An Explanation

There are things that I love about Shimer College.  I love the books that we read.  I love the rare discussion in which every student around the table is invested.  I love the papers that I wish I could work on for months and turn into tomes because I am so passionate about the material.  I love the facilitators who ask challenging questions and tease out the intricacies and the beautiful bits of texts that we might very easily miss if we were reading by ourselves.  But there is so much that is missing from the experience as well.

I love the idea of Shimer.  I love what Shimer is once in a blue moon.

A few posts back I wrote about an Aristotle tutorial that one of my facilitators was kind enough to put together for a few students.  None of that excitement was exaggerated.  I loved it so much that I am nursing a desire to get ἐνέργεια, a Greek word that Joe Sachs translated as “being at work”, tattooed on my forearm. It isn’t even that I’m a die-hard Aristotle fan, but I love the idea of an active sense of being.  I love the idea of continuous movement in both stillness and action that forces a person to work continuously for his or her virtue.

The day after I wrote that post I remember walking home, thinking about the tutorial in reference to my Shimer experience.  I thought about that post being put up on the Shimer blog under the label “Best of the Shimer blog” and how I knew it had gotten that because it oozed the exuberance of a Shimer student in love with Shimer.  I thought about how I was genuinely that student when I wrote it.  I thought about how there are bright shining moments when Shimer is exactly what I dreamed it would be.

But more often I don’t get it.  The feeling of fullness that follows a near-perfect discussion or a perfect tutorial the small slice in the pie chart of my Shimer experience.

I should quickly say that this is not a critique of Shimerians.  It is only my experience.

I sit in classes and I want to participate, but half of the conversation is anecdotal or flounderings by people who haven’t done the reading but still want their speaking points.  Questions are asked and either abandoned before they are answered or brought up again and again if the people who asked them first are quiet.  People think out loud in ways that are not helpful to the class discussion.  Students stop participating as some classes progress because the class dynamic is intimidating or overwhelming and never once have I seen a facilitator try to fix that.

Shimer prides itself on being the kind of school that rewards hard work.  Students who are capable of helping themselves are supposed to do well at Shimer, but it is ridiculous to expect students straight out of high school, hell, even students who are in their mid-twenties or thirties, to intuitively know that they are doing poorly if you don’t tell them.  I have talked to student after student after student who feels alone at Shimer.  Students who want to do well, but need a push that their facilitators don’t give them.  I have heard countless people say they feel like their opinions are met with condescension by their peers and no one does anything about it. 

There are reasons that we have high drop out rates.  These are some of them.  We feel abandoned and disdained.

I thought facilitators would be more shepherdly.  I thought they would call attention to how we deal with each other in class or after class, to let us know what we do well and what needs improvement.  They give themselves 15 minutes at the end of the semester to accomplish that and they are always frustratingly vague.  I feel like all I ever hear at the end of the semester is “we love what you do!  do more of the same and then you’ll be exceptional!  your quality is always great but your quantity is lacking!”

I don’t know how to respond to that.

I want to like this school but it is hard to like something that tells you that you’re okay because you’re great but you’re not great often enough.

I wanted Shimer to improve me.  If anything it has done the opposite.

I have less confidence in myself and my ideas.

I don’t discuss as well as I used to.  Something about feeling like no one values your opinion and getting tired of trying to wade through other people’s shit when they won’t return the favor.

I feel uncomfortable around a lot of Shimerians because people are gossipy and I don’t like knowing awful, random, strange things about people I’ve never spoken to and knowing that they have probably heard things just as inaccurate about me.

I have trouble evaluating my performance because I can’t get a read on what acceptable behavior in a class is.  One of my classes was observed by a faculty member who was evaluating my facilitator (because he’s new) and I thought it was an awful class.  No one listened to each other and pretty much two people talked while the rest of us listened.  The observer said it was a great class.  That he was very impressed.

I don’t get it.

I have a year left.  I don’t know if I’ll make it.

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11 Responses to An Explanation

  1. Alex Wyman says:

    Well, please know we’d be sad to see you leave, for one! 😦

    What’s more, I think Shimer really does improve with time: students who start off badly (and I’d count myself) are forced to improve (or else), and those who just cannot make it tend to drop out. Tutorials are especially nice in this respect: when you make up a third of the class size, not contrinuting becomes extremely difficult; you’ll be talking with Shimerians who have had the chance to mature since their first couple of semesters; and nobody is going to take a class focussed on the Cambridge Neo-Platonists (or whatever) unless they really care about the Cambridge Neo-Platonists.

    And, while I would agree that facilitator-advice can be a tad vague and imprecise, I wouldn’t be too hard on them for as much, since “it is not easy to specify by a formula the limits beyond which one becomes [or ceases to be] blameworthy… for this is not easy for any sensible object” (NE 1109b 20-23).

    So, don’t give up hope!

    • tertiaryhep says:

      I would be sad to leave as well. There are a lot of people here who I really like, yourself included, Mr. Wyman. 😉

      I think that Shimer can improve with time for some. But then there are those of us who start out well enough that we just continuously get these weirdly luke-warm conferences where the only criticism that we get is that we should talk more. Maybe it will change when I start doing upper-level classes next year (I really hope that is the case). I am hopeful. But not a little doubtful.

      That is a beautiful quote, but it is a facilitator’s job to help us improve ourselves and if they best they can do for me is to tell me to talk more they are not helping very much.

  2. Gavin Riley Wallace says:

    So in the end I’m almost speechless. Shoot Holly. I’m sorry. And I really should be sorry. I wasn’t ready for Shimer. I didn’t do the readings half the time, and the other half I gave myself maybe 45 minutes to rush through them. I want this to be more than an apology, but we’ll see.

    I have had such a different year at Shimer it’s really hard to even form coherent thoughts in response to this. (Though finally finishing this at 3 in the morning might not be helping)

    My Shimer experience™ has been so different. And, I’m sure it’s colored by my serious lack of any college, but I really enjoyed every class. I don’t think there was a single class I didn’t learn something. Every single soc class this semester has been enlightening in so many ways; shit, even the IS2 classes where I had learned and memorized the math years ago were helpful in giving me better insight into what *I* need to do, to actually do well. (I promise you, IS2 is the only class I got a decent grade in) I guess the biggest problem I had was that no one called you out when you were just saying words. What I hated most about my conferences was that two of my facilitators were too, I don’t know, afraid(?) to call me out when I obviously was not putting in the effort I needed to actually pull off a passing grade. Stuart on the other hand was pretty upfront about the problems he had with me in class and I’m really grateful I had him around. (I had to name that name, Stuart is awesome)

    Also. Holly. You’re awesome. You have been so great to have in every class I’ve had with you, and the way too few conversations we’ve had outside of class. What is leaving me scratching my head over this post the most is that you’re unable to tell what ‘acceptable’ class behavior is. That’s so insane. The group dynamics talk we had was such an amazing idea, and I’m really sorry I didn’t contribute more to that. (I know how to fix my problems, but had no idea how to strengthen the group) I wish we could have been more honest with each other as a group. I’m sure there were things people were dying to day but didn’t. But oh well. Maybe next time?

    So I’m not even sure where this went, but I’ll need to finish it later. I’m just about to pass out and have a very busy day. Toodaloo.

    • tertiaryhep says:

      I’m going to go ahead and repeat what I said several times already on facebook. I see you improving a lot. The student that you are now is already completely different than the student you were last semester. You have worked really hard to become a better student and it is working. You should be proud of the work that you have put in at Shimer and excited because you still see areas that need to be fixed and, presumably, are going to continue working on them. You say that you were completely unprepared for Shimer and I think that because of that Shimer will do and has done some awesome things for you. For people who are just prepared enough that they do well but are never told how to excel, it is really difficult. There’s room for growth for me also, but I don’t know what direction that is supposed to be in and no one tells me.

      Stuart is awesome.

      D’aww. Thanks, Gavin! I think the reason why I don’t know what “acceptable” class behavior is because I see poorly run classes praised and I’m only ever told that I’m ok because I’m “always great” when I talk but I don’t talk often enough. That seems stupid, imho. Especially because it’s not like I only talk twice in a class. I contribute pretty frequently.

  3. Sam says:

    The discussions at Shimer are a necessary evil. I hate talking. I do. And if I could, I’d just take tests and be a quiet little mouse all day. I’m really good at tests. I came to Shimer to improve my dialectic skills, and my speaking ability had improved. When I went back home to Wisconsin, people listened to me because I knew how to talk to them. Along with that, I also learned how to communicate my thoughts quickly and more precisely, when to cut someone off (as they rambled), and how to sort through my own head. What dialogue forced me to be is patient. And I feel like that is the key to success.

    I must say, though, Holly, I appreciated having you in class. You were always lot of fun and had really insightful things to say! You seemed like you really liked a lot of the readings we had in NS2 while most of them frustrated me.

  4. lyricsninja says:

    Since it seems I may be one of the few who reads from outside Shimer – you wont get a “heres how the experience went for me”. What you will get it simple – that I dont think any college truly does a good job developing students. There is too much going on socially for many students to really care much about college classes, and the overall suffers unless the teaching staff (or singular teachers) is willing to step up and really take over the room. That seems to happen less often than i would like it, but that has a lot to do with the teacher’s charisma. but i digress…

    In the same people realize that without a college education its tougher to find the high paying jobs everyone vies for. Now mind you thats not always the case, but think about how different a masters degree program would be – teachers who are specialized in what they are teaching, students who are there to learn and will genuinely be listening, and a lot more interaction. It just kind of shows you that undergraduate degrees, being the commonplace thing to do after high school graduation, almost promote the environment you are speaking of… because people feel its 1. something they have no choice but to do and 2. really just a continuation of high school. employers want educated students, but the reality is youre walking out of school with a piece of paper that says “i did what millions and millions of other kids did this year.” and with so little differientiation between students, doesnt it also promote the lazy student yet again (why push it, a degree is a degree, right?)

    i dont speak of everyone, of course. there are those who have a true love for learning (like yourself). there are teachers who can enlighten and inspire. and i truly believe that the system can change, given the right circumstances. but that doesnt mean it will without some intervention and injections of enthusiasm.

    honestly though, a masters program is truly what college should look like.

    Id hate to see you lose your voice on things – i find you to be one of the most interesting and engaging people i have ever had the pleasure to run across.

    • tertiaryhep says:

      So I am mostly inclined to agree with you about college being rough because students aren’t necessarily dedicated, but Shimer is a different kind of school. It’s discussion based. We focus on great books. It is not the kind of school that you go to because you need a degree…it’s the kind of school that you go to because you want a certain kind of experience. Most (not all) of the students know what they are getting themselves into and those that are surprised weed themselves out pretty quickly.

      What bothers me most, though, is that the teachers don’t invest the time or the energy in students who need the encouragement or the shove in the right direction. Maybe I’m being unfair. Maybe the teachers have experienced one too many students slipping through the cracks after they tried to help them through a rough first semester…but still…it’s what I think is their job and they seem to be choosing not to do it. 😦 Sad face.

      And thank you! That is such a nice thing for you to say! 🙂

  5. snorey says:

    As a Shimer alum from the mid-Waukegan years, I don’t have anything very useful to say, other than that I’m sorry things haven’t been going well and I can (retrospectively) empathize completely. If we’d had blogs then (we didn’t), and if I’d been the blogging type (I wasn’t), I could easily have written a much more bitter version of the above. But I do hope you’ll stick with it, and I think — although everyone’s experience is different — that you’ll find that the Shimer experience is one of those things that looks a lot better once you can look back on it from the outside. (Especially if you go on to study, well, pretty much anywhere else…)

    One of the things that makes Shimer Shimer is precisely this intense awareness of how far short of its own ideals the school falls. (That’s one of the reasons this graduation speech/poem from my own time at Shimer has always stuck with me as emblematic: http://www.shimerspeaksout.com/2011/03/sarah-kimmel-1996-on-shimer-community.html ) … but I don’t mean by that to romanticize or trivialize these shortcomings. The shortcomings you describe are very real, and they are problematic.

    It’s a matter of recurrent frustration to me that there has been no solid pedagogical research done at Shimer for the past 50 years (give or take) … Shimer has always had, *and still has*, the potential to take a leading role in helping the tertiary educators of the world to understand *why* dialogical pedagogy works, *how* it works, and particularly *what* specific techniques inside and outside of class are most effective …. but it just hasn’t been done, and even the considerable body of research that *has* been done (elsewhere) on effective facilitative methods and techniques hasn’t been incorporated into Shimerian practice in any systematic way. Shimer understands, as Hutchins did, that the first job of the faculty member is to educate, not to lecture or research — but it has yet to really follow this understanding to its necessary conclusion.

    • tertiaryhep says:

      Wow. Thank you for the comment and the link. Kimmel’s speech is gorgeous and there were several lines in it that resonated strongly with me, as I’m sure you realized they would.

      I am kind of disappointed that this shortcoming has been a part of Shimer for so long. Especially because I’ve kind of gleaned a romanticized impression of the Waukegan years. I hoped that Shimer was my ideal in Waukegan and just suffered a little turbulence post-president drama. 🙂

      Do you have any suggestions how to how to fix what is broken at Shimer? People always catch-phrase me to “be the change you want to see in the classroom”, but in my experience it isn’t as true as it sounds. If the problems at Shimer have been as pervasive as you say, it seems even more important to at least take the first step in the direction of making Shimer what it could/should be. I’m too in love with the idea of this school to leave it what it is instead of what it could be, but I feel very new and powerless and naive in the Shimer context. I’d appreciate any insights you might have to offer.

  6. Giganto Machia says:

    Okay, so I read this again closely–since you seemed to assume I had not–and this is the section I keep coming back to:

    “Shimer prides itself on being the kind of school that rewards hard work. Students who are capable of helping themselves are supposed to do well at Shimer, but it is ridiculous to expect students straight out of high school, hell, even students who are in their mid-twenties or thirties, to intuitively know that they are doing poorly if you don’t tell them. I have talked to student after student after student who feels alone at Shimer. Students who want to do well, but need a push that their facilitators don’t give them. I have heard countless people say they feel like their opinions are met with condescension by their peers and no one does anything about it”.

    So, if I understand your argument, the claim is that they profs are not “clear enough” about what is required or don’t give the feedback student’s desire. I can understand that on some level, yes it is tough to come from a high school or college where you are told exactly what is right/wrong and what needs to be improved, to a place that says it is your job to figure out WHY you are right/wrong. It seems to me–and I have some experience with Great Books programs so I am not speaking completely in the dark–that the goal of such schools is to tease out those students that are already creative and confident and give them the classical education that has driven Western thought for centuries so that they can go onto top notch programs. Great Books programs are not for everyone, I checked them out and had no interest because I was focused on a particular degree/field. But I applaud their efforts and if you pushed me I would argue the approach you seem to not like is way better than the one you are requesting.

    Now as to your own confidence in your ideas, the best thing one can do is lose all said confidence. Not because one is necessarily wrong, but because one can never “know” what they really believe until they are able/willing to challenge what they think they already believe. Tough, absolutely. Wrongheaded, bad way to teach, that is not so clear at all. And as to the students talking smack about one another, is there a school where that does not happen?

    Anyway, there ya go.

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