Friday, January 10, 2014

Productive paranoia and fear in the first year of college: Should we be scaring them more?

Last Friday, we welcomed a new group of students onto our campus as part of our Winter 2014 New Student Orientation.  We hold three orientations like this each year in June, late August, and January. While there are some unique aspects to BYU's New Student Orientation (e.g. A tour of the Education in Zion Gallery and presentations on BYU's Honor Code), much of what happens during these days is similar to what you might find on any college campus.  There is an opening convocation featuring addresses from university administrators, campus tours, registration/advisement support, social activities, and so on.

Among other things, one of the objectives of all of these programs and events seems to be extinguishing or easing students' fears.  While there is clearly some merit to this approach (i.e. leaving students less fearful about their college experience), Karen Thompson's January 2013 TED Talk ("What Fear can Teach us") raises some interesting questions about the role that fear might play in the beginning college experience and when leaving students fearful might actually be productive or beneficial.

Thompson argues that one of our most useful skills might be the ability to "read our fears" such that we can distinguish between those fears that are irrational and worth discarding, and those that are "true" and worth paying attention to.  She points out that fear, while sometimes debilitating, can in some circumstanced operate more like "productive paranoia" that promotes planning, preparation, and a helpful forward-looking perspective.

This all raises interesting questions for new student orientation and other first-year programming.  One of the problematic tensions or dilemmas with the approach taken by many campuses is that of sending two conflicting messages to students.  First, we want students to manage their time, plan ahead, and be organized.  But, at the same time, many of us seem intent upon putting to rest any and all fear they might have regarding their new experience.  We may not be able to have it both ways.

Clearly, scare tactics and the like are not likely to appear on any best practice list from the National Orientation Director's Association (NODA) or the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience.  But, instead of working to make students fearless and completely comfortable or confident about beginning college, there may be some benefit in helping first-year students learn to identify, read, and respond to their fears in productive ways.  Whether it's a fear of failing Calculus, not making new friends, or running out of money before Christmas, a healthy dose of fear may be just what new students need to engage in the planning and preparation that is critical for a successful first semester.

So, what might this mean for anyone who advises, teaches, or orients new students?

1.  Engage students in open dialogue about what scares them.  Before students can read or manage fears, they've got to acknowledge (and, ideally, share) those fears.  This could happen en masse in a Convocation where the University President or Student Association President raises these questions, in small-group discussions during Orientation or in a First-Year Seminar, or individually with a faculty advisor or peer mentor.  The key is opening a space where students can grapple with their fears and start to sift through which ones are worth listening to.

2.  Avoid the temptation to try to make everyone feel better.  Again, fear isn't a bad thing.  So, when students are in a state of "productive paranoia" (Thompson's term), let them stay there.  We'll earn our salaries when we help students leverage this fear and use it to be more successful.  It wouldn't be a bad thing for us to stop telling everyone "you'll be fine," "things will work out," and "Don't worry about it."  Those are fine things to say once we're confident students have an effective plan for managing their fear, but until then, those feelings of fear are helpful.

3.  Let fear drive students toward supportive people and resources.  A common refrain on my campus is that students just don't use the resources provided for them.  While this is sometimes due to a fear of asking for help (an unproductive fear that we should try to extinguish), the vast majority of students don't suffer from this fear when they begin their college experience--instead this fear comes later, often when they are in over their head and ashamed.  The more productive fear that many students bring with them when they first arrive on our campuses can, however, be leveraged to encourage students to make use of valuable campus resources before it's too late and they feel too embarrassed.  There's a subtlety here in that we might be inclined to convey messages to the tone of "Don't worry, there are people here to help you," which isn't all bad.  But, more effective is a message to the effect of "If you're worried, talk to someone.  They'll be able to help and then you won't be as afraid."  See the difference?  The first flavor of "don't worry" encourages procrastination, while the second is proactive and promotes help-seeking.  But, for this message to work, it has to be accompanied by a companion message relating to what Carol Dweck has termed a growth mindset.

To sum up, first-year programming (particularly New Student Orientation) should be thoughtfully designed to, rather than eliminate fear, help students read, manage, and respond to fear (productive, valid fears that is).  That doesn't mean letting students die on the vine while they languish in fear, but acknowledging those productive fears that students hold and then designing our messaging and support in ways that help students move beyond fear to preparation and productivity.

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