Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What do we lose when we overlook the stories of students?

It is not a wise thing to make meaning out of coincidence. I'll do it here.

My daughter, about whose struggles I have written off and on, got home from her first semester at college the same day I turned in grades for my freshman seminar (about which I have written as well). My daughter's first semester grades were quite good, and after a difficult semester--for her emotions, her connections with others, and her sense of self--she got home with a bit of hope.

The day she got home I gave 3 failing grades in my seminar. They were for students who never attended or completed work, and who did not respond to my efforts (or those of others) to reach out to them. Those students, and the rest in my class, though, are registered for next semester. And so, they may stay at the college (I would bet against it). I can't know what their visits home were like.

My daughter and the students in my seminar have been, for the time being, retained. That fact will be recorded in the retention data we keep, and over which we puzzle. And that fact will be publicized, especially when the retention numbers are high. (The President of my daughter's college, in a letter at the beginning of his annual report, noted that 96.6% of undergraduates returned in the last year for which they have statistics.)

But having experienced my daughter's first semester so intensely, and having some insight into the experiences of my students, I can't help but feel the loss when those experiences are folded into "retention data."

Perhaps I have been too much influenced by my training as a historian, or my fondness for the writing of Wendell Berry and its reminder to tell local stories. And as I have been thinking about this post, a few lines from Zbigniew Herbert's "Mr. Cogito on the Need for Precision" keep coming to mind.

Herbert was a Polish poet, and witness to many of the atrocities of totalitarianism. Mr Cogito is his alter ego. Near the end of a long poem on the violence of the 20th century, Mr. Cogito reminds us:

[...] in these matters
Accuracy is essential
We must not be wrong
Even by a single one

We are despite everything
The guardians of our brothers

Ignorance about those who have disappeared

Undermines the reality of the world.

(Commentary here and here.)

I know that staying in college (or not) is nothing like disappearing in Stalin's gulag. But being invisible to people who, for whatever reason, are supposed to be connected to you, is a failure. And if the stories of those students who stay, and those who leave, are lost, then in important ways our systems allow "ignorance about those who have disappeared." If Herbert is right, this is not just a small problem. It is a way of undermining the reality of the world, turning it from concrete to something abstract.

So at the end, here, let me put in a plug for gathering and using stories of retention (or of not-retention). The fact that 78% or 96.6% of our students come back tells us only a little. What will tell us more is if we know our students well enough to say for each one that he or she has stayed (or left) for good reason. And it isn't enough, probably, for student affairs staff, or a professor here or there, to be able to speak to the actual experience of actual students. Their stories need to be told, and remembered, by fellow students, and by administrators, and leaders.

Colleges imagine themselves as communities. We aim to build places where relationships lead to learning. If we are to be communities of learners, we must remember that we are, "despite everything the guardians of our brothers."

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