Sunday, November 05, 2017

The View from the Back Row

This weekend Brookdale had its Fall Open House.  Last year we changed the format from a trade-show setting in the arena to a full-campus spread, with faculty in their natural habitats, holding information sessions on their majors.  As with last year, I attended but didn’t speak; instead, I moved with the crowd, observing presentations from the back row.

It’s worth trying.  The view is different from there.

To make the effect work, I had to ditch the suit.  Instead, I decided to try to pass as “middle-aged suburban dad.”  Not to brag, but I totally nailed it.  I had hoped to recruit The Boy to come with me as a sort of mystery shopper, but he had a scheduling conflict with a volunteer shift.  Next time.

None of the employees were fooled, obviously.  I just wanted to get a sense of what the parents and prospective students experience.

I was struck by how unguarded many of the parent/student interactions were. I have my own theories of parenting; apparently, they are not universally accepted.  I didn’t see anything I’d consider abusive, but there were a few insults from parent to student that I found bracing, especially in earshot of strangers.  They were usually along the lines of “yes, you need to go to college, you dumb @$##@.”  Happily, those were the exceptions, but still.  

Folks who work at community colleges are well aware that some families use them as a sort of punishment, or, at best, a kind of purgatory.  (“Go there for a year, and if you get decent grades, we’ll send you to a real college.”) Human psychology being what it is, that isn’t a great motivator for learning.  A student who resents having to be there at all will be much less likely to stick around and finish. Yes, sometimes it happens, but the deck is stacked.  

I’m thinking it might be helpful, at some point, to recruit someone from the nearby flagship university to talk about what a 100-level class there looks like, and to compare it to a 100-level class here.  When I was a TA at Rutgers, the Intro to Politics class had 300 students.  Actual interaction occurred in “recitation” sections, run by graduate students with minimal training.  (The sum total of my training before I started: “You’ll be fine.”  Uh, thanks…)  Here, intro classes rarely hit 30 students, and they’re taught by actual faculty.  Those of us in the industry know that, but to the world at large, that’s a well-kept (or often ignored) secret.  It’s worth broadcasting.

The better moments came when I poked my head into some of the info sessions, especially in areas with distinct facilities.  There’s nothing quite like having an enthusiastic professor in a well-equipped facility holding court on the subject she loves.  The enthusiasm is contagious.  Judging by facial expressions among some of the parents and students in those rooms, everyone there considered their time well-spent.  

The real challenge with these is remembering what the experience looks like if you aren’t in the industry.  Does an opening plenary seem useful and appropriate, or self-serving?  (In this case, I’d argue the former.)  What should go where?  What do folks need to know, but wouldn’t think to ask?  And what should we do if it rains?

Since I’m always looking for ways to improve things, and have no shame at all about drawing on the collective wisdom and of my wise and worldly readers, I’ll throw this one open.  What do folks need to know, but might not think to ask?  Alternately, for those who’ve been to Open Houses, was there anything they did that struck you as uncommonly useful or smart?