Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mixed expectations

We've had some exposure to pretty highbrow theories of effective change in the course. For a change of pace I thought I'd lead with something quite different, a quick tour of Murphy's Law and corollaries. Outside the setting of our course, my favorites are Paul's Law - you can't fall off the floor - particularly apt for new parents, Persig's Postulate - The number of rational hypotheses that can explain any given phenomenon is infinite - we actually teach something like this in microeconomics, and Young's Law - All great discoveries are made by mistake - which perhaps the eccentric needs occasionally to justify his departure from the beaten path. Even if Murphy's Law is meant as goofball satire, these are worth pondering for real.

Returning to our course theme the idea we know as Murphy's Law, if anything can go wrong it will, serves as an interesting model for design, because it leads to a "weakest link" approach to analyzing potential solutions. In engineering solutions that have a chance to be better, to borrow a term we've almost certainly overused in the course already and will likely continue to do so in the weeks ahead, the weakest link approach offers us a way to focus our thinking. I note that there actually is a weakest link approach to design, with a key example the fuses or circuit breakers in buildings made deliberately to protect the rest of the electric system, and that at least in some approaches to engineering there is an explicit idea to put in sufficient funding to shore up the weakest link.

People really don't have much problem thinking about weakest links when it comes to physical systems, but when we are talking about human interaction, then sometimes folks get idealistic, sentimental, or too enamored with success had with small numbers and then focus their attention on the potential upside when things go right instead of concentrating on what likely will go wrong. You get quite different designs with the first attitude than with the second. Then when the idealists confront the realists there is a mismatch and a tendency for the views to remain dissonant rather than converge.

I had the feeling I was witnessing failure of the weakest link as students in the class described their experiences with peer mentoring, advising, etc. in our session on Monday. It wasn't all doom and gloom but surely that was the norm. The Senior Sibling program within CHP didn't score well with the class, with many class members having played both roles at some point in their time here, but frequently where the connection between the more experienced student and incoming student was weak, even nonexistent in at least one case. I also recall some discussion of "leaving the nest," as if mentoring is a crutch and the able and aware student can maneuver without it.

It was likewise for official advising about courses, where the academic advisors were depicted as ill prepared and not particularly knowledgeable and where students could "look it up" on Web pages, almost surely a more efficient way to get the information. On this one the class got an early warning from a reflection written by one of our students that dealt with the advising system in LAS, again a system with a degree of dysfunction, where the project the student was engaged with aimed at reform.

Some students did talk about very positive mentoring relationships with faculty, folks from the Career Center, and at least one story of such mentoring from within CHP leadership. These things do happen, but they seem to occur by unplanned means, which enable the mentor and mentee both to come at the relationship willingly, an ongoing conversation of mutual interest and benefit.

I thought about this a bit and compared it to our course, not the course goals but rather the functioning of the course itself. We as a class are more relaxed and confident with each other now than we were at the start, where I didn't know you and vice versa and none of us knew what to expect about our processes and what we might gain from them. So we flailed around for a while in an attempt to find a good process and we got to know each other while flailing. Aspirations were articulated in the process. That experience created a bond common to all members of the class. I can't imagine having any trust with others without forming a bond first.

Many of you seem to frown on "forced" pairings of people and feel that goes for naught. There is, however, a forced element in being part of this class. Apart from dropping, there really isn't an option to be in the class but not participate. So you were part of the flailing because you were enrolled and did it even if you didn't like it. The sense of coercion is short lived as the forming of the bond doesn't take forever. Your sense of perspective changes while the bond is formed and it continues to change afterwards too. When you are relaxed you can be more open about your interests and concerns.

I believe that just about every student, here I'm referring not just to our class but to the entire campus, is deeply interested in the existential questions, which for the sake of brevity I'll pose in this simple sentence.

What should you do to be you?

And it is not just students who are drawn to answer that question. I know that since reading this post about the Japanese Retirement System, where people retire at age 60 not to leave the workforce, but to do different work that is more appropriate for where the person is in the life cycle, I've been thinking about what I'll do with the rest of my work life. But some of the related questions are different or more important for students, where the existential questions are wrapped around questions of personal identity.

What are you for? Why are you for it?

Some of the reflections and other writing from students in the class have snippets on these questions. The snippets are there integrated with course themes. So we are getting some of this discussion in class, even though the class itself is not mentoring and the class is not primarily about addressing the existential questions.

The flailing I mentioned was accompanied by a certain intensity and commitment. A lot has been written online in this course. A certain tone was adopted. A point was made to do this in a way that you know that your classmates know that I know, etc. (The reflection this week asks that you write about this in more depth.) The intensity mattered for making the bond. It continues to matter for the ongoing conversation once the bond has formed. I don't understand wanting to leave the nest once such a bonding experience has happened and open discussion about existential question is possible. Leaving the nest is perfectly understandable in the absence of that.

Returning to the weak link, expecting a strong relationship to develop in the absence of a way for a bond to form seems like delusion to me. In the case of the Senior Sibling program, perhaps the aspirations are modest - CHP has limited resources and the need exists only till the young student gets acclimated. In the case of advising, I believe the issue is more problematic. If it is an important function that the institution is short changing, then that would seem to contribute to the Disengagement Pact that we are trying to remedy. If it is not an important function but it's on the books as necessary, that's got it's own issues. And then, with whom does the student have discussions about the existential questions?

So there are two weak links we should consider in anything we design. The first is the bonding experience. How can that be made an integral part of the program? The other comes from noting that intensity of commitment takes time. If time is spent on the program we design, what else stops that the student would have been doing otherwise? Programs that add on to everything else have a built in weak link. We need to talk about subtraction as well as about addition. That may not be fun, but it is necessary.

Before we get there almost surely members of the class will ask, why are we bothering with this? It will be very hard to make anything work and where is the payoff for the mentees even if it does work? My sense is that with regard to the existential questions many students on campus are like stroke patients - the ideas are in their heads but they can't get the words out of their mouths. They desperately want to speak but are unable to do so. That's what our program aims to enable.


  1. The discussion really made me think of the importance of the people that I know see as mentors. They are all people that I have actively sought out throughout my college years. I realized the importance of having more than one and having them being from different areas of my college development. I think this has really helped me because when I have one to be overwhelming and I just need a different kind of encouragement. It has really helped me to ask the right questions and guided me to the answer the questions, "what should you do to be you." While I believe that the school should do as much as possible to provide resources and guidance, it really should be up to the students to form these relationships apart from the academic advisor.

  2. I completely agree. In all honesty, with the CHP senior siblings, I am pretty sure that if I made more of an effort to get together with my senior outside of just the freshman picnic, she would have gladly appeased. I would have gotten more out of that relationship, but it would have taken a bigger time commitment on my part. And in the case of that particular program, I guess many of us decide that we need mentors in other areas more.

  3. Professor Arvan, you do bring up a good point about the overall tone of the class. It is easier to comment negatively or to bring up negative examples rather than positive ones. Perhaps it's because we have this attitude in this class that we want to change something...often times that might translate as change something bad to something good. Perhaps we should think about how we can IMPROVE something rather than change b/c of a problem. Like Ms. Winter said last week in correcting my word usage, she only sees opportunities to improve, not problems to fix.

    Now about mentor programs again. I think today's interview with Ms. Morley was really helpful for our project. In Monday's class, I had commented that one thing I feel helps with a mentor program like the one we want to do is direction. While people shouldn't be dictated on what steps to take in a program like this, there still needs to be some direction. The Writer's Workshop is a good example of this. It too uses a form of mentoring relationships though it focuses on a very specific part of a student's life. But that focus is part of the reason for why it is such a good resource on this campus. Students know what to expect when they go. The people who apply to be a writing consultant also know what to expect.

    I was surprised to know that all consultants (was it before or after they are accepted? that was one point I was a little confused on during the interview) have to take a class for credit and do so much preparation/training beforehand. It is no wonder that the people who act as the "writing mentors" are good at what they do. They were trained well and they are held accountable. They have to be since they are compensated for their work.

    The training that is done in this program mirrors what Gretchen Winter told us last week. Business 101 is also implementing a leadership training course where students who are section leaders in 101 will have to take that course and come out with lesson plans ready to be used. This idea of having a formal training program beforehand or during seems to be a trend that makes these mentor relationships better.

  4. On the euphemism front, it is now politically correct to use the word "challenge" where before you would use the word "problem." Fundamentally, I'm an economist and some of this labeling mumbo jumbo shouldn't matter to homo economicus. But the psychology folks say we econ types have no clue. So, who knows?

    One issue we will have to consider is whether the aim is for a campus sanctioned program like the Writer's Workshop or alternatively to do something separate.

    Some history that you didn't hear from Libbie - I believe the Advanced Composition requirement (formerly Comp II) was a consequence of the accreditation visit from 1989. (We are going through re-accreditation now. What new programs will that bring?) And with that the Center for Writing Studies was formed as the scholarly basis to support the effort. There was quite a vigorous program to train faculty to teaching in the "Writing Across the Curriculum" approach and then to likewise train graduate students. Over time the funding for CWS and the faculty to teach Advance Comp eroded. I am not sure how tied the Writer's Workshop funding is to Advance Comp, but I suspect back in 1990 it got a boost for this reason.

    Sometime in the not too distant future, we should talk about this sort of issue. Especially in the current environment where funding is highly uncertain, the right path for programs likes this is far from clear.