Monday, February 2, 2009

Enoughness, Reprise

With a new semester under way, and preparing for teaching MBA students again starting in March, I’m back to thinking about enoughness. It would be easier to address the challenge of raising the “how much is enough?” question with students if I’d come up with a good way to raise it with adult audiences, which I have not. With faculty/administrator audiences, the idea of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivations—and ways to reward and encourage people who are variously motivated—is a relevant topic and it’s amazingly difficult to stimulate people to take the step from thinking about “how do I motivate group/person X?” to “what motivates me and what implications does that have for my life and aspirations?” And that’s with people who, usually, are not petrified about finding a job and paying off their student loans.

We do so many truly artificial things with education that another of the challenges, beyond the very topic itself, is getting students to think that what they do in their classes has any relevance to their lives. The first time Steve and Laura and I taught our counseling and interviewing course for law students, for example, we were taken aback at how many couldn’t apply the most elementary principles of law from other courses, like what confidentiality provisions applied in interviews between lawyers and their clients. When we would ask how many had taken the course in which that is discussed (professional responsibility), all the students in the course that semester had. A large number, though, seemed to feel that it was unfair to ask them to remember and apply something from a course in which their final was already over and the grade recorded. So we now routinely teach that, as well as the basic law applying to interview situations we put before them, or at least flag that “here’s a place you’ll need to look up the applicable law in order to succeed in this exercise.” Designing and teaching that course was educational for us in a variety of dimensions! (It was in the pilot semester of that course, which must have been in the fall of 2005 or maybe 2004, that the shoulder incident Amanda remembers occurred: that is the first tumor-symptom we can tie down with any temporal specificity.)

As to the relevance of courses or not to their “real lives”, huge numbers of MBA students in a required ethics course clearly approach it as an ordeal to be endured rather than as anything with any relevance to their coming careers (if any of them will be getting jobs in this economy, which is a big change from the last time I taught this course). For both law students and the freshmen I teach, every semester I get blind, raw panic as the response to a standard negotiation course assignment (I got it from a colleague here who teaches in another college, for example) to apply their skills in the real world and write about it. Doing “that stuff” in class in one thing, but with real people, companies, stores?!?

We’re taught to work hard for more and better and to advance and to measure ourselves against how others are doing. Law school amplifies that in painful and often damaging ways with its enormous emphasis on class ranking—as if there is really any meaningful difference between someone who is 27th in the class and 42nd. Will any of the recent financial scandals affect how students think about success and the world at large? And if not, shouldn’t that be something that we can approach in some meaningful way? Or, is that completely a pipe dream?

In any event, it seems to me that “enoughness” is an important topic and I’m still not getting traction on it and how it interacts with good life choices and ethics. Any and all comments and suggestions welcome.

P.S. Over the weekend and while traveling last week, I read The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, which is notable because it marked a return to being able to read a whole book in several gulps. It’s been a long time since this was possible and it was wonderful. I’m hopeful that being able to read reliably for pleasure will be returning as a feature of my life. Thanks to Nancy for loaning it to me, Now, with high hopes, I'm back to Trollope, thinking perhaps my brain will let me indulge there, too. It's great to have this to anticipate. Off for a day primarily devoted to teaching.

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