“Dissonance is learning.” This was said to me by a mentor last year and has stuck with me ever since. I believe this. I experience this. I live for this. Earlier this afternoon, I had the opportunity to facilitate a conversation with a group of sixteen colleagues and fellow staff members. During that conversation, we discussed the Karen Klein article, “Enough of the bubble-wrapped college student,” which was sent to me by a dear colleague from another division.
Over the course of our dialogue, we discussed our role as professionals, supporters, and facilitators of student development, ultimately leading to the question, “What role to we play in all of this?”
How often are people doing things for the pure joy of learning? I know a man who has already achieved two bachelor’s degrees, a master’s degree, and a PhD, however he is still taking college classes. Why? Learning. He literally says, “Learning.” How often are people doing this? Think about college and the structural set up created around higher education. I would argue that most people are going to college for, first and foremost, a degree. This is also a factor in people’s goals of joining organizations, volunteering, or simply connecting across communities and campuses. There is always a need or want for something tangible at the end of those experiences. A degree, if you will. One colleague today shared a story from graduate school where the professor had each student write their dream grade on a piece of paper. After everyone had turned in their grade, he replied to the class, “Alright, you can have that grade. Now, let’s let the learning begin.” No trial and error, no stress over, “getting it right,” etc. At that point in time, the only thing left to do, in addition to the risk-free assignments, was to learn.
I recently heard a student talking about a volunteer and service-learning trip they went on overseas, and when I asked why they did it, the first answer was, “It looks great on my resume.”
I replied, “Okay, why else?”
I was dumfounded. What about the pure joy of helping someone else? Or even, just, “Good, hard work?” Again, there is this need to ‘get something out of everything’ that places a barrier between learning and achieving. Can you have both? What does both look like?
Klein cites the student experience as, “bubble-wrapped,” and I would have to agree, though adding that there is also a fear of creating dissonance. Fundamentally, I believe dissonance truly is learning, and in so many ways we are failing students by ensuring that they are all receiving a medal (in whatever form, “a medal,” might mean). At the core of this profession, are we okay with students or people failing? How do we define failure? How do they define failure?
I am sure we can all cite example after example, where we bubble-wrap our student leaders, thus limiting real and raw perspective. Much of what students learn in the classroom assists in their post-college experiences, however the same can be said for the co-curricular moments. Are we part of the problem in preventing learning from occurring, specifically learning that might aid a student long beyond their college years?
The term, “Helicopter Parent,” is a reality in higher education, and it’s weekly that I have some type of conversation with a parent regarding their frustration, suggestion, and/or recommendation related to their student’s experience. The more I think about the role of parents, I also have to step back and think about our own role in the lives of the students we work with every day. Regrettably, I would challenge this notion of, “helicopter parenting,” and add a new layer of hover: “Helicopter Professional.” I work with some phenomenal students, ones who I want to succeed more than anything. But this is not reality. They will face tough moments. They will have hardship. We get to support, mentor, advise, and challenge, however we cannot do it all for them. Are we allowing students to discover their own, “ah-ah,” moments, or are we spoon feeding those moments to them bit by bit so they are developing the exact way we know (or perceive to know) them to need? At times, professionals want their students to succeed so much so that they aren’t able to allow that student to struggle a bit. Again, we cannot do it for them. Newsflash, y’all. We are developing too. And we don’t have all the answers. In so many ways, we are doing a disservice to students by assuming that role, and especially by projecting that on them.
Ultimately, are we scared of allowing students to be in a dark place? Are we placing our own successes on the success or wins of our students? And finally as one colleague asked, are we afraid to acknowledge the pain? These are all moments of dissonance for me as professional, and in so many ways, areas that need to be identified both locally and in the larger student affairs and higher education realm.