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2017 June 15 - 09:06 am

Fanning the Fickle Flame of Learning

Marching in Lockstep or a Crucible of Change?

 It is nearly mid-June, and the official commencement of summer is nigh.

On the front page of The Los Angeles Times on last Sunday (June 11), readers are offered an article about the goods and the bads of President Donald Trump’s “hands-off approach” to America’s military and to leadership at the Pentagon. On the good side, states the paper, “senior Pentagon officials have welcomed the shift” from “centralized decision-making” of the kind done by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to “greater latitude,” in which these Pentagon people may “carry out operations based on military, rather than political, considerations.” But on the bad side, the paper counters, is the observation that such presidential permissiveness may be what has provoked “indiscriminate bombings” and “an increase in civilian casualties.”

I read this article in the Times as I prepare materials for classes that I will be teaching during the coming week. And, as usual, I consider the article in the context of the four academic institutions where my classes are taking place this summer.

That is, particularly, I wonder about what the Times calls the contrast between “micro-management” and “hands-off leadership style.” 

As a part-timer everywhere, I see and experience alternative management methods, and I wonder about the benefits and the deficits of each.

At one of the places where I work, a private university, centralized decision-making seems to have made the faculty and students into a calm bunch; finances and building projects, courses and curricula are designed far in advance of their execution, and everyone engaged at the institution knows what is to occur when. This is not to say that the school’s president is a micro-manager, however; he oversees decision-makers and a deanery, with faculty and staff then advised how to go forth and students locking step beneath. Students learn, are counseled, and are advised regularly, and certainly not necessarily under the president’s eye.

Is this a good thing or a bad one? No matter how it is judged, it seems to have succeeded in at least one respect: Almost all students complete their degree requirements on-time, high-quality faculty members with advanced degrees and plural publications are easy to hire and engage in the school’s objectives, and the academic atmosphere is a joint one of united purpose. A single flame of learning leads them.

But the other places where I ply my part-time teaching trade are public schools, bristling with the babble of dissent. My own non-scientific survey has revealed to me that most of my fellow part-timers have had very little dealing with these schools’ directorates, most have never met the institutions’ presidents, and many could not name who is in charge. Students come to class at these schools with their own objectives, rather than with those set forth as theoretical principles by institutional staff, they often attend part-time, and their purposes are as diverse as are the communities from which they come. Counseling may be available, suggested, and competent, but most of the students are multiply engaged, stressed, overextended, fatigued. The fire to learn is fickle, sometimes flaming and often flickeringly near death.

And, I wonder from one semester to the next, from one end of an academic year into its subsequent and slim summer session, is this “crucible of change” that the community college has been called more a good or a bad, more a badly managed mess or a delightfully diverse endeavor to enlighten? 

I have encouraging tales from students to help me to answer this, happily enough, as i plan my new week curriculum. 

One of my former students is back home in California from North Carolina, where he carried his studies with me of French “engagement populaire” into the streets surrounding the school where he is now studying, discussing gay rights and politics of sports, not to mention toilets and their labeling for all. He said that he kept thinking of the French rights campaign slogan “Touche pas à mon pote”, and how “pote” sounds a lot like English “pot.” He grinned with happiness as he talked to me. His N.C. university fellows, he said, “couldn’t put things in context” in the way that he thought he could; intensive analysis that he had done with me at the private university of French attitudes and opinions in courses of independent study with a concentration on laws both cultural and written had given him a strength of awareness, as well as linguistic insight, he averred.

Another pair of students have returned to my community college class from England and Scotland, where they say they felt more encouraged to ask questions about politics and the Brexit than they had been before they took a French culture class from me at our local community college; part of their cultural study had been the conception and development of the European Union, its pros and cons. They spoke to me enthusiastically at the end of last week, saying that they had told their British interlocutors that they felt able to talk “knowledgeably” about these subjects “because community colleges let us talk about currents events IN history, rather than just about plain history.” This made me smile.

Happily for me, then, the community college has not micro-managed me or my students, and happily, too, I can see the blessings of the private four-year system and the benefits of the community college side-by-side, rather than as better or worse. It could be the case, I suppose, that, as my mother used to say, “any higher education is better than none,” but I would like to think, rather, that it is student-faculty engagement that counts. Newspapers and community members may argue about who should manage what in our schools, but it will always be, I’d like to think and assert, the connection between each of us teachers and all of our learners is what counts most.   

 

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