I enjoy hiking. I particularly enjoy hiking in the Saranac Lake region, though I am hoping to get back out to the southwest to do some more hiking. Hiking gets me outside, which is always a plus. It gets me moving, which is great. And it takes me away from everything else for a while. I firmly believe that we should all spend some time outside, away from our places of work and our computers and even other people. But I sometimes have a tough time hiking with other people. I am a very slow, laborious hiker. As an overweight, middle-aged asthmatic with a bad knee, I take my time going up a hill, and sometimes even more time going back down. This does not bother me, but I’m always afraid it bothers other people. I worry that when I hike with someone else, I’m slowing them down, holding them back.
I worry, in other words, that I am keeping them from finishing on time.
And it took me quite some time – and a little encouragement from a good friend – that this was not the case.
But I still can’t help it. I’m not fast; I was not built for speed. And that’s fine. I may run regularly, but I’ll never be fast. In fact, I generally hate rushing through things, whatever they may be. I like to cook, and enjoy taking my time with it. I consciously slow down when I read, because I enjoy savoring a good book. Even when I clean the apartment, I’d rather take my time and do it right, than rush through it and be unhappy with the results. And I loathe when people force me to rush through something, especially if there’s no need to (other than someone else’s desire to save time).
And I realize that this attitude is at odds with much of my professional life.
Although I’m still fielding questions and meeting with students, my university has largely just finished advising for the fall semester. My students – more or less – know what they will be taking next year, and my classes have been scheduled (and, I’m happy to say, are filling up nicely). And in every meeting and email conversation I had with my students, I kept coming back to one concept: time.
In particular, my students kept talking about the idea of graduating “on time.” And of course, I know what this mean. Most programs at most universities are designed to be completed within four years. Four years is “on time.” This idea is so ingrained that we give different names to each year – freshman, sophomore, junior, senior – to remind everyone where they are in the four-year plan. And you can measure your progress by how quickly you can complete requirements relative to your year. That is, it’s not at all uncommon for students to tell me that they are “really” a sophomore, but have junior “standing” because they are ahead of schedule. And by the same token, it’s not at all uncommon (and increasingly more the norm) for students to say they are “really” a junior, but only have sophomore standing because, while they are in their third year, they haven’t completed enough credits to earn junior standing.*
Every student I met with so far was concerned with graduating “on time.” And increasingly, I have a tough time thinking in those terms.
It seems to me that, by accepting this relatively arbitrary number – one that, admittedly, has no bearing on part-time students, transfer students, and students who need to repeat course work, or who change majors, etc. – higher education has (unintentionally, of course) trained students to see education in terms of time, and not in terms of academic progress. (Hence the difference between number of years attended and actual standing, as noted above.) As such, we have encouraged students to misunderstand the goal of a college education. It’s not about time served; it’s about progress made. And the more I hear it, the more it sounds like a prison sentence students hope to be paroled from.
Allow me a digression, to try and get to my point.
It’s common for students to consider the amount of time spent working on an assignment, or studying for an exam, as an important factor for grading their work. Students who do poorly on an exam may plead that they spent a great deal of time studying, thinking that such efforts surely must be rewarded. Even taking students at their word,** this is an absurd way to think about academic achievement.
I was always good at math. I don’t recall studying for any math class I ever took, in high school or college,*** and I aced those classes. But Geology was a beast. It made no sense to me, and I spent hours studying. I was under the mistaken belief that the more time I put into the studying, the more I would learn. I was wrong. That may have been the only class I ever considered cheating in. It was rough. And I retained none of it. Nothing. I couldn’t even tell you which Geology course it was. The fact that I can spell “Geology” is about all I retained from that class.
But I sure did spent a lot of time on it. Because I was told – by the professor, especially – that I just needed to give it more time. And teachers do this all the time. From what I have seen, “spend more time on it” is the single most common piece of advice given to students. Not passing? Spend more time on the reading. Need to improve your grade? Spend more time studying. And while sometimes this might be useful advice – particularly to those students who may not be spending any time on the work at all**** – it’s also encouraging students to equate time with success.
Of course, this is not how a great many of us help students. But I’m positive we have all been guilty of it at some point or another. And I know that many students are still told this. I couldn’t even begin to count how many times I have overheard this piece of advice – “just spend more time on your work” – being given to students.
The result, over what must be years of conditioning, is for many students to equate time with success. If “more time” = “academic success,” then of course they are confused when, after spending more time on their work, they have not earned a better grade. And because the grade itself does not indicate how much time was spent, students plead their case, often going into great detail regarding how much time they spent studying, working on an assignment, etc.
I see the same thinking in terms of a college degree. A college degree comes after four years. Therefore, anything after four years is “late,” and thus a problem. Many students are then insistent that, regardless of whatever else needs to be attended to, they must finish in four years. (This way of thinking is so ubiquitous that I am willing to bet a week’s salary that many people reading this would have a tough time finding students who know exactly how many credits they need to complete in order to graduate. Hell, I bet there are even a few faculty reading this who don’t know the total number of credits students must complete to earn a degree at their universities. Nor should you. It’s not how we think. A college degree is four years. That’s it. The rest is details we can look up online.)
But this an increasingly difficult timeline for many students to follow, and I wish I knew how we could change their mentality. For instance, many students will transfer schools. Sometimes, the students’ interests change. Sometimes, they need to leave for personal reasons. Sometimes, the school cannot deliver on what it promised. And increasingly, students are completing time at community college to save costs.^ I know that at my university, many students who transfer in find that credits don’t transfer, especially toward the general education program. And should those students transfer into a rigidly-scaffolded program that assumes students start there as freshmen, transfer students can easily find themselves facing another year of college.
Similarly, students should be encouraged to apply for study abroad programs, even though many students (in my experience) find that they cannot make the same amount of progress toward their degree abroad as they can at their home university, given the very different systems employed around the world. I currently have a student studying abroad who cannot complete her degree without coming back and taking on an extra semester, in part because a year’s worth of credits at her current school is less than a year’s worth of credits here. She will complete her coursework, but will not have enough credits to graduate. At least not “on time.”
And we haven’t even yet considered the very real possibility that students may need to re-take courses, or take different courses to complete requirements. Higher education is already designed as a system that seriously discourages failure. That is to say, students who fail courses – no matter how hard they try, or how much time they spend on those courses – may find themselves on probation, or with lower housing, registration, or other priorities. And let’s not forget financial aid.^^
There are a great many students who would do well to take more classes. I often advise students to take writing classes to help improve their skills. But invariably, if those courses are not required for graduation, students won’t take them. Sometimes, those students want to take those courses, but cannot. Taking on additional coursework means they cannot graduate “on time.” The learning goals, in other words, come second to the need to finish in four years.
And then there are the students who might want to (or, given their future goals, should be encouraged to) double-major, pick up minors, or otherwise engage in “extra” coursework. But if it cannot be done in four years, many students I work with are simply not interested.
Earlier this year I spoke with a student who insisted on finishing “on time.” After a little conversation, I learned that she no financial aid issues keeping her to that timeline, nor did she have any real issue with taking more courses. In fact, we were discussing whether or nor she could reasonably pick up a minor in an area she was increasingly interested in. If money and interest were not at issue, what was holding her back from an extra semester?
She wanted to finish “on time.” She wanted to graduate with “her class.” It was an important part of her identity. Even if it meant not getting the education she wanted to get.
I wish I had an answer here. But really, I have no idea what to do. I can tell my students that taking more time to finish their degrees will, in the long run, be largely meaningless. I can tell them that spending more time in school – to get the education they want, to study what and how they want, to take advantage of the opportunities available to them, or getting the additional help and practice they need – is not at all a bad thing. Employers won’t care. Graduate programs won’t care. And unless someone looks at the transcripts, nobody will even know.
And I sure as hell am not saying that I have this figured out in my own life, either. In fact, I often find myself thinking in the same way about other aspects of my life. I practice yoga, and I often convince myself to do a quick practice because I don’t have enough time to get through a full routine. And I’m almost always wrong; I just want to get to something else that, in that moment, is more important to me. (Like writing this post.) I want to get through it as quickly as possible, just to be done with it, even when I know that I will get more out of it by devoting the proper time to it.
But this does not mean that “more time” = “better results,” either. I find that if I go running, I chastise myself for not spending more time running, even when I know full well that more running may lead to injury. (Think here in terms of the advice to students given above. Nobody in their right mind would ever tell me that the best way to become a better runner is to just spend more time running, turning my 30 minute run into a 2-hour run. That would be counter-productive.)
My larger point is, I know that in many aspects of my life, the quality of the experience has little to do with the time spent in that experience. By the same token, I also know that spending more time on something does not, in and of itself, lead to improvement. (For instance, I find that if I play bass for more than an hour, I get sloppy, and the practice isn’t doing me any good.)
Time is a very valuable resource. Many of us don’t have enough of it. In many aspects of our lives, we are encouraged not to waste it. And the older I get, the more I realize that taking control of my time is the most important thing I can do for my own well-being.
And as I get to the end of this post, I realize I don’t have a solution. Hell, I probably even lost my point somewhere along the way. So I’ll end by noting that one thing I am trying to do with my own life – and especially with my teaching – is to ignore how long something “should” take, and accept how long it “does” take. Because these arbitrary periods we attach to complicated and difficult activities – whether we’re talking about education, the arts, or just how long it should take to hike a mountain – don’t really mean anything.
*This, of course, causes a great deal of anxiety among students. And perhaps just as importantly, this collective decision to define the undergraduate experience as a four-year endeavor has significant financial aid ramifications for students who do not keep to that plan. I will not be discussing either aspect, but that does not mean they are irrelevant. I may collect my thoughts on them for a later post.
**Which I always try to do. The number of students who I think are lying to me is very, very small. I am increasingly disgusted by the way many academic speak disdainfully of their students in this regard, assuming their students must be lying to them, or playing on their sympathies. That’s absolutely fodder for another post. I don’t think students are lying to me when they claim they spend a great deal of time on their work. But I do think they are buying into an incorrect notion of the correlation between time and success. Spending six straight hours studying for an exam may take up a great deal of time, but I’m convinced the further into those six hours you get, the less effective studying becomes. Time, in and of itself, does not in any way measure quality.
***Except for Statistics, because holy shit was that hard. It looked like math – there were numbers and such – but it never made any sense to me.
****One of my students this semester recently admitted to me that he has not done any of the reading for the class, takes no notes, and does not study. He spends no time on the class, and he was failing as a result. After spending time doing the reading and studying, he finally passed the most recent exam. This is great. But I would never assume that all he needs is “more time” in order to keep improving, as if “X number of hours” translates easily into “desired grade.”
^I still remember a department meeting where one of my colleagues questioned the merits of this, considering that we cannot control the quality of the education students get at community college. What bothered me was that the comment focused on community colleges, where it’s true that we have no control over the quality of education students earn at 4-year colleges they may transfer from, too. That is certainly a post for another time.
^^Never forget financial aid. But have no fear, your student loan providers won’t let you.