Higher Education

intellectual climate revisited

Once again I find myself thinking about this issue of improving the "intellectual climate" on campus–an ongoing mission at Cortland, like many other colleges. Intellectual climate is a curious turn of phrase. It suggests changing certain systemic cultural conditions to enhance intellectual behavior.

But it begs the question of what constitutes an "intellectual" behavior. That is, how would we know when the intellectual climate has improved?

I was thinking about this in the context of the graduate class I taught last night. We had a guest speaker, Shade Gomez, a high school English teacher from Ithaca who his doing some interesting stuff with technology. The class, which addresses the use of technology in secondary English education, was struck by the way in which the technologies helped students to identify their interests and take some ownership over the education.

I realized that this was an important feature for me of what intellectual behavior would be: identifying an interest and taking ownership of one’s education. So in that context the classroom becomes both a launching point and a support mechanism for such behaviors, and the professor helps the student to shape his/her goals and strategies for attaining them. For example, a student says she wants to write a novel (a common aspiration among our professional writing majors). OK. That’s a goal that can be divided into smaller parts such as learning the various techniques of fiction writing, learning to revise, and so on. It can also be connected with related goals: perhaps the student wants to learn about the publishing industry or working as an editor.

Of course a student doesn’t have to have a long-term goal. S/he just needs to articulate his/her education in the context of some interest, and the class needs to facillitate such an articulation. From this approach, the "intellectual climate" of the campus needs to be one that understands teaching and learning in this way, that supports faculty in supporting students, and encourages students to identify goals, take ownership of their education, and to share their work with the community.

Under these terms, if a college has a speaker series it could be understood in terms of the work students do. For example, our theme this year is fundamentalism, not only in the religious sense but in the widest possible sense of different spaces where a fundamentalist approach is possible (e.g. education, art, literature, and so on ). For the aspiring novelist in my earlier example perhaps this is an opportunity to think about the "fundamentals" of writing, of the novel as genre, and consider how these should be understood and dealt with in her own writing and educational goals.

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