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Cornell College of Arts and Sciences considers new general-education program

Will proposal for streamlined general-education program at Cornell's College of Arts and Sciences give the curriculum new life? Can new approaches to language and diversity engage students who might otherwise lose interest?

Overview of forthcoming university press books on social media, privacy and technology

Things have been rocky of late in the public’s love affair with our ever more sophisticated gadgets. The troubles have been building up for a while: cyberbullying, revenge porn, Twitter-bot mayhem … Last month, Amazon’s Alexa started randomly “laughing at users and creeping them out,” while Facebook’s vast and mostly unaccountable power would have made a #DeleteFacebook campaign inevitable even without reports of a massive data breach. And the week started with the death of a pedestrian hit by a self-driving car -- an eventuality that no doubt crossed most people’s minds immediately upon hearing the words “self-driving car” for the first time.

The relationship isn’t over -- even if, from the human side, it often seems more like a case of Stockholm syndrome than a romance. Several new and forthcoming titles from university presses take up the interconnected subjects of social media, privacy and technological change. Here’s a brief survey; quoted material is taken from publishers’ catalogs and websites.

Originally published in Germany, Roberto Simanowski’s Facebook Society: Losing Ourselves in Sharing Ourselves (Columbia University Press, July) maintains that social media “remake the self in their [own] image” by conditioning users to experience their own lives as raw material for “episodic autobiographies whose real author is the algorithm lurking behind the interface.” Appearing in English two years and billions of likes later, it will presumably find readers with an even more attenuated “cultural memory and collective identity in an emergent digital nation.” Lee Humphreys’s The Qualified Self: Social Media and the Accounting of Everyday Life (MIT Press, March) offers an at least implicit dissent by arguing that “predigital precursors of today’s digital and mobile platforms for posting text and images” (e.g., diaries, pocket notebooks, photo albums) have allowed people “to catalog and share their lives for several centuries.” Hence, our “ability to take selfies has not turned us into needy narcissists; it’s part of a longer story about how people account for everyday life.” Perhaps, though, the options aren’t mutually exclusive, as the author seems to imply.

The disinhibiting effects of online communication are well established. Moderation often seems to be exercised after the fact, when conducted at all. (A death threat is taken down eventually; lesser forms of harassment may enjoy the benefit of the doubt.) But according to Tarleton Gillespie’s Custodians of the Internet: Platforms, Content Moderation, and the Hidden Decisions That Shape Social Media (Yale University Press, June), that is changing with the rise of a powerful but normally inconspicuous layer of digital operatives. Content moderators -- those “who censor or promote user-posted content” on social-media platforms -- have tools “to curb trolling, ban hate speech, and censor pornography” that can also be used to “silence the speech you need to hear.” Their role “receives little public scrutiny even as it is shapes social norms,” with “consequences for public discourse, cultural production, and social interaction.”

And it’s easy to imagine content moderation becoming a much faster and more discriminating process when combined with the disruptive technology discussed in Terry Sejnowski's The Deep Learning Revolution (MIT, May). The author, “one of a small group of researchers in the 1980s who challenged the prevailing logic-and-symbol based version” of artificial intelligence, helped develop “deep learning networks” capable of not just extracting and processing information but of “gradually acquiring the skills needed to navigate novel environments” -- as exhibited by, for example, driverless cars. Which is a touchy subject just now, but give it time: Sejnowski predicts the development of, among other things, “a personal cognitive assistant will augment your puny human brain.” By that point, I fear, the driverless cars will start running us over on purpose.

Meredith Broussard makes the case against “technochauvinism” -- defined as “the belief that technology is always the solution” -- in Artificial Unintelligence: How Computers Misunderstand the World (MIT, April). With a series of case studies, the author “uses artificial intelligence to investigate why students can’t pass standardized tests; deploys machine learning to predict which passengers survived the Titanic disaster; and attempts to repair the U.S. campaign finance system by building AI software.” Clearly no Luddite, she stresses the need to recognize both the power and the limits of our technology, however smart and responsive it may become.

Our devices possess no sense of privacy. On the contrary, “popular digital tools are designed to expose people and manipulate users into disclosing personal information,” as Woodrow Hartzog charges in Privacy's Blueprint: The Battle to Control the Design of New Technologies (Harvard University Press, April). It’s time for “a new kind of privacy law responsive to the way people actually perceive and use digital technologies” -- and new regulations to “prohibit malicious interfaces that deceive users and leave them vulnerable” and “require safeguards against abuses of biometric surveillance,” among other things.

Two other books, also from Harvard, trace the historical vicissitudes of privacy. Sarah E. Igo’s The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America recounts how, between the 19th and 21st centuries, “popular journalism and communication technologies, welfare bureaucracies and police tactics, market research and workplace testing, scientific inquiry and computer data banks, tell-all memoirs and social media all propelled privacy to the foreground of U.S. culture.” But establishing laws in defense of privacy -- defending the individual from “wrongful publicity” -- also yielded the unexpected consequence Jennifer E. Rothman analyzes in The Right of Publicity: Privacy Reimagined for a Public World: “Beginning in the 1950s, the right transformed into a fully transferable intellectual property right, generating a host of legal disputes …” It “transformed people into intellectual property, leading to a bizarre world in which you can lose ownership of your own identity.” (Both Igo’s and Rothman’s volumes are due out in May.)

While social media foster the tendency for individuals to think of their own personalities as brands, the trend in the business world has run in the other direction: well-established brands are just as susceptible to a sudden reversal of reputation from a few hostile tweets as any junior-high student or member of the White House staff. “With citizens acting as 24-7 auditors of corporate behavior, one formerly trusted company after another has had their business disrupted with astonishing velocity,” according to James Rubin and Barie Carmichael’s Reset: Business and Society in the New Social Landscape (Columbia University Press, January). Offered as “a strategic road map for businesses to navigate the new era, rebuild trust, and find their voice” by “proactively mitigating the negative social impacts inherent in their business models, strategies, and operations,” Reset will be of interest and use to corporate executives until such time as they are replaced by our AI overlords.

And with that in mind, two books with rather cataclysmic titles bear notice. Small Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict by Eli Berman, Joseph H. Felter and Jacob N. Shapiro with Vestal McIntyre (Princeton University Press, June) argues that “an information-centric understanding of insurgencies,” benefiting from the accumulation of “vast data, rich qualitative evidence, and modern methods,” is superior to conventional military methods. In a more figural vein, Justin Joque’s Deconstruction Machines: Writing in the Age of Cyberwar (University of Minnesota Press, February) presents “a detailed investigation of what happens at the crisis points when cybersecurity systems break down and reveal their internal contradictions,” with cyberattacks “seen as a militarized form of deconstruction in which computer programs are systems that operate within the broader world of texts.” That sounds abstract, but it could just be that our commonplace notions of warfare are out of date.

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How to mentor colleagues whose future roles may differ significantly from yours (opinion)

If we are to help develop the leaders we need for the future, advises Judith S. White, we must mentor them for jobs that are changing. 

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Balancing free expression with unrepresented students' sense of belonging (opinion)

On our college campuses today, two core values of the academy, and of democratic society, have come into conflict.

On the one hand, we have freedom of expression, which is the foundation of all academic life. Free speech is what enables our students to pursue knowledge -- to learn and to grow -- by discussing subjects of all kinds, including the most troubling. It is the heart of every college and university, and the lifeblood of democratic self-governance.

On the other hand, we have diversity and inclusion. Our institutions have evolved to the point where many of us have embraced diversity in our core mission and value statements. And our students seek that diversity: in a recent Gallup/Knight Foundation study, those surveyed said they valued a diverse and inclusive environment more than free-speech rights.

What happens when those two core values come into conflict? This clash is different because it hits a raw nerve -- one of identity, particularly those identities that are deeply embedded and not chosen, such as race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. If that clash was about any other core values, such as belittling one’s chosen position about climate change or economic policy, it wouldn’t feel personal. But belittling one’s identity? Now exclusion is at the forefront, and it becomes personal.

Let me give you an example from my own experience when I was at Augustana College.

During the long presidential campaign of 2016, students, faculty and staff members awoke one morning to find that the entire campus had been covered with political slogans. “Build the Wall.” “Feminism Is Cancer.” “Hillary for Prison.” And, of course, “Trump 2016.” The slogans were chalked on every sidewalk.

Who would have thought that an innocent piece of chalk, a child’s most basic toy, could become a tool to provoke, to attack and -- yes -- to hurt?

Many students in our community felt threatened when they found themselves surrounded by those slogans written in the middle of the night. Those students who felt affected held protest meetings and demanded an immediate response from the administration. They wanted us to issue a condemnation of the sidewalk messages and take action against whoever was responsible.

Suddenly, we were embroiled in a dilemma other colleges and universities across the country were facing. Some people would have said it’s the dilemma about whether free expression on our campuses should have limits. But some of us saw it otherwise. We said it’s a dilemma about the limits on free expression when speech comes into conflict with the right of students to feel that they belong at our institutions.

A sense of belonging: that is perhaps the key to the value of diversity and inclusion. Over the past quarter century, higher education has looked closely at the fortunes of students of color at our colleges and universities. We have looked at retention and graduation rates. We have looked at student experiences on our campuses and participation in academic enrichment opportunities. We have seen that students of color come to our institutions and have a different experience than our white students, which impacts outcomes -- and we have learned that we need to be honest about the specificity of those experiences.

As a result, we have started to have serious conversations about what it would take for students of color to feel a similar sense of belonging as our white students. What that means, in immediate, personal terms, is that when students come back to our campuses after being away, we say to them, “Welcome home.”

So how can we break our word? It is entirely legitimate for students of color to say, “If this is truly my home, then why can’t I feel safe and respected within its walls? How is it tolerable that I should be assaulted by hateful messages within my own home?”

In such situations, some people nowadays are quick to complain that students have become too soft. Too spoiled. Coddled. Special snowflakes. But let me tell you, I could see that such students on my own campus were truly hurt, and some were in shock. I could not discount their feelings. I was disturbed myself -- those words stung me, too. But we administrators must act on principle and accept the emotional toll, even as we explain our decisions to different groups and, ironically, leave no one feeling completely satisfied.

The fact is, our administration could not satisfy student demands for legal action. As difficult as it was, we had to explain there are different kinds of threats, and while the aggressive, hurtful words scrawled around the campus indeed felt threatening, they did not constitute what the law considers to be a material threat or an imminent physical danger.

Yet the students didn’t want to hear this legalistic response. So, what could we do for them?

First, we asserted the right of our college to enforce our student code of conduct. Our institutions have the authority to establish rules of behavior. Public colleges and universities, of course, have far less leeway than private institutions. But students elect to go to a college. And by choosing to do so, they agree to abide by the standards of their new community.

So, we said, we have rules against plastering fliers over every surface on our campus. Let’s apply that same rule to the political sloganeering -- or what some people claimed was hate speech -- that was chalked onto the sidewalk. We cannot ban people from chalking an endorsement of one political candidate or a nasty message about another. But you can’t just bombard us with these messages wherever we go. So we will establish a place where it’s permissible to chalk, just as there are places where it’s permissible to put up fliers and posters.

That was the first step. We used our code of conduct. Then, I made a misstep.

I can laugh about it in retrospect, but it was not funny at the time. When we made our code-of-conduct decision, I sent an email to the whole college explaining how things were going to work. I should have said, “We are going to establish a free chalking zone on campus.” But, in my haste, I wrote, “a free speech zone.”

After I sent that email, I sent another one to correct it. But the damage had been done. People who wanted to score political points were already sending out blog posts with a screenshot of my campus email and complaining that free speech had been fenced in at Augustana College.

Distraught students were pushing for an immediate response, but nevertheless, I should have used better judgment. I’d like to think I’ve learned from that mistake. I’ll share the lesson with you: don’t just hit “send.” Read the email twice before sending it out.

As another key step, when the opportunity arose, we engaged in dialogue with one of our student organizations. The organization wanted to invite former Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos to speak on campus in late spring or early fall 2016. Fortunately, the administration has to review all such invitations. We debated and did not just rubber-stamp this particular invitation. We asked the student leaders to engage in a conversation.

That conversation went as follows: as a college, we will not prevent Yiannopoulos from speaking, but we want to know, what teaching purpose do you believe will be served? What will he contribute to academic discourse? And how likely is it that he will persuade other students to adopt your point of view? If you truly believe in the positions you’re promoting, then why bring in a speaker who’s just a flamethrower? Why not bring in someone who is capable, in open discussion, of winning hearts and minds?

And the student leaders responded with, “You know, you’re right.” Engaging them in conversation before they brought in the speaker enabled our community to head off a potential problem.

Nothing we did was unique. And I realize we were really fortunate. However, our approach to resolving the conflict between free speech and inclusiveness can be found on other campuses. Drake University, for example, created a statement of principles that mentioned certain reasonable restrictions -- the things that students could not do -- but mostly focused on the positive: what students, faculty, and staff should do regarding free speech, academic freedom and civil discourse.

How can you create an effective statement of principles? Consider four components:

  1. Keep it short and simple, so it can be understood and remembered.
  2. Keep it inclusive, so that people realize the campus community is not divided into “us” and “them.” It’s always “us” and “others of us.”
  3. Keep it up-to-date, so that it encompasses changing situations.
  4. And, above all, keep it in practice. Model those principles and live them every day, not only in emergencies. Otherwise, they’re just Band-Aids.

The advantage of this approach is that it preserves free speech while making it clear to everyone that not all forms of behavior can be excused on First Amendment grounds. Indeed, campus speech codes have constitutional limits. But if we draft codes of conduct appropriately and take care to maintain a diversity of opinions, just as we respect the need for a diversity of people, then it is possible for us to create safe spaces for historically marginalized groups or for faculty to choose to provide students with trigger warnings without impacting the principles of free expression.

Our students are constantly learning, and we can’t expect them to know on their first try how to speak and interact in constructive ways that honor the community’s values. This is another reason why a statement of principles can be valuable -- and why inclusive and safe spaces, trigger warnings, and rules against microaggressions may be appropriate educational tools. They can help preserve an environment that allows for greater learning as long as we do the work on the other end of making our students ready to face uncomfortable, disturbing or even hateful environments once they leave our campuses.

The best learning often happens during debate, disagreement and controversy. We do well to remember that our educational missions are part of a continuing process intended to result in graduates more capable of navigating the world than when they first entered our campuses.

Pareena Lawrence is president of Hollins University. This essay was excerpted from a speech at the recent annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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Tuesday, March 20, 2018
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When Core Values Collide

CSU Northridge professor says she hasn't returned to classroom after online threat because university hasn't made her feel safe

Cal State Northridge professor says she hasn't returned to the classroom after an online threat because the university hasn't made her feel safe.

Review of Alberto Manguel, 'Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions'

Alberto Manguel has long since taken the title -- once held by Jorge Luis Borges -- of the bookworm’s bookworm. He is the voice of the species, or the closest thing we have to a celebrity at any rate. The opening pages of Packing My Library: An Elegy and Ten Digressions (Yale University Press) must elicit feelings of mingled envy and humility from anyone making do with a paltry few thousand volumes packed into any space that can be requisitioned as a shelf.

A critic and an editor of literary anthologies as well as an author in his own right, Manguel lived in rural France in a house next to “a barn, partly torn down centuries ago, large enough to accommodate my library, which by then had grown to thirty-five thousand books.” A private collection, its organization followed a private logic. The basic layout was “determined by the language in which the books were written,” which sounds straightforward enough: “without distinction of genre, all books written originally in Spanish or French, English or Arabic (the latter a language which I can’t speak or read) sat together on a shelf.”

But exceptions had to be made. Books have a way of arranging themselves by affinity sometimes: “Certain subjects -- the history of the book, biblical commentaries, the legend of Faust, Renaissance literature and philosophy, gay studies, medieval bestiaries -- had separate sections … I had on the shelves dozens of very bad books which I didn’t throw away in case I ever needed an example of a book I thought was bad. Balzac, in Cousin Pons, offered a justification for this obsessive behavior: ‘An obsession is a pleasure that has attained the status of an idea.’”

With Manguel, obsession has attained the status of a career: this is at least the 10th volume he has published concerning books, libraries and reading. He calls it an elegy, for the book barn is no more. Obliged to leave France for reasons he suggests it would be too tiresome to relive in writing, he had to box the books up and put them in a warehouse -- hence the book’s title, which also alludes to a well-known lecture by Walter Benjamin, the German critic and cultural historian.

Speaking in the early 1930s about the experience of unpacking his library after two years in storage, Benjamin used the occasion to reflect on being a book collector -- something that Manguel, however prone to hoarding he may seem, very definitely is not.

Benjamin, who was, among other things, one of the earliest and most perceptive critics to write about Kafka, was a very driven reader -- but he was willing to sell off his Kafka volumes in order to afford to add an item or two to his collection of rare children’s books. “The most profound enchantment for the collector,” he said, “is the locking of individual items within a magic circle in which they are fixed as the final thrill, the thrill of acquisition, passes over them.” To the collector, so defined, reading is at best irrelevant, at worst potentially damaging to the printed artifact itself.

Benjamin depicts unpacking his library as an emotional return to memories of finding and acquiring the items he has collected: “It is certainly not an elegiac mood but, rather, one of anticipation.” Manguel’s experience couldn’t offer a greater contrast. Packing up his library “is like playing a film backwards, consigning visible narratives and methodical reality to the regions of the distant and the unseen, a voluntary forgetting … If unpacking a library is a wild act of rebirth, packing it is a tidy entombment before the seemingly final judgment.”

And in cardboard coffins, at that. Manguel calls his books “packed and gone,” but the library’s fate is left unclear.

Implied here, I think, is that the Manguel had managed finally to put his books into an order that made sense -- that expressed something meaningful about what he had read and how he’d lived, a pattern that might never be restored.

Packing My Library is more essay collection than memoir. The division into “chapters” and “digressions” seems arbitrary; not even the slightly melancholic tone provides a viable commanding structure. For while the author admits feeling that his days as a writer are winding down, his final pages mark a rebirth of sorts: wherever his boxes of books end up, Manguel himself is now in Argentina, serving as director of the National Library (a position once held by Borges). Settling into the work, he felt at first “like those characters in a Jules Verne novel who find themselves on some faraway island and have to conjure up survival skills they never knew they had.” Packing My Library is a book about the past that seems likely to turn into a prologue.

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The overcommercialization of university mascots (opinion)

When I was in grade school in the 1960s, my dad took me to a few Penn State football games. And then in the 1970s, I was back in Beaver Stadium as a reporter hanging out in the press box. For a few games, I roamed the sidelines as a part-time sports photographer.

Later, I had the good fortune to work for Penn State. For half a dozen years while serving as vice president overseeing university communications, I watched the games from the luxury suites with donors, politicians, alums, special guests and senior administrators.

All that time, the Nittany Lion mascot was an important part of the game-day experience. In fact, the mascot has held his job for more than a century. And he has been a vital contributor to Penn State’s reputation around the world. The furry mascot is one of the single most valuable images of the 100,000-student school.

When I oversaw the marketing and branding efforts at Penn State, our staff conducted national public opinion surveys to get a good sense how Americans viewed the university. Year after year, the Nittany Lion mascot was always one of the very top mentions by people around the country. We regularly used him in TV, print and social media advertising encouraging high school students to enroll.

And it worked. His image, and the overall marketing program, attracted more applications to Penn State than to just about any other higher education institution in the country.

I don’t go to games any longer, but I do follow the university and the team, and I don’t like what I see the beloved Nittany Lion mascot doing these days. He’s sold out. Literally, he is sold out to commercial companies.

In addition to being one of the key images for one of the largest, most well-known universities in the nation, the mascot now sells coffee and doughnuts in his spare time. He has joined with mascots of other major universities across America to sell home mortgages. And he appears in television commercials selling beef jerky with Sasquatch.

The mascot can be seen in advertisements aired around the country during college and pro football games, as well as on social media platforms like Facebook. The Nittany Lion mascot is not alone in selling out. He appears in the 30-second beef jerky commercial with the University of Iowa’s Herky the Hawk. They are having their portrait painted by Bigfoot. You can view the commercial on YouTube.

And the mascot is showing up on TV and online, promoting Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans. He is in good company. In the 45-second version of the ad that you can view on YouTube, he appears with a tiger, elephant, duck, bull and other major university mascots. They are doing flips, giving high fives and executing their trademark moves every student and alum of their institutions memorized long ago.

The YouTube description says, “When it comes to leading cheers and one-handed push-ups, mascots have all the confidence in the world -- except when it comes to mortgages. Luckily for them, there's Rocket Mortgage by Quicken Loans. Now they're confident on and off the field. Get your own mortgage confidence at RocketMortgage.com.”

The Nittany Lion appears several times in the ad. Early on, he is seen running past a crowd of cheering fans in Beaver Stadium. He carries a blue-and-white Penn State flag with the university's sports logo past a blue wall also emblazoned with the logo. Fans in the background cheer, “We are Penn State!” In another quick scene in the ad, we see the lion crowdsurfing over a group of fans. In a third scene, he does a backward flip in front of a crowd of fans and the sports logo. The ad ends with a group of about a dozen college mascots, and there again is the Nittany Lion doing his famous (at least among Penn Staters everywhere) frenzied ear-scratching move.

You can even watch a special two-minute behind-the-scenes video that explains how all the mascots were flown in from around the country to film the commercial.

The university mascot has also been deployed to sell coffee and doughnuts. He popped up as an ad in my Facebook news feed last fall clutching Dunkin’ Donuts cups in his paws, promoting $1 cups on Mondays following a Penn State football team win. You can see a photo of the mascot with his coffee standing in Beaver Stadium in news coverage of the deal.

While all this may make for fun television, it is doing the Nittany Lion and Penn State a big disservice. Athletic departments should not be selling out their university mascots. I realize hiring multimillion-dollar coaches and building and operating expansive facilities to train, feed, entertain, tutor and pamper athletes is expensive. Penn State’s athletic budget was $144 million for the 2016-17 fiscal year.

But a mascot has a bigger role to play for an institution, especially for the best-known institutions. They are a symbol of pride and tradition.

The Nittany Lion mascot has been a central image for Penn State since 1904. He’s wildly popular with students, alums and residents of the state. By any measure, he has been a successful mascot for the institution. He was recently named a new inductee to the Mascot Hall of Fame, a multimillion-dollar facility being built in Whiting, Ind.

If you are an alum or a super Penn State fan, you can book the lion for an appearance at your wedding. I’m fine with that because the lion is doing what he was originally created to do: help promote school spirit.

A good mascot is priceless for a brand. Mickey Mouse, Tony the Tiger, Mr. Clean, Captain Morgan, the Geico Gecko, Colonel Sanders, the Jolly Green Giant and even Burger King’s creepy looking king are tied inextricably with their brands. They are pure pop culture icons.

In higher education successful mascots are a key part of our institutions’ brands. They should not be pitching beef jerky and home mortgages on their days off.

Bill Mahon is president of Ground Zero Ready Communications, a former vice president of university relations at Penn State and a partner of the Ketchum University RepProtect suite of services.

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Study says students rate men more highly than women even when they're teaching identical courses

Study says students rate male instructors more highly than women even when they're teaching identical courses.

U Illinois graduate students reach tentative contract deal after nearly two-week strike

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University of Illinois graduate students reach tentative contract deal with administration after being on strike for nearly two weeks.

Academics' experiences in unfamiliar situations can help them better understand students (opinion)

I recently ventured into unknown waters by scuba diving after years away from the sport. It was ultimately an exhilarating experience, but getting there proved unexpectedly challenging. The dedicated help of experienced teachers was essential to my regaining the confidence and skills required for successful dives.

That experience has given me a more visceral appreciation for the challenges that college students from populations traditionally underrepresented in academe must surmount. Since my administrative responsibilities include overseeing support programs for diverse student cohorts, I am trying to put this perspective to good use. I hope that my experience may prove helpful for colleagues with similar responsibilities.

Poolside Lessons

Given the time since my last open-water dive, a refresher course in a swimming pool was required. I assumed this would be straightforward, given my prior experience.

Then I flubbed Instructor Alex’s very first question: What is the most important thing to maintain while diving? Situational awareness, I said. The correct answer, vital to survival, is breathing.

Moreover, as Alex took me through the essentials, I realized that scuba gear had changed markedly since I first qualified as a diver. The revisions all enhanced ease and safety, yet the changes made me feel disoriented and underprepared.

I also felt a certain degree of pressure to succeed. My husband and I had added vacation days to a business trip specifically to dive at this renowned site, where the ocean reefs lay deep enough to be accessible only by scuba.

Looking back, I can see analogies to the situation of college students who are the first in the family to attend college or belong to a population that is underrepresented on campus. After four years mastering the patterns of high school courses, such students may be expecting college to be similar. Discovering that very different time management and study skills are required in the new environment may come as a shock. A great deal is riding on the outcome: fulfilling familial dreams, achieving career plans, paying back loans. Initial setbacks may, thus, be deeply disquieting and sow doubts in students’ minds about whether they belong in this environment.

Deeper Lessons

As the lesson progressed, Alex helped me relearn how to assemble and operate the diving gear: tank, buoyancy compensation device, breathing regulators, air pressure gauge, weight belt, mask and snorkel. While the components were familiar, their use was no longer instinctive; I would need to think through every action step by step.

Then we entered the chilly outdoor pool. Two meters below the surface, I became deeply conscious of my loud and constrained breathing, the weighty viscosity of the water and the tunnel vision imposed by the mask. I felt increasingly unsure of my ability to relearn the skills needed for the open-water dives.

Sensing my disquiet, Alex suggested that I stand on the pool’s upper shelf, breathing through the regulator, and immerse my face at will. In shallow water with plentiful air nearby and with my ears in the air so my breath did not reverberate, remaining focused was far easier. I could suddenly recollect how much I used to love to “fly” underwater, my buoyancy device keeping me effortlessly suspended and my flippers impelling me ahead at top speed.

Alex took me through the rest of the lessons carefully, explaining what we’d do, demonstrating and then having me do it. That established a predictable rhythm, and watching him do the drills showed that the steps were straightforward enough for me to follow. He held me to high standards and made me redo anything I didn’t accomplish well the first time.

Near the end, we practiced how to enter the water from a boat. Alex explained both what to do and why -- distinguishing true pitfalls from misconceptions and myths. I felt the cognitive load from the initial stressful immersion lift under the mounting number of successful drills we had completed.

The last drill was an emergency ascent. Here, I noticed a mismatch between what Alex had told me the drill would involve and what he signaled when we were underwater. Because everything else had matched perfectly, I had the confidence to halt the drill and ask how to proceed.

As I reviewed the lessons during the ride to the dive site, I appreciated how important Alex’s patient and predictable teaching patterns had been for helping me set aside my fears. By helping me build skills and confidence, he enabled me to prepare to take the next steps on my own.

That kind of focused attention and well-designed teaching is exactly what colleges and universities need to provide to students from at-risk populations: teaching and advising that address the psychosocial as well as the academic dimensions of students’ lives.

First Open-Water Dive

Knowing that I was apprehensive about my first open-water dive, Dive Captain Ben promised to guide me down to the reef. Since the other divers in our group were more experienced, I was glad to know that I would not be expected to keep up entirely on my own.

When the boat reached its anchoring point, I drew on the poolside lessons and completed the pre-dive checklist, despite the disconcerting motion of the waves. Floating at the surface, I was glad to see Ben appear beside me as promised. He faced me, and we grasped arms to stay together as we descended, flippers first, toward the reef.

Falling away from sunlight into the cool depths of glassy, gray water while my exhaled breath bubbled upward, I was acutely aware of the alien surroundings. It was immensely comforting to see a human face, even with the masks between us. Ben’s calm eyes and graceful movements reminded me that this environment was one he thrived in and dedicated his life to sharing with others as a leader and teacher.

When we reached the reef 15 meters down, Ben signaled me to check my gear while floating in place. Only after confirming that I was prepared and seeing me gesture a confident “OK” did he release me to the care of his assistant.

Having been guided safely into the depths and encouraged to exercise my revived skills, I was able to focus my attention outward -- and was immediately rewarded by a surfeit of visual delights: coral slumping like melted Dalí plates, shy rays departing at our advent, slow-swimming turtles and darting fish streaked with color. My eyes trained on the endless living seascape, I rediscovered the joys of flying above the reef, reveling in the low-gravity environment.

That experience illustrates how important it is for students who are unfamiliar with college and advanced academic work to interact directly with educators who demonstrate concern for their learning and exude confidence in their ability to excel. By modeling good learning practices and guiding students to follow them, such teachers build students’ self-efficacy and enable them to become intellectually fascinated by what they are learning.

Continuing to Learn

With such a wondrous first experience on the reef, I anticipated equal enjoyment for our morning dive the next day. Instead, while descending alongside the other divers, I found myself panicking. My breathing felt constrained, my lungs half-empty. I could not convince myself that my gear and skills would keep me safe.

The other divers -- suspended about me in the water and absorbed in checking their equipment -- appeared calm, competent and inaccessible. Moreover, scuba divers, their mouths stopped by breathing apparatus, cannot readily converse. I was alone with my fears in the midst of a dozen companions. Worried about losing control later in our trek when we would be far from the dive boat and an ascent would put others at risk, I decided to abort.

Waiting in the sunlit launch, anchored by gravity and comforted by plentiful air, I deduced what had happened. It was the breathing. My panic arose from the way scuba gear constrains a diver to breathe only by mouth and from feeling that I could not inhale deeply. Back on shore, Ben confirmed that less experienced divers often fail to exhale with sufficient gusto to empty the lungs for a robust new inhale.

Having understood the sources of my fear, I felt able to re-enter the water for the afternoon dive. Luckily, Ben was back with us. He had me practice proper breathing techniques during the boat ride out to the reef and while floating at the surface before diving. As a result, I was able to descend without incident, take my turn peering at half-hidden lobsters and eels, and swim through a rocky arch festooned with coral.

Returning to basic skills, analyzing what caused me to feel out of my depth and continuing to work with a skilled teacher was essential for getting me back on track. Similarly, sustained, active coaching is necessary to support the academic success of college students who are encountering unexpected challenges.

In conclusion, universities strive to help their students become capable scholars, develop the capacity to tackle unfamiliar challenges and orient their education toward meeting life goals. For students adjusting to an alien environment, those tasks can feel overwhelming. If one doubts one’s capacity to succeed, then every error or obstacle looms large.

My experience as a diver has vividly reminded me how crucial it is for our students to be supported in several interlocking ways. They need patient, experienced teachers who can help them bridge from mastering core skills to grasping the beauty of advanced concepts. They need campus settings that enable them to relax sufficiently to reflect, seek advice and plan to meet challenges. And they need us to consistently communicate that we are confident they can succeed.

Elizabeth H. Simmons is executive vice chancellor of academic affairs at the University of California, San Diego.

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