Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Jargon and Terminology

I haven't done a jigsaw puzzle in quite a while, but my recollection is in doing some of those without knowing what it is supposed to look like when it's finished. You begin assembly by finding edge pieces with a certain color and shape and see if you can fit together the borders. Then you work your way inward. After a while but well before the thing is finished, you begin to get an idea of what it will look like when its done. That idea of the whole is different in kind from the idea of fitting the pieces together.

I don't know where we are in the course vis-a-vis the above metaphor, but I have a feeling that some of the terminology is blocking us from seeing the whole picture. In today's interview with the deans, we used the expression "Disengagement Pact" to refer to a set of issues. That evoked a certain response. We might have used some other language, perhaps "surface learning" versus deep learning," or we might have talked about maturity and commitment of students toward their studies. Would that have altered the discussion? I don't know; perhaps it would. Would we have been talking about the same big picture? I think so.

With all of this, the general goal is to try to get a handle on what problem it is that we are solving, or what set of issues we are trying to address. One that we didn't talk about today but that is definitely a big part is the idea (think of it from the perspective of the mentor) is that general education shouldn't stop once the gen ed requirements are completed. So the question comes up how to do that. More coursework is almost certainly not the answer. Something else is needed. What that something else should be remains a mystery.

As the big picture of what the issues are starts to fill in, invariably thoughts will turn to potential solutions and what to make of those. Jargon matters here as well. I encouraged use of the expression peer mentor, but I've heard others outside our course talk about peer tutors or undergraduate TAs or in the case of Business 101, section leaders. Are those all referring to more or less the same thing or does each pertain to something different? If there are distinctions, just what are those?

Before getting to that let me make an aside that I think relevant. As I've mentioned previously, I've had something of an epiphany with this class in contrasting it to my prior teaching of economics. Since the subject matter in our course is of my own creation and not externally prescribed, I've had much more of a chance to look at each of you as learners and get a sense of your strengths as well as what you need to work on. The main pathway for that has been the weekly reflections, but also the in class discussion, and in a few cases other writing. On the one hand, you're all the same, CHP students, as we learned today not a random cross section of the broader student body. But if you drill down (by now you know that is one my favorite bits of jargon) then there are remarkable differences between you and what you need to work on, particularly in the writing, which is quite idiosyncratic. By trying to meet you where you are (I may not be doing that well, but I am trying) rather than to force you to where I think you should be, there is a different sort of coaching going on in this class than I've experienced in my other teaching.

So a big issue is whether the subject as codified in the syllabus dictates the agenda or if the students and where he or she is with the learning dictates the agenda. If there is a struggle in each case, then I'd associate tutoring with the former and mentoring with the latter. Mentoring could still be driven by the subject matter. For example, in today's session Dean DeBrock talked about having students discuss New York Times articles that are relevant to the economics being studied. The mentoring could be all about that sort of thing, making the connection between the in class topics and the out of class news. Students might not otherwise make those connections on their own. And doing that might unearth the deeper structure in the economics that many students don't get.

Another aspect of the terminology is describing the setting where the interaction takes place. There was mention today of discussion sections. In my day we called them recitation sections (I still do). Often as not, they are smaller version of lecture except, at least in economics, the TA works problems rather than teaches new theory. Students can ask questions in the process sure, but the mode of discourse is really not discussion. Our seminar is discussion, much of the time. Our seminar is unlike TA sessions I've been part of. Those sessions are much more like lecture.

Still another part is what makes it happen, both the motivation and the logistics. Does the mentee seek out the mentor out of a desire for the relationship? Or is there some form of coercion involved? And when does it happen? At a time scheduled and sanctioned by the Campus or at a time that is mutually convenient for the parties? Likewise, it matters whether the interaction is in small groups or one-on-one. The language might suggest one answer over the other. Don't let that make you rule out ahead of time a possible alternative that is otherwise promising.

* * * * *

I thought it ironic that Dean DeBrock made that comment about using first names with students and that he used mine repeatedly during the session. On the other hand, his suit and tie are part of the required "uniform" for the job. I flip those, with "Business Casual" my preferred model for the style of dress at work, but retaining the label Professor when talking with students. Sometimes, its just what you are comfortable with, rather than choosing to do things based on an appeal to some rule.

Larry and I use nicknames rather than first names when sending emails or talking with each other one-on-one. It is weird, I don't have a better word for it, to have a strong friendship that is long standing and that precedes the business relationship, to have the latter seem more appropriate than the former for determining the right tone in certain settings.


  1. I agree with your distinction between tutoring and mentoring. I had not thought about it in that way before, but I would agree that mentoring is meeting the student where he or she is at. I think the question you pose after that paragraph about whether the mentee seeks out the mentor is a valid one. It is something I've been thinking about whenever we have discussed how this peer mentoring project will be working out. Should all students who we are targeting be forced to participate in this program? Or is it just a resource, something that students can choose to use or not? I think the latter is already illustrated through various avenues on campus: tutoring, Writer's Workshop, career workshops, leadership programs, etc.

    To some extent, coercion isn't a bad idea. Being forced to do something may give you an experience that you might not otherwise have stumbled upon without the coercion. For example, some classes that I am required to take have allowed me to learn about things I would never have known about if I had not taken the class. If I wasn't required to take the class, I might not have chosen that class. Then I would not have gained that knowledge.

    I guess in the end though, the individual responsibility plays a huge role. The individual also has to make the effort to learn. My attitude was open even in the classes I took b/c they were required. I try to treat every class as an avenue to learn even if it doesn't seem obvious at first.

    Just some thoughts..

  2. We haven't gotten to Senge yet, but we can foreshadow what he has to say here. The really powerful incentives involve feedback loops. There can be self-reinforcing positive loops that lead to progress and growth. There can also be downward spirals that lead to ruin.

    Putting it a different way, I believe that a lot of our behavior is determined by a "when in Rome..." approach. What does the general climate and culture suggest? If responsibility is the norm than being responsible is not so hard. If something else is the norm. Then being responsible requires a lot of courage.

    We all admire courage because it is rare. So the question is whether we can design an approach where individual courage is less the prime determinant.

    Then, further, might we start to see lots of small acts of courage if personal responsibility becomes the norm? That's the loop we'd like to create.