Student Orientation

May 10, 2016

Student Orientation: “Please sir, some advice?”

A couple weeks before the Fall semester begins, the Admissions people of Paragraph City host an orientation and luncheon for new students. It’s attended by all the student support services – Financial Aid, Career Counseling, the director of our tutorial center, a couple librarians, a Computer Center person or two, Health Center staff, personal counselors – and maybe a third of the new students attend. It’s just enough people to guarantee that none of the new students will remember anyone from the 60 second introductions. By sending an open invitation to the college, usually a half dozen scrounging faculty show up, too.

So this year I was enjoying a plate of pasta salad and a meatball sub, half listening to the introductions and the lack of questions from students, when the dean moderating the event turned to faculty for a few words.

It’s an interesting challenge. The new students are actually listening and being recently fed are in a pretty good place right now. What can we say in about a minute that will have any effect three weeks or three months later when they are making bad decisions about their classes? Some routes we just can’t go down because shelling from the high school wars has made them impassable. For instance:

“Would you just go to class, to all the classes. Woody Allen supposedly said that 90% of success is simply showing up, but I’ll tell you that 100% of those who don’t show up fail.”

For two reasons, this is hard advice to transport. First, they’ve missed plenty of high school classes with no consequences; high schools cancel their own classes for field trips to gum factories or rallies for football teams or tributes to athletes with head injuries or meetings with representatives from colleges they have no intention of attending. And second, the decision to skip class is made with that deeper reptilian brain we can’t reach with a word of advice. The pleasures of the bed or of a good coffee-and-bagel breakfast or shopping with besties trumps class attendance. So does the ache of hangovers and hangnails and other debaucheries.

“College is harder than high school, so plan ahead for that. Remember, you’ll be doing two hours of work outside of class for every how of work in the class.”

That college should be harder than high school is a lot like telling someone who has never seen concrete that it’s harder than goose down. The comparison fails to communicate. Besides, they’ve already been told “you’ll have to work harder that this when you get to college” by high school teachers who they have learned usually don’t mean what they say. But further, college faculty – often the many adjuncts who live or die by the student evaluation forms – have given up on students doing more than cursory homework. The two hours has shrunk to 15 minutes or less, and some faculty are embracing the flipped classroom perverted in this way: I’ll hand out my notes for them to read at home (which of course nobody does) and spend classtime with their books open explaining to them what they have not read. Not only does the flipped student spend no time at homework, the flipped instructor has no prep time. (“Look at the diagram on page twenty. Who can explain to me what that means? Would someone read the caption?”)

“Don’t let your independence go to your head. Without teachers and parents bugging you to do the work, you will need to motivate yourself.”

This is the piece of advice I’d be most likely to give, since I think it’s a hurdle for nearly all community college students.  What makes this advice ineffective, though, is that people have always learned this by experience, not by advice. It’s only in the light of “I told you so” that we start to distinguish our own responsibilities. Until then, we actually think that a) we have been motivating ourselves already and that b) all that whining from parents and teachers about deadlines and duties has been completely unnecessary.

At this point I had planned to suggest what we as faculty could say that would be memorable, insightful, generous, and useful, but I can’t think of what that would be. What I actually said, given 30 seconds of preparation, was this: “The people who you are meeting in this room are your life savers. Use them. Financial Aid won’t chase you down to throw money at you and the college nurse doesn’t follow you about tossing condoms in your path. You have to cross the threshold of their offices.”

I didn’t mention the corollary, which perhaps I should have. It goes like this: ‘That’s also true of your courses. Boring or inconvenient or irrelevant doesn’t make a bit of difference. It’s on you, the student. Your education depends upon you.’  Without that realization, higher education will continue to be defeated by the formula of passive students plus an impoverished work ethic times constant shiny distractions.

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