Back to School (again)

. May 6, 2013.

Usually the last thing I want to hear or see in August is anything about “back to school.”  It’s about as welcomed as a sneeze inside a motorcycle helmet.  Let me enjoy my summer, thank you very much.  This year, however, circumstances are different.  I am actually looking forward to the start of school.  My daughters will be going to middle school and high school—and I’ll be going to grad school.
Actually, I’ve been in school since June.  When the kids got out, I went in so to speak.  I am currently working on my masters in education at the University of Michigan.  It’s been twenty-one years since I graduated from U of M undergrad, and I’ve quickly had to remember how to be a student again.

On campus, much is still the same.  The Diag is still there with its unusual assortment of characters.  So is the Tappan Oak, as it has been for over 150 years.  In the classroom, students still sit in chairs at tables.  Humans (not robots) still teach the classes—just in case you were wondering.  And, last but not least, you still have to do the work.  You can’t just download the information to a chip in your brain.  (I had hoped that somebody would’ve figured out this technology by now!)

While the basics are clearly still what most of us remember, much has changed in academia since the 1980s.  For instance, we do take advantage of computers more than ever.  Everyone has a laptop, and many days we are required to bring it to class.  Some people take notes on them, sure, but often times we use them to look up information, log into classroom websites, and to communicate with each other.  Video recording is also a big part of how we practice our teaching skills, so we need our laptops to share this information.

Just before you start thinking that I went to school in the Stone Age, I want to let you know that we did use computers in the 1980s.  Sure, they held less memory than an amoeba, but they were high-tech for their day.  We even used computers to register for classes.  Any Michigan grads out there remember CRISP?  (Computer Registration Involving Student Participation.)  Usually it just involved students getting angry with the slow computers as they watched their classes fill up before they could even log in.  This was why they invented the 8 am class.  Who gets up that early in college?
For this spring’s classes, however, I was able to register from home on my own laptop.  Also, the university has this great on-line resource called C-Tools.  Each of your classes is listed there with its own mini website.  Using C-Tools, students can pick up their assignments and turn them in.  Professors also can upload their lecture notes and Power Point presentations to the site.  Communication is so much easier.  In fact, students and professors now talk all the time through email. 

Email is ubiquitous.  And why not?  We use it in our non-academic lives pretty heavily.  The strangest part of this, though, was that I received my acceptance letter by email.  Gone are the days of going to the mailbox, full of anticipation, wondering if you’re going to get the skinny or fat envelope.
The one aspect of being a student that I’m most surprised about, however, is that I don’t feel like an eighteen-year-old freshman.  I mean, I’m not the oldest in my class, but I’m no Justin Bieber, either.  I was talking to a couple of my younger classmates about the Plymouth Satellite.  They stared at me with blank expressions.

“You know—the car?” I said.


“Like in the song, ‘Planet Claire’, by the B-52s?  ‘She drove a Plymouth Satellite?’”


“The B-52s!  ‘Rock Lobster?’  ‘Love Shack?’”

Nope.  Nada.

This age discrepancy also really hit me in a prerequisite class I took this winter on children’s literature.  Many of the books that the professor told us to pick up at the store, I was able to take off of my daughters’ bookshelves.  The class was full of undergrad females.  I sat there thinking, “She looks good.  So does she.  I wonder if she’s available—to babysit.”

This September, when our kids go off to their new schools, I’ll be packing a lunchbox right along with them.  I’ve had the summer to get used to being a student again, and I think I’ll take advantage of this added confidence.  Who knows, I’ve still got four years of athletics eligibility left.  Maybe I’ll go out for the football team.

Jim Keen is a freelance writer and life-long Ann Arborite.  He lives in town with his wife, Bonnie, and daughters, Gabbi (14) and Molly (10).  He is the author of Inside Intermarriage:  A Christian Partner’s Perspective on Raising a Jewish Family (URJ Press).  He can be reached at