"I think this a real gut-check moment for you, Nathan."
His eyes immediately drop to his lap in an apparent effort to do just that, and I feel my shoulders sag. I look over at my colleague, whose eyes meet mine and then roll slightly. Damn. Nathan looks up from his gut check and eyes me quizzically. I quickly adjust.
"What I mean is that this is one of those important moments when you decide if you really want to do something that's difficult." In this case, it was giving up his habit of taking over-the-counter medication in excess. I, of course, had my own habit to give up: my tendency to use figurative language to explain a concept or suggestion or quandary in which my students find themselves.
For most of my career, I have worked with students who, for the most part, traveled with me down the road of abstraction (See? There I go again. Damn). I would sit with them and explain how texting an ex-boyfriend was like "touching a hot stove over and over," or how missing class repeatedly meant they were digging themselves a hole that got deeper by the day, or that seeing a counselor would help them box up those bad memories and stack them neatly on a closet shelf where they could be accessed without fear of being crushed. Not always the most elegant language, but it worked for me, and seemed to work for them.
These days, I find myself in the company of very different students. They live together in a residential and academic support program that was created to help high-functioning autistic students, or students with significant executive function challenges, succeed in college. We provide a level of academic and organizational support that is beyond the capacity of most colleges, and in doing so, allow these often very bright students to take, and pass, classes and ultimately get a college degree and a credential necessary for some of the careers to which they aspire.
They can do many things: solve complex math problems, explain chemistry to anyone who will listen, remember dates of significant world historical events in a manner foreign to most college students who only want to memorize what will be on an exam.
What they can't do very well is understand my metaphors. They are, most of them, literal thinkers.
"Don't throw in the towel yet!" I implore Stephen, who is thinking of quitting a club he has joined.
"What towel?" Damn.
"Don't give up yet. Don't quit. Give it a few more meetings and see if you like it better."
I never realized just how much I resort to visual metaphors until I couldn't use them anymore. I am like a mechanic without a wrench, a hairstylist without a comb, a ... you see, this is my problem. I don't plan these analogies and similes. It just seems to be how my brain works. I come by it naturally, as my mother was the queen of the cliché, the euphemism, the short-phrase-that-put-all-in-perspective.
"Every cloud has a silver lining." "It's always darkest before the dawn." (Yes, teenagers love hearing those responses to heartbreak). My mother knew every aphorism available to English speakers. A well-phrased maxim was her primary child-rearing tool.
Perhaps she would have diversified her portfolio if she'd given birth to an autistic son rather than a daydreaming poet of a daughter. But she didn't, and now, here I am: in a job where I am often unable to use a tool that has served me so well in my work with students, a linguistic Leatherman, one could say, that I am lost without it (I just did it again, but that was pretty subtle).
"Come on, Robert. Don't let him get your goat," I say, trying to mediate between two students unable to be civil to one another.
"My goat?" asked Robert, suddenly sure that his nemesis was stealing yet another object of his.
"Don't let him..." What? Get the better of you? That's kind of abstract.
Rattle your cage? Ruffle your feathers? Get on your nerves? I settle on, "Don't let him make you angry." The conversation then continues.
My almost-daily moments of realizing my dependence on figurative language, proverbs, metaphors and other abstract notions make me very aware of the challenges my students face in the classroom. So much of teaching involves metaphor, which someone once defined as "using something we know to explain something we don't know."
In the rich scholarship of metaphor and meaning, this is more clearly articulated as two domains. One is the "source" domain, from which we draw the metaphorical expression: "Love is a battlefield"; "Life is a carnival." The source domain is our extant knowledge of a battlefield or a carnival, of things that are concrete, physical. The other domain is the "target" domain, where the metaphor takes us (to an understanding, in these cases, of love and life), to abstract and figurative concepts.
A teacher travels between these domains constantly, and the best teachers take their students there in style. Every academic subject -- literature, physics, computer science -- relies on metaphors for explanation of complex notions. And sometimes these notions become the source domain themselves. We refer to an organization’s core value as “being in its DNA," or a deeply held belief as being part of someone's "genetic code."
In their book Metaphors We Live By, authors George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write of the "conceptual metaphor" and its importance in cognition. Metaphors influence not just how we think, but how we feel and act. If, for example, a group of employees is placed into two "teams" and asked to "swing for the fences" toward a goal, they may find themselves in a competitive mindset.
If instead, they are asked to work in groups to build a "house," with different "subcontractors" working toward a common goal, they may approach their work in a more collaborative fashion. A simple comment like, "Hey, we're all in the same boat here" works to inspire a group of people because they instantly, with no effort, flash to the image of themselves in a boat with their co-workers and then quickly grasp what the boss is saying: we're in this work together. Metaphors, and our individual and collective ability to grasp them, hold great persuasive power in our learning and working environments.
So when I imagine my students in a typical classroom, with a talented professor zooming between and among metaphors, I see looks on their faces similar to the ones I've seen when I've said things like, "This is a gut-check moment," or "Give it a whirl": bewilderment followed by defeat.
When everyone in the classroom seems to get what the professor has said except you, it is hard not to be discouraged. Coupled with the cognitive processing speed deficits that are not uncommon among high-functioning autistic students, one can see why their attrition rate is higher than their native intelligence and innate perseverance would predict. I know I'd get frustrated if I were them. It's very likely I would throw in the towel, or raise a white flag, even.
I find that I do recognize that bewildered expression more quickly these days, and so catch myself almost as soon as the maxim, proverb, aphorism or metaphor is out of my mouth, or I at least announce, “I’m going to make a comparison between two things” (explaining a rule or predicting an action is often very helpful to students on the autism spectrum).
I have come to recognize, too, that some of my students do not have this particular deficit, and that some of them are so quick to use a metaphor to describe something that I need a moment to catch up myself. One afternoon, I watched as some students tossed a brand-new rugby ball belonging to one of them, Shane, in the front yard of the house we occupy. An errant toss landed the ball in the street where a truck quickly crushed it. Shane was good-naturedly bummed about his lost ball; when another staff member came outside moments later, he said to her, "Abbie, my firstborn committed suicide."
She looked alarmed, then followed his pointing finger to the street where she saw the flattened carcass of the ball on pavement. "It was my first rugby ball, and now it's gone," he said, in mock despair. "Shane," I observed, "to be accurate, it was actually more of an assisted suicide." He looked at me and for a moment, I thought I had gone one step too far with the metaphor.
"Yeah," he replied, laughing. "But that’s O.K., since that's now legal in Vermont."
As more and more students on the autism spectrum arrive in our classrooms, as accommodations allow more students with nonverbal learning disabilities to succeed enough to land on a college campus, our attention to our own language habits must increase. A few years ago, I might have responded to that request with some resistance. This is how I talk. This is who I am.
But now, spending my days in the company of students who have to work incredibly hard to succeed in a traditional academic setting, even with the appropriate accommodations, I know the onus is on me to add another tool to my toolbox. Exercise some new muscles. Step up my game.
Or maybe just ... improve.
Lee Burdette Williams is director of student life and collegiate partnerships at Mansfield Hall, in Burlington, Vt.
Much of the attention in higher education circles focuses on getting more vulnerable students to and through college. We have finally acknowledged that access to and entry into post-high school education not enough; we need to focus on graduation – whether from a certificate program, a community college or a four-year college or university. We have targeted improving graduation rates as a goal that symbolizes success, enabling some to claim victory when those rates rise.
But we are mistaken. We are claiming success too early. This point – which had been gnawing at some of us for months as we have watched and listened to our current seniors – was brought to the fore in Jeff Hobbs' new book, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace. The story of Robert Peace is poignant, examining how a kid from Newark graduated from Yale with a degree in molecular biology and ended up murdered in a drug-related crime. The lost potential is agonizing; the pain of Peace’s mother is staggering.
Robert’s story is not unique. Of course, the individual stories are not identical nor necessarily as tragic. But consider the plight of many first-generation, low-income students who leave their homes and land on college campuses (whether elite or not) where some excel academically and then graduate. Normally, we stop the story there and celebrate success. Since graduation rates are so low for vulnerable students, we assume that the awarding of a degree is the crowning achievement.
In this book and through our lived experiences, certain questions recur: What more could have been done to save Robert? Could he have been saved if colleges saw their responsibility as extending beyond the moment a degree is awarded? Think about how many high schools consider their jobs done when students get accepted to college and complete high school. Check the box. Move on. But do these high-schoolers actually get to college and graduate? High schools are cutting short the scope of their work.
We think that colleges like the one where we work now have a greater obligation than we realize. We offer our first-generation students a career-launching liberal arts education but we do not address with enough deliberateness how our students will transition from our institution into employment or graduate school. Where will they live? Should they return home? How can they navigate their friendships from before and after college? What about their families back home?
Yes, we have career services offices. Yes, we match academic programs with careers. Yes, we have graduate fairs and job fairs. Yes, we have résumé-writing workshops. Yes, we do mock interviews. We do GRE prep. But what we are missing is what would have helped Robert Peace: an effort to focus on the transition from college to graduate school or the workplace in terms of its psychological dimensions. In the toolbox of skills we provide our first generation, low-income students who are graduating, we have failed to give them the skills to “crosswalk” effectively and smoothly between their past and their present and their future.
We should know better. We have experience with our younger veterans now returning stateside. Many of these veterans understandably struggle to navigate effectively from military life to civilian life. Settling into and then succeeding in college are mighty challenges. This reinforces the need to pay attention to our college seniors – preparing them not just for graduation and a career. We need to help them transition from college back to the “outside” world. Robert Peace was left to figure that pathway out on his own and he failed. Interventions from friends and family did not help.
We recognize that there is no magic pill here. But, here are two strategies that can help.
First, if student success has been accomplished on campus by helping students believe in themselves and believe they belong in college, then the mentors who have enabled this to occur need to keep in touch with these students post-graduation – in person, online, via Skype. This is part and parcel of the workload of these mentors. These new graduates need to know that their supporters’ belief in them was not time-delimited and did not end with graduation. Distance does not change, then, the commitment mentors have to their mentees even when those mentors themselves move on to different positions. An online set of modules could be created to achieve this end – engaging graduates and their mentor on a go-forward basis.
Second, it is worth adding the following quasi-mandate for vulnerable students who graduate, outlined to them at the get-go: a commitment that they return to campus and develop a mentor/mentee with a new student who was similar to them? This accomplishes several goals. It gets graduates back to campus, back to a place where they experienced success. It creates an expectation at the beginning that with success comes a commitment to pay it forward. But here is the key: in paying it forward, graduates can appreciate how far they have come, and that in and of itself can shed light on their comfort with their own pathway into the future. Both the graduates and their mentees benefit.
Perhaps there was nothing that would have saved Robert Peace. But whether or not that is true, there is now one college president, one program director and one campus reflecting on how future Robert Peaces could be helped and what is it we can do on our campuses to improve the odds that that difficult post-college transition can be navigated more effectively.
Getting a degree is a major accomplishment; using that degree and finding a place outside the protections of academia where one can flourish and contribute meaningfully to society and handle the complexities of the different worlds in which we all move would be a success. Sadly, this is a victory denied Robert Peace.
Karen Gross is president of Southern Vermont College. Ivan Figueroa is director of diversity and the Mountaineer Scholar Program at the college.
In the scramble for colleges and universities to stem the tide of sexual violence that has come onto their campuses, California has become the first in the nation to enact a “yes means yes” standard into law. On September 28, 2014, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that requires colleges and universities receiving state funds to adopt sexual assault policies that include affirmative consent as the key element in determining whether sexual activity was consensual.
Just what is affirmative consent? What will count as a yes? It’s hard to say. It seems obvious, but the parameters of affirmative consent are illusive and hard to define. Even the Department of Education, which has been so aggressive in imposing onerous Title IX requirements on colleges and universities, has been resistive to defining affirmative consent. It is all a little reminiscent of Justice Stewart’s standard for pornography: “I know it when I see it.”
The California law adds little to the dialogue. It contains a succinct definitional statement, that is then followed by a long list of things that affirmative consent is not, which seem every bit as essential to understanding the term as the definition itself. Affirmative consent is: “affirmative, conscious, and voluntary agreement to engage in sexual activity.”
It is not silence, lack of protest or resistance, the existence of a dating relationship or previous sexual relations. It cannot exist when a sexual partner knew, or reasonably should have known, that the other was asleep, unconscious or incapacitated due to drugs, alcohol or medication, or unable to communicate due to a mental or physical condition.
The bill originally required that affirmative consent be “communicated.” This was taken out, and the final version permits affirmative consent to be nonverbal. Nonverbal communication can take many forms and will always be subject to misinterpretation.
Because each institution that receives state funds must adopt its own policies that include the new affirmative consent standard, it is predictable there will be subtle variations in the local language adopted at different institutions, and resultant uncertainty, confusion and potential inconsistency in enforcement. It is not clear whether state regulations will follow that might add to the definition of affirmative consent.
Both the University of California and the California State University already had affirmative consent policies in place by the time the new law was passed. Both actively supported the bill. Several other institutions -- e.g., Grinnell, Dartmouth, Yale, Claremont McKenna -- also have affirmative consent policies already in place. It has been proposed or is under active discussion at dozens of other institutions. Governor Cuomo of New York has recently announced that all of the SUNY campuses must enact policies that include the affirmative consent standard.
The California law requires training of both students and faculty about affirmative consent, including all incoming students as a part of orientation. Since Title IX already mandates much training around campus sexual behaviors, presumably this will be a natural and complementary add-on. How each campus goes about that training will vary. Students may be advised about the policies in live or video training, compelled to watch role-playing episodes performed by actors, required to take online tests to confirm their understanding, or even obliged to participate in live practice sessions on how to ask for, give and refuse consent.
But even if affirmative consent is, and likely always will be, subjective, the new California law makes a monumental change that is much less ambiguous, and will fundamentally change the way consent is determined in disciplinary proceedings.
The law places a burden on both parties to ensure that they have the affirmative consent of the other throughout any sexual activity. Consent can be revoked at any time, and must be renewed as sexual activity escalates. This means that when one sexual partner claims in a student discipline context that the other did not have affirmative consent to engage in any challenged sexual activity, the burden will shift to the initiator of the sexual activity to offer objective evidence of consent. He or she cannot claim confusion, or that his or her sexual partner did not establish boundaries. If there was no clear invitation to proceed, the college or university must conclude there was no affirmative consent.
There will still be situations where one student claims to have had consent and the other denies it. There will be cases involving alcohol, where one student claims that the other was not incapacitated. There will continue to be he said-she said disputes with no witnesses. But this new burden placed on the party claimed not to have had consent, to offer evidence of consent, transforms the institutional disciplinary process.
Some claim that the law is too much governmental intrusion into private sexual behavior. Maybe. But it is hard to argue in these times of egregious sexual misbehaviors that creating a clearer dialogue between sexual partners, and encouraging especially inexperienced young people to exercise great caution in their sexual lives, is a bad idea. The new law does not compel colleges and universities to be in the room or dictate what happens when students engage in sexual conduct. Rather, the college and university obligation is to adopt policies, only tested or enforced after the fact, when affirmative consent is claimed to have been lacking.
There are other important elements in the new law that should not be overlooked. Campus policies must be “victim-centered,” include privacy protections, interview standards, coordination with law enforcement, participation of victim advocates, and discipline exemption for student witnesses who participated in underage drinking. Campuses must provide trauma-informed training for those involved in investigation or adjudication of complaints. On- and off-campus support must be provided for students, both victims and perpetrators.
But the most remarkable aspect of the new law is the shifting of the burden in disciplinary hearings to the initiator of sexual activity to demonstrate that he or she had the permission of the other party to proceed.
Will the law make any difference? No one knows. There will likely be some chaos, confusion and controversy in the short term, before getting to consistently fair and balanced results. But the shift in expectation and proof is a game-changer and will most likely produce different student discipline results -- whether for better or worse remains to be seen.
Christine Helwick is former general counsel for the California State University system and now advises college and university clients at Hirschfeld Kraemer.