Monday, December 20, 2021

Parents and preregistration

 A few years ago, the computer science faculty took it upon themselves to increase the number of first-year advisors in their ranks. They had grown frustrated at advice commonly given to first-years planning to study CS, especially to women and underrepresented minorities: Don’t take CS your first term, it’s too hard, wait and get your feet underneath you before you try it. I signed up one colleague who I knew would be especially supportive of such students. She called me after meeting her first advisee for the first time. “OK, you got me into this,” she said. “What do I do now?” A young man had come into her office and announced that he actually did not want to study CS, even though that is what he had said on his Harvard application and that had been his special talent in high school. “I want to become a studio artist.,” he said. “I had to wait until my mother dropped me off before I could tell anyone that.” My colleague asked what to do. Here I had recruited her as an advisor to improve retention, and she was failing before she had even opened her mouth.


“Tell him congratulations, and steer him to X [the Director of Undergraduate Studies in the studio art department],” I said. “He figured out something about himself before his first class. That sometimes takes years.”


I thought of this incident after my previous post about shopping period. I wrote there, accurately but rather too casually, the following:

Maybe the students with college-educated parents, the ones who grew up in households with books all around them, can figure out whether they'd rather take a course in Shakespeare or Schopenhauer. But what about the priority Harvard has placed on enrolling more low-income, socioeconomically disadvantaged students? The best ever students from the least of America's high schools? The ones we are so concerned to make feel included and belonging? How on earth can they begin to make rational course decisions before even setting foot in Cambridge?


The trouble with this formulation is that it suggests that the problem is informational and is restricted to one kind of parent. That students with educated parents will make better advisors because they know more about college and the subjects colleges teach than less well educated parents, and because of that inequity the new plan, which would have incoming first year students choose their first courses at home in early summer, might be especially bad for those students coming from less well educated families.


But as I stress elsewhere in that post, the advising problem is typically not mainly informational. The problem students need to solve is not to match their goals against the course catalog so they can pick out those courses that match their ambitions the best. It’s to figure out what goals they should have, and to challenge the goals they come to college already having set for themselves—most often under the heavy influence of parents and other family members. 


As the competition to get into Harvard has increased, the burden on some students not to “waste” or “mess up” the opportunity has also increased. In my experience the pressure not to disappoint family members—by choosing an unconventional path or leaving college entirely—has been especially tough on socioeconomically disadvantaged students, and students from non-college-education backgrounds. How many such parents, having made personal sacrifices and having staked their hopes for the future on their child’s prospects for a world-class education, would be as sanguine as the Gates and Zuckerberg parents seem to have been about their child dropping out?


But those are far from the only parents who may fail to support their children’s best interests in the new pick-your-courses-at-home world. What we used to benignly call “helicoptering” by better-off parents has also not gone away. Indeed, it has assumed a more malignant form in recent years, as part of larger changes in the way Americans view academia and expertise in general. Remember when Harvard administrators got stung trying to coach first-year students on how to talk to their parents about race and diversity when they went home for Thanksgiving? Harvard presumed that in two months their wards would have seen the light, but were still unsophisticated enough to stumble trying to awaken others. Such excesses of wokeness (including the campaign against the allegedly exclusionary phrase “pregnant women”) have left many parents thinking academics are a poor source of advice about the things that matter most to their children’s future. Take your courses and get your degree, goes the parting advice, you need that—but don’t listen to all the nonsense.


All of which is to say that parents of every kind are not going to leave their pre-matriculating Harvard students alone to make their own course choices—choices that may be extremely consequential as they set off on their journey to become true adults, no longer tethered to their families for their life choices.


When I was dean of the College, I used to send some advice to incoming students in the summer before their arrival on campus. It was an attempt to get them to focus in the future on the quality of their achievements rather than the quantity. I called it “Slow Down: How to get more out of Harvard by doing less.” I quite intentionally did not wait until they arrived on campus and had gotten away from their parents to deliver this message. In fact, I continued sending this letter by paper mail, addressed to the students, to their home addresses, even after email distribution became feasible and cheap. I did that because I wanted parents to read it too, and I knew that the surest way to get parents’ eyes on that letter was to address it to the students themselves at their home addresses. 


I do wonder who Harvard thinks will be filling out those course-selection forms in July before matriculation.

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