Friday, August 8, 2014

Empty nest feeling

I've put off writing my mentoring blog post because every time I start thinking about the students I've mentored over the years (and especially those from this summer) I get too choked up to keep writing.  It's hard being a mentor, for me, mostly because if you do a good job then these students who you've watched grow and learn and mature and who you're so proud of go off into the big world and don't need you anymore.  Which is both really sad and really happy for me.

Matt and Lauren (and the rest of this summer's REU students) are some of my absolute favorite students of all time.  My favorite thing about working closely with students is how much I learn from them.  There are two things I will treasure and carry with me about working these two this summer.

First, Lauren's driving passion to change the world and total fearlessness about diving into experiencing things.  She is a globe-trotter, and a driven, independent person who isn't afraid to speak up or to jump headfirst into a project.  She wants to do things her way, but also listens to others.  She isn't deterred at all by obstacles either - she even worked the entire summer with no glasses, unable to see the whiteboard or the projector screen, and never complained :) I am going to try my best to better emulate these qualities in my life.

The most amazing thing about Matt is his infectious positivity.  Almost every day this summer, whether we were learning the dry math behind our theories, learning how to make a Likert scale in Qualtrics, or learning how to write hundreds of lines of computer code to make our data cleaner ... whatever we were doing was the greatest day of his life.  There is no greater joy for a teacher than to help share something a student is excited to learn, and I've never had a student more genuinely happy and excited to learn than Matt.  That is the quality I'm going to take away from my time him to try to add to my life this year.

We achieved more than I realistically dreamed we could in 8 weeks this summer.  My main goal was to help the students gain confidence in their ability to carry out a research project on their own, and if we actually found anything interesting that was going to be gravy for me.  I thought we'd be scrambling at the end to piece together a little bit of analysis.  Instead, we were ahead of schedule the entire summer and accomplished some great things.  And that, is the first tenet of my mentoring philosophy ... have faith that students can accomplish more than you think is possible.

Over the last few years teaching our research methods courses, I've had a lot of times where I was very skeptical a student could do what they were setting out to try.  And this becomes a scary situation as a teacher ... if the student fails to get somewhere in their project, that's a reflection on me and I feel like I have let them down.  So, early in my teaching career I had a tendency to over-control projects and give students lots and lots of instructions and a constrained set of achievable tasks.  The problem with that is that then you never get the AMAZING results.  Plus, you never get the true passion from the students getting to do what they really wanted to do.  So ... I've turned to blind faith in my students.  If they say they can do it and want to try, we try.  Sam Foster, Xanthi Gerasimo, and Jon Knapp/Danny Jay are probably the students that most caused this turn-around for me and I'll be eternally grateful to them for their passion to aim high in their projects.  Matt and Lauren are on this list now too :)

In order for this to work as a mentoring method, the real trick is to balance a light touch in helping keep things moving forward and out of the ditch, without steering.  Students often *think* they want you to be the bus-driver in their education, driving them from stop to stop and giving a tour of knowledge.  I prefer to think of myself as the gps system with them in the driver's seat, and my purpose is to help with re-routing if they want or need to take a detour.  This becomes more rewarding for both of us, and we end up seeing new things together and finding new paths.

There's an episode of Futurama where Bender finds himself as a god, controlling the destiny of a colony of microscopic people who are living on him, and every time he intervenes to help, he causes more problems, eventually ending in nuclear destruction.  He then talks to the real God, asking him what he did wrong.  God says that "When you do things right, people won't be sure you did anything at all."

Bender: So, do you know what I'm gonna do before I do it?
God: Yes.
Bender: What if I do something different?
God: Then I don't know that.
Bender: Cool! Cool! I bet a lot of people pray to you, huh?
God: Yes. But there are so many asking so much. After a while, you just sorta tune it out.
Bender: Y'know, I was God once.
God: Yes, I saw. You were doing well until everyone died.
Bender: It was awful. I tried helping them, I tried not helping them but in the end I couldn't do them any good. Do you think what I did was wrong?
God: Right and wrong are just words. What matters is what you do.
Bender: Yeah I know, that's why I asked if what I did-- Forget it.
God: Bender, being God isn't easy. If you do too much, people get dependent on you. And if you do nothing, they lose hope. You have to use a light touch like a safecracker or a pickpocket.
Bender: Or a guy who burns down the bar for the insurance money.
God: Yes, if you make it look like an electrical thing. When you do things right, people won't be sure you've done anything at all.
And not that mentors are gods (although sometimes it feels like your mentor is controlling your fates at their own whims), but this is how I try to approach advising students ... if I do it right, they won't notice they needed me at all, and will be ready to carry on without me when they're gone.  Even though that makes me cry, every time :)  I'll miss you guys.

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