At yesterday’s Honors Program retreat I explained why above all else I value student engagement. I prepared my remarks with these notes.

If you have ever talked with me about grading you know that above everything else, I value engagement. I want students–

  • to develop a personal relationship with course material,
  • to examine how what we read and discuss relates to the world they live in

This week I was thinking about why engagement is so important to me. Teaching engaged students is fun–but that’s not the only reason. While I was considering this question I was reading the sophomores’ essays in response to the prompt What’s the Purpose of Higher Education? Also while I was considering this question former Boston University President John Silber died. Without Dr. Silber most of you would not be here. More than anyone he gave Boston University a national reputation.

His death brought me back to 1971, when I, like Dr. Silber, started at BU. I was admitted to the Division of General Education–“DGE,” or “Deege.” DGE was a two-year honors program, more akin to Kalichand Honors College than the School of Management Honors Program, but our student profile was similar to yours. (Dr. Silber killed the program in the mid-1970’s, a few years after I completed it.)

At the start I enjoyed DGE’s small classes, smart students, accomplished faculty, and interesting content. Soon, though, I disengaged, and grew detached. I began to ask–

  • What’s the purpose of these courses?
  • Why am I here?

I didn’t have satisfactory answers. In the second semester of sophomore year my disengagement became so pronounced that one of my professors told me to stop coming to class because he did not like my influence on class dynamics. He offered to let me complete the curriculum as an independent study.

I accepted. I completed the course as an independent study and received an A. I then dropped out of Boston University before my junior year.

I worked, traveled, had adventures, and thought about whether I should go back to college. I returned to BU after a year, motivated enough to perform well.

My lesson in engagement began soon after I returned. Through a political science internship I started working at an organization that provided legal services to state prison inmates. Within two weeks I was spending all my non-academic time in the Project’s offices or at the maximum security prison in Walpole, representing convicted felons. What’s important is not the activities that engaged me but the fact of my engagement. I learned the difference between doing something because it was expected and doing something with purpose, engaging so fully that it changes how you see life itself.

Some of the sophomore essays were cynical about the purpose of their education. Being cynical about something requires intellectual and emotional detachment from it.

Engagement makes detachment and cynicism wither and die.

The Chinese proverb that ends the Outward Bound Thompson Island video touches on this–

  • Tell me and I’ll forget;
  • Show me and I may remember;
  • Involve me and I’ll understand

We’re here today to get involved with and understand service. Performing service is a requirement of the Honors Program. Not so you can go through the motions of an experience and list it on your resume. It is because meaningful service requires engagement.

I know many of you are here only because you are required to be, because you would not want to face Amelia if you missed the retreat. You are here because you are “excellent sheep”–a reference that the freshman and sophomores understand.

I ask that you do one thing.

If you approach today with eye rolling or cynicism, store your detachment in your backpack with your extra pair of socks.

  • Engage with the program
  • Engage with your friends
  • Engage with the dozens of Honors Program students from the other cohorts whom you don’t know

You have something in common with them–they are as smart, accomplished, and interesting as you.

Have fun

7 Replies to “Engagement”

  1. Jessica Moore

    I completely understand the context for this message and hope it had an impact of some of the Honors Program students.  I appreciated having a chance to read it since I no longer get to sit through your classes and lectures! Plus, I think it can apply to many situations after college, so it was a helpful reminder for me.  Thanks for sharing!

  2. Jessica Moore

    I completely understand the context for this message and hope it had an impact of some of the Honors Program students.  I appreciated having a chance to read it since I no longer get to sit through your classes and lectures! Plus, I think it can apply to many situations after college, so it was a helpful reminder for me.

  3. DavidRandall

    Do you think human nature has changed profoundly in two generations? Engagement has nothing to do with society’s expectations. It’s internal. It’s about the relationship between who you are and what you do.

  4. zdranove

    Professor Randall, 
    I think you have a strong and meaningful message about engagement. Thank you for sharing your experience.I do question though if you think the honors college today in 2012 is the right audience for this message? From my observations, they seem to be the academically focused students.We have to ask: what percentage of honors college students are disengaged today? What percentage were disengaged during the time you were disengaged and at BU? Were you simply a smart outlier?  To me a disengaged student in a 2012 class is one who feels entitled and would rather shop online than pay attention to the discussion because they think their future won’t be impacted.  The challenge would be getting all the disengaged students in one spot to give them your meaningful message. 
    What are your thoughts?

    • DavidRandall

      Students across the spectrum of academic performance are capable of disengagement, but this message was intended for a specific audience about to undertake activities that many would have preferred to miss.

      • zdranove

        Very true, then I agree that your message was aimed at the right crowd if it’s likely that they would have preferred to miss it. 
        That reminds me of RA training when we were required to attend certain events. 

      • Nicole Kutteh

        I find this topic to very thought provoking because there appears to many unanswered questions about the higher purpose behind customs that have become unquestioned. That said, i completely agree with this comment. I believe sometimes the smartest students are also the most disengaged. Many students who achieve high academic performance get to this level not because they are interested in or inspired by the material but because they have become excellent “hoop jumpers”, and believe that in order to get where and what they want they must first accomplish x,y, and z. However, i feel that this detachment and cynicalness is not an individuals choice but highly determined by the environment in which you are brought up and how you define success. In addition it is difficult to change a mindset that has been ingrained for such an extended period of time.

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