Be True to Your School

Alexander Astin’s Theory of Involvement makes a lot of sense to me, not only in the context of recent class discussions, videos and readings, but also in terms of understanding my students and my own student experiences.
When I think back to my Cegep experience, I can see Astin’s theory in practice: my first attempt at Cegep ended in complete disaster, and not just academically. I finished my first semester in Pure & Applied Sciences at Champlain St-Lambert with five failed courses (including English), depression and an utter lack of motivation, a rejection of authority, and a rift with my parents that took many years to heal.
Three years later, when I started taking evening classes at Vanier, my motivation had returned. Success in those courses led me to enroll as a full-time day student. I joined the student newspaper – and school was suddenly the best place on earth. As a member of the newspaper group, I met many students in other clubs and associations, I dealt with our student politicians, I developed relationships with members of the administration, and I learned more information about my school than I knew existed.

Another facet of my involvement was classroom interaction, and because of this I have to wonder whether my personal experience reflects Astin’s theory or simply a personal developmental stage – in other words, was I motivated and learning because I was involved in school life, or was my involvement in school life simply an aspect of my changed, young adult status?
As a teacher, I can see the differences in my cont. ed. students compared to my day students. Older students, as we see in the text, have more crystallized intelligence – they may be slower at learning new information, but they’re more likely to have a context in which to understand that information. More importantly in the context of Astin’s theory, older students are not necessarily more involved – many of them can’t be, because they have other responsibilities, such as jobs and families – but they are genuinely motivated. As well, older students have a firmer grasp of their own identities, so perhaps social interaction for them is a perk, but not the raison d’etre of school.
It seems to me that much of what we’ve seen in class recently fits Astin’s theory. If we consider the idea of adolescence from the Erikson model, our students are dealing with identity issues and role confusion. If so, then involvement, both in and out of the classroom, demonstrates a proactive approach to determining personal identity and an attempt at defining one’s role. Presumably, then, Astin’s exhortation to faculty and institutions to be accessible eliminates the danger of rejecting a teen’s self-identified role. We have to be open, and give them time to try on the roles that appeal to them.
One other aspect of the theory that echoed other ideas we’ve seen in class is student time. Adolescents are in a stage of physical development, and need rest and relaxation – but increasingly, our students are juggling part-time jobs, family responsibilities and schoolwork, often to the detriment of the schoolwork.
Perhaps in an ideal society, where education was top priority, extracurricular time spent on campus would be valued, rather than seen as a waste of time.
At the same time, I think there’s a danger that Astin’s theory could be interpreted as a call for a return to the heady, hippy days of Cegep – especially if we consider his idea that instructors reprioritize, placing student motivation ahead of course content. Personally, I wonder if the two are really mutually exclusive. Isn’t part of our job to make the content accessible? Granted, it’s perhaps easier for an English teacher to choose texts and create assignments that achieve the same objectives while sparking motivation than it would be for a math teacher. But I think what we really need to take from Astin is the idea that everyone – student, teacher, institution, and parent – should feel like it’s OK to be happy at school. Learning shouldn’t be the high stress rush it seems to be; and school shouldn’t be the place you have to go that’s interfering with your work schedule.
Above all, if we are the last stop on the adolescent’s trip to adulthood, we should be providing a safe place to resolve those identity crises. I think that to a large extent, we can say that our schools do provide that safe place – but only for those students who have no pressing responsibilities, who can therefore spend time on campus and get involved in groups and activities outside the classroom. I also think that we have traded away some of our institutional accessibility for more stringent, thorough academic programs. Science students are overwhelmed with courses and homework and lab time, not to mention the pressure to consistently score high marks, so they can continue on to university and yet more years of pressure. I wonder sometimes if workplace scientists really operate under such conditions, and if so, why isn’t the burnout rate astronomical?
In a nutshell, I’m on board with Astin’s theory not because I think it’s 100% viable, but because I honestly believe that school should be a place you want to get to everyday. I’m happy to say that it still is for me.