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?