A colleague of mine recently alerted me to an interesting passage in Garry D. Fenstermacher's essay, “Rediscovering the Student in Democracy and Education,” in John Dewey and Our Educational Prospects: A Critical Engagement with Dewey's Democracy and Education. Fenstermacher suggests imagining that the word "student" might function as a verb or a noun. He writes,
"That is, one can be a student, but one can also student. To student is to be engaged in a series of performances whose form and substance are primarily shaped by the institutional and organizational properties of the school setting. Thus, the term ‘student,’ employed as a verb, may be distinguished from the term ‘learn,’ where this latter term might be defined as a series of performances that are, in considerable part, formed by the properties of a discipline or subject matter as well as the methods of inquiry appropriate to that subject matter....
Many of us think that the task and the achievement of being a student are to learn. Consider, however, the possibility that what a student (noun) does is not learn, but instead student (verb). That is, the student becomes proficient in doing the kinds of things that students do, such as ‘psyching out’ teachers, figuring out how to get certain grades or ‘beat the system,’ dealing with boredom so that it is not obvious to teachers, negotiating the best deals on reading and writing assignments, treading the right line between curricular and extracurricular activities, and determining what is likely to be on the test and what is not.”
First, I want to say, why oh why has no one ever thought of this before??!! The idea that the activity of "studenting" now mostly involves getting one over (on the system, on the professor, on the constructors of standardized tests, on the bursar)-- and vey seldom involves actually learning--seems so manifestly true that I have decided to put this new verb to immediate use. Sadly, I do not expect that it will need much explanation.
A supporting anecdote: My college has a "Fall Break" that is maddeningly, but brilliantly, scheduled from 5:00 pm on Friday through 8:00 am the following Wednesday. Of course, what that means is that the break is really only Monday and Tuesday. But one of my students was studenting this afternoon and explaining to me that she would be absent on Thursday, because she needed to leave a day early for break. Mustering all the patience I could, I explained that, in fact, leaving Thursday would mean she was leaving two days early-- technically, it would mean she was leaving four days early, but I didn't want to belabor the point-- since the entire "school day" of Friday isn't part of the break period. She said, "Well, since the break was scheduled for Friday through Monday, I didn't think it would be a big deal to leave a day early"... ignoring my thorough and crystal clear explanation altogether. You know, in the way that students student.
I wonder whether or not the hyper-bureaucratic systems that produce students-who-student bear the brunt of the responsibility for this unfortunate phenomenon. I mean, have you looked into what it takes to register for classes these days? What students may or may not want to "learn" plays a very small part in the courses they choose-- it's all about time slots, requirements, and savvy selection of professors. That is, it's all about learning... but learning how to student.