04 November 2008

Boomer Ed: Seven Campus Traps in the Return to School

Part 5 in a 6-part series on Boomers going back to school during the economic downturn.

These are the traps that won't necessarily come up in your interview with an Admissions officer or even an academic adviser.

1 - Imposter syndrome
, AKA fraud syndrome, doesn't necessarily go away as we age. This is the sense of being an outsider, of not belonging, especially when joining a new group or community. What distinguishes the syndrome from lack of confidence is the sense of dread that accompanies it. The person dreads being "found out" to be not smart enough, not articulate enough, not studious enough.

In my teaching experience I found that the most helpful thing I could do in class was simply mention imposter syndrome. That generated more office visits than whole-class discussions but the response was almost universal. I had no idea that other people feel this, too. I feel so much better already.

2 - Social comparison is a very human tendency and pretty much lifelong and across all contexts. It's what you do when you are aware of another's performance, appearance, or mere presence. When combined with imposter syndrome, social comparison is double deadly: He is a great presenter. I'll never be that good.

Sometimes, it can get nasty: I just hate him. If a classroom is particularly competitive, social comparison fuels the fire. In some disciplines, that's promoted. But most nontraditional students deserve a more civil re-entry to the schoolroom.

Because I am basically a Pollyanna looking for every silver lining, I was able to make this speech with a straight face when I warned students about social comparison: You're going to see some great presentations this semester and you may find yourself resenting the best performers. I'll ask you to catch yourself when resentment rises, and instead think to yourself, "I'm really lucky to be here today to see this presentation."

3 - Plagiarism
is copying other people's work. The most common form in college today is copy/pasting from the web, anything from a paragraph on a web site to a passage from a scholarly journal accessed through an online library. Plagiarism doesn't rely on technology, of course, but computers and the web have considerably sped the process.

I have confronted students with plagiarized papers, always with the intent to help educate them about plagiarism and also to allow them to make repair. Some professors take the role of Plagiarism Police and document every offense (dismissal from an academic program is an eventual consequence). I have found the educational approach effective; I've never seen a student repeat the crime.

Before you express disbelief that a middle-aged student would ever commit plagiarism, let me assure that I've seen good souls do it and almost always because they were pressed for time. That should be the warning bell.

If there is a stereotype to be had on the subject of middle-age students plagiarizing, it is probably this: they are amazed at how fast and easy it is to copy/paste from a web site...but haven't considered that the same technology makes detection just as fast and easy.

4 - Other academic dishonesty...otherwise known as cheating. In my experience, middle-age students do not cheat as often as younger students. The most outrageous experience in one of my classes was a group cheat, seven people rotating a task whereby everyone would benefit on the seven quizzes in the course. I never picked up on it; a student emailed me after the class ended to alert me to what the group had done. (And the experience did lead me to re-design the course.) What I found amazing was that the group included a middle-aged student who probably could have positively impacted six young people with an immediate squashing of the plan. Frankly, I am still amazed.

5 - Social isolation is a common problem for adults who return to school. First, they are likely to be commuters. Second, they are likely to have someone or something waiting for them at home—all the time. The result is that social contacts on campus are cut short. If a little time can be made to hang around the classroom or the student lounge, the returning student will be pleasantly surprised at how welcoming other students are.

6 - Grade fixing may not be best term for this but it comes close: students in a class discuss how best to lower the bar so that work is easier and grades are more generous. Of course, it doesn't always work. Some professors maintain their standards regardless of the "mix" in the class. But it works often enough to encourage students to try to manipulate the course and professor.

7 - Wikipedia. What could possibly be wrong with using Wikipedia as a source? Well, to start with, your resulting essay will look a lot like everyone else's, just like the old days when all students went to the Encyclopedia Brittanica as their major source. In the second place, what you find in Wikipedia may be wrong. It is not as well vetted as the Brittanica, to be sure. If you find yourself lured to the wiki, anyway, then make it only your first stop—to get ideas, to pick up some vocabulary. Then go to scholarly sources for data you can count on. (Librarians can help you check on the soundness of a source.)

© 2008 Mary Bold, PhD, CFLE. The content of this blog or related web sites created by Mary Bold (www.marybold.com, www.boldproductions.com, College Intern Blog) is not under any circumstances to be regarded as professional, legal, financial, or medical advice. Or education advice. Or marital advice. Or even a tip.

1 comment:

John Graden said...

Good post. It's interesting that you mention the impostor syndrome.

The Impostor Syndrome is the feeling that you are not as smart, talented, or skilled as people think you are. It's the feeling that you are a fake and have been getting away with something and are about to be found out. It affects 70% of adults and is especially prevalent in high achieving women.

I've spent the past two decades living with and learning about this common condition.

The Impostor Syndrome is a fascinating topic and the subject of my new book.