College, where you learn to really think about what you do

Mar 17 2012 - 5:03pm

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Adrienne Gillespie
Adrienne Gillespie

Like all teachers on the college level, Adrienne Gillespie is both dismayed by and thrilled with her students. Thrilled because some are wonders: Bright. Aggressive. Able to leap tall concepts with a single mental bound. They know why they need an education. They mean to get one.

These are the students whose papers get graded last. Why? Every professor needs a treat.

She's dismayed because some students are ticket punchers, people who "just say, 'Give me my degree. I just need a degree. Why do you want me to take these other classes?' "

Every professor sees both kinds of students.

Adrienne runs the Diversity Center at Weber State University and teaches classes in Women's Studies.

She's a real tyrant. She has her students write a 500-word essay every week, then has them write 300-word responses to her critiques of those papers.

(Does that mean Adrienne reads a whole classroom full of 500-word essays every week and writes a critique on each one? College professors work very hard.)

Why is she so mean?

"Because of what I see. Having worked in student government and having worked in outside projects and government projects, people don't know how to write."

Yes, you know how to work a keyboard, slap out an email and text your kids "R U going 2 B L8 for dinner?"

But Adrienne defines writing as being able to take information, synthesize it, draw some conclusions and explain the whole thing in a coherent fashion.

Surveys show two-thirds of college graduates in the United States can't do that.

Why? Ticket punchers.

Adrienne and I were having this discussion because we are both dismayed at the recent debate over whether college is really necessary.

President Barack Obama said every American student should be able to get some sort of post-high school education.

Some idiot politician translated that to mean Obama wants everyone to go to college and accused Obama of being a snob. The debate went downhill from there. Someone, somewhere, actually said, "Well, we need garbage collectors, too."

Going to college doesn't mean you still won't end up collecting garbage. Philosophy majors have to eat, and you can bet they'll know why they're collecting that garbage.

(And before you call, I do know that waste removal is a highly technical business, critical for civilization, very dangerous and largely unthanked.)

College isn't a trade school. Adrienne doesn't teach her students to write so they'll become writers. She does it so they'll learn to think no matter what they do.

"If we don't teach our students to write at the most basic levels," she asked, "how do we expect them to become productive citizens?"

Which they do, in surprising ways.

Her Women's Studies students came up with the idea to make quilts and blankets to alleviate a shortage at the Shriners Hospital in Salt Lake City.

While that's nice, Adrienne said, "I asked them, 'This is a Women's Studies class. What's that got to do with Women's Studies?'

"And they got me!" she almost shouted, her face breaking into a big grin. "They got me!"

Shriners gives every new patient a handmade blanket of their own. The chief caretakers of children in Shriners Hospital are the mothers of those patients. With a shortage of blankets, a group of women engaged in one of their most basic societal roles was suffering.

So Adrienne's students took what they learned in college, looked around in their community, applied it and made their community better.

In so doing, they got Adrienne good -- and good for them.

The Wasatch Rambler is the opinion of Charles Trentelman. He can be reached at 801-625-4232 or ctrentelman@standard.net. He also blogs at www.standard.net.

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