As a thought exercise, let us compare undergraduate education to the hero’s quest. In a general sense, the hero’s quest can be described as a long, arduous journey to accomplish some grandiose goal that is usually only vaguely defined at the start of the adventure. And the fact that it is an ‘adventure’ is a key to the experience: there are many parts, many sub-quests, many initiatives, many goals, and, ultimately, success and fulfillment in more than one sense. The journey itself is transformative: the hero comes not just to accomplish the individual goal, but to understand themselves and/or the world around them (or both) through the journey.
We can compare this directly to the student experience through several obvious parallels: the hero sets out from home just as in modern culture college can represent the first extended departure from the home environment. The hero recruits and establishes both camaraderie and shared purpose with fellow travellers just as students establish new support networks and re-evaluate the qualities of peers and mentors relative to their own position and achievement as they journey. The hero sets forth with a vague notion of what they hope to accomplish and a high-level, life altering and world-changing goal, but very little concrete plan of how to get ‘There and Back Again’ (hahaha…), just as the student arrives on campus with bags, dreams, and a first-semester schedule, but sometimes not much else.
A note about quest length and relevance:
One of the most interesting things about the hero’s journey is the fact that at any given moment not every element of the adventure is directly or relevant to the overall mission, or at least in a way that is tangible and immediate to the hero. This also occurs directly in the student experience: students can struggle at times to understand how a given assignment, course, experience, or action relates to their overall plan/goal/ideal. In fact, this is often the cause of sincere disconnect as students fail to recognize either the relevance of an element of the curriculum in relation to the overall field, the consequence of a given action relative to the overall culture and community of the academy, or the importance of a relationship or artifact that will later have significant impact on their endeavor. In some sense this can be summed up in the notion of maturity or worldliness, but it runs a fair bit deeper, and may be more akin to the ‘coming-of-age’ quality of the hero’s quest.
One interesting facet of this particular analogy is the concept of quest-length. The hero’s quest is too big to deal with, it cannot be parsed, it cannot be processed, it should be kept quiet and unexamined until the moment of relevance, the climb at the end to the final confrontation or completion. Along the way, several milestones and mini-quests litter the road, each with their own lessons, relevance, and engagement. In a sense, this is exactly what we would hope for in curricular design – it is the notion of the capstone course, the culminating experience, and the integration of individual experiences. But it also speaks directly to the notion of milestone, relevance, and adventure: in the hero’s quest these markers and milestones are their own achievements of significance that are both immediately tangible and significant, and relate later to the overall climax. In academia, we can fail to take into account the notion of ‘adventure’ and immediate significance: we provide only the scantest of milestones through grades and courses, which are abstract rather than real. Projects can at times provide the qualities of the tangible, but even then the relevance and in particular the significance relative to the overall is somehow often absent.
It could be said, perhaps, that the quest-length exceeds the attention span of the hero. The hero would be driven insane if every step across the world was counted and catalogued in the largest possible terms: ‘1091 steps to Mordor, 1090 steps to Mordor, 1089 steps to Mordor, etc., and yet at the same time without the sub-quests and experiences during the journey they hero would be unprepared to complete the heroic task. Without the length of the journey and the arduous nature of it, the hero would not develop into the hero. We need ways to frame the growth, progression, and relevance of our current journey relative to our goals, but in a mixture of abstract and non-abstract ways: we need “you have completed 12 out of 16 courses” but also “here is what you know how to do, and here is what you still need to learn”. I’ve yet to see curriculum that does a great job of defining what a student doesn’t know yet.
Weez mentions counting telephone posts on a long drive, or playing car-games, etc. Part of this is a need to account for progress, part of it is enforced distraction. We look at mile-markers (where we know the milage of the trip) for an absolute, or at the map on the back of an airplane seat. But we turn to games, puzzles, competitions, etc. as well, in part for other measures of progress, or perhaps to feel a sense of progress in one arena when we are unsure or cannot deal with scale in another, and in part to entertain and distract from the situation at hand. And this, too, is part and parcel of the hero’s journey. In thinking of achievement systems relative to the student experience, perhaps we should consider the notion that such a system must effectively work on both axis – the tracking of abstract progress in a way that is consistently relatable to the overall goal, and the tracking of progress in a non-abstract way that is meaningful to the student in the context of where they are, what is locally important to their current situation, and how that relates to the overall. It must convey the individual notion of adventure, self-direction, and exploration, while simultaneously expressing the concept of the ‘hero’s journey’ both as a record for self-reflection and an indicator of forward direction.
A note about transformation:
The notion of the hero’s transformation is, of course, only glossed over here but forms the very core of the goals of the academy. The goal of the academy is not merely to dump a bunch of facts and figures into the heads of our students and turn them away the same as they were when they arrived with arguably more ‘knowledge’ than before, but rather to nurture and foster the growth of the individual towards a goal of producing globally-aware, independent learners and critical thinkers. I’ll have more to say about transformation in an upcoming post, but I just want to put it out there that this is a key element of what we’re about as an institution of higher education: the journey is more than the sum of its parts, and the hero goes on forever changed by their adventure.