Thursday, September 24, 2009

Advisor, mentor, coach, what?

As much change as there has been in faculty roles in the classroom (exemplified (somewhat poorly, I think) by the shift from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side") there have been even greater changes in the roles faculty play outside of the classroom.

As an undergraduate I only went to office hours when I had a course content question. (I still remember the anxiety I felt sitting outside Neil York's office waiting to ask a question about the Compromise of 1850.) When I began teaching I had the same expectations--that students would come to talk about the course.

Over time my expectations, and those of my institutions, have changed. At BYU I became something of an advisor, helping students select courses for the next semester. Now, I and all other Westminster faculty teaching in learning communities are expected to mentor new freshmen. We talk a bit about classes, but our greater interest is in seeing how students are doing--Are they going to classes? Getting on OK with roommates?--and in helping to shape their approach to learning--How do they study? How much? Any difficulties? (BTW, this sort of practice is spreading in higher ed. both because it seems to help with retention and because the NSSE survey asks students how often they talk with faculty outside of the class about non-academic topics.)

Other faculty here are working on developing a coaching role with students in our project-based, competency driven business programs. There, students complete complex projects, with faculty coaching them on how to better do their work.

This week I've been wondering whether these roles are adequate. Here is why.

In my freshman seminar I asked students to write essays about their strengths and weaknesses, and how they expected to grow over the semester. To give shape to the essays, students wrote about the college's learning goals. (i.e. "I feel like I am quite strong at "critial thinking" but need to become better at "leadership, teamwork, and collaboration.") Their essays were good--well-written, complete, and serious about the learning goals and their own growth. Only one of the essays had any real vigor to it though, and in that one the student rejected the whole idea of the value of our particular learning goals.

The formality of these essays matches the formality of my first mentoring conversations with students. When they come by my office for a mentoring talk it is almost as if they are reporting on their behavior. Not a bad thing, to be sure. And something likely to lead over time to deeper relationships. But awkward nonetheless, for both parties.

(This year all of our entering freshmen have mentors. If they aren't in learning communities, then their mentors are administrators. The whole senior administrative team is participating. This is a great step forward--every student has someone looking out for them. But many of the administrative mentors find the relationship even more awkward because they don't even have their mentees in a class.)

The same day I graded the essays I got perhaps ten text messages from my daughter who is also a new freshman at a college in California. Those texts and our phone calls were much rawer. She feels isolated socially. And she doesn't feel like anyone--roommates, RAs, or faculty--see that isolation.

Certainly some of my role as a dad is to help her through that isolation. But it left me wondering if I would be able to see those feelings in the students who I mentor. Should I see them? Are they visible to someone who is a "mentor"? We know that a sense of isolation, over the long-term, is a predictor of a student not being retained at a college. And it is especially the case for students who have other risk factors--first-generation, lower income, etc.

What is the role for an employee of a college that makes it possible to see isolation? Can faculty ever do it consistently? Should they? Or are roles themselves the issue? Do they obscure what we might otherwise see if we thought of each other as friends? As part of the same community, regardless of roles? Can the roles fall away even while we maintain the educational purposes that make us a college instead of a club?

1 comment:

Bryce said...

These are great questions.

I wonder if the ability to see or detect isolation has less to do with an employee's role and more to do with the types of interactions they have with students. The very best kind of mentoring seems to be based in meaningful relationships and, when an institution takes on the task of providing a mentor for every student, time becomes an issue.

Having a faculty or administrator as a mentor isn't in any way a bad thing, but expecting those relationships to move beyond the formality you describe may not be realistic. A lot of beneficial things (I might call them technical or informational sorts of things) can happen through this sort of formal mentoring (helping students make decisions about course registration, connecting to resources, etc.). But, the psychosocial functions of mentoring (e.g. helping a student through a difficult challenge like social isolation) probably won't be seen in very many cases because the necessary depth of relationship just isn't there when mentor and protege are only together for a few short periods of time across the first semester.

Your closing questions spurred some good thoughts for me. I wonder if another way to help students with something like social isolation would be to work to establish a "mentoring culture" on a campus. Those on a mentoring campus would see one another as friends (like you suggested) and as part of a community of learners. I wonder if mentoring relationships (the type of relationships we hope will result but often do not when we create formal mentoring programs) would grow out of a culture like this. They wouldn't be assigned, but would result through the natural day-to-day interactions members of the campus have with one another.

I have now reached the maximum word limit I give myself for blog responses, so I quit.

Thanks for raising these questions. It's led to some interesting thoughts for me.