Message from the Dean: Attending College and Why It Matters

In my last letter I described the RCAH as a small-college experience in a large research university. I believe that this is much more than a slogan. Students in the RCAH do get to know each other, learn with as well as from the college faculty, and gain the knowledge and confidence they need to take full advantage of the resources of the wider university. They don't just go to MSU. They thrive here because of their college experience in the RCAH.

But why call this RCAH education a "college experience"? Is "college experience" just another name for a bachelor's degree from an institution of higher learning? Or is there something valuable about a college experience that the more general notion of higher education doesn't capture? In other words, what does the word "college" add? What exactly is a "college"? Is it the bricks and mortar? The authority to grant a degree? The social interaction? The teaching, studying, discussing, and learning that goes on at a place like the RCAH? We're tempted to say that a good college is all of these – that it is the sum, more or less, of these parts.

Let me suggest, however, that a good college is more than the sum of these parts. Even with the buildings in place, the authority to grant a degree properly delegated, teachers teaching and students studying, a good college is more than its individual components. A good college is a particular way of attending to the world we live in. A college experience is active, not passive. It is an active engagement with the world, and so “attending” means paying attention in a particular way. It also means being there -- being “in attendance” -- in a particular way.

Actively attending to the world we live in is a fundamentally creative mode of experience. It means recognizing our many selves in social spaces among our ancestors, within an ever-changing diaspora, and as pathfinders for those generations that will inherit our world. It means making sense of patterns of color, light, and darkness so that foreground and background can be distinguished from each other. In abstract terms, actively attending to the world we live in means shaping the time and space we live in, not merely accepting them as given. In concrete terms, attending to the world we live in means deciding whom we wish to honor, what we wish to conserve, what gives our lives meaning in the moment, and what we should leave behind for those who will follow us down this road. Actively attending to the world we live in is much more than merely showing up.

Showing up is important, but it too can be done actively. Being in active attendance, like actively attending to the world we live in, can be done creatively. At a time when physical attendance seems to have become optional for almost all forms of work and play, I would argue that a college is an actual, not a virtual, place where active physical attendance is necessary. We know you can take a course and get a degree online, but can you “go to college” online? I don't think so, at least not if it means being actively present for others. That is, feeling the intensity of their views, their hesitations as well as their passions, and, conversely, expressing yourself authentically so that others feel like they are in your attentive presence and you are in theirs. Being “in attendance” in this embodied sense means that others feel they are in the presence of someone who wants to be in their presence. Attendance matters.

Of course, I realize that insincerity can occur in what computer gamers call "real life," just as it does online. People play games with one another face-to-face all the time. But the opposite may not be as true: it may be much more difficult to express oneself sincerely in a disembodied voice online. Emoticons, however many we use, are not embodiments of ourselves. Smiley faces are not smiling faces. Wiping the smile or frown off our faces is not the same as deleting an electronic symbol on the screen. Emoticons will disappear without a trace; smiles may fade but they always leave a trace.

Why should we insist on this embodied conception of college education? If all we mean by education is knowledge and proof that one has attained it, then getting it in the most efficient way seems to make good sense. Distance learning and virtual classes can provide you with the certified knowledge you need to prove you are an educated person. But if by college education we mean an education in which we learn how to attend to others as well as accumulate knowledge and if we believe this can only be done in the embodied presence of one another, then there is something about a college education that goes beyond its individual parts. That something is a mode of experience -- attending to the world around us as if who we really are and who others really are matters deeply. College education is a process of acquiring the capacity to attend to the world around us. The diploma and the degree tell others we were here and that we learned how to see the world from a particular perspective. Unfortunately, however, many people have diplomas and degrees without having acquired this habit of attending to the world they live in. They miss the greatest benefit of a college education: the experience of being in the presence of others.

Michigan State University is deeply committed to access. That is, to providing real educational opportunities to students who might otherwise not imagine that they could attend college and who might not understand that attending college is more than a matter of just showing up. When these first-generation students come to MSU, we have a responsibility to provide them with an experience for a lifetime, not of a lifetime. We have a responsibility to show them how to attend to the world around them, not just attend classes.

MSU and the RCAH have just embarked on a new partnership with the Michigan College Access Network that will place recent MSU graduates in the high schools attended by many of these potential first-generation college students. As college access advisers, these MSU graduates can deliver on the promise of access to higher education in an unprecedented way. They can help these younger students attend to their education with the creativity and humanity it so clearly needs.