A Glimpse into the Educative Power of Community

Gardner Writes » Blog Archive » Techfoot’s back on the bull’s eye:

Hamilton College Career Center Philosophy Twenty years ago I wrote the first draft of this philosophy statement. Glad to see it’s still there.

I appreciate Gardner’s kind words about my renewed attention to my blog and his comments on missed opportunities for integrating the academic mission with the goals of other units. I was particularly interested in his thoughts on student affairs:

Student experience: that’s the purview of Student Affairs, right? The people who schedule the mixers and dances and res-hall activities? The people who get the pool tables and climbing walls together for student recreation? Yet how many rich, unexplored opportunities are here for creative informal learning encounters, among students and faculty and staff. Instead, we seem to have independent, centrally funded catering operations–credit catering, activity catering, etc. Where’s the academic mission situated within a view of the whole person?

I spent 14 years of my professional life as part of the student affairs “division” at Hamilton. As the director of the Career Center, my community of practice was a pretty diverse group–the priest and chaplains; the clinical psychologists and counselors; the residence life folks; nurse practitioners and “the doctor”; the campus activities staff, the directors of multicultural affairs and service learning, along with the occasional faculty member doing a three year term as “downstairs dean”. We met in (seemingly endless) staff meetings, task forces, study groups, parties, retreats, sporting events, art shows and campus protests, and developed a remarkable sense of shared purpose and passion, even with the diversity of our professional training and experience.

The passion that held us together was the belief that, as Gardner says, the four-year, residential, liberal arts experience provides an unparalleled opportunity for learning in all its richness. We believed deeply in an expansive view of education that included emotional, motivational, spiritual and physical components as well as the cognitive and critical skills and understandings that were the centerpieces of the “academic mission”. While the philosophical and theoretical underpinnings of our work were largely invisible to our faculty colleagues, we believed that we were contributing to something more substantial than merely organizing the next Smashing Pumpkins concert.

Early in my tenure at Hamilton, I got a call from the president’s secretary. One of the president’s practices was to schedule one-on-one meetings with new administrators shortly after they were hired. (His other practice was to protect the college from administrative bloat by writing a statement into appointment letters: “I’m sure that someone with your outstanding qualifications and potential will build on your Hamilton experience to move onto more challenging opportunities within five years.”) During the conversation, he asked me what my goals were for the new job.

Even in my short tenure, I was aware of the general distrust by the faculty of such a pristine liberal arts institution for anyone with the obscenely vocational title of Director of the Career Center. “My goal”, I told the president, “is to be as good at doing my job as the very best of your faculty are at doing theirs and to have you recognize and appreciate the contribution that makes to the College. The folks in my office share the same goals as the instructional faculty. We want to help students develop self-knowledge and understanding, learn to make decisions creatively and critically, and apply their writing and oral communication skills to building their own careers and contributing to their communities. Our methods of doing that are different–but they are every bit as complex as what faculty do within their disciplines. For us, the ultimate measure of success won’t be a book or publication in a prestigious journal. The measure of success will be if we can build on the best ideas of the psychologists, sociologists, learning theorists and our colleagues at other universities to help students lay the foundation for lifelong career development. ”

The president looked at me like I was nuts. He said something like, “As long as all the theoretical stuff doesn’t get in the way of building a good on-campus recruiting program, we’ll be just fine. I would really like to see more top-tier investment banks coming to campus though.”

For the rest of my tenure at Hamilton, we tried share the idea that the Career Center program made an important contribution to the developmental learning process and that students would benefit integrating their skills, values, interests and passions into a commitment to lifelong learning–starting with their first job or grad school search. The success of our attempt to communicate that vision could probably be summed up in the words of the tour guide with the most abrasive voice I’ve ever heard in my life. During the last summer I was at Hamilton, the admissions tour went right by my open office window, and five times a day, I had to listen to her holler:

And this is our career center where the recruiters come in the spring and the seniors go to get jobs…

So much for all that theoretical stuff…

I have to hope that our new tools of communication and collaboration can help someday make the various communities on our campuses more open and more transparent. Blogs, wikis, YouTube and the rest might help provide glimpses into communities that otherwise might be invisible to us, and those glimpses may well grow into something more.

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