Strap on a helmet

bookbookPublic Relations associate and blog contributor Jim Heffernan (’96) ventured back to the classroom this fall after an absence of a few years. His experience? A lesson in change….

A brave new world in an old familiar place

by Jim Heffernan (’96)

The syllabus was nothing out of the ordinary for a 500-level course — a lot of outside reading, a few quizzes, some role playing and discussion leading, all culminating in a final 20-page paper on a topic of your choice, due on the last day of class.

I can do this, I told myself. I already have a few graduate courses under my belt.

Then I came to the section labeled “Course Requirements,” in which we were reminded to turn off our cell phones during class and encouraged to bring laptops — “if you have one.” Homework assignments would be posted on something called Blackboard (with a capital “B”), and everyone was required to participate in class “discussion threads.”

Huh? My brain needed a minute to reboot. This wasn’t the classroom setting I remembered as a student at JMU in the early- and mid-1990s. Back then, email was still in its infancy and, at best, a third or fourth option for communicating with someone. The Internet was slow and clunky. And if you needed a computer, well, you could wait in line at one of the labs on campus.

I should have known things would be different this time around. After all, the coordinator of the MPA program and I had exchanged emails — does that constitute a discussion thread? — before we met face to face. I had to download the JMU employee tuition waiver form, set up a series of system passwords and register for the class online. Okay, I said, if this is my path toward an advanced degree, so be it.  Strap on a helmet, old man, and enjoy the ride.

First, a little technology inventory was in order: I do carry a phone. It’s of the dumb variety, but it’s smart enough to keep quiet when I tell it to. I do have a laptop with wireless capability. I could use my digital recording device from my journalism days. And I did find a Blackboard tutorial — on the web, of course.

The unease of being a 41-year-old “nontraditional student” set in during the first night of class. My colleagues were young enough to be my kids. They wore T-shirts and hoodies with JMU logos and sported full heads of hair and waistlines. They took notes on their laptops and googled unfamiliar terms and concepts in real time. They spoke of full lives outside of the classroom and of their hopes for the future, which lay in front of them like an open book. I felt like a dinosaur. At least the professor was older than me.

It took a while to adjust to being a student again and to establish a rhythm. I read the required texts on the weekends in between family obligations and in the evenings after our daughter went to bed. I recorded class lectures. I visited the professor during her office hours to ask questions and share my ideas. Somewhere along the way, I even remembered how to write an academic paper, citations and all. As the semester wore on, I found myself actually looking forward to Thursday nights. I began to speak up more during class and offer my own unique perspective. I made connections between the readings and my past and present experiences. And like my classmates, I started to envision a brighter future for myself.

So thank you, JMU, not only for giving me the opportunity to sing your praises in my day-to-day role as a public affairs associate, but also for allowing me to further my education. One day soon I will proudly call myself a Double Duke.

You can read more of Jim’s work at these links:

http://www.jmu.edu/news/2012/03/20-jmu-meeting-changing-needs-of-social-work.shtml

http://www.jmu.edu/news/2012/08/03-return-to-madison-campaign.shtml

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About James Madison University
This blog is about the people of James Madison University — a caring, committed and engaged community spread all over the world, making lives better and brighter, healthier and safer, kinder and bolder. As Gandhi suggested, we are taking steps to BE the CHANGE we wish to see in the world. And these are our stories....

One Response to Strap on a helmet

  1. Sarah MacDonald says:

    Congratulations, Jim! Good luck pursuing your MPA – nontraditional students are a growing majority in college classrooms across the country, so you’re not alone!

    Like

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