The Day College Died

I had a good college experience at Washington University in St. Louis, I really did. Some of the choices I made in terms of classes and majors left me wanting, but overall, good times.

I think the key is that I went in with unreasonable expectations. My perception of college when I was in high school was a place where classes sat in circles in the shade of 100-year-old oaks, discussing and debating well after the hour was up. Professors in tweed jackets would wow students with inspiring, insightful lectures, and cute girls would approach me after class and want to discuss ideas and possibilities on the way back to the residential campus.

That was what college was supposed to be.

Instead, it was much more by-the-book. Almost every class I attended was a lecture with very little participation. Professors ran through the material, always seeming like they were a few steps behind where they wanted to be. (Note that my Japanese classes weren’t like this–they were much smaller. That’s one of the reasons that I contend that one of the best things to take away from a college experience is a foreign language.)

I went along with it, every step of the way. I forgot what I had imagined college to be and became driven to prepare for the exam. We all did.

Then one day I was in a class–a large psychology lecture–when something changed. The professor, who was normally dry and by-the-book, started engaging the class, asking what they thought about an experiment. All around me, the class came alive. Even the professor seemed like he had extra bounce in his step. Finally, the real college experience had begun.

Several minutes into the discussion, a guy in the back raised his hand. The professor called him out, saying, “Yes, you–what do you think?”

The guy replied, “I think we should get back to the stuff that’s going to be on the exam.”

Just like that, the dream was dead. It was like the air was sucked out of the room. The professor’s face dropped, and he switched to the next slide and went back to lecturing.

That experience left a mark on me. Maybe, I thought, maybe it’s not the school. Maybe I”m going to school with the wrong students.

Again, I want to say that I had a lot of great experiences in college, especially during my year abroad (number one lesson to all college students: spend a year abroad! Not a semester–a year. You will never have a chance to have that type of immersive, educational-but-carefree experience again!)

But I never once had a class outside under the shade of a 100-year-old oak.

22 thoughts on “The Day College Died”

  1. Sometimes I still dream about attending classes like those you described. I did have maybe 3 classes like that in college. I considered going for a master’s in creative writing, because I wanted to have interesting discussions with other writers. Then I joined Denver’s Lighthouse Writers Workshop, where small groups of writers discuss craft with working authors, and I became a member of a book club that discusses great literature. Instead of paying tens of thousands of dollars for a degree that will only feed my ego and not improve my professional standing, I pay a few hundred bucks to Lighthouse and cook dinner for my book club twice a year. In return, I get everything I was looking for… except a master’s diploma and the aforementioned oak. I do have a magnolia tree out front. Perhaps my book club can sit under it sometime.

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    • Wow, lots of good comments today. You have a great point about how you can get all the perks of an informal, small-group, discussion-based education after college.

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  2. I’ve been very hard on the Jepson School of Leadership Studies @ University of Richmond for awhile now…I’d say I’ve been disillusioned because of a few things, a large one of which was how academic and “not real world” the classes were/how unprepared they left us for actually having a job. After being out of school for a few months, I was angry at everything I could have learned in school that was never addressed in the slightest & I felt that I’d wasted a lot of my time. However, upon reading this blog post, I have to soften that view a little bit. One of the things I loved about Jepson was that it was very interactive and almost never straight lecture. We had many experiences like the one you’re talking about (including a few under the 100-year-old oak), and I felt like most professors did care about us as people–most of them just didn’t know what it was like to work in a non-academic job.

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    • I definitely hear you about college not preparing students for the real world. I actually think the key to that preparation is in summer internships and real-world working experiences during college. I think universities need to do a better job at connecting students to those internships and making connections between what they’re learning in class and at work.

      But it’s good that you had those types of discussions. I see a lot of value in them.

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  3. I had one class at WashU outside. It was a class on Media Processing (low level mathematics for encoding digital video). We discussed the Altivec instruction set. The setting was there, maybe not the subject matter.

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  4. The summer after 10th grade I attended a pre-college summer program at Cambridge University in England. It was exactly like you described. My classes – both for Neuroscience and Creative Writing – were held outside in the grassy quads and my professors had fabulous British accents. The food, however, was terrible.

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      • I have little recollection of campus food at USC or CU Boulder, except that they had good wraps at the SC cafeteria. I worked in a restaurant, and in between classes I subsisted on Hostess Ding Dongs. Neither healthy nor brain food, but yummy.

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  5. Hmm, maybe it was your major? I had very few large lecture classes my entire time at Wash U and of those, most still had discussions throughout—I think only my freshman art history courses didn’t inspire discussion during the lecture, but they compensated with smaller discussion classes that accompanied them. I tended to avoid a lot of the intro huge lecture classes. My major didn’t really require many of them and I opted for smaller classes whenever I had the chance.

    I also remember having class outside under a tree or on the grass plenty of times. I actually had class in Forest Park a couple of times too. 🙂

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    • Oh yes, my major (International Business) played a large part in it. But I also took a number of art-sci classes (to inch closer to a Japanese major), and even though the professors knew their stuff, it seemed like their main goal was to cover a huge amount of material in a short amount of time, which didn’t allow much room for discussion.

      That’s awesome that you had the college experience I wanted :). I have to say, though, I really wish the business school employed that format more often, or at least more hands-on experience. For example, I was talking about a friend of mine about how much he’s learned by trying to raise money for his business. That would be a great exercise for a business class. I didn’t need to spend two semesters in accounting if I wasn’t going to become an accountant.

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  6. I don’t know what your major was, but that may have affected your chances. Or the university culture. As an English and History major at Butler U. in Indianapolis I had lots of classes outside, as well as in my dorm’s study room (I could go in my socks!), and several that met in the professor’s home and sometimes involved refreshments (yum!). And most of my classes were of the discussion-observation type, not much lecturing after freshman year. I will say my Pharmacy major friends had different experiences, but what you’re talking about does exist in higher education and you’re right, it makes a ton of difference in the student’s engagement with the material as well as their “college experience” overall.

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    • That sounds awesome! Did the professors wear tweed jackets?

      I think you’re right that engagement-style classes exist in higher education–probably at every school. A lot of it comes down to the types of classes I chose.

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  7. Even though I never had a class where we sat down under a 100 year-old tree, I did have a couple classes where we had to be outside 3 class periods a week and no it wasn’t my gym classes. I didn’t go to Wash U so maybe my college did things different. I agree with the people on here, I think you just picked the wrong major. International business just sounds awful, sounds like something a boring person would pick 😛

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    • Yeah, I tried to choose the most boring possible major. Actually, I tried to choose the most interesting possible major in the business school. Maybe I chose it because I was studying Japanese too. You have to admit that Japanese is at least somewhat interesting.

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  8. LOL nice one, very cute, I love sarcasm. Yeah Japanese sounds fun, but not the business part. I cheated and took so many hours of foreign language in high school that I got to skip that part in college.

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    • Did you walk away fluent? I’d say that’s the goal. I started studying Japanese in middle school, but my teachers weren’t teachers, just natives. I ended up essentially having to start over in college, but it was worth it. Of course now I’ve forgotten everything, but if I was dropped in the middle of Kyoto, I’d survive.

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  9. I used to be fluent, but over time it just faded. I still remember some phrases and how to form sentences and whatnot and when I hear people in stores speak it I know what they are saying. It’s like I can hear it or see it and know what’s being said, but I can’t speak it myself very well. I think I could survive in another country though.

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  10. I can honestly say, because I now teach at the university i work at, that collaborative learning, and non-traditional methods of lecturing are in. Engaging students in lecture is encouraged by dept chairs and deans. Are there still tons of professors whose pedagogy is still delivered via lectue- sure, but more professors are adopting new techniques for engaging students in discussion. As our learners (students) evolve so will the faculty. Some universities/colleges are resisting, but not all.

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    • That’s awesome that you’re seeing some of those changes in education–I’m glad to hear universities are doing that.

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  11. i think that your dream, jamey, is twice removed–meaning, the picture you paint is how college is/was supposed to be, but never actually is/was that way. what you describe is the college fantasy. there may have been a time when college represented something–which was the basis for the idea that college was a passage to intellectualhood. but since college has come to fill a void between high school and a good job, it’s just something that’s done. also, times have changed: the blah college experience you describe is–in my opinion–a mixture of student/teacher apathy, lots of money, and the cattle effect of herding students through.

    but i tend to be pessimistic.

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  12. The perfect day you described in your class is how every day was in my art history class. It sounds to me, like what the others are saying, that quite possibly it could have been your major? I dabbled in the school of business for one semester and it wasn’t for me. Most of the classes I experienced with the creative side, English, Art History, Anthropology (yes, it can be creative!), and my many art classes reflected the ideal you talk about. There were some classes where we even went outside to draw.

    It all also could depend on who is teaching the class as well, are they predominantly analytical or creative? Are they both? Maybe if your teacher had started out the class with feedback and and interaction, rather than trying it mid semester then maybe the student wouldn’t have killed the dream?

    Your dream is still alive, it just exists in different sectors of the university:)

    Reply

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