Over the past 30+ years, many colleges have made themselves more accessible for adult students. These innovations include flexible scheduling, online learning, professionally-oriented degrees, and credit for what students already know (Michelson & Mandell, 2004). Of course there is more work to be done, particularly in the areas of financial aid for the very large number of adult part-time college students (Moore, 2006; Chronicle of Higher Education, 2008), as well as in the areas of academic support and advising (Tait & Mills, 2003). But undoubtedly, these progressive changes have made it possible for many adults to get into school, stay there, and finish their degrees.
Once we begin to question and alter traditional academic learning in these very pragmatic ways, other possibilities for innovation appear (Hall, 1991). Indeed, sometimes we are happily surprised at how much and how well we can alter our standards of what students should and do know, as well as how we can effectively work with them (Herman & Mandell, 2004). Our goal in this paper is to present two cases that exemplify these practical and academic innovations. In one example, a faculty mentor and student collaboratively improvise new learning within an individualized learning contract. The other example is about a mentor-evaluator and student discovering a new way to construe prior experiential learning neither had anticipated.
Harry had already written one novel, continued to experiment with poetry and memoir, and had a plan for a second piece of fiction. The four main characters whose lives he had already sketched out had come to the city and taken up different jobs: a fire fighter, a bicycle mechanic, a cook, and a part-time actor. Harry wanted to learn more about their work lives; he wanted to gain insight into their daily routines and their feelings about their jobs. He wanted to use this guided independent study to talk with people at work in hopes of giving his fiction more depth and insight. He wanted to get it right.
In many ways, I thought, what Harry wanted to do was quite straightforward. It isn't unusual to find a Social Science Department offering a course on the Sociology of Work. Terkel's Work (1997) is a classic and, I imagined, would get at occupational diversity, as would Gig: Americans Talk about their Jobs (2001). Also, Rose's The Mind at Work (2005), a book Harry knew, could be a provocative way for him to tease out levels of skill and care that often go unnoticed. Sennett's The Culture of the New Capitalism (2007) could help him see a contemporary social analyst examining the subtle links between identity and macro-economic shifts. And, along the way, as he prepared for his work interviews, Harry could learn more about research using human subjects. So far, Harry's project had a ready-made home in the academy--one that would comfortably allow him to explore work in a solid academic context in his own way and for his own purposes.
Yet, quite quickly, something happened. As Harry began to read about work, and as we talked in our regular meetings, he also began to ask questions about "knowing" itself. "How do we really know what others experience?" he wondered. What access do we, as researchers, really have to the ideas, the reactions, the physical moves, and to the tacit understandings of a person at work? Is objectivity ever possible? Harry became fascinated by the role of the "personal" in any work--whether the work of the bankers, bricklayers, and bicycle mechanics he'd been reading about, or even the work he and I were doing right now as scholars.
This fascination prompted a change in our plan of study. We began to improvise and to grapple for relevant sources. He and I asked friends and colleagues for suggestions. In this way, Harry began to read about the reflective process, about the many methodological debates that focused on whether the "personal narrative" had any academic legitimacy at all, and about new experiments in auto-ethnography. …