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Information Overload

There is no doubt in my mind that Universities are doing themselves and their students a disservice with the amount of information that they slam them with to start their college careers. Many schools. ours included, have nearly an entire week of new student Orientation that is packed from morning to evening with activities and information sessions. Amidst this they are sent survey after survey after survey and asked to take small training after training after training such as an alcohol awareness program and more. It’s not that this stuff is not useful, for the most part it is, but in an age particularly when young people are accustomed to obtaining information in fast and bite-sized chunks, I am convinced nearly all of the orientation effort is going to be completely unnoticed even as students are immersed in it for a week.

Just think of how you scroll through quickly on some of my longer posts. Just think of how little you absorb from very long e-mails. Maybe you bookmark or save these things for later. Similarly, while knowing where the language lab is, or whether the library is, or what hours the counseling center is open, or what happens on homecoming weekend and such are important, it seems to me that this is all stuff that can be learned on the students’ own. In fact, it is pretty shocking that for college, which used to be ┬árite of passage into independence, responsibility and real adulthood, that universities treat new students like enfeebled, incapable, waffling children. Their hands are held through almost everything, including the “intimidating” open curriculum we have (more on that under a different pen name somewhere else … ha ha). What I found from getting to know many of these students is that they don’t NEED their hands held, even for those who have been spoonfed for most of their young lives. They are all quite enterprising, energetic and resourceful people – that’s what makes them really fun (and sometimes frustrating) to be around.

I know full well why we do all of this – some of it legal and some of it doctrinal – so I am not even suggesting that any of this could change. However, what needs to be recognized is that universities get one chance to make a first impression on young people., and this seems to be a shockingly enfeebling, boring, and anti-academic impression to be making. Maybe I am wrong – maybe by showing students where the bathrooms are and making them play duck-duck-goose with their fellow hallmates, they get REALLY jazzed up for the schooling that is to begin next week? But man oh man, precious little time is spent on academics during this introduction, precious little effort is spent getting kids excited for their intellectual journeys outside of a few platitudinous speeches, and we let an entire week of students being together on campus go by where they cannot actually discover the culture of the university for themselves – they are carted from meeting to speech to contrived social gathering to a “mandatory” service day and so on. Again, I am not sure I know exactly what to do with 1,300 new students, but if I were running my own university I know it would be different.

I get my new freshmen tomorrow – each gets to meet with me for 15 minutes. Then they have jam packed schedules right until and through registration on Friday. Classes start a week from today.In a world of information overload, Id go simple. I’d spend the entire first week on one or two academic and cultural aspects of the college life and that’s it. I’d leave some websites, brochures and resource packets for each student in their dorms, and I’d make sure all of the upperclassmen were around to provide mentorship and guidance. I’d have academic programming planned to the hilt, with serious and big time lectures and seminars and some other creative exercises planned, but that’s it. The kids are resourceful. They’d figure out what they need and where to go and when things open and close. After all, many of them have and will travel to foreign countries on their own, taken road trips on their own or with friends, and so on, and they managed not only to get by, but to make the experiences awesome. They’re bright adults, let them be that way when they get to college. Yes, yes, yes, I understand all of the legal implications and all of the CYA reasons for the stuff, but I bet that could be trickled to kids slowly throughout their first term, and also legally could be covered through other means. So, just as people are extremely enamored and frustrated that people in the world can starve while people less than 100 miles away are not only well-fed but over-fed, I too am enamored by the fact that we have this awesome chance to set an awesome intellectual and academic tone for our new students, and we fritter it away on Tea and Scones and the Silly Olympics. This is not to say that all of the events are not good, or fun, or put together by really bright and well-meaning people, not at all. In fact I quite love the week of programming. But rather I’m making a meta-point, and many such meta-points could be made.

2 Responses to “Information Overload”

  1. Pneumismata says:

    Anecdotal evidence for youthful resourcefulness is not evidence of course, but for what it’s worth, during my freshman orientation at UR I skipped almost every mandatory programming event in favor of more, ahem, wholesome activities. Because what were they going to do, give me detention for not playing Truth-or-Dare with my RA?

    I wouldn’t be surprised if there aren’t more than a few freshman each year who take the path of least-orientation.

    • Brian says:

      I too did a lot of my own programming orientation. I would say that putting aside wasted effort on the part of the staff and focusing on how this affects the incoming freshman these tightly planned orientation events are a good thing. I would assume there are many more freshmen who take the given orientation and suit it towards themselves than freshmen who are held back by these events, and there are definitely many students, especially international, who need these events to become acclimated culturally and intellectually to an American university.

      I also believe that kids are trained from an early age to rely on things being planned out for them, but that is another thing entirely.

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