John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

Take a Look at Student Behavior: What Does it Tell You?

December 19, 2011John N. GardnerInsights0

Like most people, I have learned a great deal from my mentors. My first mentor at the University of South Carolina was the University’s 23rd President, Thomas F. Jones, the founder of the now internationally replicated and acclaimed University 101 program, which he passed on to me to run for the next 25 years (with respect, love and care). President Jones was fond of telling the story of how he came to have the idea to create this course. 

The idea came out of the aftermath of a student riot in 1970 when the students, having been tear gassed by South Carolina National Guard troops, dispersed across the campus to find him in his office that beautiful May day. They proceeded to occupy his building and thoroughly trashed it. For the rest of his career he would describe this event graciously and commend the students for teaching him something, namely, in this case the fact that they were angry! The questions for him became: why were they angry, and what would he have to do to prevent them from being angry in the future? Those questions led us to reengineer how we assimilated new students into our university. As he would narrate his epiphany in this case he would always urge his audiences to go out and observe student behavior and decide what it tells us. This is a practice I continue to this day.

The greatest challenge of course is trying to see more clearly what you see every day, but may not mentally note what you see because you have become so used to it. An example for the majority of Americans now would be their seeming obliviousness to the plight of the unemployed and the homeless. We have stopped noticing the ubiquity of the “for sale” signs. We overlook the boarded up, empty stores. We mentally tune out media reports about bad economic news. 

As hard as they may seem to believe, I find that when I am on campus I am constantly asking myself: What are they doing? What am I seeing? What is the meaning of what I am seeing? So you have to be alert; you have to look; you have to keep asking. I consider this a kind of scouting, as if I were a combination of anthropologist and detective and recon point. I am always on patrol.

I live in a small, western North Carolina mountain town, where there is a small college. This is a college town where I almost never see students off the campus. This makes me ask literally where are they? What are they doing? I know they aren’t in class all the time. The thing that I see them doing most frequently is gathering in small groups, particularly in one place, and smoking. Yes, that’s right smoking. Before I started looking at these students at this unusual campus, I never thought of smoking as a student activity. But it is. We can never know all we might want or need to know about our students. We have to keep looking and keep asking—both ourselves, and them. I have been doing this for 44 years and I am going to keep doing this for as long as I can see.

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