First week of term inspires hope, purpose for higher learning

[Original posts are my thoughts and not those of my employer or clients. Typically, they are generalizable across higher education and include examples across 30 years in higher education]

photograph of Mark L. Fink, Ph. D. Years away from full-time teaching in the academe, one can often forget the higher goal of American colleges and universities: improving the human condition. Some who have never taught may not place the same value on academic discourse and learning engagement – especially outside the classroom – that professors and students consider a value in the academe. Some who taught in the past forget their own experience. While I cite teaching and learning experiences to faculty members on a daily basis or discuss new research, learning technology innovation, and possibilities for improving student learning, it would be easy for me to complete my work and be successful without actually engaging significantly in academic discourse. In fact, in some roles I’ve had, it became work for me to find “thinking spaces” where I could engage others on topics where there are mutual interests. In higher education, the almost ritualistic daily work of meetings, tasks, and processes, necessary to keep a bureaucracy operating, contributes to making it easy to bury one’s self into the work forgetting why we are here: to improve the human condition.

I have committed that this year I will be engaged with my college community. I will not only be engaged with the academe in my work, but attend guest lectures, performances, athletic events, and push myself out of my own comfort zone to learn, lead, mentor, teach, but mostly listen and engage. So far, so good. I helped move students into dorms, attended convocation and other events, and met informally with dozens of professors on topics deep and thin to my brain’s knowledge base.

Then it happened. It was the first day of class and I was making “rounds” to faculty and department offices when I dropped into the Instructional Media Lab that is operationally part of my area. It is a typical drop-in to see how everyone is doing and to introduce myself to students and faculty, offer support, discuss the exciting plans for the term, etc. A conversation between me, students, staff, and faculty members about the post-work era of 2035 (there is research on this but not the point here). I brought this up after listening to students discuss the difference between the real and the virtual. We discussed the work of Jean Baudrillard, Jacques Derrida, Martin Heidegger, René Descartes, and others. As a Supporting Expert to Future-U, I was asked by the organization to contribute to Mindhive Challenge Part 1: What does creativity need to look like in a post-work era? This was the context of our discussion. I was also recently influenced from reading a post on the future-u app from a Gold Coast, Australia teacher’s experience in deviating from student’s expectations of being spoon fed by a previous teacher and how she engaged them in creativity, resilience, empathy, problem solving, design thinking and reading and writing skills using Dada paintings and poems. I’m certain this post was on my mind for days and the discussion in the Instructional Media Lab became a “teaching moment.” The heterogeneous students in the lab engaged in academic discourse exploring the question from sociopolitical, socioeconomic, psychological, using physics, philosophy, and social science in their discourse. Remember, this is not a class and my role is no longer that of a professor. The students were thinking critically. They sometimes disagreed and did so with respect and kindness to others. These were undergraduates engaged in graduate-level discourse! They challenged me; I challenged them and we all will be reading and thinking more about our inquiry into the question.

The level of inquiry and their world view sat with me for hours. The next day, I heard from a student who I gave my copy of Simulations to last year during what they claimed was academicians’ “shop talk.” This made me think of another student who asked about learning technologies and the future. He is now running his own successful start-up.

The students this week and last year are thinkers. They were deep in thought, they considered and analyzed all perspectives and engaged with the an impressive level of inquiry while doing so with mutual respect. Labels were useless. The contribution to the discourse was what they considered relevant.

Higher Education and our goal to improve the human condition is not irrelevant, skewed, or run adrift as some would like us to believe.

This experience took me out of the process and workflow world to step back and realize that what we do in higher education remains vital to ourselves, our students, and our society. Higher Education and our goal to improve the human condition is not irrelevant, skewed, or run adrift as some would like us to believe. It is thriving in the inquiry of each student, in the counter-questioning of their peers and their professors. And even in the hallway with an old academician wearing the label “staff.”


In my thirty years in higher education, I have learned that labels of position, power, and knowing “your place” matter to some employed in education — but rarely to students. Our purpose is centered on their development so we can improve the human condition.

This “staff” member will continue to inquire, learn, reflect, and engage. And still get all his work done, too.