What Happens in College is Real

We recently completed another graduation at Azusa Pacific University, where I teach literature and writing. In the celebratory dinners and receptions with students and their family and friends leading up to the ceremony itself, there is always a lot of talk the students finally finishing college and entering the “real world.”

That’s what they call it. Real.

That implies, of course, that what they’ve been doing at the university for the previous four years or so is not real, an assumption I vigorously challenge.

The course I teach most often is a survey course called American Literature Since 1865. It is real. I can tell you from about 30 years of teaching this class—and the feedback I have received from students—that the reading the students do in the course brings moments of insight and inspiration that are as important as anything they will experience after college. I’m talking about times inside and outside of class when we get lost in the literature, caught up in the stories, challenged by the poetry, awakened intellectually and spiritually by the things that matter most. Not every day, of course, and not for every person at the same time. A class day that is life-changing for one student may leave another student cold.

But some moments are life-changing. I’ve known students who have changed their major to English based on one literature course they had signed up for simply to fulfill a General Education requirement.

In my American literature survey course, we cover about 50 authors over the course of a semester. Students delve into the gut-wrenching psychological journey of Edna Pontellier as she questions every assumption about her role and identity in life in Kate Chopin’s novel, The Awakening. We work our way through a very different kind of journey in Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, as Huck wiggles out of one scrape after another while also trying to help his friend, the escaped slave Jim, reach freedom. We analyze the opposing perspectives and approaches toward race of  Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois.

We spend time with the fascinating but dysfunctional families in Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night and Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman. We’re challenged and inspired by the poetry of T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, Adrienne Rich, Emily Dickinson, E.E. Cummings, Theodore Roethke, and Billy Collins. We marvel at the creative storytelling techniques of William Faulkner in his novel As I Lay Dying. We enter the worlds of a wide variety of American lives in the stories of John Updike, Toni Morrison, Julia Alvarez, Rudolfo Anaya, and Amy Tan. As students read and consider the lives and ideas of others, they rethink their own relationships, challenges their own biases, and form a better understanding of the past. Sometimes become lifelong fans of authors they had previously never heard of.

None of that is real?

Only a job after graduation is real?

Our students do get jobs, too, by the way. Or they go to graduate school, or do missions trips, or pursue dreams in a variety of ways. I don’t diminish the importance of that, or of paying off the high cost of the college experience.

What I’m fighting is this perception that college is only preparation for life and is not life itself. The years you spend in college are real years, just like the years you spend in your thirties or any other time. Why reduce the college years to simply a time to endure so you can move on to “real life”? Why not relish every phase of life? I don’t know many people in their thirties, for example, who behave as if that time is mainly preparation for their seventies.

I’ve been focusing on one of my courses as an example of what’s real, but I could choose many others from my colleagues in English, and that’s only one department. Other fields are just as crucial, and not only for job preparation, but also for life—psychology, economics, theology, art, music, history, and others. And that’s just the curricular part of college. I haven’t touched on all the other elements of college life such as friendships, service, international study and travel, spiritual worship and development, and all the fun that college students also have.

Isn’t all that real?

5 thoughts on “What Happens in College is Real

  1. This is so well said. I am not sure any longer what people mean when they say that they are not in real life yet because they are in college. Are they not alive? Are they not experiencing what they are going through? Exactly what in their experiences in college is unreal? Your discussion of your American literature course, with all of these powerful writers, might make for very intense reality, not unreality. When I can, I also sometimes try to suggest to students that college is real because whatever habits and disciplines they are developing as students (or the lack of them) are habits and disciplines they will carry with them into whatever jobs they get later on. If they were a procrastinator in college, that will be a poor habit they have to break later on. This is a great discussion. Thank you.

    • Thanks, Tom. I agree. A year in college is the same 365 days as out of college, so it’s your life, not just preparation for your life, even if you don’t treat it that way. What I regret is seeing students trying just to “get it over with” rather than really making the most of it. Fortunately, many students do make the most of it, and those are the ones who really get their money’s worth.

  2. Professor Bentz,
    Thanks for your perspective. You made your point so eloquently.
    I’d like to suggest that perhaps the mindset people have of college not being “real” is similar to the comments some people make about writers not having a “real” job. Some people value as “real” only those activities which immediately bring in a good income or those which fit their ideas of “work”. Studying at college and writing ideas for stories, novels, etc. are not “real” to them–more like play, or even, a waste of time– and yet all students and writers can testify that both of those pursuits are work, even though the results may not be immediately visible in a sizeable paycheck.

    I used to work as cashier in a grocery store. From time to time one of the high-school/college-age employees made remarks that they wanted to get a “real” job. Some older employees, myself included, took offense at that attitude. We felt that we had “real” jobs. None of us made a lot of money, but the employer expected us to come in when scheduled and do the jobs we were supposed to do.

    You made reference to the fact that all the fields studied in college are valuable not just then but later. I attended a community college. I found the economics course I took did add to my life, not just in college, but even now. I still think about some of the things the professor said. One of his sayings was, “Everything has a cost”. That’s a principle I can use in my life today.

    Thanks for your post.

    • Thanks so much for your very helpful perspective on this. I do think what I’m saying is similar to the “real job” labels people use. People may need to expand their ideas about what is real and meaningful.

      • I agree. In the meantime, those who choose to go “against the grain” of what some figure is “real” need to have courage, grit and perseverance to do so, especially when the person proclaiming the judgement of what’s real is an influential person in their lives.

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