Steven F. Freeman

Putting Class to Use

page created: 09/07/2012
page last modified: 12/16/2013

September 7, 2012

As an undergraduate, c. 1982, I enrolled in a class outside of my major because I had an idea that I wanted to develop. The idea, then novel, was land-for-debt swaps, i.e., that rather than “develop” their forests and jungles for agriculture and resources to obtain hard currency to pay off debts, Brazil and other deeply indebted nations could, instead, forego “development” in return for debt forgiveness, thereby reducing the deleterious effect on the environment. (Even back then, global warming loomed as a cataclysmic problem.)

Hoping to develop the idea, I enrolled in a political science class on Latin America. When I told the class TA about my project, she said that the class had a set structure and assign­ments and the purpose was to teach a body of material, “not to help you develop your idea.”

So instead, I wrote the idea without guidance or course credit. I did publish it in a student publication, but there it died without acknowledgement. The idea was subsequently devel­oped by others, but by then, in another type of career, I was unable to participate, and possibly even help push it along earlier and further than it otherwise went.

Our TA’s opinion notwithstanding, I felt then and still feel today that “using” a course for your own purposes is the best possible education. Indeed, standardized course assignments may be the world’s greatest wasted opportunity. Consider all the time and energy that you personally have spent attending class and complying with course requirements. Now, imagine that time and effort optimally applied. Properly focused, you could have landed a job (or several), written a book or two…. changed your world, or at least some part of it.

Some students in the University of Pennsylvania Organiza­tional Dynamics (OD) program are doing that. Five former students are the featured speakers at the program’s Fall Brunch tomorrow (10:00am at the Hilton Inn@Penn) discussing how they used OD classes to design and develop their careers and their organizations:

Technical courses with standardized assignments may bring students to the point of hire-ability in beginning a career. But increasingly students already have a job or career or are engaged in studies outside of a core technical curriculum. Moreover, the nature of careers and career advancement has changed. Rarely now can people expect to climb any sort of stable corporate ladder. Rather, careers move laterally or in fits and starts dependent on circumstances and the aspirant’s astuteness, motivation and creativity.

So for the most part beyond introductory college level classes, standardized, prescribed assignments take up the time and effort that almost certainly could be applied more valuably.

Teachers can certainly help to make better use of assign­ments and courses. To encourage useful assignments, I focus attention on what they students hope to get out of a particular class – not only the superficial reasons, but sometimes hidden, buried, unconscious considerations. Is there anything you really want to do or accomplish towards which this course may be helpful? What would be the best possible outcome?   

Advisors and program counselors and can help too. Ideally, course assignments are not isolated projects, but rather components in a larger educational program.

Sometimes less is more. Dreams are often deeply sub­merged – and barely flickering – underneath many layers of “have-to”s in busy lives. Quiet time and simple encouragement may provide the best chance to permit dreams, insights and new directions to emerge. Rather than add to a long list of “have-to”s teacher and student might together explore, excavate, revive, rehabilitate, imagine or conceive a student’s “want-to”s. And only then develop a personalized assignment.

The long-standing paradigm of education puts assignments somewhere on the tail end of the process, an evil necessary only so as to ascertain whether a student demonstrates minimal competency in a (somewhat arbitrary) domain. But given the nature of contemporary careers and students, the scarcity of time, and the even more limited oppor­tunity for expert guided endeavor, designing worthwhile assignments and projects – putting class to use -- should be the centermost core of education, around which everything else ought to revolve.

Ultimately, it’s you, the student, who derives the benefits (or suffers the consequences) of what you do with class time. The effort put into getting a degree amounts to a large propor­tion of your disposable time. That time is precious! In the end, time is life. What you do with it is who you are; what you do with your class time is who you’ll become. It’s you who needs to make ensure it’s put to use.

Steve Freeman joined the University of Pennsylvania faculty in 2000, and has taught in Organizational Dynamics (OD) since 2003. He has taught popular OD courses on Crisis Preparedness & Organizational Resilience, Creativity & Innovation in Organizations and Work and How to Become the Authority in Your Field. He also teaches research and paper writing work­shops which all OD students are encouraged to attend at no cost. He holds a PhD in Organization Studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and is the author of many books and articles and the recipient of numerous research awards. He is presently embarking on a new consulting venture, Crisalis, helping organizations avert crises and seize opportunity. “Education for Life” may become a weekly column. Please send us your thoughts on Putting Class to Use!

 

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