Friday, November 25, 2005

The question of response-ability

When I was at Shimer College, I was one of the weaker students. I was constantly struggling academically in the same way that Shimer College was struggling financially. But whenever I listened to the rhetoric of Shimer College, I was told that I am responsible for my own education, that I should be self-reliant, that if I continue reading carefully and participating actively then my writing will improve, that if I am not successful it must be because I am lazy, because I am "intellectually inferior" (a sophisticated way of saying "stupid"), because I don't have the talent, because I am not very good, because I am not trying hard enough. But I know that I tried very hard, because I was intellectually exhausted ("devastated" would be a better word for it) by my experience at Shimer College, a tiredness that I suspect many members of the Shimer faculty and administration are feeling because of the relentless financial issues and problems. In all four years, from IS2 in my first semester to Nat Sci 4 in my last semester, I could not intellectually handle the curriculum, although I always enjoyed with a genuine enthusiasm the great books discussion groups. At some point, I began to try different strategies, not unlike how Shimer College tries to solve its financial problems, but I still feel like I failed to be successful with my education. Shimer College was really, fucking hard academically--and it must be fucking hard to financially sustain as well.

Now, I am in a situation in which I can sense the financial crisis of Shimer College deeply, and I am not sure how to respond. I am responsible for at least three full-time students at Shimer College, including one member of the current board and one current student, because of my referals, which may be worth over 200,000$ to the college. I have also made significant official donations of half-page advertisements, even before I graduated, in an Education Guide of a Chicago newspaper to the college, in order to address the problem of how to increase enrollment at Shimer College. This year, my donation was more directly concerned with the problem of the current job market for liberal arts graduates. I, therefore, subscribed to a national current jobs in the liberal arts bulletin that could hopefully inspire students to start considering how they are going to transition from Shimer College, a problem that I have temporarily solved like many, many other liberal arts graduates by enrolling in graduate school, although like Shimer College, I run a small mom and pop stand of a massage therapy company, which barely pays our bills each month. But how can I help the college financially, and, more philosophically, should I help the college? Is it my responsibility to help the college? What is our response-ability as alums to generate money for the college?

My initial follow-up questions are controversial, but they directly address this question of responsibility.

If a Shimer College student is drowning or at risk of drowning, should the Shimer College professor a) prevent the student from drowning by offering the student private swimming lessons in addition to fulfilling the obligation to show up for class and grade the paper; b) get his or her clothes wet by leaping in to save the student; c) hold up a sign that states "swim"?

If Shimer College is drowning or at risk of drowning, should the Shimer College alum a) prevent the college from drowning by offering the college financial assistance in addition to paying for the high cost of a liberal arts education; b) sacrifice his or her personal desires and needs in order to save the college; c) hold up a sign that states "swim"?

The problem then is a question of mutual responsibility. I could say, well, since Shimer College's academic philosophy is to tell the student to swim when he or she is in trouble, then I should, as an alum, tell Shimer College to swim in its predicament. This sounds harsh, but I am sure that there is more than one alum who is thinking the same thing, especially as they struggle to pay their student loans or work a less-than-ideal job, especially as they struggled to transition from Shimer College to the real world without support from the college or a network of alums, especially as they struggled academically while at Shimer College. On the other hand, this could be a reminder to the faculty that we are in this together, and that in time of academic need, the doctrine of placing the entire burden of academic responsibility on the student is easy on the professor, but harsh on the student (the question of whether it is for the student's own good is also metaphorically strained when compared with a real financial crisis). Forgive me for investigating an issue that deeply concerns me--the quality of education at Shimer College--at a time of crisis for the college, but I do have an appropriate point and message.

I have been asking for a long time for Shimer College to adopt various academic proposals in order to improve the quality of education at Shimer College--and consequently attract and retain more students. Now, I am going to suggest that perhaps it's our responsibility as alums to reach into our pockets and donate substantial money to the college, even if the college decides to stay in Waukegan, if nothing else as to set an example that we can recognize when there is a need and begin to consider an appropriate response to that need. But this is easier for me to say than do, since I am living on student loans and occassional massages. Regardless, the tough question for us--I would like to propose--is not necessarily whether or not Shimer College should stay in Waukegan, because the board and the administration are most likely going to make that tough decision, a decision that I would not want to make after considering the pros and cons of both options; the tough responsibility that the alum Young Kim seems to have taken on. The tough question for us is how do we go about creating a fund-raising campaign, regardless of whether we stay in Waukegan or move to Chicago. Although very few people want to admit their weaknesses, such as my chronic academic failures to understand one of the great books, the underlying issue in this case is, I would venture to guess, lack of money, the long-term effects of lack of money on the quality of education, and the problem of whether the college can make more money by relocating to IIT--and thereby improve the quality of the education. If more money will improve the quality of the education and renew the spirit of the faculty at Shimer College, and if moving to IIT will solve that problem, I am in favor of the move to IIT.

If my thinking is problematic, don't hesitate to point it out to me, and I will edit this message accordingly.

Michael Dubensky '03


dansbooks said...

Fascinating analysis. I, too. was one of the weaker students at Shimer (I think). My 2.64 GPA would indicate someone who was, as one of my professors once noted, "High mediocrity." I strongly suspect I could have availed myself of help--meeting with teachers more frequently, discussions with the brighter students--but, whether through intimidation or choice, by and large, I did not do so. I largely hold myself responsible; I am sure I could have received help, but chose not to do so. Then again, perhaps the College could have been more aggressive in letting me know what academic help might be available; certainly, I was never pushed to receive any. Also, I was far too much of a social being during my tenure as a student at Shimer, which I do not regret, though I know it affected my academic performance; so be it.

I'm not sure money, or the lack thereof, is the crux of Shimer's problems (and I assure you, those problems are far less today than when I attended); in fact, there is a school of thought which believes that huge amounts of money would destroy Shimer, not unlike those lottery winners who suddenly receive tens of millions of dollars, only to end up broke and in jail in a matter of months. However, I am willing to take that risk, and should someone show up with an extra $50 million and wish to donate it to Shimer, i would spend little time agonizing over the possible negative ramifications to the College; I would be too busy saying "Thank you" and writing a receipt for tax purposes.

What I really appreciate, Michael, is that you convinced others to attend Shimer. That is far more important than a donation. Only Shimer students can truly understand Shimer; therefore, only Shimer students can truly convince others to look beyond the non-ivy covered walls to see what goes on inside, which is what the College truly is; the rest is just packaging.

So thanks, Michael, for bringing up important quaestions while keeping the faith.

Snorey said...

Thanks, Michael, for that post. You articulate a lot of points which have also been on my mind. This discussion here is good, and important, in no small part because it shows that many of us still feel a very strong stake in Shimer. Yet as alums/non-internal-community-members, we are really only kibitzing. We will not, and should not, be the ones making any of the tough decisions that must be made in the near future. Thus, we need to work to channel the energy which is palpable here into more constructive activity.

I hope to live long, and to see Shimer outlive me -- I'm sure I'm not alone in either wish. But what can we actually do to make that happen?

Participation in community discourse, as here, is perhaps a small part of the answer. Money is also part of the answer, and so is word-of-mouth advertising. But given the limited range of funds and friends available to us, these may not be the areas where we can contribute most effectively.

Shimer is a good fit for only a small number of students; unless you mix in unusual circles, you won't find many people to personally recommend Shimer to (I've only found one since graduating in 1998). Yet if every potential Shimer student had simply heard of Shimer, Shimer's enrollment problems would (I firmly believe) disappear overnight. Thus, I find myself wondering how we can better raise the school's profile. I'd like us all to share ideas for this. Perhaps not here, in this Assembly-like space, but somewhere and sometime soon.

The problems which face Shimer are complex, and have grown from non-ivy into a tangle of painful compromises over the decades. No one approach, and no one segment of the community, will be adequate to overcome them. Let us, as members of the broader Shimer community, consider together how we can better contribute to the health of our school.