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Thursday, October 28, 2010

Who advises whom?

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Honors students can be such a pain. They’re bright, they’re gifted, and they’re all over the place. Never ever expect an advising session to last less than 30 minutes. More like 45. Or an hour. (Honors students constitute around 10% of my advisee case load.)

There’s the questioning of myself: If I answer what this student just asked, will I prove I am less intelligent than she is? And how about she asks twelve questions that go into a diaspora of topics, each of which by itself would take a minimum of an hour to discuss? Annoying.

Somewhere in my nine years of academic advising at the university I’ve learned to flow with these grand minds. Answer only the questions they ask, one at a time. Slow them down. Tell them, Let's talk about that topic another time, stay with this for now. They look at me with sudden gratitude when I say that, as if only I can control their tortuous panoply of interests. This is a weighty responsibility for an adviser: How to rein in, but not deaden enthusiasm?

There is Catherine, for instance. She’s about the size of a small thirteen-year-old girl, with a young face to match and shoulder-length wavy blonde hair. She enters my office wearing her gargantuan backpack like a tiny turtle who inadvertently grabbed her father’s shell and left for the day. She painstakingly unloads it to the floor and sits. But don’t let her size and girlish countenance fool you. She is probably the brightest light I’ve ever advised.

I had a choice the first time we met. Resist, or flow with her. No matter what I advised, she responded with another, more ambitious idea. I had experience on my side, but she had vision on hers. So what if it took 20 credit semesters to accomplish it? She had so many things planned out. The intensive and demanding English teaching program was her main focus. But she wanted to add a minor in theater, study abroad in Malaysia, an extra teaching minor in Spanish, and a slew of other “electives” that would not contribute to her requirements whatsoever. I kept telling her, That will add another year to your time here, you know. “I know,” she’d reply. And we’d stare each other down.

Because I chose not to resist, I became altogether charmed by this young woman. Having 1,000 advisees, it’s not easy for me to connect names with faces in that sea. I hate this, because relating to people on a personal level is important to me. A few students stand out, and I remember their names, either because they have so many problems that I can’t wait for them to walk the stage at Commencement, or because we connect so strongly that they are unforgettable along with their names. (And truthfully, those who have the most problems often fill a big place in my heart.)

Catherine is one quirky girl whose name I remembered from the second or third appointment. She doesn’t smile a lot, but from her words, you know she is smiling inside. Confidence oozes out her nostrils. Quickness and wit are her allies. She could stand on a stage and soliloquize Shakespeare or write a major paper on Joyce's Ulysses and convince you she interpreted both impeccably. She has no tolerance for silly and boring and will tell you so, in no uncertain terms. Over the years she gave me a litany of the professors who were intolerable for their blandness. She had that rare combination in a young person of high intellectual intelligence and common sense. Sort of Zorba meets Boss. (Or rather, Boss meets Zorba, Boss being the bookish, mind-driven one, and Zorba being the common-sense-gut-instinct-heart-driven one. Have you read Zorba the Greek by Kazantzakis? You should, I'm reading it now, it's brilliant. Thanks, George.)

So this week Catherine came in for her final check as a senior. Were all her ducks lined up all right before her student teaching placement next year? I panicked when I couldn’t find her file in my drawer. We had met a dozen times at least, and no file! Did the secretary accidentally purge it with the old files? All our checklists, my notes, her added minors, later dropped, our entire history, gone, poof! I stood at the drawer and frantically searched out of alpha order. How could this be? I ranted out loud, “I’m miserable, I can’t find your file!” while she sat on the other side of my desk and chippered in her droll yet sympathetic commentary. Finally I gave up and sat down, pulled out a new, blank checklist, and started all over again. What had taken three and a half years to produce with its scratches in three different colors of ink and highlighters was reduced to a clean form with entries made in one sitting. It felt wrong, because I was reducing the academic diary of her undergraduate years to mere facts.

And so, as if that reduction required it, since neither of us could bear to leave it there, we reminisced, we laughed, we remembered all those times I had advised her to not do something because it would be too much, and she had done it anyway and proved me wrong. And there were the times she did change her mind and drop a plan. She wondered aloud, "How did I possibly think I could do all that?" Hahaha, we laughed some more. She told me about her five weeks in Malaysia in the summer, how miserably bad the professor was and how unorganized the trip, but how extraordinary the people were, which made it worthwhile and changed her views on teaching forever. We didn’t want to stop, but it was time to go.

She stood up in all her five foot two inches, picked up her fifty-pound bookish carapace and struggled to get her arms through the straps and settle it into place on her wee back. She stood in front of me, just on the other side of my computer. It was all I could do not to take her up in my arms, backpack and all, and carry her into the next stage of her life. But the thing is, she doesn’t need me to carry her. She's gotten the best kind of education: trial and error, trial and success.

Reluctantly, I told her I’d see her at Commencement in May. With a look of youthful, sentimental intelligence, she left.

Honors students can give you such a pang.
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58 comments:

Susan said...

I have a feeling that you made just as much an impression on Catherine as she did on you. Lucky girl to have such a wise woman gently guiding her.

George said...

This was a nice little peek into your work life. I agree with Susan; Catherine has been lucky to have you as her friend and counselor at this pivotal stage of her life. Glad to see you mention Zorba in your discussion. It's quite relevant, I would think, to your work, because finding a balance between the demands of the intellect and the call of the heart is a challenge that every student will face at some point.

Ruth said...

Susie, thank you. I don't know. I do know that Catherine and I bonded, I see it in her face, and she did tell me some nice things. For as crazy busy as I get in this job, it's the human exchange like this with her that gives rewards that lighten the weight of it.

Ruth said...

Thank you, George, and thanks again for connecting me with this marvelous book, that is far more than a novel. I am finding Zorba's views on life to be mingling beautifully in my mind-heart, along with the teachers I mentioned in my post about Inge. Such a great and soulful dance. And you are so right about the relevance it has in my job. I seem to ask questions each session with students that get at the other side. They are only too willing to talk about it too, because they can get so entrenched in academics. It seems to be a relief to them that someone might believe in their passion and vision. You can see their eyes open wide! Ahh, it's so good.

kenju said...

I agree with Susan. I bet she will remember you, too. I have no idea who my adviser was and no memory of ever talking to one.

Babs-beetle said...

I still remember, with great fondness, a teacher from my schooldays, and that was 45 years ago. You will always be remembered by many lives you touch, because of who you are.

Margaret Bednar said...

This brought tears to my eyes. Maybe because Will has flown the coop, so to speak, and adults I don't know are taking him under their wings. I truly hope the feathers are as kind, wise, and strong as yours.

Bonnie said...

Catherine was very lucky to find an academic counsellor who allowed her to lead, to articulate her vision for herself even if it stepped outside the norm. She had to have felt the respect and admiration you have for her. I think the reminiscing piece was genius ... demonstrating that you remembered and appreciated.

The Solitary Walker said...

I really liked this piece, Ruth. A deftly drawn portrait of Catherine. She really came alive to me as I was reading. And a fascinating snapshot of your professional life.

Shari Sunday said...

Ruth, I wish I had found even one advisor even a little bit like you and maybe I could have found the fortitude to face all the frustrations and actually finish my degree. I did not see any goal at the end. Only went to school because that seemed the thing to do and then dropped out when my heart got broken by a boyfriend. I made the attempt to go back a time or two but never did stick it out. I was a journalism major back in the day and then moved to computer applications to complement my real life job. I even had Veteran's and Social Security benefits to pay for my education. And was a good student. Just one with too many emotions and no foresight. It is a good job you do. I can tell.

Oliag said...

I certainly hope she does remember you Ruth...I hope people don't only remember the bad advisors they have had in their life. I remember my college advisor breaking down into tears because I cut classes to attend a peace rally in WashingtonDC...I also remember a high school advisor attempting to talk me out of going to college because I planned to study nursing. Sometimes I wonder if I would have traveled a different road with different advisors...but in the end I do see that it was always me who made the final decision.

Char said...

beautiful write - touching and such a good reminder of how we impact people that we come in touch with.

♥ Kathy said...

You never know whose life you are going to change. Wonderful story Ruth!

photowannabe said...

I wish you had been my advisor. you have such a tender heart.
This is a beautifully written post and your pictures are perfect.

Deborah said...

It's a beautiful story you've told here, Ruth. These words come into my head as I reflect on your writing and your perspective: clear, weightless, pure, still, perfect, love, goodness, hope, promise, and love again.

I have caught up with your last posts but only commented here...having come a little to late to add mine to the many appreciative comments.

I do so admire your writing and your way of being.

Gwen Buchanan said...

"Trial and error, trial and success"... That's it...I love this.. so absolutely true...

freefalling said...

I wonder where she will be in 10 years?

J.G. said...

When her file turns up, maybe you should keep the original checklist as a memento. I'm guessing you will enjoy remembering that you helped launch her onto the big stage.

Pauline said...

from pain to pang is a good transformation :)

Ruth said...

Kenju, yes, I think Catherine will remember me. Thank you. And you getting through school without your adviser, that says a lot about you and your independence, something current students seem to have less of in certain ways.

Ruth said...

Babs, I wonder. It's strange to think of it that way. Thank you. It's a beautiful thing how people shape lives . . . friends, teachers, neighbors, advisers, students. I love when I hear professors talk about how students have changed their perspectives and lives.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Margaret. I hope that Will's years away in school will be rich with wonderful people to shape his life. I am truly amazed at the difference I observe in students from who they are when they enter in their first year, to who they are when they depart. It's incredibly exciting to watch, but also there is a little sadness, too.

Ruth said...

. . . and by sadness, what do I mean? Hmm. I think I mean that they have lost some of their wide-eyed innocence.

Ruth said...

Bonnie, thank you so much for that. I did feel that Catherine, too, was grateful for how things went, even though she seemed a bit weary, truth be told. But I'm happy that she knows how fond I am of her, and I asked her to please come back and see me, something students rarely do after they move on.

Ruth said...

I thank you, Robert, I'm glad you read and liked it. I assure you that whatever I write about Catherine is only a fractional observation of the person herself.

Ruth said...

Shari, thank you for believing I could have possibly helped you in your college years. Many students are in that kind of transitional state and not sure how to deal with life's challenges all at once. I stopped going to college after 2 1/2 years myself and didn't finish my BA until 2001, so I can relate. Life happens. I truly feel that many graduating seniors are not ready for college and would do well either to wait a year or two, or go to community college first and not go into debt while they figure life out a bit! And yes, those emotions that go into high gear because of relationships! I've seen many heartbreaks. :(

The other thing I recognize is that I have learned A LOT over the course of my advising years, and I am afraid many students in my earlier years were not as well advised as I would wish. I guess I've grown up too.

Peter said...

Seldom people talk about their job in such a positive way! Although you certainly may have your part of frustrations, it's really nice to feel this loving and postivie attitude in this message!

Ruth said...

Oliag, thank you, I hope she remembers me and comes back for a visit. She really is a remarkable person.

I think if people realized how much influence and power they have in young people's lives they would be more careful of what they do and say. Your stories remind me of a boss I had some years ago, an African American woman who was told by her high school counselor that because of her dyslexia, she would never do more than clean toilets. My boss, Pam, was not daunted by that though (I think because of her parents), and when she saw an African American woman in PhD robes going down the sidewalk on the way to commencement one day, she was inspired with a vision for that for herself. It took 22 defenses to complete her PhD, but she did it! She is now Dr. Pam, and she spends her professional life in federal programs that help students who are not necessarily "tracked" for college realize that they too can go to college and improve their lives, even if their parents didn't go.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Char. I appreciate what you wrote at your place too, in your hard lessons post, about some of the things that have shaped you. Often it takes retrospect to appreciate them.

Ruth said...

Thank you so much for reading, ♥ Kathy. I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Ruth said...

Sue, thank you very much for your sweet words. You are always kind and supportive.

Ruth said...

Deborah, thank you so much. You are always so attentive and thoughtful in comments, and I appreciate it more than I can say. The words that came to you to describe my writing just fill me up! Especially so because of your own remarkable writing skill, which has be absolutely riveted these days. Your mind and capacity (and capacity of mind) are blowing me away.

Ruth said...

Gwen, reading your comment, I can't help but think of you, John and Max, and how true this is for you and your artistic life! Thank you so much.

Ruth said...

Letty, me too. Maybe in Australia, for she spent one year there in high school and loved it!

Ruth said...

J.G., that's a terrific idea. And I could send her a copy too. By the way, the secretary scoured the drawers and found three out of four missing files yesterday, but alas, not Catherine's.

Ruth said...

Thank you, Pauline, subtle, but good, I agree. :)

Ruth said...

Ah thanks, Peter. If I didn't love my job so much, and the students, I don't think I would stay with it, it's really too grueling at times. Funny how you can keep doing something tough when you have a passion for it.

Enjoy your weekend in Paris, Peter!

Friko said...

Apart from the physical aspects, this wonderful girl was probably you how many years ago. The young are so bright, so enthusiastic, so filled with hope, ambition and sheer ENERGY, they break your heart.

There will be far too many who have all this promise knocked out of them by life, even if it is no longer 'the pram in the hall' or the lack of 'a room of one's own';

At least there was this time with you and others like you for them.

Wish them well and release them.

PS: you sound wonderful, a teacher who not only 'does' but 'can'.

Marcie said...

This is beautiful!! Somewhat like the challenge of parenting..but with a more detached and personal edge. I'm sure she'll always carry you with her..as she steps bravely into her new life!!!

elizabethm said...

I came to you via Deborah and am glad to have found you. Beautifully written and wise.

julie king said...

how blessed you are to be able to influence young people, ruth. i'm yearning and looking for opportunities to do the same. i so enjoy coming here to visit.

Vagabonde said...

This was a beautiful piece of writing – well written and full of feelings – genuine. I never had an adviser when I was in school in France. I don’t remember any. Maybe they have some now, but not when I was in school. This might have made a difference to my life. I remember when I wanted to go to Africa with an Italian explorer at 18, my mother sent me to my doctor to get some advice – that’s the only person she could think of! But when I decided to go to the US my doctor had passed away… so I left. Working with enthusiastic (and lethargic) young people is so enlightening. I worked for 15 years with foreign trainees and it was something I’ll never forget. Your Catherine sounds like a gifted person – I am sure she will never forget you.

neighbor said...

Ruth, you've got a lovely, expressive writing voice that allows truth and tenderness to carry your stories.

I'm always glad that you share, even if I'm a bit slow to read and comment.

Ruth said...

Dear Friko, it really is hard to let young people boldly thrust themselves into life, knowing there will be hard knocks, and not knowing how they will cope and recover.

I was not as bright as Catherine, not even close. I was a rather quiet starer out of windows as a young person, not very engaged or conscious. Well there are reasons for this, but suffice it to say, I was no Catherine.

I have learned so much in my job, and simultaneously through blogging and writing, that I finally feel that I have something to offer students that might help them find their way to themselves in this crazy world of ours.

Thank you for your very good comment.

Ruth said...

Marcie, thank you so much. I love your enthusiasm and vote of confidence!

Ruth said...

Hello and welcome, Elizabeth, from my good friend Deborah's! Thank you for your kind comment, it's a pleasure to meet you and visit and follow you at your blog in Wales.

Ruth said...

Julie, how nice to see you and receive your kind words. I believe if you are open and yearning for chances to influence young people, you will find them, and your passions will be passed on to them.

Ruth said...

Vagabonde, thank you very much. How very intriguing that your mother sent you to the doctor for advice. That really makes me happy, actually, for some reason.

I love that my job keeps me with young people constantly. I have always liked having my own children keep giving me a young view of things, and now as each new cohort of students enters the university, they just keep getting younger and younger it seems! I am ever challenged to open my mind to what is new and not judging how they do things.

Ruth said...

Hello, Neighbor. (I just love writing that when you visit.) Thank you for those kind words, that rest so sweetly here today, and in my spirit. I find your writing that way too, and I really enjoyed your piece about the place where you find yourself living, and your reflections on it.

Oh said...

And what else other than a chance to witness these wonderful students do I get to see (and learn!) here in this entry?

Believe it or not, it's the thing about the files. About you not finding her file. How many times have I hunted for this or that, in a file or through the stack on my desk, and it's come up missing?

Ah, how much stuff we keep around; how often we have notes and plans and "things" tied to a file and in many cases, never look at it and in some cases, we just think we need it.
I live in a world of corporate files (and often CYA stuff) and much of it gets left on my desk 'til it ages into oblivion and I toss it, but I have a huge team to manage and they're entirely dependent, it seems, on paper trails.

And yet, how often can we not just take a blank bit of paper and sit down and get clarity, and only that which we need?

Geez, I feel better having read this.

Wonderful.

jeannette said...

You have TOO much compassion, Ruth:) Don't be overrun by their IQ nor their charm!
Often, teens do not know their boundaries yet.
I taught in undergrad. college once upon a time, and the ones who "make it" later in life (I kept in contact with several of them during a span of 10-15 years later), are not necessarily the very brightest, but the ones who are determined not to give up.

Pat said...

I agree with one of your commentors. I bet you made a big impression on that young woman - just like she did on you. I bet she accomplishes great things in life!

Ruth said...

Oh, yes, all that stuff we keep! Our university is quickly going paperless, yet I can't find a way to give up my paper files for students. There is something very security-blanket-ish about that degree checklist, and the notes I make on it, which is something like journaling, I think, which you just posted about. I don't like killing trees though.

Thank you for your thoughtful and very kind response.

Ruth said...

Thanks, Jeannette. It's true that those who persevere are often the ones who make it. I've noticed that the bright lights out of high school often fall down when they get to college, not having had to work much at being a student. Thank you for your advice. :)

Ruth said...

Thank you for that, Pat, I hope I at least helped her. And I also hope she lets me know the things she's up to along the way from here out.

Ginnie said...

If this is an example of what you do, dear sister, you should write a book. I have a feeling you could teach a lot to those myriad advisors out there who have no clue whatsoever!

Jeanie said...

Interesting. I see students every day, I even work with a few. And yet, this takes me ever so much deeper into their world than I go. I can see why there are those who touch your heart, who help you stretch as they are stretching you. And all I can say is they are lucky you're in their life and the good ones will never forget you

Catherine said...

Ruth,

I remember the first time we met. I walked into your office with all these ideas of exactly what I wanted to do and the thought that I didn't really need a mentor's help. Silly of me I know. I could tell their was a decision to be made, and I remember that I walked away from that first meeting not exactly sure I was going to like my mentor, or if my mentor liked me.

I am ever thankful you chose not to resist. By the second time I met with you, I knew how amazing you were, and how much you could help me on my long 4-year journey. After that, I looked forward to our bi-to quad-annual meetings and couldn't wait to tell you the next crazy thing I wanted to do while at MSU and hear if you would try to talk me out of it or not. Our stare downs became legendary to me.

The day I came to make sure I was prepared to graduate was a sad one. I knew this would be our last meeting together and I wasn't ready to let you go, as an adviser or a friend. Even though I saw you only a few times a year, your opinion mattered greatly to me and our conversations were always full of laughter and the notion that we both thought each other crazy (me for trying to do as much as I was, and you for trying to talk me out of it).

I didn't want to walk out of your office that day. I wanted to stay and always be your student. Out of the 4 advisers I had (one for English, Honors, TE, and UECP) you are the only one I continually went to, and the only one I felt ever truly helped me, or knew who I was. We did connect and I didn't want to give that connection up.

I almost cried when I saw you at graduation. Here you were, someone who had helped me through the years, through the good decisions and bad, through all my crazy plans, and it was time to say goodbye. Who was I going to run my decision by now? Who would tell me I was doing to much, while knowing I still could? Who would be there for me just an e-mail away? I planned to send you a post card and an e-mail every now and then because you had asked me to stay in contact, but also because I wasn't ready to let you go.

You had a huge impact on my life, both in size and positivity. I considered you not only the best adviser I have ever had, but also a friend, someone who cared what happened to me. That meant a lot, it still does.

They say teaching doesn't have instant gratification. I don't think advising does either. I just want to let you know that you are amazing and made my four years at MSU not only enjoyable, but something to look forward to. Never before did someone understand me as well as you did, and still do. I thank you for that. I thank you for always knowing what was best, even if I didn't always listen, and for being patient with me while I figured it out.

I made good on my promise to come back and see you, and I will make good on the rest of them as well. Thank you for always helping me, even now when you no longer have to. I hope we can stay in contact and build upon our relationship as adviser/student to one that includes friends as well. Just don't forget my real name... :)