine hours earlier got left on the front steps of our apartment building. Don’t get me wrong: they are still capable of having a discussion. Contrary to prevailing opinion of the public (and some of my colleagues), they can even put a sentence together without using text-speak. Their baseline intelligence is not the problem in my classroom.

The problem, as I see it, is that the same energetic and thoughtful people I hung out with outside my building are doing pale imitations of themselves when they come into the classroom and perform as students. While Williams writes compellingly about the type of student who gets straight As by day and turns into a miniature version of Charlie Sheen by night, my experience living around 85 freshmen is actually reversed in some cases. These are students who come to my college conditioned to believe that learning is a means to an end, a quantifiable hoop to jump through measured by tests and standardization. It is ironically the nighttime when they turn into the thinking, articulate people we expect them to be.

I can’t blame them. They are earnest, savvy young people who have effectively played the role that contemporary schooling culture expects them to. They have not been rewarded for taking risks with their learning and, because of this, have never really tried. Instead of being a medium to make sense of their changing lives and aspirations, academic subjects become an obstacle to be overcome in order to get out into the world and focus on what they say they really want to do.

At Champlain College, I teach in an innovative interdisciplinary humanities program that complements the majors offered at this professionally focused school. My colleagues and I are tasked with creating a curriculum designed to support students in seeing how a broad range of academic subjects can work together to create a better understanding of themselves and their place in the world.

Part of the challenge involved in doing this work is teaching students to re-see what schooling asks of them and to be actively involved with their own learning -- learning that doesn’t necessarily have immediate, identifiable rewards. At a college where students begin studying their chosen professional program in their first year, it is easy to see why some students view our interdisciplinary courses as the same kinds of educational roadblocks they’ve come to resent because of their experiences with a culture of schooling that privileges results-driven accountability over the intangible qualities that we, as a culture, say we value.

Our challenge is to help them see education differently. In the core curriculum we don’t test our students, and I believe this to be a boon to our program. They are already being tested regularly as they negotiate the uneven remainders of young adulthood.

In his commencement address to students at Kenyon College, the late David Foster Wallace said the value of the liberal arts is not necessarily to teach students how or what to think, rather to make them realize that thinking “means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience.” So when I see my neighbors/students trying informally to make meaning from their experiences while enjoying a cigarette, I think about ways to channel this level of inquiry into my own classroom the following day.


Mike Kelly is an assistant professor of rhetoric at Champlain College, in Vermont.


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