Undecided. Definitely undecided.

There’s a label used in the college admissions process that ought to be changed.  Students who cannot easily check the box indicating their intended major find themselves scrolling down to a last choice, variously called “Undecided” or “Undeclared.”  This is the “limbo” category for those who have yet to proclaim their educational focus for the upcoming four years, a category that is often seen as a negative, and worrisome to friends and family.  But here’s the secret—it’s really the best box to check.

Across the country, many colleges are developing new programs to embrace this group of applicants. Since it is most probably the largest population of incoming students, the “undecided” can’t be ignored.  They are called, “open” majors, “explorers,” and other variations.

My own college aspirations leaned toward the sciences—in those days we all had been pushed in that direction by the race to catch up with Sputnik and orbiting monkeys.  I held the absolute expectation of becoming a scientist.  So, when it was time to fill out the applications, I checked the biology box without a second’s hesitation.  But that was before I walked into “general education” courses, the “electives” that were meant to complement my studies.  Those other courses that I was forced to take suddenly revealed a myriad of intriguing pursuits.

By the end of the first term, I was second guessing my major decision. Four years later I graduated with a degree in English with minors in philosophy, history and Spanish, and one course shy of that biology major. My graduate studies and my career went in a different direction still; I went on to run companies, work in the motion picture industry (with some Oscar winners) and eventually returned to academia.

Not that having a specific educational destination is bad.  It’s just that the journey ahead may have lots of unexpected twists and turns.  Sometimes, where we are heading actually may not be where we want to go.  Most college students change their major three times and about 80% change their major at least once.  Some find a passionate commitment to a specific subject easily and early.  But for many of us, the condition is not one of being undecided about a major, it’s a process of exploration and discovery with many decisions along the way.

There certainly is a secure feeling in knowing what steps will lead to a predictable and desired future.  And with the challenge of college affordability, the pressure to have a concrete career goal at the beginning of the journey is a compelling expectation.  But with the evolution and, sometimes, revolution of our personal experiences, it may be that the uncertainty of exploration is not as frightening as it can be exhilarating.

I applaud those who have a lock on their future.  As a parent I completely understand the desire for certainty in the future for your children.  But I also know that only they will make that future and hope they will approach it with an open, adaptable and adventurous mind.

The “undecided”—make that, the “deciding”—are in the best position to find their way in a world that is ever changing.  Colleges need to work on continuing to change that “undecided” label and, in the meantime, I suggest we celebrate it as a natural path to educational, professional and life fulfillment.

Students as Customers?

“We Are Not Customers!” a student protest sign rages in one of many video clips that pop up in the news stories and documentaries on the cost and corporatization of higher education.

When considering the “customer” or “product” labels, I tend to be wary. Mostly I think of students as the next up—the future. They are going to pick up where we leave off. In my teaching and my work to support the mission of my institution, the things I care about, the knowledge and experience that I have gathered and created over the years are offered to students with the hope that they will remember and preserve the best of it, use the useful and discard the useless, all in their construction of an individual and collective future.

I know that I am not without fault in generalizing about our students, in making sweeping generational judgments about their nature and character. They do the same of me and my generation as I did of those who had gone before. But I hope I spend most of my time calling my students by their names and not by labels, looking for and appreciating their individuality rather than dismissing them with generic references and superficial generalizations. Above all, I try to keep the lens of “students as future” at the core of my attitudes and expectations.

We spend a great deal of our days in higher education looking to and revering the past. We introduce and immerse our students in what has gone before, in examples of others, experiences and revelations of days, years, centuries gone by. We bet that the rear view mirror will prepare our students for what lies ahead. I feel like a backseat driver, constantly swiveling my head to remind my students of the light they ran or the near miss they didn’t see. And I forget that they are driving—more and more as I get older, I see that they are really driving!

They are the future, sitting in our classrooms, working in the labs and studios, online, face to face, they are the future and when we see them in this light, what we do has great meaning and worth. If higher education leaned a bit more in the direction of the future in its curricular and programmatic development, we might not worry about labels for our students, but see them for what we need and hope them to be—the caretakers and makers of their world.

Arts and Sciences – An Essential Link

Alexander Fleming (1888-1955) the biologist who discovered penicillin harbored an inner passion for the visual arts.  He was responsible for launching the age of antibiotics when he discovered a certain culture of mold actually could kill disease-causing bacteria.  But he just couldn’t shake his artistic impulse.  Fleming found time to develop an odd artistic practice of “painting” with bacteria.  His “germ art” has been publicly exhibited and chronicled in both scientific and historical journals over the years.  Dr. Fleming, though, kept his inner artist well in the shadows of his brilliant scientific career.


(Guardsmen painting by Alexander Fleming with pigment-producing bacteria in culture – source Smithsonian Magazine)

The worlds of science and art are often presented as well, and necessarily, separated.  Most who choose the path of hard science feel that they are not “creative.”  And the art students often steer a course well around science and math even though the University insists that the inhabitants of each arena visit the other now and then through general education requirements.

Scientists and artists are equally driven to discover that which is beyond their immediate or obvious understanding.  They share a reliance on imagination, whether to form a hypothesis or to devise a visual masterpiece.  Their work ethics are equally unrelenting.  And both share an understanding that the intuitive and the objective exist in dynamic harmony.

It makes sense that the arts and sciences are inextricably linked.  It makes even more sense that the connection should eventually grow to an always assumed collaboration.  Every course of study has its specialized requirements, but the adventures that scientists take in their embrace of art and the insight provided to artists who rely on the authenticity of known facts make their endeavors complete.  Though my career eventually grounded itself in literature and the arts, I harbored an inner scientist deep in my own personal shadows as a self-portrait drawn at age 10 demonstrates.


Clearly, visual arts were not going to be my thing either.  But I can’t help but think that the science in me makes my moving image arts and education pursuits all the more satisfying.

The Power of a Teacher

We all remember our favorite teachers, right?

I am still amazed at how easily my kindergarten teacher, Miss Meyers, could draw a detailed landscape with our over-sized crayons. My attempts to imitate were just embarrassing. Mrs. Fowler, second grade, wore all kinds of jangly jewelry so she could never sneak up on you, yet she knew our indiscretions before we made them.  And the third grade teacher, Mrs. McCabe took no mercy with those who couldn’t recite the multiplication tables—never have I forgotten.

They all had their styles and each found a way to move us along in those basics of writing, reading and arithmetic.  Moving to the upper grades and the shifts between classrooms and teachers on an hourly basis, my memory begins to get much more selective.  And in the college years there are fewer standouts. But we all have one great teacher who made a critical difference—sometimes more than one—but one can be just enough.

World literature was the course—a general education elective that I had to finish up in order to graduate.  There was a new assistant professor teaching who found out that I had this thing for movies. Movies had been my parallel education system since I could sit still on grandma’s lap at the local movie theater.  Their stories were the insights in to the values, beliefs, nightmares and dreams that we all shared through and out of the Cold War, into the crazy 60’s and 70’s and beyond.

So, this teacher, when it came to reading Don Quixote called me out in class with a simple request, “Mr. Grogg, maybe you could make a little movie about Cervantes’ story.”  Not so simple—we didn’t have video-taking mobile phones or camcorders.  We were talking 8mm home movie gear, real film, editing with a razor blade.  But I jumped at it.  The result a 10 minute very abbreviated telling of a contemporary Don Quixote who refused to give up his dreams.  There was a screening, there was applause, there was a grade and the film went into a box as I moved out of the dorm the following week.

Twenty years later, I had made a motion picture, The Trip To Bountiful, that was nominated for two Academy Awards winning best actress for Geraldine Page.  That teacher-inspired taste of making a movie led to an unguessed career in motion pictures.  That teacher—Gary Luckert was his name—sparked something that I never had a clue was in me or in my future.

There really is nothing but opportunity in the teacher-student relationship.  And there is, likewise, real danger.  A great teacher can inspire a student to never expected heights.  A poor teacher can push a student out of the game and leave an indelible mark that can have life consequences.

Here’s to your best teacher!