Life Experience

Putting Our Tools to Use

Written December 6th, 2010
Categories: Life Experience, Self Discovery
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(Reprinted from “Daily OM” for 11.30.2010)

Many of us have so many life tools we have learned, but sometimes we forget to use them. Revisit your toolbox.

Every craftsperson has a toolbox full of tools and a number of techniques to help them bring inspiration into form. In the same way, throughout our lives, we have discovered our own life tools and techniques—the ways and means that have helped us create our lives up to this point. Sometimes we forget about the tools and skills we’ve acquired, and we wonder why we aren’t moving forward. At times like these, it might just be a matter of remembering what we already know, and rediscovering the tools we already have at our disposal.

In the process of becoming who we are and creating our lives, we have all gone through the experience of being inspired to do something and then finding the tools we needed to do it. If we look back, we may be able to remember that we used, for example, the tool of writing every day in order to clarify our intentions. We may also have used the tools of ritual, meditation, or visualization to make something happen. In addition, we may have been fueled by a new idea about how the universe works, which is what gave us the inspiration to use these tools.

In order for ideas to be powerful, they must be imbued with the energy of our engagement with them, and in order for tools to be effective they must be put to use. This sounds obvious, but often we fall into the habit of thinking we are engaging with ideas and using tools by virtue of the fact that we are reading about them, or listening to other people talk about them. In truth, using our tools is a very personal action, one we must take on behalf of ourselves. Like artists, we are each unique and no two of us will receive the same inspiration, nor will we bring it into form in the same two ways. To discover the truth of our own vision, we must take action by remembering our tools and putting them to use.

Observations from the Front of the Classroom

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

I just returned from an academic conference in San Francisco.  On the last day of the conference, I presented a paper that addressed the fears of the Non-Traditional Student (NTS). Over the last year, many of these fears have been addressed in this blog. The paper was part of a panel entitled “Outreaching to the Non-Traditional Student.”  The other papers that were presented made some observations about the NTS once s/he was in the classroom.

One observation that was echoed throughout the panel was “organization.”  While the traditional students seemed just to stuff notes and such away in a notebook, the NTS had an organized system into which papers, notes and handouts were systematically stored away.

Another observation was the incorporation of life’s experiences into writing assignments and term papers.  Although the NTS might balk at writing assignments due to lack of practice (indeed, this is one of the fears that may delay the return of the NTS to college), when the task is finally undertaken, there are amazing results (at least from the point-of-view of the professors!).  There’s an old adage about writing that urges new writers to “write what you know.”  When the NTS connects her/his knowledge to a writing assignment, texts and topics that are compelling and thoughtful are produced.  The NTS has a wellspring of knowledge into which s/he can tap that perhaps, rather than being afraid of the prospect of writing papers, NTS can seize the opportunity to write about their lives and those facets of their lives that make them what they are today.

A graduate student from Texas did just that as she presented her paper.  She is a “Generation Xer,” meaning that she was born in the 1970s.  She offered up the primary concerns of the Gen Xer and suggested that the motivations to return to school were often financial and marketing-related.  She said that she is sometimes older than the professor.  When I restated that fear during my presentation, I looked over to her, and she said, “It’s so annoying.”

Another panel member listed the needs of the NTS upon entrance to the classroom.  High among these needs was to “be listened to.”  There should be, she argued, a place that gives the NTS a solid resource that is tailored to their unique needs.

Hopefully, this will be encouraging to you – a future or newly enrolled Non-Traditional Student.  Your efforts are being noticed and as are your skills, points-of-view, and those unique needs.

The Greatest Gift for which We Should Be Thankful

By Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

It is that time of the year again when TV programs and blogs abound about remembering to give thanks for all that you have.  There are a lot of “bumper sticker”-type reminders out there:  “Count your blessings,” “Give thanks for your family and friends,” and so on.  Yet, giving thanks for our most precious gift is often overlooked – the gift of choice.

I have a family member who, back in the summer, had made the decision to return to school.  She has been out of high school of 12 years, had a couple of bad marriages, and decided that it was time to pursue her dream career.  She met with admissions at a local college, discussed financial aid options and the classes she would need.  I stood by her as she went through the process.  She was ready to go.  Then, she returned home and back to her life of limitations.  Since her return, she has been emotionally paralyzed.  In spite of my continued encouragement, she has done little to make the goals she set here become reality.  I have reviewed strategies with her and, although she gives lip service about being motivated, she remains stuck.

In the middle of all this, an old flame came into the picture.  She put forth all of her efforts into reigniting the relationship.  HE was the answer to HER future.  But, the spark did not last for long.  She is sullen and mystified that she was the victim of, yet another, failed relationship.  She has not responded to my requests for an update of her progress towards enrollment in college.

What she does not seem to understand is that all of the events that have happened in her life have been her choice.  She has not chosen the possibilities than would empower her.  Rather, she has chosen “escapes” from the life that she has created.  She has, in her possession, everything that she needs to fashion a future filled with the realization of her dreams.  She has the power to effect change through choice.  Her lack of proactivity indicates that she believes that she is the victim of her life, that things just simply “happen” to her.  Not understanding the empowerment of choice is like having the winning lottery ticket stuck away in a drawer somewhere, but never checking to see if your numbers hit.

Our ability to choose is our greatest gift.  Consider why being imprisoned is a punishment.  The bottom line is, all of the inmate’s choices have been taken away.  This lack of choice is where the punishment lies.  Your life is scripted by someone else.

When you do not realize the power of choice that you possess, you are allowing your life to be scripted by other people and events.  It does not take much to begin to turn things around if you are dissatisfied with your life.  A couple of goals here, some proactive “To Do” things there, and slowly but surely, changes begin to materialize.

So, this Thanksgiving week, recognize your power.  Give thanks for the gift of choice.


by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

I have been observing some people in my life and the troubles that they have encountered:  lost relationships, missed opportunities, family members who are ill, financial burdens, natural disasters, and so on.  Of course, these troubles happen to all of us at one time or another.  But these are, indeed, harder times.  It is difficult to think about the future when the present is full of challenges.

In the face of those challenges, I have also seen incredible resiliency – a strong ability to “bounce back” from adversity or being tenacious until the storm blows over.  People who have experienced great loss have managed to – after a period of healing – turn that grief into a positive energy to help others.  Some people have thrown themselves into tragedies on foreign shores (e.g. Haiti) in order to assist those less fortunate than themselves.  Others have stuck by family members at their most desperate time, and provided love and care above and beyond the call of duty.  Some people have had to make tough decisions, but never sacrificed their ethics, even if by doing so the road to recovery would have been so much easier.  Over and over again, the fortitude of the human spirit remains resistant to defeat.  A student of mine, who had undergone chemotherapy last year for life-threatening cancer, spoke of the need to be “invincible” – to not be defeated in spite of overwhelming health problems.

Yes, sometimes you just have to hang on.  Part of hanging on is to not lose your dream.  When the storm lashes at you from every angle you cling to whatever you need to do to sustain you, nourish you, and champion you through the darkness.  Often that darkness holds a small thread of light that lets you know that “this too shall pass.”  That thread of light is your dream, your hope for the future.

Troubles and joys seem to run in cycles.  Of course, much of this is perception.  It is hard to recognize good things when you are so immersed in the challenges of the day.  The reverse can also be true:  when things are going well, problems seem less obvious and less important.  But that is okay.  We must recognize and act upon that which requires our attention.

So, you do what you have to for as long as you have to.  One day, the clouds will part, and there will be a shaft of golden light shining down upon you.  That will be your dream.  It was there all along.  But, just for a little while, some clouds seemed to obscure it.

Hitting the Brakes

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

I have a Non-Traditional Student (NTS) in one of my classes this term.  I had the feeling from the onset of the class that her taking this course might be a little burdensome.  She is married to a member of our armed forces who has been deployed to the Middle East.  She missed classes due to migraines, missed important assignments and fell behind the rest of the class. It looks like she is going to have to withdraw from the course to avoid a failing grade. This is both atypical and typical of the NTS.

It is atypical because NTS are often meticulous about their work and usually have perfect attendance.  They are the ones who stay after class to discuss various issues with the professor.  Sometimes they just want to chat with someone their own age!  The NTS rarely is late with work and the work is usually in the “A” and “B” range.  The above student had not fallen into those patterns this school term.  I knew that something was out of kilter.

It is, also, typical because her situation represents how NTS must incorporate advancing their education into their current life that is filled with responsibilities.  The obligation to fulfill assignments for a college course seems trivial next to the life-threatening circumstances of a loved one.  Worry, and the illness that may result from it, can be overwhelming.  When this happens, it is time to hit the brakes.  Stop your formal education, if necessary, and tend to those things in your personal life that require your attention.

The opportunity to attend college will always be there.  No matter where you are, no matter how old you are, there’s going to be a place for you in the classroom.  There are times in our lives when we must put our dreams on hold.  But doing so does not mean that you have abandoned your goals.  When the obligations and pressures of your life outside of school demand your full attention, you need to respond to those obligations.  If you do not, you will be unable to concentrate on your studies and disaster may result.  In turn, a few poor performances in school may be enough to convince yourself that you “can’t do it.”

When crises happen, allow yourself the time to get through them.  A crisis can last a few days, or, sadly, a few years.  No matter how much time is required to alleviate the problems at hand, do not desert your dream. Often it will be the dream that will sustain you during those tough times.

“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!

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!

It’s Not About the Answers (part 2 of 2)

by Carolyn Babcock, Ph.D.

So, critical thinking is more about asking good questions and less about having all of the answers. As stated in my previous article, the “School of Hard Knocks” may gain you considerable experience, but it often does little to develop critical thinking. Rather, it can insulate you into one particular point of view: yours.

This isolation can be intellectually dangerous.

I was inspired to write this two-part blog entry because of two events that happened recently. The first, which I addressed in part one, was a political candidate’s assertion that her education had come from the “School of Hard Knocks.” The second event was the appearance, yet again, of an e-mail hoax. The e-mail, forwarded to me by a 75-year old relative, stated that the planet Mars would appear “as large as the full moon” at the end of August 2010. In other words, the e-mail declared that the night sky would have the equivalent of two full moons. The family member who forwarded the announcement added that this was “something to think about.” This family member, who is perfectly delightful and fun to be around, has, by virtue of her age, accumulated a treasure trove of experiences. She has lived in Europe and in various locations around the United States. However, the critical thinking skills she has acquired throughout her life often have not served her very well. In fact, she is known to forward warnings about a myriad of potential threats to life and computers only to discover that these, too, are hoaxes.

So, what’s going on here?

I recall the flurry of Communication research that was done after the famous 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Orson Welles, the producer/director/participant of the radio program, had announced at the beginning of the broadcast that the audience was about to hear a dramatic play. The program was also listed in the newspaper’s regular schedule of radio programs, much like television programs are listed today. Actually, the play was an episode of the weekly series “Mercury Theatre.” Yet, about one million people panicked and believed that Martians had invaded the Earth.

The overwhelming majority of those who panicked had tuned in late and did not hear the announcement that the program was a play. However, there was one other factor that was a common thread among those who feared for their lives: their level of education. The majority of those who succumbed to fear had a high school education or less. In fact, the percentage of those who became afraid decreased as the level of education increased. Why? The answer lies in their inability to draw on critical thinking that has been honed by knowledge outside of their own points of view.

Does this mean that all persons who have not pursued education beyond high school are doomed to live in fear? Of course not. It also does not mean that the level of education is a reflection of intelligence. What it does mean is that research has shown that there is a correlation between education and the ability to think critically.

Higher education takes you into realms of the unknown, the unfamiliar. As you broaden your realm of knowledge, you also broaden your perspectives of understanding. This, in turn, leads you to ask questions in pursuit of both clarity and answers.

It is this seeking of knowledge that is a wonderful inherent quality of being human. We are a curious species. We need to know. In that search for knowledge, we end up addressing what we do not know. The more we learn the more we realize that what we do not know is considerable. Sometimes people are afraid to go beyond their own comfort zone of knowledge, believing that what they know is sufficient. It can be. However, it also can be a narrow view of the world that isolates you into intellectual tunnel vision. Education gives you the confidence to embrace all that you do not know. It is through this realization that questions are born and critical thinking becomes a lifelong tool of intellectual inquiry.