Thursday, May 2, 2013

Reflections on first year at university

Having completed the grading of this semester’s final exams and entered all the students’ final marks in the system, I now have a moment to reflect back on my first academic year at Wilfrid Laurier University.  Unlike at Ottawa U, where I taught a mix of first-year and upper-year courses, this year I taught only first-year courses. I had 2 classes of 250 in the fall semester, and a third class of 250 in the winter semester. Some of the students were upper-year ones picking up an elective credit in environmental studies, but at least ¾ were true first year students, meaning I had about 10% of WLU’s incoming first-year class passed through my lecture hall. (If enrollment is down next year, that might explain why. Of course, if enrollment goes up, I’ll gladly take credit for that, too). Overall, I had a lot of fun, learned a lot, and so thought I would share a few reflections and observations about my first year and my students' first year.

All of the first-year students I encountered at WLU are genuinely nice and polite. I hear and read from time to time complaints about the decorum and manners of undergraduate students, but I really didn’t experience it this year. I’ve occasionally had a few rude students over the years, but by and large, university students these days are a pleasure to work with. I find they have a tendency to refer to themselves and to other students as ‘kids’, something I pointedly correct whenever I get the chance to do so. I think it’s important that they recognize themselves for being the women and men that they are. People who think of themselves as kids may act like kids, so the sooner they feel comfortable considering one another and me as adult peers, the better. It’s especially important given that the messages they receive outside university through the popular media and advertisers completely opposite, encouraging grown men and women alike to behave like mindless juveniles (I know I sound like some old fuddy-duddy when I write this, but it’s true!).

Something I like to observe is the evolution first-year students make between September and April. I enjoy it when the students arrive en masse after Labour Day. I will confess, I like the peace and quiet that falls on campus once the April exam period has ended, but by September it’s good to have a little life and enthusiasm back here. When the first-years arrive for frosh week, most look and act like high school students (which they were only 12 weeks previously). There’s a lot of loudness and posturing and trying to be cool going on. Then comes Monday morning, 0930H and they’re all sitting in my ES101 lecture hall, and they’re looking at me thinking – now what? I give them a very short lecture on surfing and littoral zone pollution, explain Socratic method, describe the rules of engagement in a university course, and conclude by warning them that things move very fast here, and if they don’t hit the books quickly they’ll be serving French fries in January. When lecture is over, a whole lot of them line up to shake my hand and introduce themselves (Do students do this at other universities? I like it.).

By April the first-year students who have made it through the year (some of them don’t) are visibly older, wiser, and more mature. They don’t dress like they’re in high school anymore, and the nature of their enthusiasm has changed. The thrill of simply being at university has long faded, but those who retain enthusiasm do so because they’re engaged with or passionate about something university has exposed them to, whether it’s a course they’re taking, or an issue they’re interested in, or a club they’ve joined. In other words, enthusiasm is now directed and channeled  Of course, not all of them remain enthusiastic at all, and many of these fail to show up for lectures. Attendance sags considerably as the semester drags on. My students will continue to attend labs regularly, where there’s 2 easy grades available simply for showing up, and if I am taking attendance, such as I did for a guest speaker in the final week of class, most will show up at lecture. But 0930h seems to come too early for many students.

Failure to attend class is the easiest way to get poor grades at university. Even if the prof is the dullest person in the world, it’s only 80 minutes out of your day to sit there, listen to her or him, and get a firsthand idea of what’s likely to be on the exams. It never ceases to amaze me how so many students are willing to pay thousands of dollars for tuition each semester and then skip class. Tuition accounts these days for roughly 50% of a university operating budget here in Ontario. So, as I tell my students, you’re paying half my salary, and I’m still getting paid me whether you show up for class or not – so why not show up and get something for your money?

And speaking of value for money, this is something I’m going to be thinking about over the summer. Students do pay a lot of money for tuition. How are they going to recoup that investment after they graduate? In environmental studies we teach a lot of very useful general skills in terms of writing, analysis, and how to think systematically about the world around us. My first-year students end the semester knowing more about the natural environment than Canada’s environment minister. But do these skills translate into meaningful employment opportunities for them? I haven’t seen any good quantitative data. I suspect the best environmental studies graduates end up working in meaningful jobs but, then again, many of those individuals would have probably found meaningful work had they majored in something else. I’m thinking that in their 3rd or 4th year, environmental studies students need the chance to take a seminar style course where the explicit aim is to show them how their skills transfer to the private sector, whether that’s as entrepreneurs, as managers, as analysts, or as something else. I’m still thinking this through, but I think we owe it to our environmental studies graduates to make them as employment-ready as is possible within the reality that we’re not a trade college but a university. More to follow…

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