Learning Epiphany

Turning Your Life Upside Down

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

 

(Image retrieved from Google Images.  Web site for image: http://www.toxel.com/inspiration/2009/10/20/upside-down-house-in-germany)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ever take something that is really familiar and change it so drastically that it feels new?

I like to do that with furniture arrangement.  I change the placement of my living room furniture at least four times a year.   By reordering the center of my home, there seems to be a rippling effect into the other rooms.  I have to pass by the living room on the way to the kitchen, so I have the opportunity to appreciate the change several times a day.

When I travel long distances, I always fly.  This past summer, when visiting friends in New Jersey, I decided to take an Amtrak sleeper car up the East Coast.  I had never had such solitude and privacy when traveling before.  I was on the train for 13 hours and spent about half that time sleeping and the other half admiring the vista out my “picture window.” Although I enjoy the bird’s eye view that plane travel offers, the new vantage point from my sleeper car was refreshing! There is no question, I will be doing that again!

One of the courses I teach, I have taught dozens and dozens of times.  Last year, I changed part of it and that change infused new life into the course.  That went so well (and felt so good) that I completely changed the entire course for this year!  We have just ended the first week of the new term, and all of the things I used to do have been replaced by new lecture topics, new PowerPoint, and a new order of presentation of material.  It feels weird, but good.  It reminds me of buying a new pair of shoes that has a different sole and heel from your other shoes.  It feels weird, but there is a new awareness to how you walk and stand.

So, what can you do to gain a new perspective on your life?  What familiar things are you doing that you can rearrange, reorder and renew?

Taking college courses can help you do that – and it doesn’t matter what level of education you have.  One of my colleagues, who has two Ph.D.s, often takes the art and design courses that are offered to our undergraduates.  She is always amazed by the new perspective she has gained (with an added benefit of understanding the courses our students are taking).  These courses tend to turn her point-of-view upside down and she loves it!

If you have been considering returning to school – whether for your first college course or courses post-doc – now is just as good a time as any.  Although the fall term is already underway for most colleges and universities, there are fascinating workshops you can take through the Continuing Education department of your local college.  Check out their on-line catalog, and find the courses that will give you a new perspective.  Turn your life — or at least your perspective — upside down!

Connecting the Dots

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

Last week I was invited to hear the keynote speaker at a student conference being held at our college on behalf of our students.  The conference was geared towards preparing our students for leadership roles in their careers.  The keynote speaker was a former student who had taken my class “Speech & Public Speaking.”  Unfortunately, she was “snowed-in” in New York City and had to give her speech via Skype audio.  Her PowerPoint presentation was given simultaneously.

I remember her … even though it had been five years and a thousand students ago.  “Nickie” was the dream student.  She was an Art Education teacher out West and decided to make a career change by enrolling in a program at our school.  She was in her mid-twenties when she came to be a student in my class.  Nickie was an eager student whose mind was open and ready to take in the lessons that were offered to her.  She was unusual in that she did not treat “Speech class” like a class with assignments.  Nickie approached the class with the attitude of “How can I use this to help me with my career?”  That difference was all the difference.

During the 10 weeks she was in my class, she had an interview in New York City for an internship.  We had just covered argument-based persuasion, so she went to NYC with this new-found knowledge and felt prepared to handle the presentation and interview.  She did get the position, and returned to our classroom fired up about using the tools acquired in the classroom in the “real world.”

She had “connected the dots.”  We, as professors, offer “dots” to our students.  It is up to the students to connect them, to have them make sense, to use them.  Nickie was a Non-Traditional Student (NTS) in that she had already earned her Bachelor’s Degree and was pursuing a rewarding career.  She opted to change direction when she realized she needed and wanted more.  Even though she did not fit the numeric definition of a NTS (out of high school at least 10 years), she had a fully mature attitude toward learning and was highly motivated to effect change in her life.

She graduated in 2007 and has pursued a successful career as an independent designer, obtaining numerous contracts with prestigious firms.  She has also participated in many college-related events even though she lives in a different region of the country.  When she was asked to give the keynote address she requested that her former professors be e-mailed and invited to attend the opening program of the conference.  Before her presentation began, I asked the coordinator of the conference to let Nickie know that I was there.  Consequently, when she was wrapping up her speech, she gave an enthusiastic “shout-out” to me and thanked me for all she had learned in my class.

Yes, I did provide the dots she needed to help with the change in her career.  However, it was up to her to connect them – and so she did!

The Need to Know

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

When I was barely underway pursuing my Associate’s Degree, the television series “Cosmos,” hosted and co-written by the late Dr. Carl Sagan, aired on PBS.  In this series, Dr. Sagan introduced science to the viewers with a flair and romance that was his signature teaching style.  Difficult concepts were presented in a manner that made them easy to digest (e.g. “If you want to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe” was one of his famous opening lines).  It was through “Cosmos” that I first learned about the great Library at Alexandria that existed there for 700 years.

Recently released on DVD is the film “Agora” which tells the story of the last days of the great Library.  Throughout the film, the scientist Hypatia was driven to understand the nature of the solar system and the relationship between the Earth and the sun.  She was compelled to find answers.  This compulsion can be traced back from today’s scientists through to Hypatia and before the existence of the Library.  It is a fundamental characteristic of being human.  We need to know.

If you are returning to college – no matter what level – you may be pragmatic in your reengaging with higher learning, e.g. you want to change careers, you want a raise.  However, there will be those courses that tug at you; courses you cannot wait to take.  In the meantime, you may be researching topics of interest on your own.  You need to know.

Today, information is readily available.  I can be uncertain about a specific fact during a classroom lecture, and within seconds, a student has looked it up and given me the answer.  There is a glut of information at our fingertips and we are the gluttons seeking that information.  Any immediate question can have an immediate answer.  The students need to know.

This is our innately human quality – that drive to understand, to learn, to delve more deeply into the subjects that fascinate us.  Whether it is Hypatia’s mathematics and astronomy or your Civil War fixation or the best soils for gardening or the practical nature of double entry accounting … keep on striving for the answers.

Perhaps it is a “new” idea that has suddenly begun to dominate your thinking.  For me, 30 years ago, it was the Library at Alexandria and the people who taught there.  For you, it could be the environmental message in the film “Avatar,” or the complexities of running for political office, or the phenomenon of “social networking.”

Whatever your passion or curiosity, pursue it with eyes wide, like a child’s.  Embrace your need to know!

“I hate Math.”

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

+ × ÷ ≤ ≥ = √

For some people, the line above might look like a swear word, for others it IS definitely profanity!  Math …  It is sometimes the curse of the Non-Traditional Student (NTS), unless, of course, you have decided to return to school to pursue a math-related major.  But, for many, Math can be an obstacle too tall, too intimidating to overcome.  And, the more time that passes as you debate the decision of whether or not to return to school, the more that courses, like Math, loom large in influencing that decision.

Perhaps you wrestled with all forms of math in high school.  You simply did not get it.  Now, years later, you have not found those high school algebra courses to have been all that helpful, so, you still do not understand why math is required.  The problem here (no pun intended) is that you may be remembering the emotional struggle with math, rather than the math itself.  It is possible, that because you took the high school math course as a requirement, you trudged through, did the homework, and were just glad when it was over.  With a mindset of impatience and lack of confidence, it would be difficult to understand how math has been incorporated into your life.

By the time you are old enough to be a NTS, things have dramatically changed.  You have been employed for many years and perhaps you have a family.  Those adult responsibilities will help to put those “dreaded” courses, like Math or English Composition, in a whole new light.  You will find that Algebra, with its word problems and equations, actually has real-life applications.  For instance, learning how to do word problems can be very helpful when traveling or estimating invoices.  Equations promote logical thinking and can help you work through real life problems that need to be broken down step-by-step.

I was one of those who put off school because of Math.  It terrified me.  However, upon returning to school as a NTS, I discovered how many different ways I could use Algebra.  (My favorite uses were to estimate a tax return or my net pay after a raise!)  And, of course, this applied to those other courses too, that had little to do with my major, but were required – such as, English Composition, Science and more Math courses.  Any of these courses may be what is keeping you from returning to college.  But, those courses do not mean the same thing now as they did in high school.  As an adult in those classes, you will be able to make the connection between what is being taught in the classroom and how you will be able to use it when you leave the classroom.

The different perspective that comes with being an adult may change the “I hate math” from high school to “I get it, now.”  It will all add up.

How It All Ends

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

One of the great things about having been in both the student’s chair and facing the students’ chairs as a professor is that you know the process of higher education … and you know “how it ends.”

Students who enroll into college fresh out of high school see their education as just a continuance, but with fewer authority figures.  They know, like with high school, they will enroll in courses according to their major, and at the end of four years, they will graduate with another diploma.

However, for Non-Traditional Students (NTS), there is a time gap between the commencement ceremony of high school and the beginning of their college career.  During that time gap, the future NTS has time to think about all of the possible consequences of enrollment, including the effect on her/his family life, possible career changes that might result and the overall commitment that will be required.  Sometimes, thinking of all of those possible outcomes can cause the future NTS to delay enrolling.  The uncertainty of “the ending” can be very scary.  But, my experience in the classroom has given me (as well as other NTS and professors) a crystal ball.  We know how it ends.

One of the delights of continuing your education as an NTS is that you have an intellectual connection to the course material and your academic career.  Often, you have chosen your courses and major based upon your life experience.  Therefore, there is a logical basis for your selections.  Or, you see the sands slipping through the hourglass and you have decided that now is the time to pursue your dream job – something that you cannot believe someone would pay you to do because you would be having so much fun.  Both of these scenarios are not within the experience of the recent high school graduate.  They do not have the same intellectual touchstones as the NTS.

It is because of this connection, that the ending, although uncertain to you, is clear to the former NTS, professors and often those in the admissions office.  You do not realize at the time, but you will experience a sense of growth that was not a consideration in your speculations about possible outcomes.  That growth, that broadening of understanding, will now create options for you that you had never envisioned.  In addition, there is both a sense of finality when your program is completed, and an awareness of a new beginning.  That awareness is they key to your future and is not something you can incorporate into your personal predictions.  Let’s face it, you can’t know what you don’t know.

So, let those of us who have sat in the student’s chair for many years and face the students’ chairs everyday, assuage your fears of the unknown.  It IS a happy ending.  You will become more than you ever thought you could be.  And, one day, somewhere down the road, you will encounter a potential NTS who is nervous about the uncertainties of going back to school, and you will smile.  Because you know how it ends.

What a Difference a Decade Makes

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

A Non-Traditional Student (NTS) is generally defined as a student who has been out of high school for at least 10 years – and what a difference that decade makes! Through my academic life as a professor, and my daily use of social media where I can observe postings of family members, I have seen the advantage of maturity when it comes to learning.  Following is a comparison of postings by two family members who are continuing their education.

The younger family member, who is attending a community college, is focused on her own emotions.  These emotions are wrapped up in dramatic highs and lows, and frequently reflect feelings of betrayal.  Her photographs are of all of her “best friends” with all of the expected captions, e.g. “My best friend in the whole world!”  The only references to school are generally negative – specifically having to study and write papers.  She routinely quotes famous persons without giving them their due credit.  All of these postings are typical of high school and late teens.

The older family member, a NTS, is preparing for admission during the upcoming academic year.  She is thrilled to attend school.  She recently toured the college’s campus and was joyous at the prospect of immersing herself into her studies.  A residual fear from high school of taking math classes initially contributed to her delay in continuing with higher education.  But, now she is ready.  Although in high school she did not have the wisdom to understand how algebra could be applied to everyday life, she began to comprehend its usefulness.  What was once a chore was now a tool.  Among her comments regarding required courses is “I can’t wait to learn this.”

This dramatic difference between the traditional and non-traditional student is one reason why the NTS consistently performs well in an academic setting.  The NTS “gets it,” i.e. why they are there.  Often, and certainly not always, the traditional student sees college academics as a continuation of high school.  However, they are becoming young adults and, especially if they are away from home, there can be a deep-seated emotional clash.  I have counseled students who have admitted that the weight of adult responsibilities have become so burdensome that their grades are suffering.  Frequently, they wisely seek the campus counseling that is there to address these specific issues.

The NTS, however, has transitioned into managing adult responsibilities. These students may be married and have children, or simply have been working for several years.  They bring with them into the classroom a strong sense of purpose and a commitment to doing well.  While a support system is both desirable and helpful, sometimes there is none, and the NTS is on his or her own.   Professors notice this commitment, too.  Not only do my colleagues and I see it in the classroom, but also I can remember my interaction with professors as I was attending college as a NTS.  One English professor told me that the NTS was her favorite student because of these students’ maturity.  There are no discipline problems – at least in the classroom.

Sometimes the NTS can be surprised by their own acquisition of wisdom over the years.  While they may harbor fears that echo from their high school days, they can also have those fears assuaged by the simple logic of a course curriculum.  They see the big picture and they are envisioning a successful use of their education.

Indeed, what a difference a decade makes!

We All Need to Feel Powerful

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

Are you stuck in a job you hate?  Unemployed?  Bored?  Lack purpose?  Do you feel that you have little or no control over your life?  If the answer to any one or more of these questions is “yes” then you may feel like a “victim” of your own life.  It is easy enough to feel this way.  Life often throws curve balls at us.  When it does, our dreams can seem to evaporate and we can feel we are destined to just plod along.

It does not have to be that way.

When you are “stuck” – whether in a lackluster job, or with no job, or simply bored with your life, you will find yourself in a “position of weakness.”  It becomes difficult to negotiate the terms of your own life because you feel like you lack the power necessary to make the choices that can create change.  There are many ways to regain power, such as physical and financial fitness.  If you firm up your body to do things that you could never do before, like run a marathon, or, if your firm up your savings so that you can finally experience financial freedom, you will, once again, have a sense of control – or power – over your life.  Of course, physical and financial power are not exclusive of one another.  You can have both.

Another avenue of creating power is education  (again, not exclusive of other types of power).  When you have expanded your range of knowledge, when the “ah ha!” moments begin to ignite your mind like fireworks, then you can feel the power that education provides.  What is interesting is that once you begin to feel powerful in one area, that same sense of strength begins to overflow into other areas.

A previous blog entry, dated 7.19.10 (“When It Comes to Income, What Difference Does College Make?”), provided a link to a government chart indicating the relationship between education and income.  Education can lead to financial independence, or at least financial healing.  You become emboldened with a new sense of purpose, and a new sense of self.  You begin to realize what you are capable of.

I have stated in previous articles that the math requirement for college was the primary obstacle in my enrolling in community college.  I knew I would fail math.  I felt that something that should be so easy, like enrolling in a 2-year college, was being made difficult because of the math “curve ball.”  Finally, after five years, I did it.  I sampled a course that interested me (“Marketing”), did well, and then ventured forward.  On to math – where I earned three “A”s for the three math courses I was required to take.  Yes, as I aced each of those math courses, I did feel powerful.  And yes, the cliché ran through my head over and over:  “If I can do math, I can do anything.”  THAT is power!

What’s an Argument?

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

In reviewing some recent e-mails from family members, I was dismayed to see that the content of their “forwards” consisted of name-calling, ridicule and distortions of the truth.  These forwards were circulating primarily within the family and were intended to deride those who held an opposing viewpoint.  But, where was the “argument?”

By “argument” I do not mean stating “You’re wrong.  I’m right.”  An argument presents your claim (whatever that might be, e.g. “The best cars are _______”) and requires you to support that claim with good evidence.  Arguments are wonderful byproducts of critical thinking.  And, once again, the value of higher education becomes apparent because critical thinking is built in to many college courses, especially Liberal Arts/General Education courses.  A consistent thread that has run through these blog articles is the need for critical thinking.  While some critical thinking may be gained through life’s experiences, there is no substitute for being exposed to ideas and values that differ from your own.  Understanding different perspectives helps you to build a solid argument that is based on facts and logic, not name-calling and finger-pointing.  In today’s world of inflammatory politics, knowing how to think critically and construct a good argument are the tools you need to get through all of the emotion and to the heart of the debate.

These skills are honed in the classroom.  While my students may have definite opinions about certain topics at the beginning of the term, they are required to provide evidence for their argument as the term progresses.  In some cases, they change their minds about previously held beliefs.  This is good, too.  I remember a statement from a “Thought for the Day” calendar.  It said:  “If I change my mind today, it means that I am smarter than I was yesterday.”

These blogs have presented a series of arguments on the benefits of returning to school.  In some cases, counter-arguments need to be addressed, such as overcoming fears or obstacles.  In others cases, a counter-argument may be just plain resistance, as in “I can’t” or “I don’t want to.”  Consider your argument.  Is there good evidence to support your claim?  Have I presented good evidence to support my claim?  Weigh the evidence.  If you are still undecided, that’s not a bad place to be, for that means that you ARE considering the facts and are not jumping to conclusions based upon previously held beliefs.  Sometimes writing down the “pros and cons” about an issue can help.  Whatever you do, allow yourself the mental room to explore the arguments – and follow the evidence!

Learning Is Not Supposed to Be Comfortable

Written July 12th, 2010
Categories: Learning Epiphany
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by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

No matter what level you enter college, the courses and the professors should challenge you. I have found that to be true as a student at the Associate’s level on through to my Ph.D. Professors want to “teach to the epiphany.” In other words, they want you to have that “Ah ha!” moment, where new information has synthesized with what you know to create a heightened awareness. But, getting to that epiphany can be difficult for students for at least three reasons.

First, sometimes fact-based information and information dispensed through the perspective of your professor, can directly clash with what you believe to be true. When that happens, you have a few choices. Among those are: 1) rejecting the new information because it is different; 2) accepting the new information because it is probably accurate; and 3) considering the new information after critically thinking about it. I have always preferred #3. Sometimes the consideration does not take very long, e.g. the introduction of mathematical concepts. But for concepts that are less tangible, such as politics, religion and ethics, the rationale behind the concept must be evaluated.

Second, problems may be posed that present serious challenges to conventional thinking. For instance, “What is the price of a human life?” presents an ethical dilemma for which there is no right answer. This kind of question is designed to create certain levels of discomfort within you because there are many questions in our lives for which there are not clear-cut answers. However, that does not mean we should not think about them. Because to do so stretches our minds beyond our daily encounters, our daily certainties of what is right or wrong. The college classroom is a safe place to discuss such ideas for the conversation is under the direction of the professor whose intent is to create a lively exchange.

Third, you might find your opinion in the distinct minority in the classroom, whether you have voiced it or not. A new mathematical concept may be easy for you and more difficult for other students and you begin to question your own understanding of the subject, e.g. “Can it be this easy?” Of course, the reverse can be true as well. Everybody seems to get it but you. You may also be in the minority in philosophical matters, too. The old saying “Never discuss religion or politics” does not, and should not, apply to the classroom. If your mind is open enough to receive new tangible concepts, let it also be open enough to let in new, less concrete ideas, however uncomfortable they may be.

The notion of the “uncomfortable” may have kept you away from college. If you are newly enrolled, being uncomfortable may be causing you to consider withdrawing from the course or even withdrawing from college. I urge you to welcome the uncomfortable, for it is the hard, the difficult thoughts, that truly make us educated.