Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Does the sophomore year matter?

Well, of course it does! Every period during the college experience matters, at least to some degree (pun intended). And how much time we have spent trying to develop some periods as being more meaningful, influential, formative, important than others.

I am an educator who has based a disproportionate share of his career trying to call more attention to the importance of the beginning college experience. For much of my career that “beginning” was defined as a “beginning” literally as in students starting college for the first time, most commonly right after high school.

But more recently, my work has broadened to focus on another kind of “new” student, the transfer student (the subject of another blog, or more, surely). And my work has also focused on senior students, as in graduating students; and on other students that I coined a phrase for as “students in transition” (introduced into the higher ed lexicon in 1995 when my colleagues and I at the University of South Carolina organized our first so-called “Students In Transition” national conference (which we continue to this day.

And now I find myself playing a small role in my university’s latest national effort to call attention to still another transition point: the sophomore year.

The USC National Resource Center had been including the sophomore year as a theme of focus in its annual Students in Transition conferences since 1995. Then in 2000 we published our first monograph on the topic of second year students Visible Solutions for Invisible Students. And in October 2009 Jossey-Bass published the first full length book treatment of the importance of the sophomore year, entitled Helping Sophomores Succeed with a team of lead editors from USC including myself and especially my colleagues Stuart Hunter and Barbara Tobolowsky.

And this week and next I am getting my head in gear to join several hundred higher educators for our first ever conference focused exclusively on this population, the Institute for Sophomore Student Success, April 11-13 (

So, is this a transition you should be following? What do you know about the experience of second year students at your institution? Is this a distinct period of student transition, growth, differentiation? Are there problems that are especially acute during this period? What does being a sophomore mean now that most students don’t enter as a coherent class with many characteristics in common?

The literature so far suggests one overriding theme: the need for second year students to have developed a sense of purpose if they are to derive maximum value from their education at all, and at any one institution in particular. And the underlying interest driving this attention, is, you guessed it: the 800 pound gorilla in the room: Retention! If students develop that sense of purpose and a concomitant sense of fit between that purpose and this institution, then presto we get enhanced student retention, the holy grail of the enrollment managers.
So, did you develop a sense of purpose in your second year? Are today’s students similar or different from you and me in that regard?
I don’t recall that I did. But I did have one memorable experience that suggested ultimate potential for purpose for me, and that was my coming out party amongst my peers. I will make this story very short.

It was a soggy March night in Marietta, Ohio, in 1963. The Ohio River had flooded and an access road to my residence hall had been flooded. A taxi cab driver had tried to traverse this road, discovered the flood water, attempted a U turn in front of our residence hall and became bogged down in the mud. Students discovered this and decided the driver was a fit object for ridicule and displaced frustration aggression. They taunted this man; hurled objects and epithets at him. He couldn’t believe this treatment from upper class college kids. He came into the “dorm” seeking help and none was offered. So I attempted to organize a rescue party to get him pushed out of the mud. I failed. Noone would support me. Stunned by the callous indifference of my fellow students, I fired off an old fashioned letter to the editor of our student newspaper in which I blasted my fellow residence hall students. If they didn’t know who I was before, they did then. And so did my professors. And everyone began to look at me differently—as someone who was different; who would take a stand; a sort of Don Quixote. And overnight, literally, that sophomore year night, the expectations others had of me changed significantly And the expectations I had of myself were transformed. And I have never been the same since.

Does the sophomore year matter? Who knows? It did for me. Did it for you?

Maybe it will matter more for students if it matters more for those of us who provide “the sophomore year experience”.

So stay tuned and watch what kind of success USC has in driving a call for attention to this latest student transition. Were the Greeks right when they described “wise fools” as “sophmoric”? I predict this new focus will yield more wisdom than that stereotype.

-John Gardner

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

So Many Teachable Moments

During a period of my childhood, I lived in Canada where my father ran a Canadian subsidiary of an American company. I had the good fortune to go to a private boy’s school which had many customs that would be unthinkable in contemporary American educational institutions. For example, we all wore uniforms; students were not allowed to enter the front doors of any buildings—only the “masters” could; and when a “master” entered a classroom, all students immediately stood as a form of respect. There was a pervading sense of order, stability, predictability.

Fast forward some fifty years for me, one of the laments I hear frequently from faculty who teach beginning college students is descriptions of classroom behavior which can be aptly summarized as “disrespectful”. There are many explanations for this diminished respect for authority, tracing origins to the Vietnam War era when an endless succession of events and culture changes epitomized a decline of respect for established institutions and individuals, from the Presidency, to corporations, the military, the Catholic church, etc.

It is no wonder that college students do not respect academic authority. They have spent 50% more time watching television by the time they reach age 18 than they have in formal school classrooms, and the idiot tube certainly doesn’t teach respect. And most recently, the year in which our newest new students entered college, there have been all sorts of cultural events manifesting this decline of respect and decorum. No wonder they do not behave as we would like them to. Just witness over the past few months:

1. An elected member of Congress interrupting a speech by the President of the United States and calling him a liar;

2. Members of the US House of Representatives applauding verbal taunts from visitors in the gallery;
3. A demonstrator last weekend spitting on an African American Member of the House of Representatives, a celebrated former civil rights activist, who was also the recipient of the “n” word;
4. Another demonstrator calling a gay Member of the House of Representatives by a derogatory term descriptive of his sexual orientation (another freedom some would like to remove from our society);
5. And Tea Party demonstrators in Columbus, Ohio, hurling insults and money on a disabled man as a form for mockery of government provided health care for such individuals in need, this one who also happened to be a Veteran of the Armed Forces.

Yes, this is a period rich with extraordinary opportunities to ask students to join you in reflection on the meaning of respect and its role in the educational process. There are so many examples of disrespectful behavior that we have a veritable feast of teachable moments. Some questions for thought and discussion perhaps:

1. What does respect mean to you?
2. How do you convey that towards others?
3. Whom do you respect, and why?
4. How have being in environments either characterized by a culture of respect, or the opposite, affected your ability to learn in such environments?

These questions recall for me one such teachable moment I had when teaching University 101 at the University of South Carolina.

One class day, I took my students to the student union building to attend a staple of the American college scene, the annual “student activities fair” at which licensed student organizations set up booths to hawk their invitational wares. I asked my students to spend 45 minutes or so, walk around, observe the many opportunities for co-curricular joining. They were told by me to be prepared when they returned to class to share something they had learned.

When we returned to class, I asked them to describe something they had learned. The first student who spoke immediately captured the attention of the class when he said: “I learned that I don’t respect you any more!” I invited him to elaborate and he did: “Before we went to this event I respected you because I thought you were like me, “normal”; but I saw you there standing a long time talking to the students at the gay students’ association table”. Well, there we had it. A wonderful teachable moment, when the subject suddenly shifted from opportunities for joining student organizations, to the meaning of homophobia.

Such opportunities to serve as catalysts for examining the meaning of respect abound for all of us, no matter what we teach, or in what capacity we work with students. Students will not become more respectful until they are taught to be such. As always, we are the agents of change.