Student life

Experts discuss residence-life best practices after U of Hartford harassment charges surface

A student was expelled for allegedly harassing her roommate at the University of Hartford. How can other colleges prevent a similar situation from occurring?

U of Oregon protesters who stopped president's speech offered deal to avoid punishment

University of Oregon officials offer to pardon students who drowned out the president's speech last month if they meet with administrators.

Oberlin won't notify students about nonthreatening racist fliers

Oberlin will no longer notify students about hateful fliers if there’s not an immediate threat. The college doesn’t want to amplify provocateurs, but some students worry silence sends the wrong message.

Columbia protesters under disciplinary investigation

Columbia is investigating some of those who disrupted a talk. Some professors question why the university is doing so, especially since many of those being investigated are from minority groups.

Black Clemson student government vice president alleges racism is behind impeachment trial

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Clemson student government vice president, who is black, says he faces impeachment trial because he wouldn’t stand for the Pledge of Allegiance.

Advice on how to most effectively mentor students (essay)

Although the practice of undergraduate research, scholarship and creative work has long been a fixture in American higher education, several developments within the past couple of years have drawn much-needed attention to the role of the undergraduate faculty mentor. The 2014 Gallup-Purdue Index identified that only about two in 10 college students strongly agreed that they had a mentor who encouraged them in their goals. In 2015, Purdue University administrators announced their plans to make mentoring undergraduate students a point of emphasis in tenure reviews. And since then, scores of articles and studies have appeared about the role and importance of mentoring.

Our interest in those developments is in the way they are focusing attention and conversation on the crucial practice of mentoring undergraduate students. For three summers, we co-led a seminar at Elon University’s Center for Engaged Learning on mentoring undergraduate research for faculty members and undergraduate research program directors from institutions in the United States and abroad. The work of experts in the field of mentoring, as well as George Kuh and the American Association of Colleges and Universities, has identified undergraduate research, scholarship and creative work as among 10 high-impact practices and provided the foundation for our seminar. Yet we’ve pushed one step farther. Our seminar participants have identified one key to this high-impact practice: the mentor who works closely with a student engaged in a research or creative project.

Guided by our own knowledge and experiences of mentoring that, in turn, have been enhanced by our seminar participants' studies of mentoring practices, we’ve learned a few things about what excellent mentoring is, and what it's not. And along the way, we have acquired a better idea of what institutions can do (and in some cases, what they shouldn't do) to enhance the well-mentored undergraduate experience.

Mentoring relies on quality relationships that endure over time. An intensive summer or multiyear mentored undergraduate experience, for example, supports students’ developing expertise in a field of study as well as their personal growth. And as a result, mentoring connotes a relationship that transcends mere assigned roles such as advising and teaching.

Yet good intentions and the proliferation of programs for undergraduate research do not guarantee that good-quality mentoring happens. Even when students, faculty members or administrators label these assigned relationships "mentorships," there is no guarantee that such supervision will reflect effective mentoring practice. Student involvement in undergraduate research or creative work alone offers no guarantee of good mentoring.

We instead suggest that colleges and universities better emphasize quality mentoring relationships and develop strategies and practices that assist faculty members and students alike in aspiring to and developing an excellent mentoring experience. Specifically, they should:

  1. Define the relationship. The farther we progressed in our seminar, the more complicated the meaning of mentoring became. Not every student-faculty assignment or interaction results in mentoring, even if it is labeled as such. An intentional focus on high-quality mentoring requires a critical definition of the developmental relationship we have in mind. Colleges and universities would be well served to articulate:
    1. what good mentoring is on their campuses (and how it differs from the other important roles a faculty member plays for students),
    2. how it is operationally defined,
    3. what the appropriate expectations are,
    4. what its best practices are, and
    5. what its distinct manifestations are among the disciplines.
  2. Train faculty members over time. Holding the occasional workshop for faculty on mentoring will not alone advance an institutional culture of high-quality mentoring. Rather, institutions should commit to a prolonged and robust system of mentor selection and training, one that begins with a faculty-faculty mentoring program, incorporates the importance of recognizing and engaging the variety of student developmental needs, and includes regular assessment of mentoring effectiveness with students.
  3. Provide adequate support. Undergraduate research offices, and the people who occupy them, need clear direction from campus constituencies about the role and value of mentoring at the institution. Likewise, those offices should have financial backing -- not only funds available to support students and faculty in undergraduate research experiences but also to support consistent programming and training about what makes a high-quality mentor.
  4. Make it a priority. Chief academic officers play a key role in making good mentoring a priority on campuses. They must allocate the resources and create the infrastructure to fully support undergraduate research offices. They also should support diverse pathways for faculty members to be involved in undergraduate research, following appropriate training and perhaps even supervised experience in the mentor role.
  5. Focus on competence. Perhaps most politically sensitive, we suggest colleges and universities pay more and better attention to competence of those in the mentoring role, and recognize that not every faculty member is a good mentor to undergraduate students at every stage in their career. It would be helpful to assist faculty members in thoughtfully working to balance the various expectations and aspirations of their own careers with associated activities related to high-quality mentoring of undergraduate students. One important element of such planning is that faculty members consider when they can (and when they cannot) invest in a high-quality mentoring relationship with an undergraduate student.
  6. Recognize and reward good mentoring. Colleges and universities need to consider how mentoring undergraduate students in research fits into the evaluative standards used for the promotion and tenure processes, and how other kinds of tangible supports can be offered to those who excel in such activity. Given the vital learning opportunity such experiences offer to students -- not to mention the considerable time and effort required of the faculty member -- we believe that faculty work in this high-impact practice should be recognized, rewarded and formalized in institutional practice and policy.
  7. Assess and reassess. Finally, if we are to hold to the belief that good-quality mentoring is inextricably linked with successful undergraduate research experiences, then we need to commit to an honest assessment and evaluation of these experiences that provides the faculty mentor with an opportunity for growth and development in this important role.

What we have come to know about the experience for students engaged in undergraduate research, scholarship and creative work is that it has the potential to facilitate deep and lasting high-impact learning. This potential can only be fully realized when colleges and universities commit to the belief that high-quality mentoring matters -- for students, faculty members and their institutions over all -- and they put practices and programs in place to promote, reinforce and celebrate it.

Laura L. Behling is professor of English at Knox College. W. Brad Johnson is professor of psychology at the U.S. Naval Academy. Paul C. Miller is assistant provost for communications and operations and professor of exercise science at Elon University. Maureen Vandermaas-Peeler is professor of psychology and director of the Center for Research on Global Engagement at Elon University. They served as co-leaders of the Elon University Center for Engaged Learning’s Seminar on Excellence in Mentoring Undergraduate Research, 2014-16.

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Supposed campus guidelines on costumes not always what they seem

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Colleges are pilloried each October by conservative media for being overly concerned about students offended by Halloween costumes. But do those stories miss the hands-off approach colleges often take?

The questionable assumptions of annual lists of new students' worldviews (essay)

A new academic year always brings with it a host of reminders of how the incoming class differs from previous generations. This fall, for instance, Beloit College released its Mind-Set List for the entering Class of 2021 as a way to emphasize “the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college.” Pithy in its lightheartedness, the annual list provides a snapshot of the “changing worldview of each new college generation.”

BuzzFeed has periodically tried to imitate Beloit’s otherwise distinctive approach but attempts to point out that the differences among each new crop of students abound. An article published on Pearson’s website notes, for instance, that the “new generation of students entering our classrooms … have never known a world without the internet. They’ve had smartphones since they were barely teens.” That requires, the article goes on to suggest, changing the way we teach, to meet students in the digital environments in which they have supposedly always lived.

And that assumes, of course, that they want to meet us as well. It’s also common to remind us that today’s students spend much more time on leisure activities and themselves than their studies, work or familial obligations. In sum, today’s students are radically different from previous generations.

For those of us who teach, this genre of articles provides a ready reminder of the generational disconnect that we may often feel with each new crop of students. Speaking from my own experience, I try my best to keep up with broad cultural shifts as a means to cultivate awareness of where my students are coming from. But many of my go-to pedagogical examples, at least when teaching younger students, often fall flat for the simple reason that my students don’t get them. To reference one item on this year’s Mind-Set List, many of my students don’t remember Bill Clinton’s presidency; for them he’s primarily “Hillary Clinton’s aging husband.” The list can be a helpful, ready tool for faculty members looking to connect with their students, and it comes with a guide that can serve “as the basis for one-on-one chats, and at other times for class discussions and even personal essays.”

Nevertheless, one of the unintentional consequences of this emphasis on the uniqueness of each incoming class is that it perpetuates the common assumption that the college population is made up mainly of 18- to 22-year-olds, give or take a year or two. That is, it assumes that “this year’s college class” is mainly composed of recent high school graduates. As this year’s Mind-Set List mentioned, “Students heading into their first year of college this year are mostly 18 and were born in 1999.”

I’ve been teaching full-time for the past seven years, and I’ve certainly taught my fair share of students who fall under that category. Indeed, save for a few notable examples, that’s the picture of college painted in various media and present in the popular imagination. Going off to college, that is, is an almost obligatory rite of passage for those able to do so, and we professors are charged with the responsibility of helping them transition into adulthood.

The problem, however, is that’s not an entirely accurate representation of what the landscape of higher education now looks like, even if most institutions continue to shape their public identity and allocate many of their resources to cater to the 18- to 22-year-old set. The fact of the matter is, across the board, students over the age of 25 constitute a significant percentage of the undergraduate population -- somewhere around 40 percent -- and that number is expected to increase. Moreover, the majority of students enrolled at colleges and universities across the country are often referred to as “nontraditional.”

Although definitions of what constitutes a “nontraditional” student vary, the National Center for Education Statistics notes that such students usually have at least one of the following characteristics:

  • delays enrollment (does not enter postsecondary education in the same calendar year that they finished high school);
  • attends part-time for at least part of the academic year;
  • works full-time (35 hours or more per week) while enrolled;
  • is considered financially independent for purposes of determining eligibility for financial aid;
  • has dependents other than a spouse (usually children, but sometimes others);
  • is a single parent (either not married or married but separated and has dependents); or
  • does not have a high school diploma (completed high school with a GED or other high school completion certificate or did not finish high school).

Such students account for almost three-fourths of the undergraduate population, meaning that the “traditional” group that receives the bulk of attention is “the exception rather than the rule.”

I don’t want to come across as a curmudgeon. Things like Beloit’s Mind-Set List are fun, and it’s always important, as other articles likewise suggest, to be reminded of generational gaps. Nevertheless, how we define the “entering Class of 2021” -- or any class -- matters. Representing “the lives of students entering college” primarily in terms of the so-called traditional student leaves out the majority of degree-seeking students -- and thus ultimately paints a false picture of what higher education looks like in the United States.

Moreover, privileging the 18- to 22-year-old student population as the norm sends the message, albeit subtly, that those who fall outside that category don’t really belong, that they’re not really part of that “entering class.” Indeed, as Needham Yancey Gulley has argued, the distinction between traditional and nontraditional students -- a distinction unintentionally replicated in the Mind-Set List -- reinforces this message. As he puts it, “Referring to our students as nontraditional puts them at a starting line behind other college enrollees -- not only in their sense of self but also in the minds of fellow students, faculty members, administrators and policy makers. Using such language basically says, ‘We are going out on a limb by letting you attend college, because this place is not really designed for you, and you really should not be here.’”

So, while Beloit’s Mind-Set List and the like may give us a window into “the cultural touchstones that shape the lives of students entering college,” they only do so for a select portion of the student population. The fact of the matter is that many generations and corresponding worldviews are already present in any given entering class. And while it’s certainly necessary to bridge generational divides, given the actual landscape of higher education in this country, there are more divides than just one.

Hollis Phelps is an assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Penfield College of Mercer University.

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Research says college students no more narcissistic than previous generations at that age

College students are more narcissistic than older people. But, perhaps young people always have been narcissistic, and it’s not so much a generational problem as it is a problem of youth, research suggests.

How to improve retention of sophomore students (essay)

Everyone in higher education has heard of the sophomore slump. At most colleges and universities, first-year students are welcomed, encouraged and provided programs and services designed to help them navigate new academic expectations and build social networks. But they often come back the following fall with an unavoidable question: “So what do I do now?”

No longer new yet usually without a major (at least at liberal arts colleges) and still seeking a firm social place in the community, many sophomores lack focus and drift. They get into trouble, drop out, get sent home, transfer.

Higher education can no longer ignore the sophomore slump. The sophomore year is the toughest year in college -- it is where retention lives. We have to build on first-year programs to empower sophomore students to define the questions that will guide their academic journeys, to identify the opportunities and activities that will lead to their desired postcollegiate careers, and to develop relationships with faculty members, staff members and peers who will mentor them along the way. Individual institutions will have to determine their own approaches, remaining true to their mission and values. But retaining sophomores should be the overriding goal.

“Sophomore” derives from the Greek sophos, meaning “wise,” and mōros, meaning “fool.” Keeping that notion in mind as we envision and design programs for sophomores is probably a good start. Scholars who have focused on the sophomore year, such as Molly Schaller of St. Louis University and Julie Tetley at the U.S. Air Force Academy, have also advocated for a combination of academic and social programs directed solely toward sophomores. Those programs include dedicated housing, enhanced live-in academic advising, career and major-discovery programs, programs that single sophomores out and acknowledge their presence, and courses specifically designed to help second-year students answer vexing questions about their place and purpose on the campus and beyond.

At St. Lawrence University, we have been working on those questions for about a decade. While we have a longstanding and robust yearlong program for first-year students, like most institutions, we have long known about and acknowledged some of the usual slippage during the sophomore year -- especially between the spring of the first year and the declaration of a major during the spring of the second year. During that time, students, especially young men, often avoid advisers, struggle with time management and overembrace new freedoms from parental and academic structures -- all of which results in them neglecting their academic work.

We have, however, taken steps of the sort suggested by Schaller and Tetley. Under the aegis of a 2007 grant from the Teagle Foundation, we worked with colleagues at Colorado, Connecticut and Skidmore Colleges to learn about the academic and social circumstances of sophomores at liberal arts colleges, and we then produced a white paper. Based on both quantitative and qualitative data gathered at each college, this paper recommended a variety of initiatives, still quite pertinent, that encourage sophomores to define and explore the goals that animate them within the liberal arts. We began by surveying our students about their interactions with their academic advisers, the challenges they felt, their campus involvements and their overall satisfaction. Those results led each college to initiate high-impact programs focused on sophomores.

While those program offerings varied at each institution, we all reconsidered our advising structures and set about designing complementary initiatives. At St. Lawrence, we created a menu of sophomore seminars and held discussion dinners. The seminars were shorter than usual courses, designed to feel different and focused on questions of personal values. (Two sample titles: “The Meaning of Life” and “What’s Important to Me?”) These seminars have continued and, through a 2016 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we are in the process of expanding them as a central element in a program we have called Sophomore Journeys.

Some of our new Sophomore Journeys seminars feature the same type of practical, hands-on, experiential learning that students so often praise in our successful first-year program. Students learn how to create podcasts and documentary videos or explore techniques for designing and assembling books. Other seminars have community-based learning components, like a book group with community members or a semester-long project with a partner social services organization. Still others will address pressing contemporary issues like the diversity of ways to practice Islam; the impact of the sport on national discussions of race, identity and policy; or how to evaluate the influence of Twitter on a presidency.

Every Sophomore Journeys seminar in our rotating menu of courses offers sophomores significant mentoring from faculty members outside the normal structure of office hours through teas and coffees, shared meals, and field trips. And every faculty member who teaches a sophomore seminar receives extra training on how to integrate into classroom discussions advice about selecting a major, obtaining internships and pursuing research opportunities, as well as how to talk more comfortably with students about their extracurricular activities and residential and social environments.

Many institutions, not just liberal arts colleges, can adapt these strategies. Where targeted classes for sophomores may not be possible, departments and programs can reshape their foundational courses and expand elective offerings with an appeal to sophomores in mind. Where overtaxed advisers must restrict their focus for efficiency’s sake to course selection or graduation requirements, colleges and universities can build peer-to-peer mentoring networks.

Attention to the sophomore year works: during the decade ending in 2016, St. Lawrence’s first-year-to-sophomore-year retention has held steady at about 90 percent. But more than numbers, important as they are, colleges and universities have an implicit pedagogical and moral imperative as teachers of undergraduates. The cost of ignoring the sophomore slump is not just lost tuition dollars when we fail to retain our sophomores. It is less engaged, less motivated juniors; it is seniors uncertain about their futures after graduation. Institutional culture and reputation depend on how we help sophomores shape their own best answers to the question “So what do I do now?”

Enticing high school graduates to our institutions implies the responsibility of providing direction and support throughout each of a student’s years on campus. On students’ arrival and first adjustment, and during the years focused on the major, we all know well how to proceed. But now, and most especially, we need to keep focusing on the sophomore year as our “wise fools” seek to find their way -- helping them in discovering passions and direction, finding the modes that work, and leading them where they want to go. That’s just what they should do now.

Sarah Barber is an associate professor of English at St. Lawrence University. Robert Thacker is the Charles A. Dana Professor of Canadian Studies and English and was the first associate dean for academic advising programs at St. Lawrence University.

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