Monday, February 20, 2012


The Wake-Up Call

We have family friends whose older son started college this Fall.  Apparently, when he got his Fall grades last month, he had his head handed to him.  Having reeled from the shock for a while, now he’s studying much more aggressively than he ever has before.

The same thing happened to me in my first semester of college.  Having learned certain expectations in high school, the first semester at Snooty Liberal Arts College came as a rude shock.  Part of it was poor course selection, but part of it was simply not appreciating the level of effort that I had to muster.  

In my case -- and, I’m fairly confident, in the case of our family friend -- that first semester functioned as a wake-up call.  I raised my game after that, and the results followed.  

But for many students, a rough first semester doesn’t result in redoubled effort.  It results in a fatalistic shrug, and either an immediate departure or a de facto one.  

I’m not entirely sure what makes the difference.  

The literature on resilience suggests that expectations have much to do with it, and that makes intuitive sense.  I remember being sort of offended that other guys in my dorm -- most of whom were no smarter than I was, as far as I could see -- did just fine, and I didn’t.  It struck me as ridiculous.  If Lumpy could do well, I could.  I mean, jeez.  These guys weren’t mysterious beings with inscrutable superhuman powers.  They were relatively well-spoken jocks who liked to pour vodka on the linoleum and light it on fire. (True.)  If they could succeed, I thought, I’ll be damned if I can’t.

By that reasoning, a student who is the first in his family to go to college, who commutes from home and doesn’t hang around with strong students, and who has picked up some shaky academic habits in high school might well react differently to a rough first semester.  He might be more vulnerable to the impression that people who know how to do this are fundamentally different from him.  He might take that first negative report card as confirmation of his self-doubts, rather than as some sort of insult requiring an answer.  

To the extent that’s true, then there’s probably a direct academic consequence to the increased segregation by income that characterizes both our towns and our colleges.  If the first-in-his-family student had family friends with college degrees, and was exposed to other successful students outside the classroom, he might be quicker to decide that success is attainable.  After all, if his none-too-impressive classmates could do it...

But never having that exposure means never having that reality check.  

One of the unadvertised benefits of attending SLAC was seeing the sons and daughters of the elite up close.  Other than a sort of blithe weightlessness, they really weren’t that different from the rest of us.  Nothing demystifies like a shared bathroom.

To the extent that neighborhoods were once more mixed economically than they are now, it was once possible to get at least some cross-class exposure in the course of daily life.  That’s mostly not true anymore, which leads to a sort of narrowing of one’s sense of the world.  If the elite only ever see other elites, they can lose touch with reality pretty fast.  And if the working poor only ever see other working poor, a certain fatalism can come to seem like clearsightedness.

Colleges can be wonderful places for that kind of cross-class interaction, though it’s obviously harder when students live at home and commute.  

Our family friend has parents who went to college, and who are cracking the whip on him now.  (“Improve your grades or start paying rent.”)  I hope that’s enough to get him back on track.  But for the kids who don’t have that at home, I wonder.

Were you thinking of this article in IHE, about external factors that play a role in the success of black men in college?
I'm mystified as to why this post simply ignores the role of college academic support programs for students.
"By that reasoning, a student who is the first in his family to go to college...might be more vulnerable to the impression that people who know how to do this are fundamentally different from him. He might take that first negative report card as confirmation of his self-doubts, rather than as some sort of insult requiring an answer."

I teach at a large regional state school whose intake includes a wide variety of prior experiences and economic/education class backgrounds. You are right.

And, further to a previous commenter: yes, college academic support programs have a role, but I'd agree with DD's implicit point: that such programs do not necessarily speak to those students who may suffer from the above presumptions of personal unpreparedness. Students are VERY prone to judge themselves against their peers, and students w/out much prior experience of peers' success in college are VERY prone to jump to the erroneous conclusion "these people are smarter than me and I can't do it."

In fact, we structure a lot of our freshman/sophomore presentational & testing methods with precisely this undergraduate propensity in mind, so that students hear, see, & experience examples of success that they feel capable of emulating.

DD is right.
Ad DD pointed out, lower-income kids and upper-income kids increasingly go to different kinds of high schools. I would argue that in the past, all high schools were capable of preparing at least some of their graduates for college. Now, the ones that serve mainly lower-income kids are driven by the expectation that they will graduate everyone; in order to do that, they have ramped down the challenge level of pretty much every class. There is frequently almost no homework, very little writing, way too many chances to do extra-credit work to atone for poor test grades, etc. Kids from these high schools have been given a watered-down version of a high school curriculum, one that makes college expectations feel like a huge mountain rather than a bump in the road. In my experience this is even true in small-town high schools where all economic levels attend the same one: the graduation rate trumps preparation for college.
I'd actually like to comment on a comment. Richard mentions that DD's post ignores the role of academic support programs. I think that this is not a post about using that resource. These students aren't aware that 1) they may succeed with more effort and 2) that the support program may help. They are also unaware that the students that are succeeding are not necessarily "more capable" or "smarter". But you can't learn that from someone in academic support telling you. It is something that is learned from being around the "more capable" and "smarter" people long enough to see that they, well, aren't.

I think this experience is definitely missing for many of my less privileged students. A lot of them seem to feel less worthy from the start. Further, because they are battling themselves, in addition to family and friends who do not think college is useful, the set-backs are harder to overcome.

I just don't see how academic support programs can address a lack of life experience that has very little to do with academics.
I had a student years ago who flunked the first test in my second-semester class. It turned out to be the best thing she could have done. I encouraged her not to drop the class, and she worked like a demon, amazing herself with an A on the next test. She had been a solid B student the previous semester, and after she got that A, she kept at it and ended up with an A in the class. I often tell this story to students who are discouraged about poor performance. Often they just need encouragement from whoever they can find it.
I teach a developmental class. I help my students immensely. I have had students in the past who just lacked passing one or two tests during the last three weeks of the semester to pass my class. I have set up study times with them. (Our cc has excellent labs and tutors, but the said students hadn't been to any, so I tutor them personally). And they don't come at our scheduled times nor do they text me to tell me they aren't coming and when I contact them, they have an excuse like their g-mom was in the hospital and don't come to the second time. I'm female, married, above 50, tutoring is at school in the library-- no problem with appropriateness.

I was the first in my family to get a degree. When I was in my student teaching, I had a supervising teacher who wanted me to take her class when she went on extended leave. Even bought me some clothes which she left at the store for me to pick up. All I had to do was fill out an application to be a substitute teacher and pick up the clothes. I didn't do either. Why?

My Army husband was stationed in another state and I would be joining him in 4 months, and I was afraid that I wouldn't be able to be successful teaching a class without her there. And that would mess up my job history, so I didn't try. Just bided time with a waitress job (which I had worked at while attending college) until I left.

I did eventually begin teaching, but I was still too insecure to do it for that teacher.

All I can think is that I felt I had no support system in the high school and didn't want to fail in my first job.

Perhaps the first-in-family-students don't think they can maintain their success.

Or they go to family get-togethers and get kidded with being "too smart" for relatives. All said in pride (with a little awkwardness because the relatives are uncomfortable with the student - I mean if the student is successful in college, why didn't they go to college?).

Lots of family dynamics going on there. I don't think the problem is as simple as high school curriculum or cc support.
This is actually one of the hardest parts about teaching freshman and sophomores in the (progressive, wrap-around) general ed program at my urban, enormous state U. Everyone comes in with such disparate study skills and base knowledge and it is difficult to structure a course to account for it all.

I remember the first day of my Chem class during my first term at Flagship U. In an enormous lecture hall, the prof put up a chart about class time, study time and work/leisure time in college. The point was that taking his class (assuming you were also enrolled full time in other courses) was a full time job. If you thought you could spend only 5 in-class hours on Chem/lab, you were out of your mind. Every 5 hours in class required 10 out, etc.

I've often wondered if I should do something similar, but always come back to this diversity of expectations and preparation. I'm now in a social science; reading comprehension and writing skills vary a great deal in my class. What is the appropriate amount of time student should be budgeting? For some, it will be super quick and easy; others need to be spending significant time. And who am I to tell them to prioritize my class over their young toddlers or full-time job?

Instead, I try to spot those who are challenged with expectations early on and give them a bit more support (myself and through on-campus centers). Still, I hand out several 'wake-up calls' per term; too often they it is going to first generation college students and/or minorities.
I feel very strongly about this issue, because I was the first person in my family to go to college, and I *still* encounter little moments of, shall we say, difference because of that, 10 years into my career and after being a Dept Chair!

My family were really, really keen for me to go to college, and were really proud that I went. There was none of that awkwardness around my *success* that a previous poster mentioned, they were just delighted. But they hadn't been themselves, and really didn't know what it involved, in all sorts of little ways. I was very focused on getting to college (this was in the UK, but it was a college equivalent to your Flagship U), and didn't worry at all about any of this, until I got there. That was the first time I met significant numbers of people whose parents - and often grandparents! - had been to college, and who had arrived with a fund of inherited knowledge of what being in college meant. It turned out to matter quite a lot, I discovered.

My own university prides itself on the number of first-in-family students it has (even though it too is a bit of a Flagship U, but it has a lot of access programmes and so on), and rightly so. But even though most faculty are really committed to that kind of goal, very few of *them* were first-in-family students themselves, and I sometimes find myself really identifying with a bewildered first-year student whose parents weren't in a position to bring them up with tales of 'when I was in college'.
Then there are the face readers, the kids who are so quick that they start and answer, look at the teacher and figure out whether to go forward or back.

When they hit the wall of having to actually study it ain't pretty.
I'm coming to this late, but yes, family support is huge, and student support services are huge. But I just want to throw this into the mix. As a first-generation college student myself, one of the most important things to me was faculty members who supported me. And when I talk to my students (most of whom are first generation students), what matters to them a lot are faculty - faculty who know their names, faculty who expect them to exceed the bare minimum, faculty who pay attention to them, as people. It's a lot harder for faculty to fill that role when they aren't full-time, or when they don't have the resources that they need to do that particular work. (In other words, even in talking about tenure-track faculty, you can't count on them having support for that kind of work, because that kind of work doesn't necessarily figure into tenure decisions, and then, once those faculty get tenure, they are so burdened by "service," in an adjunctified higher education, that they can't focus the attention that they should on their students.)

This is anecdata, but for me, as a student, the support of my professors mattered infinitely more than what the students (at a big state school) around me were doing, and it even mattered more than my family, who, honestly, would have thought I was fabulous no matter what I chose to do. I learned ambition not from my peers or from my family. I learned ambition, and was inspired to it, from faculty who singled me out and told me that there was another life possible for me than to just get a piece of paper and to get a job. My issue wasn't that I needed to associate with the children of the elite (though I did, in my Ph.D. program) in order to understand what was possible. I needed someone to tell me what they thought that I was capable of doing. I'm not sure that any academic support services, or any peers in my classes, could have convinced me of that. I needed faculty to take an interest in me. And this is the story that I hear from many of my first generation students. Faculty are - or should be - part of students' intellectual lives and growth. The thing that I noticed about this post most was that it didn't seem to account for how important faculty can be in the process of teaching students through their failures. Instead, faculty are set up as those who give the "smack down" and then other people have to come in and intervene. Yes, family is important; support services are important. Peers are also important.

But as somebody who had a C+ average at the end of her first year of college, I can say that faculty mattered more to my recovery than any peers, than any support services, than my family.

While I'm only reporting on my own experience, I also know that this has been the case for many students I have taught. Let's not neglect to note how important faculty mentorship and support is - and let's not neglect to note the fact that this appears in shorter and shorter supply because of the economics of higher education, particularly in state systems (community college or otherwise, it doesn't matter).
Dr. C.! Good to have you back!

Yes, this piece was written from anecdata. In my own case, good faculty relationships came later; in the first semester, they simply did not exist. The same appears to be true of the family friend.

It's also not clear to me -- though I could be wrong on this -- that the 'faculty mentor' variable would vary so much by economic class. It may at the institutional level, though based on what I saw at SLAC, the idea that having all full-time faculty somehow guarantees good relationships simply wasn't true.
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