This is the second column in a series on the Strategic Plan.
Surviving the quarter system is Northwestern’s badge of courage.
We feel we project an aura of academic audaciousness—badassery, even—by taking four full-credit classes over nine weeks while juggling too many extracurricular commitments. While mildly impressive (the quarter system isn’t unique to NU), our academic pace and tone is accompanied by an emphasis on breadth, not depth, a difficulty to retain information after a constant barrage of ‘midterms’ and a perennial lack of time and energy to devote to out-of-classroom experiences.
The Strategic Plan unveiled last Tuesday by President Morton Schapiro and Provost Dan Linzer hopes to change all of that.
The Plan, as I mentioned in an earlier column, is meant to guide an upcoming capital campaign to raise $3 billion from alumni and others. Given that it’s broadly strategic, not tactical, most of it is fluff.
Happy, generic, reassuring fluff. Fluff!
That said, not all of it is hot air. Morty emphasized that the plan contains “bold” and “compelling” ideas. After repeating this a few more times than strictly necessary, he qualified it with a warning that not every 'bold and compelling' proposal has an equal (or even) high chance of success.
When he visited my Northwestern Community Building Initiative (NCBI) class—which is composed of established and rising student leaders—a few minutes after the presentation, he elaborated on this warning.
One of the boldest proposals in the strategic plan is the expansion of “experiential learning,” perhaps better known as ‘3 and e.’ Quick summary of the idea: Your fourth credit each quarter would come from an intensive, experience-focused activity like an internship, student group project, research or other out-of-classroom option.
Experiential learning would allow us to finally take full advantage of the flexible and accelerated quarter system, because we’d be able to take just as many courses as our semester-based peers while gaining real-world experience. As it is now, our out-of-classroom experiences — often more valuable than lectures or problem sets —must happen on our own time and usually don’t count as course credit.
So when Morty gave experiential learning the lowest probability of success out of all the strategic plan priorities, I was rather disappointed. As he described the level of and reasons for the resistance from deans and faculty, my classmates were similarly taken aback.
Let’s take a moment to directly quote the plan:
Develop new academic programs that expand the impact of experiential learning and make changes that enable students to earn more credit toward graduation from experiential learning activities.
Increase opportunities for students to engage in faculty-supervised research and creative work, internships, civic involvement and other beyond-the-classroom learning experiences and encourage and enable all students to participate.
It’s no coincidence that two separate, consecutive “We Will” lines in the Strategic Plan refer to beyond-the-classroom experiences (out of the precious seven total in the “Integrate” section).
Linzer and Morty are apparently listening to the right people—in this case, alumni—who are telling them that their most memorable experiences at Northwestern happened outside the classroom through internships, student groups and other hands-on work.
This much is obvious and simple: We learn more than we ever could in lectures when we actually balance a company’s budget, when we recreate scientific experiments and craft new ones, when we go about signing major artists and planning concerts.
So what would it take for Northwestern’s educators to accept experiential learning as a legitimate, recurring part of our college education?
The deans and faculty of Northwestern’s many schools are reluctant to relinquish mandatory, easily-assessable undergraduate education. Experiential learning is usually out-of-classroom, not always led by faculty and graded pass-fail.
To paraphrase Paul Arnston, NCBI’s faculty adviser and a veteran professor, faculty members are also hesitant to accept experiential learning because it’s not clear what it will look like.
Simply put, many have no idea how to ‘teach’ it.
What’s necessary, then, is a strong, concerted effort by students on dean advisory councils and their peers to lobby faculty for the incorporation of experiential learning. However, because these student councils don’t always have very much influence, deans and faculty do need to seize the initiative and learn from the Northwestern schools and other universities that do offer experiential education.
Medill’s Journalism Residency and SESP’s practicums are good examples. Northeastern, Brandeis and Purdue-Calumet, to name a few, also incorporate some form of experiential learning into their curriculum.
It’s also rather rare, if not unprecedented, among most of our peer institutions — at least on a university-wide scale.
Northwestern has the chance to demonstrate leadership by expanding experiential learning to all its students, but change at this level would take time. Creating pilot programs would require academic departments to work closely with students interested in incorporating their extracurricular activities and internships into regular course curricula.
Experiential learning does not have to stand alone. Modular learning (like the Kaplan Humanities Scholars and the Kellogg or Medill certificate programs) and year-round course sequences offer well-suited vehicles for experiential education.
We devote much of our time, energy and attention to out-of-classroom activities that often teach us much more about living and working than the average lecture. It’s time we recognize these experiences as essential elements of our education in order to build a unique, prominent and prized academic culture around them.