Monthly Archives: March 2013

Practical Competence

As I read this week’s The Chronicle of Higher Education front-page article by Sara Lipka and Eric Hoover about a developmental or remedial English class at Montgomery College, a two-year college in Maryland, it was as if I were there in that classroom. I felt the near helplessness of the dedicated faculty member, and I felt as if I were there as a student because I know what it’s like to have to separate your head and academic learning from the rest of your life. The article is titled “The Second-Chance Club,” and I think it would have unfolded as a second chance if Kenneth Okorafor, a Nigerian immigrant student, had miraculously passed the course.

As the narrative progressed toward the final decision about each student’s fate in meeting the requirements to go on to college-level English, it seemed as if Kenneth would certainly pass because he wanted to pass so passionately and he is a good person. As I read the narrative, I felt as if the music was about to swell for a happy dramatic ending since Kenneth was the last student to see the instructor about his course standing. I was really surprised at the final result because even his friend gets the green light to go on to the next level of English, and when he exits the meeting with the faculty member, he says, “Kenneth, don’t worry man, I’ll see you there OK?” Kenneth is so visibly nervous about his time with the instructor that one of the other students tells him, “Just know that, whatever happens, you’re smart.”

I think Kenneth is smart, but he did not pass the developmental course in English and he knows why. He allowed one of his essays to be published in The Chronicle along with the article, and he titled it, “My Two Greatest Obstacles.” In his essay, he admits that he allows himself to become distracted in class and he does not pay attention. He also realizes that he does not manage his time well. He stays up late watching television and he comes to class late. His realization of what may be hindering him from passing the course has come too late.

Having to retake a non-credit course puts Kenneth in the risky position of dropping out of college completely. Students such as Kenneth and some of the other students described in the class lack a critical skill for success in college and beyond, and that skill is practical competence. Practical competence is one of the seven student learning outcomes in Learning Reconsidered, a 2004 publication by ACPA and NASPA, two professional associations for student affairs.

Too many students like Kenneth can break the hearts of many faculty who feel helpless in moving them forward. I propose that student services work with faculty to offer what I call a cocurriculum laboratory that is connected to the class (read more on cocurriculum laboratories…).  In this laboratory, the objectives of the course are reinforced and there is a strong emphasis on helping students communicate effectively and manage their own affairs. Students who do not have role models who demonstrate these skills are at a disadvantage in meeting the requirements of a college education. Student services staff are trained to help students through the developmental phases of self-efficacy.

Faculty cannot do it all and could welcome the assistance of their student services colleagues who can work with students in a laboratory, of sorts, where the emphasis is on adjusting to college life and making connections with students and the student services staff on a deeper and more personal level. These students will share their stories, encourage and support one another, all the while being guided by a highly skilled student services staff member who will move students towardaccomplishing the goals of the course and the skills that all college graduates should attain. One of these skills is practical competence.

Very Superstitious – Helping Students Understand Mixed Realities

Break a mirror and you bought seven years of bad luck; put your purse on the floor and you’ll lose your money; buy your lover shoes and the lover will walk out of your life; 13 is very unlucky and Friday the 13th is the worst; black cat crosses your path and that’s not good; left hand itches and you’ll lose your money; a woman is the first to contact you on New Year’s Day and a year of bad luck. These are some of the superstitions that we hold to explain the unexplainable, and they are all negative and about bad luck. There aren’t many that bode well for the superstitious. They give us an excuse to be afraid.

What I have had, and I say this because I’m putting it behind me, is a fear of February. I discovered that February was a month to fear during my twenties when I would get down and depressed.  I would be prone to crying spells and I couldn’t see any good in my life. This was very puzzling to my young husband. One February, he took me to Saks Fifth Avenue and bought me a beautiful raccoon coat that we definitely could not afford. The coat was gorgeous and the gesture by my husband to cheer me up was wonderful.  I still cried. Some say that the long winters and lack of sunlight may be reasons for some of us to get “the Februaries.” I’m always glad when February is over. My dad died in February; my mother died in February, and a dear friend got a CAT scan the very last day of February this past week and the results were not encouraging.

All of these things give truth to the lie that February is a month to dread.  Then, I think about the number 13 and Friday the 13th, in particular.  I don’t fear; I look forward to Friday the 13th because our son, Dan, was born on Friday the 13th, the most blessed day of our lives. With this in mind, I decided on March 1 that I would change my way of thinking about February and make it a month to look forward to and have faith that it will bring me what my heart desires; it will bring me good luck. I will look to February with faith and not fear.

What superstitions and illogical fears do our students bring with them? When I speak with students now, they are anxious about their future. They read that our country is losing its promise. They hear the stories about college graduates who will never work in their field of interest.  A challenge for educators is to help students see their future from multiple perspectives. That is, they should understand the realities of the current context that are not all positive and not all negative. They need to research and study their possibilities beyond the dire headlines that make the news. They need to have faith that the American Dream is still there for them, and their college education will equip them to be successful in the way they define success and not in the manner that others define it. What are the fears of our students? Ask them what they fear and help them see their potential in a world that is full of superstitions and predictions that scare us. Help them change the meaning of their Februaries.