Print Edition: November 20, 2013
“Life is going to present to you a series of transformations. And the point of education should be to transform you. To teach you how to be transformed so you can ride the waves as they come.”
– Junot Diaz
“Humans are bodies, and bodies are horrific and uncontrollable in a lot of ways … I can’t believe the size of the stuff that just came out of my nose, you know?”
– Cascade staffer
I have been sick for the past week.
I’ve missed as many classes as I’ve attended. The lectures I attended were little more than gibberish by the time they made it through the fog of phlegm and cold medication – definitely worth the dirty looks shot my direction with every cough and sneeze. Not.
It’s not exactly the best time to be sick.
But then again – is there ever a good time to be sick?
At university, not really.
The only good time to be sick—when you can really afford to take time off and get well—is when you have a solid network to support you. Sometimes it’s possible to work through an illness; the rest of the time you need someone at your back, to feed you soup and pick up notes from the lecture you missed.
Because at this point in semester—or any point of semester—missing even one class can put you seriously behind. Missing two classes (which isn’t inconceivable, considering UFV’s love of splitting classes between Monday and Wednesday, or Tuesday and Thursday) could result in a seriously derailed grade. (Oh, but don’t worry. As long as we’re learning, marks don’t matter. Right, guys? Right? Hey, where are you going?)
You can’t cure the common cold. But is there a way of fixing the context, so the common cold doesn’t have to be an academic death sentence?
University is a weird setting for creating a support network. On one hand, university promotes the idea of creating free-thinking individuals, able and willing to be critical of any situation. On the other hand, university expects students to use their time here to learn how to part of a functioning community – you only have to look at administration’s PR push behind the co-curricular record to see that.
But can a university really provide both sides of the coin, praising and producing both the individual and the community member in its students?
This contrast in expectations is surprisingly highlighted by getting sick: you can’t function as an individual, because you’re a snotty, headachey, useless mess by yourself, and you can’t function as a community member because no one wants to be within a five-foot radius of you. You’re at the mercy of your own village, a rejected cog in the machine. Unless you had the foresight to establish a study-buddy relationship with a classmate and (here’s the kicker) actually get their contact information, you’ve left yourself high and dry.
At the end of the day, we can expect to get well, but these issues are bound to return on a larger scale if not addressed, even after we’ve left the illness—or even university—far behind. One day (we hope) we’ll all graduate, and look smashing in our cap and gowns, and pose with Mark Evered to have a picture taken with long-sought-after degree.
But any graduate leaving university with just a degree might find themselves woefully ill-prepared for the real world. At this point the support network becomes less about who will bring you soup and lecture notes, and more about who can connect you with job opportunities, interviews, and introductions. We like to believe in the myth of the individual who can change everything with wit, verve, and sheer force of skill set – that is, after all, a model that worked for decades and still can in the right circumstances.
Equally as useful in this age is the idea that “no man is an island” (John Donne) or “it’s not what you know but who you know” (common aphorism) or “we’re all in this together” (High School Musical).
Unfortunately, perhaps the most common method of getting students to bond together is one that every student hates: group work.
The problem isn’t that group work isn’t effective. In theory (and sometimes even in practice) group work promotes the interchange of ideas – kind of a cross-pollination of plants that may never have met in the world outside the classroom.
The problem with group work surfaces when it becomes clear that not all groups are created equal. You can’t enforce the creation of a community equal on all sides; not everyone is going to be interested, engaged, or involved in that community, especially when that miniature community is a microcosm created when the instructor randomly grouped together all students on the north side of the classroom.
Collaboration might result in a sense of community, but forced collaboration rarely does.
Ironically, maybe the answer lies with the individual. We’ve been told since high school that university is a place to “find yourself,” which is a half-truth at best. University comes down to what you take from interactions with other people, whether that’s professors or classmates. Sometimes you learn more about yourself (and the world) in conversations completely outside of class time, or in an instructor’s completely off-topic tangents – whatever the individual finds useful, rather than what the community does.
It’s hard to prescribe exactly what circumstances make an ideal university, and God knows smarter individuals than us have tried – hopefully with clearer minds than our foggy, phlegmy selves. But one thing is clear, even through the doses of cough syrup: university should be culturing an environment of ideal conditions, both for individual and community, so when we leave we know what to strive for, and are able to recreate those conditions elsewhere.