A few weeks ago in my political science seminar, the class discussion was sidetracked when a student asked the professor if they had any recommendations for things to do in Germany. The professor (rightly) quipped that schmoozing about Western Europe was not a good use of class time, and promptly refocused the conversation. But before moving on, they noted that students are more eager than ever to socialize with their professors during class, because COVID-19 has taken away many of the traditional opportunities for doing so. Gone are the days of professors inviting their students over for dinner, or participating in a chili cook-off or other campus-wide festivities.
One may reasonably ask: “Who cares? How is it a detriment to my Kenyon education that I can’t have a beer and play cornhole on Peirce Lawn with my professors?” I would argue that the detriment is severe, and that we must once again prioritize fostering relationships between students and faculty.
Education is more than a curriculum and a series of assignments and exams. The value of the liberal arts is the opportunity to learn through mentorship and collaboration, and navigating interpersonal relationships is an integral part of this experience. This is also precisely what makes Kenyon graduates employable: our ability to communicate effectively and work with others to solve problems. These skills simply cannot be learned passively.
In what I believe to be a related trend, another professor of mine recently lamented that students have been less engaged in the classroom, are less likely to attend office hours and overall display a weaker commitment to their academics. This is unsurprising given what education has looked like over the past couple of years; Zoom classes are not exactly conducive to active participation. In essence, the pandemic has made learning less about people and relationships and more transactional, which is particularly concerning for an institution like Kenyon. Read any Kenyon brochure and it will surely boast about its student-to-faculty ratio, ample selection of discussion-based courses and abundance of hands-on learning opportunities. But the pandemic eroded these foundations of the liberal arts education. It became the norm for students to complete their courses without ever interacting with their professors in person, not to mention that attending office hours via Zoom or Google Meet is a lot less appealing after you have spent the entire day on your laptop instead of in a classroom.
Getting the most for our money can take many forms. Students should routinely attend office hours even if there is nothing pressing to discuss, as professors can provide great life and career advice, even beyond their areas of expertise. Additionally, you are much more likely to receive a compelling letter of recommendation for a future job or graduate school if you do more than just show up on time to class. However, professors can meet students half way. It can be intimidating to approach a professor outside of the class setting — a professor once advised me not to show up to their office hours without an “answerable question relevant to the midterm examination.” Moreover, professors can make an effort to be involved in happenings around campus, such as attending Fandango, going to student performances and doing whatever else was the pre-2020 norm.
Now that the pandemic is — hopefully — coming to an end, Kenyon students must reclaim agency in their education. If not, we squander an egregious amount of time and money. To quote Matt Damon in “Good Will Hunting,” “You wasted $150,000 on an education you could’ve got from $1.50 in late fees at the public library.” Ultimately, you get out of your education what you put into it. Let’s make the most of our time at Kenyon and ensure our tuition dollars do not go to waste.