March 5, 2010

Learning Beyond the Classroom

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As is customary for many college dormitories, walk into my suite in Bethe and you will find tacky nameplates adorning each door. Besides the uniform fish shaped tag used to identify the individual living in the room is a more personalized piece of “art.” Each door, with the exception of my own, proudly brandishes a colorful 8×11 creation courtesy of Schedulizer depicting when and where nearly each hour of every weekday will be spent by my suitemates. When I moved into this new suite I was immediately entranced by the overwhelmingly solid structure of blocks that filled nearly each one of their entire schedules. After seeking a rationale for what appeared to me as death by lecture, my suitemates claimed that it is not uncommon for architects, engineers and material science majors to take in excess of 20credits, as some of my suitemates were doing.

Though I have neglected to ask my suitemates if they have specific reasons for hanging their schedules on the door, I assume it is for informative and not decorative purposes. As I previously mentioned, I am currently the only one in my suite who has refrained from publishing their schedule to the outside of the room door. My initial hesitation for doing so was purely a consequence of the constant manipulating and tinkering to my selected classes that occurred during the first few weeks of the semester. After finally cementing my schedule, with four classes and 13 credits, I then decisively decided not to hang the carefully crafted masterpiece on the door.

If you are thinking that I did not want my weekly schedule with nearly one third of the blocks as my suite mates published because of possible criticism, you are incorrect. If you guessed that I voluntarily chose not to display my schedule to ensure my roommate and his girlfriend would think twice before assuming possession of the room, you are partially incorrect. The main reason I have not affixed my schedule to the outside of my door is that it represents only a fraction of the activities and engagements that consume my week. If the intent of having a schedule on your door is to alert your suite mates when you are available to, say go to the gym or grab lunch, publishing mine would be wholly counterproductive.

The question of whether to display your schedule on your dorm room door may be one of the least consequential you face here at Cornell. Though I mentioned that the potential reaction from my suitemates to my schedule was not a factor in my personal decision, this is not a denial that we judge other students based on how many credits they are taking. Admittedly, when I first learned that my suitemates were taking in excess of 20 credits I falsely automatically assumed that they had nonexistent or at most minimal social lives. When I mention to people that I am enrolled in 13 credits this semester, they automatically assume that I am a second semester senior or someone who would rather spend the semester playing in the snow than attending class. These stigmas cannot be farther from the truth.

The debate about how much value and benefit is attained from actual classroom learning is age-old. However, the claim that academic and engaging activities outside of the classroom can greatly enhance our knowledge and personal development is widely undisputed. Speak to any graduate school admissions counselor, potential employer or family member and they will tell you that a balance of class work and productive extracurricular activities is ideal. What they will not mention, however, is that the two interests often directly conflict.

Despite taking only 13 credits this semester, one more than the minimum to be a full time student, I am lucky if I find a spare hour at the end of my day. Writing for The Sun, conducting research with a professor, studying for the LSAT and interviewing for summer internships consumes as much if not more time than my classes combined. In no way am I appealing for sympathy. These are all activities that I have voluntarily chosen to participate in and none are mandatory. Furthermore, there are plenty of students who undertake far more than me. I consider all of these activities extremely beneficial to my academic and personal development, but they often pose a real challenge to fulfilling my assignments and responsibilities for class.

I believe that the administration at Cornell understands the value of student participation in academic extracurricular activities such as joining clubs, conducting research and participating in internships. However, I also genuinely believe that many professors and administrators hold the belief that classes should trump all other activities. Yes we go to Cornell and classes are supposed to be challenging and time consuming. However, I have both encountered and heard stories of teachers who consider their class the absolute first priority of all students. Though every class is important, it is naïve for anyone to believe classes should automatically trump other academic and personal pursuits. Fortunately many teachers do understand this, but by no means is the sentiment universal.

As I look towards my senior year I excitedly await the opportunity to take 12 credits each semester yet continue to write for The Sun, conduct research and develop my own senior honors thesis. However, not all students are as fortunate. I believe that activities such as writing for a paper or journal, conducting research, working on a science project team or participating in student government should be greater integrated and worked into the academic curriculum at Cornell. It is not realistic to seek to reduce credit requirements, nor do I believe it is necessary to do so. However, why not expand the opportunities for students to earn credit through activities other than class. Although I lack a perfect understanding of each college here at Cornell, I am aware that such opportunities exist for some students more readily than others. For example, architects must spend time in the studio working on projects, various science majors must spend time in the laboratory but there are certainly some gaps, especially in the social sciences.

Cornell and its curriculum have withstood the test of time, and I have little justification in seeking wide sweeping changes. While the administration could take some steps to help students get more involved, there is a greater calling for individual initiative needed. Despite the unsightly formations produced by schedulizer hanging on my suitemates doors, I believe they understand the importance of other academic activities, or at least I have been a proponent of as much. Pursuing academic involvement outside of the classroom is something that is easy to overlook, at least it was for me. To those with plenty of time still left at Cornell, take advantage of the opportunities available to learn and gain experience outside of the classroom. The longer you wait the harder they are to find; and plus, our life schedules aren’t measured in credits.

Original Author: Shaun Werbelow