Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What Would You Do If You Wanted to Understand Today’s Students?

John N. Gardner
Brevard College

What would you do if you wanted to understand today’s students? This is a question I ask myself all the time. Yesterday was my twelfth anniversary of leaving full-time employment on a college campus. Although I have continued in full-time employment within the higher education context, it’s not the same as actually working for a college or a university with direct, official, contact with students.  I have been like a junkie in withdrawal hankering for a fix of student input to keep myself current. So what do I do for any kind of fix? Well, I live in a college town where there is a small liberal arts college (Brevard, N.C.) and I live nearby a college town mecca of sorts, Asheville, N.C. So I have lots of opportunities of sorts. This is what I do:

1.     I “interview” (without them knowing that is what I am doing) a college student anywhere I can find them—most commonly as servers in restaurants or clerks in retail establishments

2.     I visit at least one college campus a week and always ask to have at least one structured conversation with students

3.     I jog on a college campus every weekday that I am home—and as I jog the campus it is very easy to simply observe them

4.     A few times a year I do pro bono presentations at the local high school and/or a private school in South Carolina where one of my grandchildren is a student; this gives me a fix on what immediately college bound students are thinking

And for those of you who are more fortunate and actually work on college campuses, what could/should you be doing?

1.     teach at least one class—in anything—no matter how senior an administrator you may be. For 13 years at USC I was a Vice Chancellor but I assigned myself a class every fall and spring just to have my own students

2.     advise a student organization

3.     read your institution’s Facebook site

4.     read samples of students’ writing

5.     walk your campus and observe them

6.     talk to others whose official duties put them in closer contact with students than you have

7.     ask for people in sensitive front line roles with students to keep logs, diaries, etc of student concerns and forward them up through channels (e.g. advisors, resident hall directors, professional counselors, first-year seminar instructors)

8.     watch the same television programs they do

9.     learn where they go on the net and follow

10.  get involved in officially sponsored interaction groups in contexts where students live or spend a lot of time: residence halls, student union

11.  bottom line: you have to talk to them, have at least a few educator/student relationships

Alas, it is very easy to get out of touch. You have to work at and be intentional about being in touch.

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