Friday, November 19, 2010

What Do Our Students Do for Privacy?

Please note I am asking: “What do our students do for privacy?” and not what do they do with their privacy. This question is prompted by several events, one of them tragic, and the other a recent discussion I participated in about this tragedy.

I refer to the suicide death of a Rutgers University first-year student, a promising musician, who jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge earlier this fall. His self-inflicted death came subsequent to his enormous humiliation when his privacy was violated by two of his fellow students who surreptitiously filmed him in behaviors he thought he was engaging in privacy.

About 6 weeks later, I was attending a meeting of publishing editorial people at Bedford/St. Martins in Boston and we found ourselves discussing this tragedy and what it says about the need college students have for privacy.

One of the participants in that meeting, Bedford Editorial Assistant Karen Sikola, kindly forwarded to me subsequently the following quote from a recent edition of The New Yorker:

"Young people discovering their identity and their desires need a zone of privacy where they can be who they are, perhaps in the company of another human being, without feeling that somebody else might be tweeting it, filming it, or blogging about it, or that maybe they themselves ought to be—there’s such a thing as violating your own privacy, too. The unobserved life is so totally worth living." -Margaret Talbot


I really appreciated Karen sending me the above. Just think about this: “the unobserved life is so totally worth living.” This has really pushed my reflective capacities!

I reflected back to my own beginning college days. How I hated the old style “dorm” living and its total lack of privacy. As an upper middle class child I had had my own room, and my own bathroom and many other forms of “privacy.” Lack of privacy was a major adjustment for me in college. I also had to eat every meal communally with other people and couldn’t even do that privately. There was, in fact, very little that I could do privately.

But I could and did spend hours walking the beautiful brick streets and parks, and river banks, of the historic river town in Marietta, Ohio, where I was fortunate enough to go to college. Those walks were my private time. They were times for reflection, which often lead to important actions. My whole college experience would have been different had I not made an effort to find privacy and use it constructively.

So this brings me to today’s college students. Some questions:
1. What do they do for privacy?
2. Do they value it in their culture of share all and total transparency?
3. Given how totally and constantly “connected” they are, how do they find privacy should they seek it—that is privacy by means other than sleeping—i.e., awake privacy.
4. How could we inspire, encourage them to want to seek privacy as a context for their own development?
5. Could we provide any mental templates for use of the private time to structure some of their reflection?
6. How do we introduce to college students the merits of reflective thinking and teach and reward them for engaging in such?
7. One of the reasons I have been so drawn to service learning as a pedagogy is its inclusion of reflection as a mandatory component. How else could we be building reflection into our curricular—and co curricular learning contexts?
8. And finally, what do we need to do to protect students in their search for and use of their privacy?

So many good questions we need to be asking about our students, what they need, how we could or should support them.

-John N. Gardner

Thursday, November 18, 2010

A Truly Invisible New Student

As I have written recently, I have just attended my forty-fifth college reunion. There I met a much more recent alum, a woman about 10 years out of college. We got to talking and after listening to me talk just a little bit about my work on behalf of first-year students, she asked me: “Well does your work do anything for students who have been raised in foster care?” I drew a total blank and responded in the negative.

She then asked me if I knew of any colleges in the US who had special initiatives to support the transition into college of first-year students who had been raised in foster care. She went on to explain to me that in many states these students are cut loose from state provided care at age 18 and left to fend for themselves.

I like to fancy myself as an advocate for unique cohorts of students in transition. But I had to admit that I had never given a moment of thought to the unique needs of this cohort of students in transition. And even worse, I couldn’t think of a college or university that has or does.

Just when I think this movement has really matured, I learn of another gaping hole in our first-year of college social safety net.

We are fond of using the metaphor of “family” to describe our campus cultures. But what a different meaning altogether this could and should take on for students have no family. How could I have gotten this far in this line of work for advocacy and social justice and never thought of this population? Here I have spent over four decades thinking about the normative cohort who have just been “released” from the prisons we call American high schools who come to us like ex cons going wild with their new found freedom. And I have never thought of those who have just been “released” from foster care”. How about you? What’s your level of awareness, let alone potential interest?

-John Gardner

Monday, November 15, 2010

Texting as Surrogate Touch

I am usually on at least one different campus a week and no matter where I may find myself, I always note the same: students walking around texting and/or talking on their hand held electronic devices.

I understand this. The allure of somebody reaching out to me to communicate something is indeed powerful. Somebody needs me. Somebody wants me. Somebody is giving me attention. I am noticed. I am affirmed. These are universal human needs and we have never before possessed such addictive ways of getting them met.

But I have to wonder if we could find other ways to meet student needs, to give them attention, reach out to them, affirm them, that might offset some of this constant need for electronic attention. I guess my even wondering about this reveals my nostalgia for days gone by when people on campus resorted to other means of communication. OK, let’s say I accept this new age with no resistance. As I move on I still want to ask: aren’t there other ways, more ways, that we could be paying attention to our students, letting them know they are noticed and important?

-John Gardner