Saturday, April 29, 2006

Inter-class rifts & apathy: last year's take

Found this on my D: drive while cleaning out old stuff. It's from the end of last year when the upper-lower class rift and apathy were big concerns for many students; slightly outdated now, but still interesting especially since '08 is now the sophomore class and we have a new group of freshmen (who are different from classes which preceded them, as all four classes differ from each other).

Thoughts welcome. Old text, unedited, follows; it looks like I emailed this to some people, but I don't remember who. Have things changed? How much of the concerns have we fixed, what do we still need to deal with, and what will never go away?



Thoughts on the upper-lower class rift, and lack of involvement.

First: This is nobody's fault. I'm not trying to point the finger. However, this is everyone's responsibility. I know I feel the need to Do Something, and I think others feel the same way.

What follows is a transcribed version of some thoughts I had over the weekend; I'm trying to process them into more useful form, but I wanted to make the raw stuff available to you all, just in case. They won't be particularly coherent and will likely be self-contradictory at times. Don't feel obligated to read this if you're busy - just take a glance if you're interested. I really want to talk to people about this, so if you feel like talking, let me know.

-Mel

Upperclassmen have grown and turned outside Olin for some of our activities - jobs, classes, clubs, organizations; we're looking forward and preparing to leave, trying to learn about industry and grad school.

We, the upperclassmen, had strong mentoring. The partners were mentored by the faculty, the juniors by the partners, and the sophomores by the juniors (an oversimplification, but you get the idea). Because we were mentored so well, we mentor others in turn - but this ethos needs to be passed down, and it is fading over time.

Frosh need to realize they can and should take the initiative. And it's not just frosh, not by far. We all need to realize this (students, staff, and faculty). You can't just move when asked - you need to be doing the asking.

The first class took tremendous ownership of the college, and the second class took a little - and now it still seems like Olin "belongs" to '06 and '07. This is great. However, '08 comes in, sees Olin belonging to the older students, and lets it belong to them - so it doesn't belong as much to the frosh this year.

"Oh, we aren't as senior as they are. We should follow and respect their seniority and when we're older it will be our turn to lead." I appreciate that they respect what we've already done, but just because we've been here before doesn't mean they shouldn't come in.

The flip side of that is independence as a class. "The college already belongs to them; they're working together, they don't need us. Well, I reckon we should meander amongst ourselves. Maybe we don't need them so much either. We can do whatever we want to. If we're crazy enough, they might listen. Since we're 'outside the system,' that's the only way we can change things - by being radical."

This, in turn, leads to: "Those crazy immature kids! I try to teach them, but they aren't grown enough to listen." (I'm stereotyping and oversimplifying like crazy here - we love the first-years, we really do; but sometimes there seems between the classes the sort of attitude an older sister takes when she watches her little brother swagger into the kitchen with green hair and a nose piercing. Gross, gross oversimplification; it's not all like this, it's not one-way, but sometimes it happens.)

There has been concern expressed by some upperclassmen that some frosh are undertaking increasingly dangerous exploits - things that are on the fine boundary between being awesomely offbeat and inventive and adventurous vs being a little too crazy, a little too dangerous, a little too much potential for harm without precautions being taken to really minimize those dangers. We care about you guys, and we don't want anything to happen to you - but we don't say you can't do this, or wag our fingers in front of your face. Ought we to?

The upper classes were thrust into leadership. There simply was nobody else around to lead. If we didn't, everything would break down. In contrast, '08 arrived to a school that was already running; they /could/ take on leadership - nothing stops them from doing this, and several first-years have certainly stepped up - but they didn't /have/ to. There were people already picking up the slack. So it's not a huge surprise you see less involvement. With the time crunches we have here, if something isn't absolutely vital, it usually gets passed up in favor of the other fires we have to fight.

Should we have something to put first-years in that position? All-frosh committees? How are the class reps doing?

There are, as mentioned before, first-years that have taken on leadership positions. How do we support and encourage those frosh? They're probably the ones that would have stepped up regardless of necessity or where they went, the ones that already had those kinds of qualities exhibited - but just because "they'd do it anyway" doesn't mean we shouldn't support them. At the same time, we need to bring out the people in the background. How do we get those who are not stepping forth now to step forth more?

Fight 'superhero' syndrome. Sometimes there is a mentality, when looking at people you admire, to think that it's wonderful that they have done all this stuff, and you wish you could do that - but that you can't and never will be able to. Even when they tell you that you can do it, you say "Oh, but you're special." This keeps people from starting clubs, from tutoring/TAing, from stepping up and asking folks questions, from talking to professors about classes. They see other students with great professorial relationships, with huge activism, and wish they could break into that sort of energy, that sort of involvement. How do you get it across to people that all you really have to do is just start doing what you want to - you don't have to "break into" any sort of inner circle?

This changing-things business is a risk. We all said we were risk-takers when we were trying to get admitted here. But I don't think we are, so much. I think we sleepwalk through much of our lives (only with a lot more caffeine in the bloodstream than most) and do what we think we are expected to. I know that I didn't do a lot of things I thought I should do because I was afraid that I would fail classes, or tick folks off, or something else terrible - and there is a definite tradeoff, doing what you want to do and maybe succeeding by 'normal' standards. I'm not saying we ought to say "to heck with normal standards!" and go forth and be passionate and completely ignore the fact that we have math homework due the next morning... but sometimes you have to recognize you're as bound to your duties and limitations as you want yourself to be.

Last year, Alex Dillon sent out an email to the student body asking us to wake up, think about a few things, discuss some stuff - voiced a lot of concerns, had a huge informal conversation in the auditorium, and there was a lot of energy from that... but not much of it remains now. Perhaps we need another such event. (If you have no idea what I am talking about, ask any '06 or '07er).

It shouldn't be a one-way mentoring relationship. I have learned a lot of things from the frosh class this year. They have a lot to share.

It is comfortable to have your own social bubble, regardless of whether you're a first, second, or third year. Having a tight group of friends is good. Very, very good. At the same time, if we're to avoid hermetically sealing ourselves off, we need to foray outside those groups occasionally. The trouble is when you foray outside, everyone else is usually in their respective groups of friends - so when you try to go out and explore and get to know more people better, it's more difficult than perhaps it ought to be. There's this activation energy that becomes more difficult to break through as the year goes on.

What helped with this last year? One thing is clubs. I got to know many upperclassmen through clubs. Clubs are nowhere as active this year. Social culture is more informal - that is, it doesn't go through "official" club channels, clubs themselves last year were pretty dang informal anyway - it's organized through carpediem, it's groups of friends going out to places and playing games together. Informality is great. Carpediem is great. But informally organized events tend to be gotten together by groups of people that already know each other. It's something to be aware of.

Another thing - and I do not have much experience or knowledge of this - is parties (the ones with alcohol, I mean). They're places where different social groups come and get to know each other, really relaxed and just hanging out. But within a party you can still see the groups of friends clumping. Also, this only works for the people that want to go to parties. It seems there are many more parties this year. Maybe that's our way of trying to break down that gap of knowing people. I've got nothing against parties - I think they're a lot of fun, I think it's great folks are hanging out and having a good time - but here is one thought: if this is all we can find to get us together - well, that seems a little bit sad. Maybe we need more different kinds of parties. Tea parties. Chocolate parties. Art parties. Music parties. Get more interest groups.

It becomes easier and easier to come into Olin with preconceptions of what it will be like, and what college life will be like, because there is more of it built each year. Perhaps we need to put forth some cultural expectations in an introduction to frosh before they come in. Candidates' Weekend introduces them to our culture, Orientation continues the job. Sean McBride set up a Hitchhiker's Guide to Olin Culture (almost like an Olin culture wikipedia) over the summer, and it got great traffic and was fantastic at introducing people to lots of inside terms and jokes and social norms, but it also died out. Maybe it's time for a revival over this summer; it seems like a logical cyclical process to go through, rising at the start of each year.

No amount of programs or initiatives we set up will change the place if people themselves don't change the way they think and live. So we shouldn't be concerned, perhaps, with starting the Program That Will Change Our Lives! but instead with just... changing our lives. And changing the lives of those around us. And getting them to change those around them, et cetera.

You will never, ever, ever have enough time to do this. You will always, always, always have other things to do. Sometimes you have to put things aside. Sometimes you have to stop saying "later" and do things now. Sometimes you have to pay a certain price - like a sleep debt, or an annoyed friend, or a B instead of an A because you didn't study the night before - to do things you think you should do. It's up to you to decide whether the cost is worth it.

What were the big things that changed you last year? Here are mine: Mechanical Nature cookies with Zhenya and the other girls in the class first semester. Alex Dillon's email to the entire student body at the end of last year. Watching some of the frosh come in and take initiative this year - it's tremendously inspiring. Having some of the upperclassmen I really admired tell me at the end of last year, out of the blue, that they thought I was doing fantastic things, that I'd learned a lot, and that I was doing good stuff. Being asked for advice for the first time by a '08-er. Jimmy Rising's Human System Dynamics "pseudoclass."

Are we just too big? Are these problems that will never be completely solved, issues that will never totally go away? Is the generation gap unavoidable?

Just because a problem can never be fixed, does that mean we should stop trying?

1 comment:

ErinD said...

In terms of welcoming new students, I think it would be worth making larger Sibb groups - like, a group of four friends would all "adopt" four freshmen and have a few official social events at the beginning of the year - or larger groups. I guess something along the social aspects of what Greek societies do, with new members being sponsored by old ones; basically a system that would give individual sibbs a larger support system so that people actually do stuff.
I remember hearing about a number thing that a the French school the partners stayed at had, where everyone in the freshman class who wanted to was given a number and did a bunch of stuff with upperclassmen with the same number. I guess the hazing there was kinda crazy, bu the concept itself is sound- like sibbs only more serious and involved, and I think that's the kind of thing we need. Not to say that I think we should haze freshmen, at all, but having some type of safe, fun membership ritual to join a certain social network helps people buy in more, and try to get to know the other members. From there, it doesn't take many connection for all their other friends to get to know those people better, too - I think it would be a very worthwhile institution to create.