Tag Archives: advising

Mentoring: Small Acts That Go a Long Way

Steve Volk, January 29, 2018
Contact: svolk@oberlin.edu

All images from the Anvār-i Suhaylī or Lights of Canopus (commonly known as the Fables of Bidpai in the West) a Persian version of an ancient Indian collection of animal fables called the Panchatantra. Public domain.

I’m pretty sure that my primary work in the “Article of the Week” is to remind educators of what they already know. I know that I certainly could use frequent and repeated reminding. All this by way of reporting on one of the many sessions I attended at the just-concluded annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges and Universities in Washington DC. (Truth be told, I escaped at one point to visit the Renwick Gallery’s absolutely marvelous exhibit of 19 miniature crime scenes created by Frances Glessner Lee. Not to be missed!).

The presenter at this particular session was José Antonio Bowen, the president of Goucher College. I’ve heard Bowen speak a number of times before and knew that I would be in for a treat. A former jazz pianist who has appeared around the world with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie and Dave Brubeck, leader of the José Bowen Quartet, composer of symphonies (one nominated for a Pulitzer), multiple recordings (including a “Jazz Shabbat Service,”) a degree in chemistry from Stanford, the inaugural Caestecker Chair of Music at Georgetown, Dean of Fine Arts at Miami, author of hundreds of scholarly articles, and numerous books, including the award-winning Teaching Naked: How Moving Technology Out of Your College Classroom Will Improve Student LearningOK, you get the idea. No matter what you’ll do in your entire career, he’s already done more. On stage – and he’s often on stage even when he’s not – he’s part carnival barker, part preacher, part your favorite high school science teacher.

Combining personal stories and insights drawn from neuroscience and cognitive psychology, Bowen’s talks are filled with broad observations about where we are (and where we should be headed) as educators, and specific tips on how to improve teaching and learning. What makes his observations more fun is that, as president of a small liberal arts college, he actually has a place to bring his ideas to life.

Example of former: Learning is all about change and readjusting assumptions, not about accumulating information. At the end of the day, your smart phone is still smarter than you are. 

Example of latter: When returning papers to students, hand them back with comments on them, but not the grades. Post the grades to Blackboard (or whatever LMS you use) a few hours or a day later. It’s a simple way to help students focus on the comments you have written rather than having them immediately turn to the last page, look for the grade, and ignore your input.  (Not, I’m sure, that any of our students would do that!).

Bowen also happens to be a data freak: Goucher has done away with standard distribution requirements but, among the courses that all students must take are two semesters of data analytics. His action directives, not surprisingly, are data driven even as his argument in Teaching Naked is all about not letting technology get in the way of teaching and learning. Teaching, he argues, is a design process. Whereas we, the faculty, begin with content and a love of our subject, students are on the outside, and our first task is to motivate them, encouraging them to “fall into our content” by helping them become more relaxed and engaged around our content. Anyway, to get back to the point, as the president of a college he vacuums up every piece of data he can get his hands on to make informed decisions designed to augment student success at Goucher. Like these:

Question one: Which first-year student do you think is least likely to graduate on time: the one assigned to live in a single room, or the ones in doubles, triples, or quads? The answer is upside down on the bottom of the page. No, actually it’s here (and based on the date he collected): students living in single rooms in their first year are less likely to graduate on time than the other students. Why? Loneliness is among the most frequently reported mental health issues of incoming students. This is a problem that has increased year by year. There are many reasons for this but one, referenced by Bowen, is that today’s students “take their friends with them” when they leave high school, i.e., they remain in constant communication with their high school buddies either by text or voice. Those students in singles are least likely to make new friends and, therefore, are at risk of being most isolated and lonely, something that will impact their overall well being and chances at success. (It’s also why those in quads are most likely to finish on time.) So, as a college president, do you try to drive admissions by acquiescing to parent demand that their children be given the single rooms they desire (since they have never had to share a room) and therefore increase single-room inventory? Or do you respond to what the data says about student success and reduce the number of single rooms at the risk of crimping admissions? (For Bowen, you do both: educate parents and reduce the number of singles.)

Question two: Who is more likely to graduate on time? A student in a dorm room at the end of the hall from the bathroom or one who is closest to the bathroom? By now, you know the answer: the one who is farthest away. (Oh, the joys of data!) Why? No one knows for sure, but Bowen suspects it’s because those at a greater distance from the bathroom have more opportunities to meet their hall-mates and make friends as they drip their way back to their rooms from the shower.

Student Outcomes and Faculty Inputs

It’s interesting to think of how small, data-driven changes (“nudges,” he calls them) can improve student outcomes. But the main point I want to stress from Bowen’s talk is the importance of two factors that, students report, have had a very strong impact on their lives after graduation:

  • having a professor who cared about them as a person, one who made them excited about learning, and,
  • having a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their dreams,

A variety of different studies have come to similar conclusions, the Gallup-Purdue polling from 2014 being the most frequently cited one. Gallup-Purdue created an index to examine the long-term success of graduates as they pursue a good job (understood as the degree to which they were “engaged at work”) and a better life (degrees of “well-being”). They defined the latter as “the combination of all the things that are important to each individual… how people think about and experience their lives,” and to get at these factors they posed ten questions in each of five areas:

  • Purpose Well-Being: Liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals.
  • Social Well-Being: Having strong and supportive relationships and love in your life.
  • Financial Well-Being: Effectively managing your economic life to reduce stress and increase security.
  • Community Well-Being: The sense of engagement you have with the areas where you live, liking where you live, and feeling safe and having pride in your community.
  • Physical Well-Being: Having good health and enough energy to get things done on a daily basis.

I’m not here to judge the validity of their conclusions – they based their findings on interviews of 30,000 graduates – and I won’t presume to evaluate the nature of the “well-being” categories they have constructed. But from a layperson’s perspective, they seem adequate for the task. So, what do they find?

In the first place, they found that the odds of being engaged at work are:

  • 2-times higher if the student had a mentor who “encouraged me to pursue my goals and dreams.”
  • 1.9-times higher if their undergraduate professors “cared about me as a person.”

Finally, if employed graduates (the study only examined graduates who were employed) had professors who cared about them as a person, who made them excited about learning, and they also had a mentor who encouraged them to pursue their dreams, their odds of being engaged at work more than doubled. (A troubling data point: only 14% of graduates could claim all three.)

In terms of well-being, college graduates who felt “supported” during college (i.e., they experienced professors who cared about them and made them excited about learning, and they had a mentor) were nearly three times as likely to be thriving as those who didn’t feel supported. (And now for the depressing news: in the 2010-2014 cohort, only 3% of those interviewed claimed to be thriving in all 5 “well-being” areas (as compared, for example, to 26% in the 1960-1969 cohort).

In case you were wondering, it hardly mattered what kind of college or university one attended: results were almost exactly the same in every category (public, private not-for-profit, selective, US News top 100, etc.) except for being significantly lower in the private for-profit sector. (And, not to overlook a very important factor, only 2% of those who graduate with more than $40,000 in debt were defined as “thriving”.)

Gallup-Purdue polling.

Small Interventions, Big Differences

The authors of How College Works (Harvard 2014), Daniel F. Chambliss and Christopher G. Takacs, reported very similar results based on a longitudinal (1999-2010), multimethod study of just one college, Hamilton. Consistent with the Gallup-Purdue study, and quite similar to Bowen’s argument, one of the authors’ central conclusions is that “relationships are central to a successful college experience.” The most important relationships are those of friends (house them in triples and quads – and far away from bathrooms!! – rather than isolating them in singles), good teachers, above all in the students’ first years in college (“when good teachers are encountered early, they legitimize academic involvement”), and mentors.  Chambliss and Takacs define mentorship as a “significant personal and professional connection,” that lasts more than just one course or semester. Mentors cannot be assigned and are not the same as advisors (although they can overlap), most often are teachers or coaches, come about only by mutual consent (this is a relationship that both mentor and student want), and often “blur the distinction between professional and personal concerns.”

The authors further explored the importance of the impact of personal (outside-of-class) connections  between instructors and students, relying on a study by Shauna Sweet that looked at seven years of Senior Surveys (2,018 respondents) compiled by the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium of colleges. The surveys asked if students had ever been a guest in a faculty member’s home and if, given the chance, would choose again to attend their college. Sweet found that a positive response to the first question was correlated to a higher response in the second. Not content with correlations, the authors subjected the data to more rigorous statistical analyses, ultimately concluding that visiting a professor’s home had a greater statistical impact on whether they would choose again to attend the same college than if their GPA was raised from a B- to an A-, and that this result persists years after the student graduated.

So, should we all be inviting students to dine with us? “Our point,” Chambliss and Takacs write, “isn’t that all professors should be inviting students to their homes. It’s that remarkably small actions can at least potentially produce huge results, noticeable even years later.”

José Antonio Bowen covered the same ground in his presentation at the AAC&U. In his case, he argued that that faculty should try to be at their students’ lacrosse games or theater performances. I don’t disagree, but what Bowen seems to overlook (and what Chambliss and Takacs better account for) is that as much as faculty and staff would like to do these things, the reality of their lived lives has changed exponentially from 50 years earlier (when, you will remember, student “thriving” was much higher). Today’s faculty, and here allow me some over-generalizations, are less likely to live close to campus, are more likely to be in a family or relationship where all the adults work, and surely are facing an increased work load. I would have loved to go to more field hockey games, or to have invited many more students over to dinner. But where does the time for these come from?

This is where I think that a stiff drink of Bowen needs to be followed by a Chambliss-Takacs chaser: the point is not that you should beat yourself up because you couldn’t get to a student’s recital (after all, you’re teaching 80 students that semester) it is that:

  • small actions can produce huge results;
  • having a professor who cares about students as individuals, and who can make them excited about learning is so critical; and,
  • mentorship is essential for all students: being the person who believes in you, the student, who will give you the honest advice you need, who will tell you that you have what is needed to succeed when so much is in doubt.

See, I told you that all I really do is remind you of what you already knew. So, as you approach the beginning of a new semester, think about the small actions you can take that can produce big results in your students’ future. If it’s attending a basketball game, great; if inviting some for dinner, also good. But support and caring can be shown in a myriad of ways, and they make a difference. The research, and our own observations, tells us that.

Listening to Smart People

Steve Volk, February 6, 2017

When the inarticulate blathering radiating out of Washington becomes too much to bear, I think about turning to really smart people as a kind of lime-scale remover for the brain, dental floss for the mind, if you will. Smart people help me reconnect my moorings with reality and build my confidence that we actually can rise to higher levels, think clear thoughts, and do the work of education.

With that in mind, I recently returned to the composer John Luther Adams. I have been mesmerized by his work for some time, and wrote about him in this space a few years ago. To refresh your memories, let’s not confuse John Luther Adam’s with John Coolidge Adams, the composer of the opera, “The Death of Klinghoffer,” among other master works, and certainly not with John Quincy Adams, whose greatest hit was the Monroe Doctrine, the prelude to a long suite on U.S. expansionism. The music of John Luther Adams is deeply bound to the natural world; some have called it “sonic geography.” So, stick with me for a few minutes and I’ll soon get to some lessons that this smart person offers to teachers.

As a kid, Adams played drums in a number of rock bands, one of which, Pocket Fuzz, opened for the Beach Boys at a local New Jersey gig. Like many of us of a certain age, he was drawn to Frank Zappa, and it was through Zappa’s music – or, actually, because of a quote (“The present-day composers refuse to die”) in the liner notes of one of Zappa’s LP’s, that Adams stumbled upon Edgard Victor Achille Charles Varèse, a 20th century French avant garde composer. As I wrote in an earlier post, the music of Varèse was not easy going; Adams couldn’t figure out how to make sense of what the composer was doing. “It all sounds…just like a bunch of noise to me,” he lamented. Which wasn’t too far from the mark since Varèse once observed that music was, in essence, “organized noise.”

Frank Zappa

Frank Zappa

In any case, Adam’s response, as he told Nina Serota, the host of WQXR’s “Q2” Meet the Composer program, was to immerse himself in Varèse’s “noise.” This approach was his typical response to any new and challenging material: “Gimme more.” After throwing himself into Varèse’s work, he began to hear what he hadn’t earlier: “Oh, there’s that repeated note on the oboe; OK that’s a landmark, I can grab on to that. And here’s this place where there’s sort of this tattoo figure with the snare drums…” And gradually, he said, he began to hear the forbidden deserts of Edgar Varèse. And here’s Adam’s first lesson for teachers. We occasionally encounter students who, when faced with seemingly impenetrable problems, will throw themselves at them, banging away without our assistance until they see what they previously couldn’t. But many more students will need our help to find their way in, to find something that they can grab on to. Teaching is about appreciating the difference between these kinds of students: standing back and letting the John Luther Adams among them find their own solutions while helping the others discover their particular ways in.

Making All the Wrong Choices

James Tenney

James Tenney

As Adams’ interest in composition developed, he was invited to study music at Columbia. Which he never did. Before committing to the school, a friend grabbed him “by the scruff of the neck” and told him, “You’re not going to Columbia, you’re going to this new place in California.” So, one fine day, Adams finds himself in the office of James Tenney at the California Institute of the Arts. Tenney, another giant of contemporary music, had studied with Varèse among other composers, but this was his first year on the job at Cal Arts. As Adams tells it, here was this young kid — himself — “knowing nothing, thinking [he] knew everything, walking into” James Tenney’s studio at Cal Arts and immediately launching “into some tirade.” Adams continues:

Jim sat very patiently and listened to this mouthy kid. And then I took a breath, and he looked at me and asked in a wonderfully innocent way, ‘Why are you here?’ And so it began. Jim Tenney had my number from the get go. He realized that nobody was going to teach me anything. That I had to feel that yes, I was reinventing the wheel, rediscovering fire like primitive man, but he had this uncanny knack for asking just the right gently pointed question at just the right moment. I cannot imagine what would have become of me if I had not had that supreme good fortune.

This the second lesson Adams offers to those of us to teach and advise our students. A lot comes down to asking just the right question at the right moment. It’s not a skill easily learned. Tenney seems to have had it from the get-go. Many of us never can develop that deep instinct. But if there’s a key to it, it is in listening carefully, patiently, and without prejudice to the young people who come into our offices, ready to tell us how little we have to offer, serving up something that can sting, or simply feeling lost and perhaps alone…and then responding with just the right question.

Adams talks about how he “made all the wrong career decisions” in his life. He didn’t go to Columbia, didn’t study with the right people, didn’t enter the proper competitions, dropped out of graduate school and everywhere else as well. He ended up in a remote corner of Alaska. “I’m not sure that really I knew what I was doing but, in retrospect, I find that every time I came to a crossroads and had a choice to make, I made the wrong choice…which turned out, of course, to be the right choice.” He was neither courageous nor insightful, he notes. Rather he was running away: from his family, from competitive careerism, from academia, “from all the right things.” But, as he puts it, he was “actually running to something, I just didn’t know what it was until many years later.” Lesson three: Students often feel they need to know with certainty what they will be doing years after they graduate, what they will be when they “grow up.” Certainly, as the pressure builds to turn higher education into nothing more than job-preparation (“college and career ready” has become a constant theme literally from kindergarten on), students (and their parents and state legislators) feel panicked if they can’t answer that question. Without ignoring skills preparation, however, it is up to us to do more than prepare students for a career that they can’t yet imagine. We can provide them with the dispositions, resilience, and reflective insight they will need to run towards a goal that they may not recognize for many years.

Weaving into Dense Fabrics

John Luther Adams in Alaska. Photo: Evan Hurd, The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/05/12/song-of-the-earth

John Luther Adams in Alaska. Photo: Evan Hurd, The New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2008/05/12/song-of-the-earth

Adams moved to Alaska in 1975, interested in hearing new things still employing acoustic sound. “I lived alone in a cabin down in the black spruce forest,” he later wrote in the New Yorker. There I would roll out of bed in the morning, crawl down the ladder from the sleeping loft, and find myself standing in the middle of my work. I loved it. And I couldn’t imagine living any other way.” He listened, in particular, to the birds, trying simply “to take dictation” from them. “The birds became my teacher, after James Tenney.” The result was songbirdsongs which he composed between 1974-79. (He later wrote of an oriole nest that the writer Barry Lopez gave him and which he placed on a windowsill in his Alaskan cabin: “Woven into the dense fabric of moss and twigs are long strands of cassette tape. In the note that accompanied it, [Lopez] wrote, ‘songbirdsongs, no doubt. But where do they buy the tapes?’”)

Adams sees composition as a process of “sculpting away the whole field of sound” in order to work with “one big shape, or image or color or atmosphere that I had in mind that I can’t quite hear that I want to hear.” I often think of teaching (lesson four) as a process of building up, of gradual accretion through multiple iterations. But perhaps, at its heart, it is also a process of “sculpting away” until we reach the central principles, the key lessons.

This is probably a good point to pause and note that Adams was appointed Associate Professor of Composition at Oberlin’s Conservatory in 1998, where he taught for four years. He was drawn to Oberlin by the “lushness and diversity” of the eastern hardwood forest, the songbirds and, to be sure, the artistic and intellectual community at the College and Conservatory. He was excited to be able to connect his work with the contemporary visual arts displayed in the Allen Memorial Art Museum, and taught a course on “Music, Language, and the Sounding Image.” Adams describes himself as having a chronic case of “painter envy”: “I’ve always envied the hands-on relationship that painters and sculptors have with the materials of their art, the way they can get paint and clay on their clothes and under their fingernails.” He often elaborates on the impact of artists, including Frank Stella, Ellsworth Kelly, and Jasper Johns, on his own work, Stella in particular. Living in Alaska, Adams frequently travels by way of the SeaTac airport at Seattle where he has spent countless hours contemplating Frank Stella’s “York Factory A” which hangs in Concourse A. The work is one of Stella’s “Protractor Series,” loosely based on Persian designs, with “sweeping arcs of brilliant colors weaving in and out of each other” in an impossible fashion. Adams argues that it “doesn’t add up visually,” but that he was eager to do “something similar” on the piano. The result was Among Red Mountains. “If those ensemble and orchestral pieces are multi-dimensional sculptures,” he writes, “then Among Red Mountains is more like a drawing.”

Frank Stella, "York Factory A," SeaTac Airport, Seattle, Washington

Frank Stella, “York Factory A,” SeaTac Airport, Seattle, Washington

Adam’s music explores the boundaries between nature and culture. “I think of sounds of musical forms as forces, as natural elements in some way. It may sound ridiculously grandiose or laughably naïve,” he continued,

but I’ve always imagined that I might be able to work in a space that’s just outside of culture. Of course, it’s patently absurd. There’s no way that we work outside of culture, and these days so many cultures. And yet, as my friend Barry Lopez, the writer, says landscape is the culture that contains all human cultures. And I believe that everything we do, everything we think, everything we think we create, everything we are derives from the world we inhabit: our language, our music, our minds, everything is shaped by this incredibly complex and wondrous world that we inhabit. So, ultimately this nature/culture dichotomy in a way doesn’t exist. But it’s been a useful conceit for me to feel that I’m after something that is not part of a musical tradition; it’s not specifically cultural, it’s somehow more elemental.

Adam’s music represents a desire to connect with the world that “we still inhabit,” but that we’ve forgotten. His attempt to connect the earth and its sounds directly to his music led him to Jim Altieri, an Oberlin double degree student who graduated in 2000 with majors in geology and TIMARA (Technology in Music and Related Arts). Adams called Altieri out of the blue one day and, as Altieri recalls, says, “So, hey, I’m beginning to write a grant for this piece; not sure yet what it is but I want to take all these geophysical data streams and it’s going to make sound and light with them.” Altieri didn’t hesitate: “I said, great, I’m your man.” The idea was to translate raw geophysical data into music. Currently installed in the Museum of the North, in Fairbanks, the Place Where You Go To Listen takes data from seismological, meteorological, and geomagnetic stations across Alaska and feeds them into a computer where they are transformed into a “vibrantly colored field of electronic sound.” (Adam’s book, The Place Where You Go To Listen, is available from Wesleyan University Press.)

The Lessons of John Luther Adams

As I noted earlier, higher education faces a continual challenge to respond to those who argue that education is only, and narrowly, about “preparing students to be maximally productive, economically speaking.” At a moment in which selective liberal arts colleges have been shown to actually widen social inequality by imposing a tremendous debt burden on those less able to pay, the aims of higher education do, indeed, raise serious “problems of morality and justice,” as the subtitle of a recent book (The Aims of Higher Education, Univ. of Chicago, 2015) by Harry Brighouse and Michael McPherson put it. But, as well, John Luther Adams’ work provides a compelling argument for the expansive and inclusive role of higher education can play when we take advantage of all that it offers. Adams’ life and work tells us of the critical and timely importance of the advice that we give students, the imperative to be attentive to the different paths to success that they will follow, how to best nurture, encourage, challenge and defend students as they prepare for a bewildering world. From his work at Oberlin, we learn the critical importance of taking advantage of the opportunities for connection that exist in these small but powerful communities, how geology can enrich composition, how art informs biology. From his music, we learn about the beauty of our surroundings, and how we are shaped by the world that enfolds us.

Adams left Alaska a few years ago. What had been the source of much of his creativity began to diminish. The impact of climate change was profound, he began to have problems with his eyes, which made the long Alaskan winters very difficult, good friends had died or moved away, and “the vision we’d shared of an ecological utopia…had faded…Even as so-called reality TV perpetuated the myth of the last frontier, it had become painfully evident that Alaska was a colony of Big Oil.” He and his wife moved to the Sonoran desert in Mexico where “any lingering fears I had about losing my inspiration soon disappeared.” It was there that he composed “Canticles of the Holy Wind,” “Become River” for chamber orchestra, and “Become Ocean” which won the 2014 Pulitzer for music.

John Luther Adams

John Luther Adams

Adams tries to “resist composing” for as long as he can. He told Nina Serota in the Q2 interview that “I really want to get at something essential before I start manipulating the notes, pushing things around. I try to hold things in my mind’s ear as long as I can … I find that if I try to hear something that I can’t quite name it focuses my attention in a certain way…” Good advice for us all as we are barraged by the cosmic radiation of tweets, social media, and news feeds. It’s time to focus our attention…in very certain ways.


You can access John Luther Adam’s music on YouTube and a number of other online sites, many of which are linked in the article, besides purchasing it on iTunes, Amazon or elsewhere.