What to do with all you’ve learned?

During finals week on my University’s campus, it’s not uncommon to find 15 weeks worth of notes, studiously copied and interpreted down in neat handwriting, discarded in trash cans overflowing with similar academic rejections. The same can be said of paper recycling bins, frequented for disposal by the more earth-minded students, which, although more environmentally-friendly, still give me a shudder as I see so much effort and knowledge discarded without seemingly any pretense.

Index Cards 2
Why discard all of your hard work?

The sidewalks are also littered with the detritus of completed classes (see the above tableau of a flurry of index cards scattered in front of a frat house; can’t you just picture a student flinging her/his hands up in the air to release the cards, shouting ‘I’m free’? To which the educator in me must  reply, ‘From what?’).

I don’t want this post to be some sort of ‘When I was a student. . .’ reflection, partly because my world as an undergraduate was markedly different from those of today’s college students. No social media, we still wrote our e-mails using DOS prompts, and eBay seemed some sort of black market supply store. Nobody took laptops to class.

That said, up until 3 or 4 years ago, I still had all of my college notebooks stored away for safe-keeping.  Even my gen eds.  Even my yoga journal. Just in case, I seemed to be thinking. In case I might need that little parcel of information again.

So, it’s from that perspective that I have to question a student’s impulse in jettisoning a semester’s worth of work as soon as his/her final assignment is complete and grades are posted. Why not hang onto the material that you transcribed and examined for an entire semester?

Sure, information is much more accessible today than when I was a student.  Most research journals are fully electronic and any fact can be checked (from reputable online sources) in a matter of seconds with our smartphones.  But this online content hasn’t been condensed and filtered through a student’s own comprehension.  In a way, this online information is foreign and external, whereas a student’s notes from a semester-long class are intimately known and accessible. They’ve already been distilled through a student’s own thinking. And because of that, I feel that content to be more valuable in turn.

Admittedly, part of this problem lies with us faculty. A portion of our role as  instructors is to demonstrate the relevance of our course’s content, the real-world importance it bears on an individual’s life. We are in part, each day, trying to communicate to our students why this information is valuable to them and worthy of their time.

Perhaps seeing discarded papers and index cards strewn about campus, or witnessing study guides caught in a frenetic dance on the chilly breezes of mid-December, causes a reflexive feeling of dismay in me because it is a reminder that higher education might be failing our students.

And that is a much greater burden to carry.




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