Monthly Archives: June 2015

An Observation on the Eulogy

Like many of you, I was moved and enlightened by President Obama’s eulogy for Congressman Clementa Pinkney. President Obama honored those who lost their lives, and he reminded us of this nation’s history of violence based on racial hatred and prejudice. His remarks about how the deaths of those in the church stimulated “big-hearted generosity” and “thoughtful introspection and self-examination” in South Carolina and in the United States was a needed balm for all who grieve. It helps to think that these lives were not lost in vain.

I was taken with the emotion and sincerity that the President showed throughout the eulogy. However, I think he made one comment that he did not mean for us to take literally. We all know that he spoke the truth when he said that we cannot expect a “transformation of race relations overnight,” but I think his emotions were outweighing his beliefs when he said that we do not need more conversation or more talk about race. The point he was making is that we need to act on our talk. Just having conversations is not enough.

Discussions, dialogue, and discourse are the coins of the realm in colleges and universities. These are our tools and we must use the tools we have. We cannot be part of helping to achieve the vision the President painted if we don’t have the talk with our students.

I think it’s the manner in which we have historically fashioned these conversations that doom them from the start. We can’t just invite students to come to a conversation on race and expect anyone to come except those who already have what President Obama called the “path to grace,” that he described as “an open mind” and “an open heart.” A lecture on the history of racial prejudice followed by discussions won’t change a mind or heart if students have not experienced personally or vicariously through peers what it means to be the object of discrimination or violence based on racial hatred. In a world de-sensitized by violence and tragedy, empathy does not come naturally.

If we, in Student Affairs, want to participate in President Obama’s vision of not avoiding uncomfortable truths, not judging people as bad because we disagree with them, not shouting but listening, and move towards “recognition of ourselves in others, we need to set the stage for the conversations by inviting students to have conversations that are firmly grounded in the academic program of the college.

To achieve this grounding in the academic program, Student Affairs partners with faculty to expand the definition of student success to include skills essential for the workplace and for good and humane citizenship. We must convince faculty that Student Affairs can help to deepen students’ learning of the content of their courses and programs by reinforcing the content in a structured group experience where students are also learning how to influence others and be influenced by others through the development of strong interpersonal communication skills.

If Student Affairs Had a Hammer – A Strategy to Teach Adaptive Skills

Whenever I have heard variations on the quote “If you only have a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” it has been used in a pejorative sense indicating that one has few resources or ideas to address any issues with which one is confronted. No matter what the issue is, the same response is used. I want to use this hammer and nail saying in a positive manner.

In my most recent blog, I wrote about the need for Student Affairs to reorient our work to address a critical learning need for students. That critical need is for students to acquire experience in learning about and in practicing adaptive skills. I have been honing the list of skills for years, and the list I’ve settled on includes interpersonal communication skills; cultural intelligence; and social responsibility. After reviewing the many lists of competencies suggested as essential for college graduates over several years and asking for feedback from faculty, Student Affairs professionals, and students, I am confident that these categories of skills are sufficient to meet the career and personal needs of college graduates.

I am also confident that my strategy to help students acquire these competencies and skills will have a powerful impact when employed effectively. The hammer that I think can address many of the challenges we see among students and, frankly, the population in general, is the implementation of co-curriculum laboratories attached to or embedded in academic courses and programs. The co-curriculum laboratory is the hammer that can be applied to the nails/ challenges that prevent many colleges and universities from fully realizing their learning goals for students.

For example:

If students see themselves less open to having their views challenged than they think they ought to be, this is a nail. A co-curriculum laboratory can be the hammer to help students practice interpersonal communications where controversial issues can be discussed with a skilled facilitator present.

When tragedies occur such as the mass murders at the church in South Carolina last week, there are many nails to pound such as racism, gun violence, and the call for civic engagement. A co-curriculum laboratory can be a hammer because it provides a safe space for the discussions to occur.

When tragedies occur caused by natural disasters such as the recent devastating earthquakes in Nepal, and students appear not to have empathy for the victims, this is a nail. A co-curriculum laboratory can be a hammer to require discussions about other countries and cultures and to assign students to make deliberate connections with people beyond the home country in order to better understand the impact of a tragedy on people who are not within students’ inner circles.

If students have little experience in figuring things out on their own and appear not to have practical skills for functioning, this is a nail. A co-curriculum laboratory can be a hammer to help students take incremental steps towards independence aided by peers who role model and encourage personal growth and maturity.

The concept of attaching co-curriculum laboratories to or embedding them into academic courses and programs can be an effective strategy to address many of the challenges we face in helping students acquire adaptive skills. Yes, co-curriculum laboratories are the hammers Student Affairs can use to reorient the focus of our work in effectively contributing to holistic and transformative learning for our students.