Cause and consequence

Many students don’t really know what’s going on around them… until it’s too late.


With the recent flurry of new bloggers and introductory posts, it occurs to me that folks may not know where I’m coming from. I give a lot of advice around here. That’s kind of my thing. And I have very strongly held views on the subject of university. Those views, however, are not based solely around my own experiences and opinions. I’m not a typical student. The advice I give has far more to do with the students I’ve worked with over the years.

I wrote and published a book about What’s Wrong With University: And How to Make It Work For You Anyway (shameless plug). I guess that’s my major claim to credibility. But I didn’t wake up one day and decide to write a book about university. I just cared about the quality of my education and as a result I got interested in academic advocacy. I got myself elected to the board of my students’ union. For one year I was a department rep and for two further years I was Vice-President Academics – a full time executive position.

Something unexpected happened midway through my “career” in student politics. I thought academic advocacy would be about abstract issues – study space, rules and policies, the course calendar, and so on. That was part of it. But a lot of the time it was just students with problems. Sometimes individual students would come to me with their crises. Sometimes groups of students would approach me with shared concerns. Even policy debates are just about students and their problems. If we’re going to change the rules on probation and suspension, for example, what we’re really talking about is all the students who are in academic trouble, how they got there, and what we could do differently to help them dig their way out.

For the better part of my university career this is what I spent a lot of my time doing. I talked with a lot of students who were having a very bad time of things and I did what I could to help. Some ran afoul of academic misconduct policies – in other words they were accused of cheating. Some were failing courses, getting hoofed out of programs, or risked expulsion. In the case of international students that might even mean deportation. Some were merely struggling and were frustrated with their grades and performance. Often all students wanted was a quick fix that would stave off their most immediate problems. But even though a quick fix might be part of the solution there are still the underlying issues.

Every problem, every consequence, has its roots in some earlier cause. The students who are cheating either don’t understand why the rules matter or think the whole thing is a scam or else they’re in such deep trouble in school they believe they have no choice. The students who are failing often hate their programs but feel, for various reasons, like they have no other options. I listened to students who were convinced, against all logic, that what they really needed to do was defer all of their exams for the third time in a row and somehow four months later it would be okay. Time and again I talked with students who couldn’t even be honest with their families about their struggles in school, so instead of finding support at home they only found more stress. I met a lot of students feeling frustrated, even angry, about their situations. Maybe they couldn’t put it into words, exactly, but they felt like something had gone wrong and they’d been misled. And I think that’s often true.

This is where all my advice is coming from. Many students don’t really know what’s going on around them in university and they don’t think about it until they run up against some serious problem – and by then it’s too late. Students don’t think carefully about what they truly want to study or where they hope to end up after university and then they’re halfway through before they realize it isn’t going well and wonder why. Even students who are doing well, in relative terms, may suffer from what they don’t know. Those who want to do graduate studies often don’t plan for it early enough and miss important opportunities. The list goes on and on.

For every piece of advice I give I’m thinking of all the students who got royally screwed up because they didn’t know something or weren’t warned soon enough or simply weren’t encouraged to think about particular issues. In every case I’ve started with the consequence and worked back, as best I can, to the probable cause. The most frustrating thing about advising students who are already in deep trouble is you can see how they might have avoided the problems in the first place but now it’s too late and all you can hope for is damage control. That’s where the book originally came from and that’s the basis for my advice here.

As always, I welcome questions. Mail me at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even mail I don’t use here will still receive a reply and I’ll remove identifying information.


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