Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Advising frustration

In our lunchroom the other day, one of my colleagues spoke about an interaction several of his students had in his class recently. In the course of discussion, one of the students, call her Amanda, a single mom, had mentioned that if she didn't have her toddler, she'd have more time to do other things, and a lot more freedom in general. The remark struck my colleague as a reasonable observation, and nothing more.

However, a number of other students, primarily younger female students, protested immediately, saying that Amanda shouldn't think of her toddler that way, asking what she'd do without him. Amanda replied that if she'd never had him, she wouldn't miss him because she wouldn't know him, or something. According to my colleague, he had a tough job getting the other students to back down from practically accusing Amanda of being a bad, uncaring, unloving mother for imagining the relative ease of a life as other than a single mother.

In general, our students who don't have kids of their own tend to romanticize motherhood. I got an essay last semester from a young woman who basically asserted that the most defining thing about being a woman is being able to give birth, and waxing about as eloquent as she could about the beauty of birthing. I asked her if she'd ever actually given birth, or seen a birth. She hadn't.

Some of my female students talk about how much they love babysitting, and how much they want to have families, but most of them seem to have little sense of the day to day frustrations (and joys) of parenting, the day to day dealing with feeding, crying, care, etc.

They've been subjected all their lives to rhetoric about babies and motherhood, and most of them come from relatively small, middle-class families. I don't blame them for their romantic notions, but I do worry that they're so often willing to dismiss another woman's real experience when it conflicts with what society tells them to believe. They had a chance to learn from Amanda, and instead they closed their ears and opened their mouths.

My colleague's bothered because Amanda dropped his course between that day and the next class meeting, and he doesn't know why, but suspects it may have to do with the reaction of her fellow students.

While he'd been talking, my mind had been racing (well, more like plodding, to be honest), because I have an advisee coincidentally named Amanda, who just happens to be a single mom, slightly older than our traditional students. Amanda's not that common a name. And I remembered talking with her about taking a section of this particular class, but I wasn't remembering which section. So I asked my colleague about her surname, and he said, yes, he thought that sounded familiar.

Amanda's a hard working single mom, and basically, by definition, she's got a tough row to hoe, so to speak. It's TOUGH for single moms to finish college. She works full time, raises a kid, and tries to take a few courses each semester, hoping to get an education. She has to take this class to do our major, and she wants to do our major. So if she feels so uncomfortable in this class with younger students when she says something honest, is that going to push her into dropping out? Then again, someone living relatively near the edge is always in danger of needing to drop out. Dropping this class may have nothing at all to do with the discussion, but my colleague thinks it may.

This morning I checked, and indeed, my advisee isn't enrolled in the course as we'd discussed. She's still enrolled in two other classes, so maybe she just found the third overwhelming for work-load reasons, and decided to put it off until next semester?

I'm still a bit worried. But I hesitate to drop her a concerned email. I don't want her to think we faculty folk gossip about students in inappropriate ways (I didn't think our lunchroom discussion was inappropriate, but I don't know that I could communicate that to Amanda). And I don't want to make a problem where she didn't have one.

On the other hand, I wish she'd talked to me before dropping the class, and I hope she feels she can come talk to me about problems with her classes, whatever they are, because I think I can help her gain perspective or support her decisions if she does need to drop one.


  1. That is frustrating. I would be frustrated with the other, younger women students responding that way! It can be really hard to be a non-trad student in a primarily traditional student population (I don't know if that describes the context here, but it does some of the places where I've worked). Actually, I don't think I really have anything much to offer in this comment, it's just that I reacted so strongly to the image of the younger women criticizing Amanda. Sigh.

  2. I still think I'd drop her note and ask her for a coffee. I wind up having to do that kind of stuff all the time, because a couple of our faculty are....not the most sensitive people in the world.

  3. I agree with Lisa. Even if she's already dropped, it might be a chance for her to connect, maybe even comment on what happened if she brings it up, and to let her know that you'd be interested if she wants to talk.

  4. Where I work, she would not have been able to drop a course without a signature from her advisor.

    I think I would email her just to ask her to come talk about why she dropped the course ... and see what comes up.

  5. Thanks, you folks, I really appreciate your feedback. Without it, I wouldn't have felt quite right sending a note, but because of what you said, I did. It basically said that I'd noticed she dropped, and if she wanted to drop by or go get a cup of coffee, I'd be happy to talk with her. I tried to keep it low key.

    Our students can drop early in the term without any signatures at all, which is a pain if they just disappear from your class.

    So long as they're juniors or seniors and in good standing, they can pretty much do what they wish, and some sort of disappear as advisees. Others stop by to touch base and talk, and that means a lot to me.

    I have no worries about my colleague's sensitivity; I'm sure he was as good as possible under those circumstances.

    I hope I hear from her now.

  6. I was going to agree with jo(e) until I read your response. Good move! Colleges can seem so impersonal and alienating to any student, let alone a single mother with far more responsibilities than the typical student, and most students like knowing that someone cares (professionally--I'm not talking a box of kleenex!) about what they're doing.

  7. I'm glad that you contacted her, and I hope you hear from her.

    On what those younger students were saying, welcome to the wonderful world of fairy-tale-mothering. Unfortunately it isn't just women under 25 who have these romantic notions, almost anyone without children seems to see parenting as an endlessly joyful round of playtime, book reading, smiles and giggles. There is a lot of pressure to NOT give out any information about pregnancy, birth or parenting that contradicts this fluffy, shiny, happy vision, and those that do are considered Bad Parents, as Amanda found out. And if you are someone like me, who thinks the bad stuff deserves airing and has a lot of bad stuff to share, you end up with a very small but tight circle of supportive honest people around you and the fluffy brigade avoids you like the plague. Not really a bad trade off, but very disappointing in the larger scheme of things.

    If Betty Friedan is in her grave yet, she's probably already rolling.

  8. Hey all, thanks again for the advice and encouragement. I got a note back from Amanda and she gave a perfectly reasonable reason (straight from the department of redundancy department there, Bardiac!) for dropping the class.

    And she sounds excited about another class, and I'm very happy to hear that.

    So, just a big thumbs up to all for the encouragement. Thank you.