By Terry Gallagher
News and Information Services
While the University faculty “is committed to change, to discovery, to new ways of understanding our world,” it is necessary to recognize that “our students are moving in other directions and experiencing changes that are giving them a different sense of what they want from the University experience, a different sense of us as teachers, and a different vision of the world around them.”
English Prof. Ejner Jensen, chair of the Senate Advisory Committee on University Affairs, discussed “Arresting Changes: Visions and Values in the University” last week in the first talk in the Presidential Lecture Series on Academic Values. The series has been organized as part of the University’s celebration of its 175th anniversary.
“Given the fact that our students are experiencing changes that are in some measure cut off from us and that have the effect of separating those students from us, how do we attempt to manage change and how do we work toward stability in terms of vision and values when our students see the world differently than we do?” Jensen asked.
He outlined several of the changes that have occurred in higher education over the last generation, including a growing emphasis on graduate school, so students are “far more likely to see their education as instrumental than they are to see it as an end in itself.”
Academic specialization has also increased: “thus we have courses–in my own department–that are highly specialized, narrowly focused, built on the latest notions of critical theory and scholarship and being offered to student who have not had the most rudimentary preparation in the areas from which those courses draw their material,” Jensen said.
“If our goal is to advance knowledge and to be engaged always in discourse focused on the very latest developments in the field, then we run the risk of making ourselves inaccessible or only marginally comprehensible to our undergraduates and of persuading them even further that the Michigan experience is a mere way station on their route to their own specialization.”
The growth of technology has also had a different impact on students than it has on faculty members. “Whether we talk about their remarkable visual imaginations–honed by their experience of television and film–or their extraordinary command over the processes and the language of information technology–they are the first computer generation–we need to understand that their training has been different from ours,” Jensen said. “It would not be too much to claim that in some important ways their minds have been changed, and yet our teaching methods have, in many cases, remained the same.”
Jensen also discussed difficulties incorporating multiculturalism in higher education, efforts that will require “translation, mediation, discussion,” he said.
“We need to find a language that will allow many cultures to be discussed in terms of a single discourse; we need to find a place where our students values, more experiential than ours, can encounter in meaningful ways our own; and we need to discover the appropriate forums where we can talk about these matters with respect for one another’s ideas and with a keen sense of how dependent we are on one another.”
In his introduction, President James J. Duderstadt said the series was planned to focus attention on the University’s traditions during its 175th anniversary, “to reexamine what our basic mission and the values that join us should be.”
A panel discussion followed the lecture, with Duderstadt and Jensen joined by Mary Brake, associate professor of nuclear engineering; Earl Lewis, director of the Center for Afroamerican and African Studies and associate professor of history and of Afroamerican and African studies; and Prof. Rob Van der Voo, chair of the Department of Geological Sciences.
The next lecture in the series is scheduled for Dec. 8, when John H. D’Arms, vice provost for academic affairs and dean of the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies, will discuss “Arduous, Pleasant and Hopeful Toil: Values In and Beyond Graduate Education.”