Friday, December 5, 2008

Core competency

Today I spent the morning orienting and interviewing twenty-four students -- currently on my campus, and planning to transfer from other schools -- who hope to enter the Honors College next semester. On a day when there are no classes in preparation for finals next week, these freshmen and sophomores spent three and a half hours listening to information, absorbing an academic presentation, writing an essay, and discussing ideas in small groups.

I'm always made hopeful by admissions and recruiting. Students respond so enthusiastically and with such persistence to the promise of an academic program where they can play a central and active role. As I spoke, listened, and judged which of them fit our standards most closely, I was once again charmed and gratified by the dedication that led them to complete such an arduous process. Some of them, I could tell almost immediately, were "our kind" -- students who want to take charge of their education, who are set on fire by ideas, who need a place where they are surrounded by their true peers.

After writing detailed evaluations of the four students who participated in my seminar group, I packed up and headed over to the dorm where most of our current students live. There, as happens almost every Friday, a group of undergraduates had planned a presentation. This one happened to be the final event in a semester-long series created by a junior. Her work with Japanese students in the Intensive English Program classes on campus, combined with the coincidental scheduling of Honors and IEP classes in the same seminar rooms, gave her the idea to invite Japanese students into the Honors dorm to give presentations on Japanese life and culture, and on their perceptions of American life and culture. We provided the venue, the technology, the publicity, and some snacks. The students provided the idea and the implementation.

These presentations aren't part of any class. They're completely student-driven. And week after week, as I attend, I am more convinced that our job as educators is to provide our students with the support and resources they need to pursue their own projects. Some of that support is educational -- students need to be trained in the fields that will enable them to proceed competently. Some of it is guidance -- many students don't have a project yet, or don't know how to go about making it realizable.

But much of it is simply logistical. With students like ours, great things can happen when you provide a structure and then get out of the way. I'm starting to wonder how many other traditional activities of our program -- classes, publications, grants, co-curriculars -- would look quite different if we thought of them not as assignments or roadmaps to education, but as resource centers where students come and get what they need to advance their personal developmental agendas.

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