Monday, August 15, 2005

Inward Looking Service Learning 3

The First Year Experience

Having sketched out how inward looking service learning might work, I feel like a man with a new hammer and I’m looking for some nails. So I want to begin to consider how peer mentor/teachers might be fruitfully employed outside the normal course experience into other facets of student life.

One reason for asking this question is to note the following. With the retention rate at my University (our graduation rate is around 80%) we have a ratio of about 5.5 eligible students per available peer mentor/teacher. But in the model I described previously, in large classes there would be 10 eligible students per mentor. And it is not clear whether the institution will want to use peer mentor/teachers in small classes, where substantial direct student/faculty contact is possible. So we haven’t yet allocated all the peer mentor/teachers and if the model is to work then we need to fully allocate them to useful functions.

In the model I’ve set up, after the first year students spend a substantial amount of time in the peer mentor/teacher role. (Recall that these students are taking one less course per semester and are also putting in the hours they previously would have worked at a part time job.) During the first year students don’t perform as peer mentor/teachers. So it might be tempting to allocate this additional time to letting these students take other courses. And perhaps there is some of that. (At MIT when I started in 1972 they had a bunch of courses that were out of the norm and for half the credit of a regular course. I took a course on “Calculus Theory” with a great professor that really helped me make a jump in my mathematical imagination. One of my roommates who was in many of my classes, including the calculus theory course, took another one of these unusual courses on Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness.” )

I want to suggest a different use of that time, one that focuses on shaping what students do when they are not doing their course work. On my campus this part of student life is normally not the concern of the academic side of the university. We have an entire administrative structure called “Student Affairs.” This unit includes divisions of Housing, Recreation, and the Dean of Students office among many other functions. There is some overlap between Student Affairs and the Academic Affairs. One of the bigger examples is the Living and Learning Communities. But in the main they operate in different spheres.

On a comparative basis, the University of Illinois does a good job getting students acclimated to campus and encouraging students to participate in extracurricular activities. But at a national level there are issues. Binge drinking is an overt symptom. The broader problem is a pervasive nihilism with underlying cause that precedes college and college only amplifies – school is a passport not a reward in itself, fun is hedonistic over indulgence, a blasting of the senses into a temporary oblivion, and as long as grades are good have as much fun as possible. To this college adds a personal sense of freedom, especially the living away from home part.

And there is an additional factor that exists at Illinois and probably at most major state universities, particularly when there is a single large city in the state that dominates its political and cultural life. Many of the students at Illinois are from the suburbs of Chicago and frequently they attend in cohorts that are sufficiently large that the social life they had in high school simply extends and amplifies when they are in college. The good in this is that it mitigates the sense of loneliness and homesickness that many first year students experience. The bad is that it tends to preserve a sense of provincialism and keeps the students in the friendly, safe environment that, unfortunately, does not challenge them sufficiently and does not encourage them to grow in their perspective.

One possible approach is to encourage a sense of discipline via a regimented regime, conjuring up images of Marine Basic Training or the coaching of Bobby Knight. That method might appeal to some of the students. My preferred alternative is to promote a sense of exploration and engagement in the students so that the course work and leisure time share a sense of purpose, perspective, and approach and more deeply so that the students are offered a serious alternative to the hedonism that they surely will encounter, likely in ways that will make it hard to resist. So the core idea is to create the viable alternative, make the students experience it (I trust they will experience some of the hedonism as well), and after the first year let them choose their own path in their leisure activities armed with a sense of the possibilities.

Part of this is to give the students “role models” in the form of other students who seem to be leading interesting and full lives and part of this is to get the students to overcome some personal inertia that they are more likely to encounter at big schools. There are a slew of good opportunities in terms of social/intellectual activities on campus for students to take advantage of. If a student is by nature outgoing, then joining one or several of these activities is no big deal. But for the shyer student, and many are in this category, there is reticence to take the first step, for fear of walking outside the personal comfort zone and possibly being put in a tough spot. The presence of the peer mentor/teachers doesn’t eliminate these risks, but they can make it more likely that the initial steps are taken so that the upside possibilities can be realized.

The structure of what I have in mind would be something like this. The peer mentor/teachers would have to volunteer for this particular assignment. They themselves would be in groups, say of three or four. They’d be chosen for their diversity – boy/girl, humanist/engineer, sophomore/junior/senior, and some other dimensions. They’d be the leaders of a group of freshmen, perhaps ten of these, who would also be selected so their group is diverse. (I definitely would choose them so they don’t come from the same dorm floor.) I don’t quite know how this would be orchestrated but it would be good for the group as a whole to have at least one meal together per week with ample time afterwards for friendly conversation. The rest of the time the meetings might be in smaller groups arranged on an ad hoc basis.

Indeed, to a certain extent too much structure will kill what we’re trying to produce – that social/leisure time can be used in fruitful ways that expand the sense of self. Perhaps some of them go to a concert or to a public debate on campus, perhaps they attend a meeting of a registered student organization, and perhaps they just hang out and talk – meaning of life stuff, the type of stuff we used to think going to college was about. I’d hope there would be a lot of that.

The peer mentor/teachers have to be prepared for this sort of thing so they got ideas for activities or discussions and have some sense on how to get their freshman charges to open up a little, say what’s on their mind. And as was mentioned above, they have to spend a fair amount of time modeling behavior for the freshmen. So we want to encourage situations where the peer mentor/teachers are together having a spirited argument or a friendly discussion, where the freshmen are around to watch and join in. And we’d also want some time where the peer mentor/teacher is in one on one conversation with one of the freshmen.

There is much of this that I don’t know how to accomplish and I’d want to feel my way to a programmatic approach with different experiments on how this might work. What I’m describing above is what I found in my out of class life at Cornell during my junior and senior years (with me in the role of one of the freshmen and a bunch of graduate students I lived with as the peer mentors). A lot of that was serendipity. I didn’t move into the place we all lived (509 Wycoff Road) with any of this in mind. My roommate and I just wanted to get an inexpensive apartment with a fireplace. I ended up spending less time with him than I thought and a lot of time with the people I met there. The lack of planning notwithstanding, I still feel that much of what I got from those folks was of greater value than what I got in the courses I took. And my sense is that now many students get none of that and there’s only so much we can ask from their courses, even if those courses are very well taught.

At the risk of being accused of trying to turn all our students into bookworms and closet intellectuals, we really should try some things in this arena.

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