Academic Life at Cornell: "Hard" Vs. "Intellectually Challenging"

Academic Life at Cornell:

In my first blog, I wrote about my personal life, and I think a few reflections about getting an MPA here at CIPA and Cornell are in order. My Dad used to ask me if my courses were hard, and now that we’ve talked about what a ‘hard’ course might look like, he asks me if my courses are intellectually challenging!

Guess which question makes more sense for this grad student?

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Once I got over the utter shock of a return to student life, got the details sorted out about which courses I was taking, realized how much reading there ACTUALLY is to do on a daily basis, and started coordinating my school and home life, I was ready to really examine this question of intellectual challenge. Are my classes hard? Is grad school hard? Is it better if the work is hard, or if I am intellectually challenged and growing as a result? Maybe you can guess my answers: my classes aren’t hard, but they are stimulating. Grad school isn’t hard- it is a puzzle, and sometimes a complicated one! And I much prefer to push myself to really grasp concepts intellectually rather than study for a hard test and then forget the content because it doesn’t apply elsewhere in my studies.

Portrait 1 SB

I’ve realized that, for me, “intellectually challenging” sometimes includes a professor responding to a comment I’ve just made in class by saying something to the effect of, “Now I’m going to push back on everything you just said.” The professor isn’t targeting me specifically, and isn’t even saying my answer is wrong (which I certainly am sometimes- just ask my kids!). The professor is respectfully challenging my preconceived notions about the topic and asking probing questions so I can reach for a new point of discovery. THIS is an intellectual challenge.

These challenges are most stimulating for me when I feel like my course is such a deep dive into an aspect of leadership, or thinking, or policy that I am learning a new way of examining my own thoughts in order to fully consider the coursework—similar to learning a new language and working harder to feel understood when I express myself: exercise for my brain!

My courses are mostly discussion-based courses and I have heard students ask professors what I consider challenging questions; the result is often a rewarding deeper discussion. This challenge dynamic is often welcome in both directions of communication. This is not so different from my work prior to CIPA, but the focus feels different. Here I am building my knowledge to increase my employability and, more importantly, to expand my own scope of what is possible in the policy/management/systems thinking/social change fields. So, when I have an essay for my one class, I am not focusing on solely what we learned in class. I draw from my past experience, the course readings, as well as the point I defended earlier in the semester in another course on campus. Is it any wonder that I am tired at the end of each day?

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Sarah Brown is a first-year CIPA student.  An organic farmer from Washington State, she spent last year in a small village in Hungary as a Fulbright Fellow, studying rural social innovation. She has come to CIPA hoping to build her tool-kit, which will allow her to be more effective in pushing a positive agenda for social change. Sarah has brought her two elementary-aged children with her to Ithaca and is single-parenting these two years while her husband stays behind to work in Washington. 

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