As my Flinn Scholars Program colleague Ruben Aguirre wrote last month, a primary component of the Flinn Scholar experience is being matched with a faculty mentor who helps the Scholar navigate the university, develop a personal path, and seize important opportunities to make a positive impact on the university community and beyond. The faculty who become mentors to Flinn Scholars are the master teachers of Arizona’s universities.
William Deresiewicz, one of the more provocative contemporary thinkers about education (see his impassioned argument for not going to an Ivy League university), focuses on such master teachers in his latest essay in Slate, “Spirit Guides.”
Recognizing the trend in higher education toward greater reliance on part-time faculty and online coursework, Deresiewicz sees a general devaluation of teachers. “But,” he writes, “the kind of learning that college is for is simply not possible without them.” The kind of learning that college is for, he argues, is learning critical-thinking skills:
You learn them directly from another person. You learn them through incessant repetition and incremental variation and extension under the close supervision of an experienced practitioner. You learn them in classes that are small enough to allow for individual attention, supplemented by one-onone instruction tailored to your own specific aptitudes and needs.
But is such an experience possible at Arizona’s universities? After all, they’re enormous. Northern Arizona University, the smallest of our three universities, has 20,000 students, more than Duke or Notre Dame. Arizona State University has topped 80,000. Really? Discussion-based seminars and one-on-one instruction?
That’s where the undergraduate Honors experience comes in to play. I haven’t seen a better description of the courses at the heart of Honors education at Arizona’s three universities than this description that Deresiewicz provides:
The purpose of a seminar is to enable your professor to model and shape the mental skills she’s trying to instill. She conducts a discussion about the material, but she doesn’t simply let you talk. She keeps the conversation focused. She challenges assertions, poses follow-up questions, forces students to elaborate their one-word answers or clarify their vague ones. She draws out the timid and humbles (gently) the self-assured. She welcomes and encourages, but she also guides and pushes. She isn’t there to “answer questions,” at least not for the most part; she’s there to ask them.
And the Flinn Scholar’s mentor goes the next step, guiding the same kind of intellectual exchange at an individualized level, and often not just for a semester but for three or four years. It can be a life-changing experience.