Tuesday, September 13, 2016


That Pesky Self-Awareness Thing

Although the title of the blog refers to confessions, there isn’t a lot of confession in it.  But here’s one: many of my best ideas in life have come from other people.  I don’t mean that as plagiarizing or stealing; I just mean that sometimes other people point stuff out that’s obvious from the outside, but hard to see about myself.  It’s that pesky self-awareness thing, which is both scarce and unevenly distributed.

I don’t think that’s unusual.  Most of us, I think, can see things clearly in other people that we can’t necessarily see clearly in ourselves.  The social psychologists probably have a term for that, but we’ve all lived it.  I see it in old photos of myself.  If they’re old enough, it’s like looking at another person.  I’ll wonder what the hell I was thinking with that haircut, before remembering exactly what I was thinking.  And haircuts are the least of it.

This week I had a good conversation with a colleague on campus that eventually turned to that pesky self-awareness thing, and how to work around it.  I’m wondering if anyone has tried this.

She teaches a “how to be a successful college student” course (HUDV 107, for those keeping score at home).  Part of the course involves having students try to identify career fields they find appealing, so they can work with academic advisors to select programs that might help them get there.  The idea -- to which I subscribe heartily -- is that students are likelier to succeed when they care about what they’re studying, and when they see a point to it.  Some students know from before they even get to campus what they want to do; they’re usually the easiest to advise.  A student who shows up confidently declaring that he wants to go into law enforcement should probably consider the criminal justice program, for example.  

The problem is that many students -- and not necessarily just the 18 year olds -- don’t know what they want to do.  They’re here because they want a good job, and they know that a degree will help, but they might not be much more specific than “a good job.”  They may not have been exposed to many, and their sense of what’s out there is often truncated.  (In their defense, the job market is changing rapidly; when I was their age, there was no such thing as a social media manager.)  Yet we expect them to be able to identify their own interests at the drop of a hat.

My colleague talked about “vision boards,” in which students construct collages of images that spark an interest.  The idea is to get students thinking, and to make patterns visible.  It’s a useful exercise, and some people really respond to it.  

I wondered if a useful next step might be to work around that pesky self-awareness thing by having other students talk about the patterns they see in each other’s vision boards.  Instead of asking for self-awareness, which is a tall order on a good day, just ask them to describe what they see in others.  

When I worked as a stockboy at a local grocery store in high school, the other stockboys nicknamed me “professor” within my first week.  They saw something.  I’m wondering if something similar might work here.

Has anyone out there tried this?  If so, any hard-learned tips you could offer to improve the chances of a good outcome?  The goal isn’t to humiliate or embarrass anyone.  It’s to help them figure out what they might want to be, even if they don’t know it yet.

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