TITLE: More Advice on my Advice: Confidence and Commitment AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: August 05, 2009 5:17 AM DESC: ----- BODY: In my previous entry, I reported on some of the many helpful suggestions I received for advice to prospective students interested in web development. The original entry started with a teaser:
His indecision about careers and school is worthy of its own post; I've seen it in so many other 20- and 30-somethings who are unhappy with their first careers and not sure of where to go next.
Many advisees, traditional and non-traditional students alike, seem to want me -- or anyone, for that matter -- to tell them what to do. Which major should I choose? Which classes should I take? This can be a healthy sort of questioning. One of the roles played by university professors is that of academic advisor, in which we help students explore and develop their interests, refine their goals, and choose a path that will help them. Most of us really like this part of our jobs, and it tends to be underutilized by students. These same questions can also indicate an unhealthy need for answers. Some students seem to want to surrender the power of choice, and the responsibility that comes with wrong choices. We do the world a huge disservice if our schools or culture create a significant number of young people so unable to control their own destiny, unwilling even to try. In retrospect, I probably should not write a whole post on this topic. I have no expertise or special insight. Maybe what I report here is not a significant problem, merely the result of a sampling bias or a memory bias. But it feels like a pattern, and sometimes it concerns me. The real reason I decided not to write much more on this was a response sent to me by a computer science alumnus of ours, David Schmüdde. David is not a professional computer scientist; he is a filmmaker, composer, and teacher, not to mention a blogger worth following. (I mentioned his senior project in a long-ago blog entry.) His e-mail message did not deal with the technical details of my request for advice. It was a personal essay on his experiences learning to program at my university, on studying with me, and on now teaching college students. He reminded me that interest and aptitude are not enough. Students also need confidence that they can succeed and the will to commit to the present moment. All the aptitude in the world can be diluted to nothingness by a lack of confidence or a lack of commitment. What role does the professor play in this? They can inspire trust. As David wrote, it is really hard for people to hand over two or four years of their lives to a university, even to a program of study. They need to be able trust that what they are doing is worthwhile and has a reasonable chance of leading to happiness or some other form of success. As much as we like to build up our departments and universities in the eyes of the world, we must remember that people do not trust schools. Not really. They trust people. Sometimes the people they trust are parents or friends or teachers from their high schools. But when committing to a course of study in college, often the people they need to trust are the faculty. The advisors they see at summer orientation. The professors they meet when they seek out more advice. The instructors they see in the classroom. David hoped that his message would not come across as if he were lecturing me, because surely much of what he was saying must have occurred to me before. Sure, but as I write here on occasion, I often need to be reminded. In this case, I needed to be reminded that what we professors do is not just technical. Perhaps it's not even mostly technical. It's about helping people to grow. Every once in a while, it is good for me to have someone tell me to step back and look at what matters. Thanks to David for taking the time to write me a letter doing just that. So perhaps the best thing I can do for students who seeks so much direction is to recognize their lack of confidence as natural to the human condition, work to build their trust, and then try to assure them that their efforts will bear fruit -- maybe not the fruit they expect when they start, but fruit worthy of the effort. The key is to commit to a course of action and invest one's mind in it. What a good time to be having this conversation, with a new academic year on its way! -----