Tuesday, March 1, 2011

If You Want It, Here It Is, Come And Get It

But you better hurry, ‘cause it may not last. It’s true—life is short. College is even shorter: only four years out of your total life span. What can you take away from it? It depends almost entirely on you—and what you put into it.

I had an experience during last fall’s pre-registration period, when students meet with their academic advisors and choose courses for the following semester. One of my advisees, a senior planning her final semester at SMC, indicated that she only needed one more course to finish her political science major. She was not sure what she should take for her remaining courses but in our ensuing conversation she noted that she also only needed a few more courses to finish a minor in studio arts. I asked her if she liked the art classes she had already taken. Her response was enthusiastic—she loved her art courses almost as much as her political science courses. (Maybe she was humoring me.) Still, she hesitated to commit to studio arts as a minor. Finally, I told her something that has long seemed obvious to me—if you really love something, pursue it! Find a way—just do it! I reminded her that spring semester of her senior year was, in all likelihood, her last opportunity to pursue training in visual arts with the kind of sustained intensity college courses would provide. “Do it!” I said and she did. Halfway through this semester she is happy, learning new things and taking her artistic talent to a whole new level. If she never paints another picture after she graduates, the experience will shape her perceptions of the world around her and give her a deeper understanding off all expressive endeavors, but especially in the visual arts, that will enrich the rest of her life. It makes me wonder why she was so hesitant. Maybe she just needed a little push.

Here is an interesting study recently published in the campus newspaper, based on a survey asking students to estimate the time they spend each week on their studies, outside of class.

Before leaping to conclusions about our students’ behavior, or what is and is not a challenging field of study, a few caveats are in order. These are self-reported estimates from a small self-selected sample of students, not the results of a scientifically controlled measurement of time actually spent. Let’s just say students might be tempted to over-represent reality. More important, the degree students might over-estimate the time they spend studying can be affected by many things entirely unrelated to how much time they actually work. Perhaps the time invested by room mates or peer groups influences the student’s perception of their own dedication. Or, could it be that students in the sciences, if they hear frequently from peers and professors that they work longer and harder than anyone else come to believe it, and so pad their estimate a bit more than others? Perhaps business majors, having heard time and again that they are less academic unknowingly make that part of their self-perception, and respond to the poll accordingly? I do not know if these things are true, but their possibility gives me pause. In fact, I have only a small number of science students in my advanced courses. They do fine, but as a group do not stand out from the others. So too, business and humanities majors exhibit a range of commitment to my classes, some are outstanding, most are average, a few, well…. In short, I am hesitant to make broad generalizations about student behavior from one major to another based on what is actually rather thin evidence. But I do know this: some students, in all fields, are cheating themselves out of the opportunity of a lifetime.

College is a time to be practical, to prepare for life in the economic, social and cultural spheres. It is also a time to develop the sides of one’s personality that offer only satisfaction, pleasure, or accomplishment. Knowing yourself, and how to express the many sides of your personality is so important to a rich and fulfilling life. Some of these pursuits require training and dedicated practice. Perhaps their value is purely intrinsic, having no practical application at all, but they make life better. You will spend a large enough portion of your life working, raising a family or cleaning house. You will also spend a considerable portion of your life, often in private, just being—yourself. Perhaps it is surprising, but the latter is the most challenging part of education.

In short, whatever courses you choose, including those requirements that might seem forced upon you, pursue your studies with gusto. You never know what you might learn about yourself. The opportunities abound, but they may not—will not—last.

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