Recently, a colleague, a highly experienced therapist, mentioned the level of “emotional chaos” exhibited by many of the students he counsels. That got me to thinking whether or not we could help students gauge their level of emotional stability or chaos so that we could help them do something about this particularly thorny and determinative factor in successfully completing a degree.
What if we got students to think about some of the ways in which emotional chaos affects our daily lives?
Attention: If a student is experiencing a great deal of emotional distress, it will be hard for them to pay attention in class, to their out-of-classroom work, to their extra-curriculars, not to mention their relationships and obligations to their families and communities. If your energy and focus are continuously distracted by what’s going on in your emotional life, you simply can’t learn. What if we asked students what percentage of the time they are able to focus on the task at hand, whether it is listening, writing, reading, or talking? And then introduce them to ways to increase their ability to pay attention? There are so many! And most are not expensive and can be done in the privacy of one’s own home.
Attitude: College is that stereotypically heady time of boundless energy, experimentation, and exploration. All of the acts involved in exploring indicate optimism about the future. An energetic college student is nothing if not optimistic about what the future will bring. That is, after all, why they are trying all these things out – to find out what they are good at, where they belong in the world, and what they should pursue in the coming decades of life. Pessimistic students are not going to be so inspired to invest in their futures. Why would they? Their futures don’t seem so bright. Attitude toward the future can make or break a college experience. What if we asked students to gauge their level of optimism about their lives and about their ability to create a life worth living? And if they express a more pessimistic stance toward life, let’s try to help them.
Energy: We all know what an enthusiastic student looks like. They pay attention in class, create and participate in study groups, empathize with their fellow students, and just live life with gusto. The unenthusiastic, apathetic student is a stereotype, too. They sit at the back of the room. Maybe they’re wearing a hat pulled down over their eyes. They shuffle around and get together with other apathetic students. They suck the energy right out of a classroom. They are not only wasting their time; they are taking up valuable seats and squandering the energy of a teacher who is invested in their success. How about if we talked to students about their level of energy for the whole enterprise? Are they dying to get a degree? And if not, why not? What can we do to help?
Equanimity: I love this word. It means a calm composure, even in the face of difficulty. Unfortunately, college brings with it a whole heck of a lot of emotional drama. About love, sex, growing up, self-definition, and love, love, love. Students who come to college with a measure of equanimity are already leaps and bounds beyond those who don’t. How about if we asked students to work on developing their ability to be calm and composed, especially when facing a situation that might otherwise have thrown them off?
Resourcefulness: This is a measure of how independent and autonomous a person is. College throws you into dozens of unusual or new situations on a daily basis. If a student is resourceful, they will figure out a way to handle it, address it, and move through it with their dignity intact. Lacking this quality throws students off on a regular basis, which compromises their sense of self-worth, their confidence, and their ability to succeed. What if we were able to determine how self-reliant a student feels they are and then worked with them on becoming more resourceful?
We all know that students who are able to pay attention, bring optimism and enthusiasm to the college experience, and can handle new situations with equanimity and resourcefulness stand a better chance of getting a degree. We also know that young people who struggle with these can be helped in many, different ways. I’m going to start talking to students about these five dimensions. I’ll let you know how it goes.
I have had the dubious honor of working with plagiarist students for almost two decades now. In spite of Herculean efforts on the parts of hundreds of colleges, the numbers of students who hand in work as their own despite not having actually created it themselves grows every year. What exactly is going on?
Some assume these students are mendacious, soulless creatures trying to get away with something in a premeditated, calculating way. In my experience, nothing could be further from the truth.
What’s really going on in the overwhelming majority of cases can be summed up in two words:
By ignorance, I mean that many if not most college students have no idea how to use citations and those annoying quotations marks that they may only know in their colloquial use of snarky air quotes. And few have learned how to paraphrase another’s work or even what that means. These are skills that ought to be taught in every high school and first-year college curriculum ― carefully and thoroughly. Academic integrity is, after all, the coin of the realm of university life. At the most fundamental level, all we really have is our thoughts and ideas.
Passing another’s work off as one’s own is the academic equivalent of stealing. In fact, the word plagiarism derives from the Latin word plagiarius, which means kidnapper. I love that image, a person kidnapping another’s words or designs or ideas and taking them hostage into their own work. It’s kind of a delightful metaphor depicted nicely by the image above. (Source cited below.)
Of course, if you asked any of these students if they steal things on a regular basis, they would look at you as if you were nuts. After all, they’ve been brought up not to take another’s belongings without asking. It’s a basic tenet of a civilized society. So, why are they stealing another’s academic stuff in school?
Panic is the second most common thing going on here. The deadline is looming, and their time management skills have failed them or they simply don’t know how to meet the requirements of an assignment or their confidence is in the toilet. The pit in their stomachs grows, the adrenalin starts flowing, and desperation completely messes up their ability to think logically. Suddenly, cutting and pasting the paragraph or pages from someone who really knows what they are talking about sounds like a great idea. Or lifting the photographs or fashion designs of a skilled artist seems like a stroke of genius.
And then the deed is done, and the student collapses in exhaustion only to realize in the bright of day what they have done. Then the pit in the stomach returns and anxiety skyrockets. Until they know whether they have gotten away with it or not.
The solution to the panic issue is to help students develop mechanisms for handling distress and getting out of jams. It really is that easy. But it’s actually hard because enabling each individual student to think of the go-to people and actions for that potential future moment of feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place takes time and real care. Every college advisor and faculty member should take time in their advising conversations to cover this with their advisees. Students must be encouraged to both learn the rules of citation and paraphrasing and develop their own individual ways of coping with those panicky moments.
(Image Source: https://www.planetminecraft.com/blog/plagiarism-3955675/)
That’s the line that encapsulates the “college scourge” Frank Bruni wrote about recently in The New York Times. I have to agree, of course. (I mean, who would disagree with @FrankBruni!?)
Moving to college means you get plopped down into a new life with no connections and no idea what you are doing for the better part of a year, if you are lucky. Combined with the constant refrain that college ought to be the best time of your life and surrounded by carefully curated digital images of friends’ lives, the going can definitely be rough. For many if not most students, it is the most difficult thing they have done to date in their young lives.
Here are some things students can do about it:
There’s nothing like throwing hundreds or even thousands of new students together on a campus for the first time to create some moments of high drama. The swirl of anticipation and the heightened emotions make for the perfect breeding ground for unintended slights, crushing disappointments, and interpersonal conflicts. These can escalate so high and so fast during orientation that not a few college administrators will begin whispering under their breath: “I can’t wait until classes begin.” Academic work is a wonderful distraction from any drama that has reached a fevered pitch. But it takes a few weeks for students to settle in and realize how much work they actually have to do in college to stay afloat. Until mid-terms begin in earnest a few weeks down the road, freshmen often have a false sense of freedom and leisure. So, they pay more attention to the relationship, dorm room, orientation, club, or drug/drinking incidents than they deserve, at least from the perspective of an adult observer.
Having advised students for decades and spent my fair share of hours calming new students who were sure they couldn’t live another second with their roommate or who were crushed when they went too far in the alcohol/drug/sex arena and felt humiliated before every one of their new friends right at the beginning of their college career, I can say that some of the best advice you can give your children is that they stay calm and rise above. Here are some suggestions to help them do that:
For many years, as a dean at three Ivy League colleges and now as an AVP at a university with an extraordinary mission, I have had a front row seat to the obstacles to success that college students and their parents confront every year. Even at so-called elite, highly selective colleges such as Princeton, Harvard, and Columbia, where I spent some of my career, students struggle on a daily basis to remain healthy, happy, grounded, and to stay in school. I am dedicated to helping them.