Thursday, November 12, 2015

The quiet story

I now have two student mentees as part of the program that supports Illinois Promise students.  The older one is currently a junior and in the process of transferring into Economics.  He became my mentee in an unusual way.

Most of the pairings between mentor and mentee happen in the fall semester of the first year. The thought being that getting through the first semester and then the first year at the university is where the big risk is as to whether the student will make it all the way through college.  Help the student get over those early bumps and get acclimated to the place.  Then the rest of the time on campus is not such a struggle and may even become a source of enjoyment.  And while the official relationship between mentor and mentee need only go for that first year, after that they may continue in their conversations and related activities, all the way till the student graduates if that is mutually agreeable.  When the official mentoring goes well the relationship then continuing becomes a real possibility.

Many of the Illinois Promise students do not opt for a mentor.  I can readily imagine why.  If you already feel uncomfortable, why go through the awkwardness of talking with a stranger who expects you to open up and discuss your travails?  Most of us keep our inner doubts bottled up unless we already have a trusted friend to share them with.  The premise of the mentoring program is that this sort of trust can be built along the way.  But surely it is a risk whether it will really happen.  It is a brave thing to take on such a risk ahead of time.  I count myself as someone who is not so brave.

With A., I first met him in the late spring of his sophomore year.  The issue of the moment was to find a suitable internship.  He had an expressed interest in doing import-export work and possibly being located abroad after graduation.  He had done an internship in Shanghai the previous summer via the Illinois Bureau of Commerce.  He wanted to do something similar in that vein this time around, but not a repeat of the same thing.

Then practical reality intervened.  A. had been a Music major.  He didn't yet have the requisite math course to transfer into Economics.  So he ended up taking Calculus at the local community college in the summer instead of doing another internship.  I had informed A. that I was a Math major in college and knew Calculus quite well.  I told him that if he wanted help with it I was happy to provide that.  Tutoring is not mentoring and indeed, much of what I did wasn't even tutoring, since that part happened via email.  He had homework or practice problems given to him by the instructor, some he could do on his own but others he didn't know how to solve.  In some cases I offered up full solutions.  In other cases I talked him through getting at the solution himself.

Implicit in the willingness to tutor is the hope that trust is built by having regular ordinary transactions that go reasonably well.  So there was a need to somehow find a way to have those sort of interactions.  Tutoring was something possible under the circumstance.  I'm doing something similar now with my other mentee, S, who is a first year student, this time focusing on microeconomics rather than math.  But with S. she was wanting the mentoring at the outset and has been more open to it.  We've already had several different sorts of conversations. She clearly welcomes these talks and the variety of our subjects.  And I think that with S. we may do more of the tutoring part online, now via texting rather than email (I use Messages on my iMac), so that the face to face time can be for other things.  We'll see how that plays out.

A. and I met earlier this week, at his request.  He told me he had been accepted by the department, his pride evident by the smile on his face during the telling.  It had been a struggle, one that he had finally overcome.  Ahead of time such a struggle can seem daunting.  Our meeting was largely a celebration of his accomplishment.  After that announcement he told me he was looking forward to taking my class next fall.

When that summer Calculus class had concluded he asked me about taking my course this fall.  If memory serves, at the time my enrollment had maxed out, so he wasn't able to register for it immediately.  Rather than make an exception for him so he could add the class, I told him I thought he wasn't yet ready.  He had not yet taken intermediate microeconomics.  (He is taking that now, this fall semester.)  And he had struggled with the math during the summer, while my class is somewhat demanding math-wise.  So I believe I gave an accurate assessment in suggesting that he wait till next year.  Nonetheless, afterward I regretted offering up what might seem a discouraging message.

I may have disappointed A. for real when I told him I was considering not teaching my class next fall.  I told him it has been a struggle for me this time around.  Attendance has been very low, much lower than in recent past offerings.  A. offered up that in his international trade class, a 400-level class like mine, attendance was around 50%, except during exams.  I told A. that I stopped teaching in the spring semester, because I found the senioritis too great then.  Now it looks like that problem is creeping into the fall.  I hypothesized that before too long second semester juniors will also be plagued by the problem.  This got a chuckle out of A. since he could see the point.

What I did not tell A. is that the attendance issue is only one component of what is now bothering me in my teaching.  Perhaps my greatest lament is that I don't seem to be connecting with the students during class.  Most of the time I can't get a conversation going.  A few students do come to office hours once in a while.  I can connect there.  But in class, I don't seem able to do that.  And there is evidence that the students are not getting it, much at all, where here it means the subject matter of my course. They do a homework in Excel I assign, indeed one that I made from scratch.  When a week later I ask the class about conclusions that were to be derived from that homework, nobody seems able to offer them up.

I want to offer up a tentative explanation for why this is happening.  I call this explanation the Disconnection Conundrum.  (A couple of Google searches revealed that the terms Disconnection Hypothesis and Disconnection Syndrome have already been taken by the neuroscientists.)  The rest of the piece will describe what the Disconnection Conundrum means, why it is plausible to believe it is happening at scale, and then to consider what might be done about it. 

* * * * *

Let me begin with some other evidence to consider.  My students write blog posts on a weekly basis and over the course of the semester two of them have written about having difficulty in their apartments.  Part of the explanation for their problems is that they didn't know their roommates ahead of time and put their trust in the market, to provide a decent match for them.  Here we are not talking about first-year students.  We're talking about sophomores, or juniors, or seniors.

I can't imagine being a student on campus for at least a year and still not knowing somebody else to have as a roommate.  This is a sort of disconnection we don't talk about much at all in considering teaching and learning issues.  If a student is socially disconnected from potential peers, what impact does that have on learning?  In this case one of the students was an international student.  The other student was from in state.  The international student comes to class most of the time.  The in state student always comes.  Indeed he is often in the classroom before I show up.  These students are not blowing off my course.  Yet in spite of their personal commitment, they seem socially disconnected on campus, now or in the recent past.

Six years ago I wrote a post called Teaching Quiet Students, which reflected on experiences I had while teaching a seminar for the Campus Honors Program.  At the time it was a surprise to me that I had so many gifted students who were reticent to speak up in class.  That surprise helped me to reconsider the student perspective.  That the quiet student is now the new normal among an increasingly large subset of the student population is part of the precondition behind the Disconnection Conundrum.

Not all quiet students are socially disconnected.  They may arrive on campus already having good friends from high school who are also attending the university.  Alternatively, via a wide variety of serendipitous interactions, they may make new friends once at college, their quiet nature notwithstanding.  If that is right, the socially disconnected among the quiet students constitute the residual who are not in either of these other two categories.

Mentoring is a potential solution for socially disconnected students, but (a) mentoring doesn't scale particularly well, (b) it is not so clear how one can identify socially disconnected students from the overall population, and (c) that socially disconnected students would not willingly embrace mentoring is something to be anticipated.   What alternative is there then to address the issues?  Let's hold that question for a bit and then return to it. 

The other part of the Disconnection Conundrum is intellectual/academic.  The academic part is simple enough to describe.  Students don't make connections to what they are supposedly learning in their classes with what they already know.  This is the old critique that there is much surface learning but not much deep learning in college, such as offered up by Ken Bain.  Intellectual disconnection extends this idea to include experiences outside the classroom.

My contention is that while social disconnection may not be one and the same thing with intellectual/academic disconnection, they do share certain common elements.  Among the most important of those is that the student becomes accustomed to being disconnected, so auto-correction isn't built into the process.  A further common element is that the student is likely to become disenchanted and frustrated by his or her own situation.  Pessimism then becomes the persistent frame of mind.  This blocks risk taking by the student, so it is not hard to envision disconnection as the consequence of a vicious cycle.  If that is right, the issue then is how to break the cycle rather than merely treat the symptoms.

* * * * *

In considering how to measure the pervasiveness of the Disconnection Conundrum, it occurred to me that the first step might be to inquire about it among caring instructors, rather than by directly trying to observe it among the students.  I say this based on a meeting of CHP instructors I attended in spring 2010, after I had written that post about Teaching Quiet Students.  At that session I heard my observations echoed by several other instructors; one teaching history I seem to recall saying that this was his toughest time teaching a CHP class because so many of the students were quiet. I do not know what other sort of congregations of the faculty would produce such a discussion, but it seems to me that is the sort of place to look for some corroborating evidence.

Let us assume that this sort of looking produced evidence that did support the ideas behind the Disconnection Conundrum.  What would next steps be after that?  It seems evident to me that whatever is done needs to happen in the first year of college.  In other words, it is preferable to break the cycle before it has a chance to harden, a variant of the ounce of prevention being worth a pound of cure idiom.

One way to do this would be to make first year seminars taught by faculty a commonplace.  Others have argued for this but for different purposes.  (For example, consider my post Re-reading the Boyer Commission Report.)  If the seminar were offered in the fall, then the instructor might invite some candidate students into a non-credit discussion group in the spring.  If the students bonded some with the instructor during that seminar they might then be receptive to participating in the discussion group.  There the students would be directly encouraged to make intellectual connections and might be indirectly encouraged to make social connections with one another.  At a minimum, the experience should show the participating students that the institution cares about them.  Now I fear that many disconnected students come to the opposite conclusion.

An intriguing additional possibility suggests itself should the above produce promising results.  Students who have benefited from the first year seminars and subsequent discussion groups and who have transformed from disconnected to connected, may be in a position to help other students do likewise.  Even if they remain as quiet students, they will have the perspective of understanding the value of connection and may be able to communicate that in a more credible way to other students than the faculty can.  I know it isn't right to count your chickens before they hatch, but this possibility seems evident to me.

Let me close with one other point.  The mentoring program for Illinois Promise students is premised on the idea that low income students have certain disadvantages in attending college so need something to offset that.  That premise makes sense to me.  Yet it might inadvertently lead to the conclusion that all other students are well situated for success in college.  That would be wrong.  Disconnection can block success and perhaps leave a permanent scar on the student.  We should find ways to remedy the problem, if we can.

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