Letting Them “Succeed” on Their Terms

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Hello from OSCLG,

I am walking out of one of the more poignant and touching presentations I have ever attended. While it was not an auto ethnography, it was a narrative and an amazing story about the relationship forged between and advisor and a doctoral student. It allowed me to consider the role we have in students’ lives in a different way. It also came back as I discussed the presentation of the text messages that were the basis of the presentation at the conference.

I should note it is the next morning, and early at that. I am already though security and sitting at my gate and the time is 4:45 a.m., one more reason that it is probably good that I ended up presenting on my own. I went to bed last night around 8:00 p.m., realizing that it would be an early alarm. I had actually almost fallen asleep when I heard a text message from a former Stout student, now living in San Francisco. She inquired to see if I was actually in town. When I responded affirmatively, she was a bit upset that I did not let her know in advance that I was going to be in town. She was one of my favorite students at Stout, a bit non-traditional, but an extremely hard worker and one of the most affable students I have ever had in class. It ended up that we spoke on the phone and when she found out that I had been in the ER at UCSF, she was even more bummed because she said she could look out her window at the hospital I had visited only 30 hours before. The irony in her reaching out and what I was presenting, as well as considering how to move forward, was more than I could imagine. In our conversation, both by phone and text, she noted she still “valued the opinion of Dr.Martin.” She asked about the skills sets that I believed were important and asked about returning to pursue another degree. What occurred in that conversation was the realization that what advice was given (in this case 7 or 8 years ago) resonated in such a way that it made a difference, but it also helped her realize that I had her long-term success at heart. When she was a student we met in Eau Claire once for breakfast and I once visited where she worked during her evening shift. We were known to have coffee together from time to time. The boundaries of mentor and friend perhaps blurred at moments. Now I am a friend and still a mentor rather than a mentor and perhaps a friend.

What I learned listening to the presentation yesterday was that it is more typical than I have thought, or more significantly been taught to believe (a former dean comes to mind). What are the things and who are the persons we advise? Last night before finally going to sleep, I ordered four books that I will be trying to read during the coming break. Titles like:The Compass of Friendship: Narratives, Identities, and Dialogues, Friendship Matters: Communication, Dialectics, and the Life Course (Communication and Social Order), and two additional books on family. I am actually looking toward the reading and working on my scholarly agenda. I am also realizing that I need to probably jettison some more things currently on my plate. I will focus on three things: my teaching and classes, the program and developing it, and my scholarship. Personally, I need to simply manage the issues at hand. Again, some things are evolving and a trip back to Wisconsin will help me take care of that. Helping two or three students with graduate school applications and statements are a priority as they have deadlines. I should note as I look out the window, cruising along at about 35,000 feet, I am always amazed by the beauty and the stark harshness of the Rocky Mountains. I cannot help but think of the scores of people who traversed this expanse on their way West. I am reminded of a movie I saw with the Deckers when I visited them in Utah.

I am looking through the program from the conference once again and the importance of communication and gender in the health area is still something that intrigues me. I am reminded of my conference paper last year and how the Wisconsin Department of Health requires no training in communication to work with cognitively impaired (primarily Alzheimer’s and Dementia patients) people. The significance as well as the dilemma of communicating with the elderly is something that will create even more tremendous difficulties if we fail to address such problems now. The increasing percentage of elderly with some kind of dementia or impairment is not going to recede anytime soon. This really moves me toward the title for today’s blog. As I continue to work with students, I am often asked how they are different from that first fall (1992) i taught college. It is true they are different, but in spite of the implication of the question, which usually seems to be somewhere in the realm of “are they less prepared?” or “are they poorer writers because they text?” or . . . You can fill in the seemingly negative spin on some question. I do not believe students are generally poorer or less intelligent than their generational predecessors. They are actually more rhetorically astute than many; they are actually more comfortable writing than many; and they area actually much more aware of their world and its issues than their parents or grandparents. They also have a tolerance and inclusivity that is merely part of their attitude about their surroundings. So in many ways, they are perhaps more prepared than I was. What I think is missing for many is the ability to think critically or to integrate their learning. Many seem incapable of seeing how, for instance their lack of preparation, might have larger consequences. A couple years ago I had an advise who dropped a class almost every semester, or did poorly (a D or F) in one class every quarter. They came to me with their transcript to make sure that an audit would make sure they could graduate (I should note that I just broke another pair of reading glasses and the elderly man next to me loaned me his). When I looked at her transcript, I noted the two characteristics and she was shocked that this was a potential problem. First there was the fact that she was probably at least a semester and a half behind because of dropped or failed courses (about 11 or 12 grand). There was the issue that her GPA languished at a level of about 2.5 (which is not good enough in today’s world), and there was what I thought when I saw her transcript, which was simply, I will not hire you (that is a whole lot more money invested, but not wisely). Yet, I am not sure that she understood her dilemma; she was graduating so she had succeeded. But had she? She had succeeded on her terms, so she was content, at least that is what I am led to believe. Yet, in spite of what a president might say, and I respect him deeply, or a provost might say (and I have great appreciation for who she is), merely allowing every 18 year old in college because of potential seems frightening destined to failure and scores with unmanageable indebtedness. If you have been reading my blog, my assistance in helping a student get into a different school than Bloomsburg was doing the very thing I seem to be arguing against. So, is it that each case needs more critical scrutiny?

I am forced (not all that unwillingly, I might add) to agree with Sr. Galán that our public education system is in trouble. I do not think Common Core will fix it. I do not think it is up to teachers and administrators. I think more often it goes back to the parents, to the family. Making education a priority in the household means taking an active role in someone’s education. Working with that son or daughter and knowing that their attitude as well as yours will make a big difference in that child’s learning. I know in college they are chronologically adults, but most are not. Most freshmen are overwhelmed with their newfound freedom and academics get what is left over,. Sophomores often have bad attitudes and my analysis of transcripts generally show that second semester freshman or sophomore year GPAs plummet if that is going to happen. Juniors are beginning to think a bit more clearly, but what they often realize is their past academic transgressions are killing them in many and various ways. Finally, seniors are usually able to see the handwriting on the wall and understand the significance of getting more then a piece of paper. At the moment, I am only aware of one person who has actually learned his or her lesson early enough to turn things around to the point of being on their way to graduating with honors. That is no small achievement. It is quite phenomenal.

You might notice that I have put the word succeed in quotation marks in my title. That is because success is a quantifiable term, but not a term that is easily defined. It is because we want to quantify it that it is so problematic. What I deem success is based on life experience and my own failures or learning moments. What I always want is for my students, or anyone I care for, to succeed , and that is actually in all areas of their lives. However, I cannot force them, push them to succeed, and sometimes it might go as far as that I cannot even demonstrate that their success matters. That is certainly difficult for me, but I am learning. Mentoring is an art, but not a perfect one; caring is an art too, but one that can certainly cause pain. On the other hand, it creates moments of immense joy and love. What I have realized once again is that I have been blessed with an amazing life, a wonderful position, great colleagues, generally hopeful and good students, and friends that make my life pretty wonderful. I can only live my life the best way I know. I am grateful for those who have taught me so much this past year. Well, it is almost 2,500 miles later and Philadelphia is close. The picture is of my front porch railing. Amazing what fences, real or imagined can do . . .

Thanks for reading.

Dr. Martin

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