Wednesday, September 12, 2007

College in the 21st Century

I'm kinda glad that it took me 20 years to finish my Master's Degree (it's an MA in Public History from Loyola University of Chicago). I started my degree at the dawn of the personal computer revolution. When I started, all I had was a correcting typewriter (it would remember everything from the last "Return") -- and that seemed like as high-tech as could be. I was a year full-time, then I started working when I found an internship at the Illinois State Archives. I haven't stopped working since. I had all the classroom work finished by the time my oldest daughter came along, but the program had two exams to pass, plus a Master's Essay. I passed the Public History exam and finally finished my paper, but couldn't get past the "field exam" (this was an exam on the literature of your "real history" concentration -- in my case, 20th century American Urban History). Unfortunately, when I took the exam, I had let the literature leak out of my ears and the prof who gave the exam wasn't someone I had studied under. It was a very bad day. So I let ten more years elapse until the day that I was surfing the Loyola website. I noticed that the "field exam" was no longer part of the degree. So I tried to petition my way to the degree. Well, in true Chicago fashion, we struck a deal -- take three classes in three semesters, get a "B" or better and they'd turn over the sheepskin. My employer paid 85% of the freight and the rest was history.

That long story is prelude to my musings tonight -- education has moved forward considerably. In the mid-80's, you went to the library, leafed through the card catalog and maybe browsed some shelves when you wanted something. You might be able to search for some books on a computer, but it was generally in the inner sanctum of the librarians. So that tended to mean that you were limited to what you local library had -- or what you might get days or weeks later through Inter Library Loan.

The Internet changed all that. I could sit at home in the evening (or middle of the night) and browse the college library's card catalog. I could order books from another campus and have them delivered to my "home" campus. I could search for Inter Library Loan items, order them, and find out when they had arrived. I could download journal articles and dissertations. A huge amount of resources were available to me, 24 x 7. I tend to think that my work product was much better than when I would wander the stacks. Toss in a computer with modern word-processing software and I suspect that I was not only more efficient, but wrote better when i could easily draft and re-draft. (As an undergrad, I thrived on "one take" papers -- I never have learned how to type properly and therefore was fairly slow, so I would compose my paper at the keyboard and would have to get it right the first time. A computer would have been worth several tenths on my GPA, I have to suspect.)

So I understand how technology has impacted learning -- for the better, I would think.

Anyway, my daughter is going to be a CA (Community Assistant -- or "RA" to many of us old-timers) at school this year. I'll rant later on how that (doesn't) impact the financial aid package. We were talking last night about what she is learning. Now most of us would think that being an RA means learning the rules and knowing who to call when there is an emergency. It seems to be far more than that. Sure they get those items, but they also get some lectures on law, counseling, behavior, psychology, and race relations. They have to know how and when to refer people for all sorts of things ranging from quasi-criminal issues to pregnancy or rape to drug and alcohol abuse, to depression and suicide. It scared me to hear all this stuff. The cool part (once I get past the freaked out parent issues) is that she's going to walk away with some great experience in working with people at challenging times (hopefully not too much experience) and working as a team with the other RAs in her building. That should be invaluable experience for her.

I know that I had an unusual college experience. I didn't experience much at the edges of life. I know very few people who partied too much or messed themselves up in college. I'm sure that people had issues that had to be dealt with. But it will be an interesting journey to see all this through my daughter's eyes. She lived in a very tame dorm last year and the one she has this year has a party-hardy rep.

This year will be interesting -- and will probably make me appreciate this kid in my life all the more.

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