Commencement 2004

Springtime in Academe. This is the time when commencement speakers across the land regale, bore, entertain, and attempt to challenge the Class of 2004.

This year’s commencement speakers will echo the themes articulated by the ghosts of commencement speakers past: this era will be the best of times, the most challenging of times. No question these will be interesting times. (FYI: contrary to conventional wisdom, a quick Google search suggests that this is not an ancient Chinese greeting/curse.)

For the graduates who began their college careers in the late 1990s, the world they “enter” with their new college degrees is very different from the one they knew as college freshmen. They (and we) live in a world and an economy that is post Y2K, post-dot.com, post-9-11, and (hopefully) emerging from recession.

The good news for this year’s graduates is that the job market may be improving. Early indicators suggest that employment opportunities should be much better this year than in recent years. The welcome employment upturn notwithstanding, job options for (and salaries of) new college graduates will be well below the levels posted in the closing years of the Clinton/dot.com era.

On the technology front, computers have become less inexpensive: over the past four-to-five years Moore’s law assures that laptops and desktops continue to “do more for less.” Cell phones have become ubiquitous; wireless networks and services—on and off-campus—are becoming so.

Step back a bit and we see that the whole concept and connotation of wired has shifted significantly in recent years. Recall, for example, the annual “Wired Campus” report from (the now departed) Yahoo! Internet Life Magazine. It was an unpopular (unpopular among campus officials!) effort to rank U.S. colleges and universities on their technology services and resources. Today the notion of “wired”—access to/using lots of technology—increasingly points to “wireless” students who wander campus with their cell phones, PDAs, and notebook computers.

Also on the IT front: over the past four years, through the rise and demise of the dots, the Web continues to touch more of what we do and how we do it, on and off campus. To paraphrase the 1972 observation of George Bonham, founding director of Change magazine, technology and the Web today, like television in the late 1960s and early 1970s, “dominates much of American life and manners.”

As in past years, some of this year’s grads will stay on, migrating from alma mater in the spring to grad school in the fall. Over the course of their undergraduate years they were touched—carefully, appropriately, magically, and metaphorically—by faculty (by some of us!) in the arts and sciences. We became their mentors, suggesting and then fostering an interest in a faculty career and life in academe.

The distance from baccalaureate graduation to graduate school is one of time, place, and space. It also represents a leap of faith.

The students who go on to law, medical, and business school do so with reasonable confidence about the careers that follow: retention rates are high and career paths are fairly direct.

In contrast, and regardless of discipline—for example, philosophy, psychology, or physics—the degree completion rates and career paths are less certain for the students lured by the siren song we may sing about life in academe.

The 2004 grads have come of age in an era of technology. In their roles as research and teaching assistants over the next few years, and when they assume their first academic appoint ments at the end of the current decade, their new colleagues and hiring institutions will assume they “know” and “are comfortable” with technology—as a tool for research, scholarship, and instruction. It may not be a fair assumption, but it will be there, an inferred part of the portfolio, an essential tool for the next generation of faculty.

We know that the technologies will change—get faster, better, less expensive—in the coming years. The 1980s gave us the microcomputer; the 1990s brought us the Web. A few years from now the conventional wisdom may be that the compelling technology of the first decade of the 21st Century was wireless networks, fostering anywhere, anyplace, anytime connection—nothing but ‘Net, no strings attached.

But then again, some other new technology—something interesting, something compelling, something way cool—may also be lurking in the digital shadows, ready to emerge and to shake our world, as did the microcomputer and the Web. We do live in interesting times.

Is there a special wish for the 2004 grads who will take their first steps on the path to the professoriate when they begin graduate school in the fall?

Absolutely. Let us wish them lots of job offers, good jobs, great pay, engaged students, and engaging colleagues. Let us hope the emerging technologies of this decade prove to be compelling, engaging, and less expensive. Let us hope that our new colleagues—our current students —benefit from definitive research documenting the benefits of information technology as a resource for teaching and instruction.

Let us hope that as our graduating students assume faculty positions at the end of the decade, the formal and informal algorithm for review and promotion will not penalize them for their interest in technology as a resource for teaching and instruction, and that their departments and institutions will acknowledge and accept IT as a useful resource in the portfolio of scholarship, teaching, and service.

And over the next decade, let us also hope that the great aspirations unleashed by the “computer revolution in higher education” that began in the mid-1980s find realization in the routine instructional activities of faculty and the daily experiences of college students.

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