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Framing Differences, Systems, and Assumptions in the TLI

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by Melinda Canter

This essay tackles outside issues that can challenge mentoring partnerships like TLI.


            The Teaching and Learning Initiative (TLI) programs frequently blur the boundaries between teacher and learner, and allow for people in different positions on campus to work together in a collaborative educational environment. These programs allow participants to foster new relationships across different spheres of campus life, and they allow for a change in the tone, content, and context of interactions between these constituencies.

As positive as these results may be, the process of getting there can be difficult and often involves a significant amount of risk on the part of every person involved. There is a great challenge in moving beyond the roles with which we have become so comfortable, whether they are tied to our positions at the college (as students, staff, or faculty) or to who we are as individuals; this challenge may be overt or implicit, but it seems to almost always be present. In this paper, I am going to look at some of the ways in which our roles outside of the TLI affect our experiences within the TLI, and at how these experiences can be considered in relation to the conceptions of mentoring that we have discussed in class. Although each individual situation and partnership is different, I will also suggest some ways for students to frame and work through these challenges, through both individual reflection and during interactions with their staff partners.

One of the initial challenges that many TLI participants face is the factor of age discrepancy between partners. For example, many of the staff members who participate in Computing classes and in Empowering Learners Partnerships are older than the college students with whom they are working, perhaps even as old as the students' parents or grandparents, while others may not be too much older at all. Age is a property that carries a number of associations and assumptions, especially as it relates to perceived ability with technology and ways of interacting with one another. Students who are typically used to learning from people older than them may find it difficult to take on the role of teaching staff members, and those staff members must also negotiate the reversal of typically age-defined roles.

            In the TLI's Computing classes, age comes into play for all of the participants on different levels. The co-teachers, who are most often Bryn Mawr students, must take authority over a classroom which consists half of staff members who are generally at least several years older than they are, and half of their peers, who are acting as mentors for the staff members. The mentors work with their staff partners in the classroom as well as in a one-on-one setting, and these age differences can be quite salient in both situations. In some instances, students in both the co-teaching and mentoring roles may find it difficult to confidently take on a sense of authority with someone they have been taught to view and respect in a particular way. For example, as a co-teacher, there have been moments in class when it has been difficult for my co-teaching partner and me to encourage everyone to quiet down, simply because we do not feel like we should be speaking to the staff members "as if they are children." As co-teachers, we play a great part in shaping the tone and community of the classroom, and age certainly plays a role in this task - we need to make sure that all members in the room feel welcome and able to ask questions without feeling uncomfortable or unintelligent.

In both of the classes I have co-taught so far, there have also been staff members who consciously refer to themselves as being young and thus more able to pick up computing skills quickly, or as being older and thus slower. It is vital to try to diffuse these moments, to make it clear that we do not correlate age with ability. I have come to believe that, in most cases, the age difference is not indicative of ability, but rather of generational differences, which are often tied to exposure and access. People of our younger generation are only so able to quickly learn technological skills because we have grown up during a time inundated with the presence computers and changing technology; we have had the chance to acquire a greater level of comfort with these skills over time, and we are often required to use them on a daily basis while many staff members are not. We are not naturally better at these things simply by virtue of our age; young people, too, had to learn to feel comfortable exploring the Internet at one time, and have had to pick up the knowledge of how computers "think," which can be anything but intuitive.  In working with staff members, regardless of age, we should try not to think in quantified terms of who knows more, who is more able, or who does things the fastest; as Herman and Mandell suggest, it is important to "treat all learning projects, all studies, as occasions for dialogue rather than as transmissions of knowledge from expert to novice" (Herman and Mandell 12). It is also important for co-teachers as well as mentors to make it clear that we are not operating on these assumptions about age and ability, and to perhaps even name and refute those assumptions overtly in order to lead the class in a new direction of thought. We need to realize that the staff members may already see themselves as more or less able simply because of their age, and because that is the message they have come to believe. In the Computing classes, we are in a position to help shape the staff members' views of their own abilities in this particular area, in a way that they can carry into future learning situations as well.

One vital way that mentors may foster their partners' growing knowledge and self-esteem is to openly communicate and collaborate with their partners, creating opportunities to connect on a human level in addition to focusing on the content being learned. The act of simply taking an interest in the life of someone who plays a different role at the college and who may be of a different generation is a way of bridging these differences and turning them into a positive aspect of the partnership, a point of learning and interest rather than one of division. Those who are designated as mentors in a Computing class should be willing to occasionally take on the role of learner, and should also be willing to take time out from the homework and syllabus to devote attention to the work of building a relationship as well. Herman and Mandell believe that "by creating and discovering ‘connections', mentors-as-learners practice a scholarship of engagement. We and our students learn to see that all kinds of boundaries and separations - authoritative pronouncements, unexamined rules, and passively received ideas - can be crossed and (re)unions made" (165). By developing relationships based on their human qualities and experiences, rather than focusing on the obvious differences and boundaries that exist between them, people who work together in these programs are challenging assumptions and rules that implicitly govern the ways they interact (or do not interact) on campus without, perhaps, even realizing it. Whether our interactions are structured this way because of age differences, gender differences, or just because of the different roles we take on in our daily lives at the college, we must learn to suspend our judgments and build new kinds of relationships with one another.

            Most students participate in the TLI programs because they want to develop these close relationships with staff members, but this relationship-building is not always simple. In thinking about this, I have found Herman and Mandell's "systems vs. lifeworld" model to be a useful concept. As they explain, "human beings control their environments, including each other, with systems," and that the idea of a "‘lifeworld' refers to that aspect of our experience in which we allow phenomena, including all living beings, to disclose themselves, gradually and provisionally, as they are" (24-25). In terms of TLI work, I conceive of "lifeworld" thinking as resisting or consciously dismissing the assumptions that tend to come along with various campus roles, and refusing to be limited by the structures underlying our different positions on campus and the connotations attached to them. This is not always a simple mindset to adopt, and sometimes this "lifeworld" thinking may require one to be acutely aware of one's own thought process and consciously choose not to think in a particular way. "Lifeworld" thinking is not necessarily about ignoring the systems and assumptions with which we are so familiar, but rather, it is about acknowledging those factors but not being restricted by them, and about using that meta-level awareness to begin thinking about how to actually change the system itself.

The positive effects of our "lifeworld" thinking have also been quite palpable in our group Empowering Learners Partnership (ELP) this semester. Two other students and I have had the chance to work with three staff members from facilities, and much of our work together has been based on talking and learning about one another's lives. We have been building close relationships across two campus constituencies that do not normally interact in this way, which has required all of us to suspend our assumptions and learn to work together on a human level.

However, in this context, I can also see places where this kind of thinking has had its limitations. I couldn't help observing that the two other students and I never really took on the authority of the teaching role as strongly as we might have. As individuals, we are so powerfully shaped by systems and institutions such as traditional schooling, gender, and age, that we gravitate toward structures that have been affirmed by our previous experiences within those systems when there is not a clearly defined alternative. I think of TLI programs as creating a new space for a different kind of interaction to take place, but perhaps, if we are not deliberate in changing the ways we think and act, it is easy to fall back into one of the established ways of relating. In our partnership, I have thought at times that we may have grown too complacent with taking on the student role, perhaps since that is what has become most natural to the three of us. We are used to learning from people who are older than us, and the facilities staff, who all have children around our age, are eager to teach us; this is the easy, "automatic" way of arranging things, but that is exactly what we are trying to challenge. We may be learning skills that are not traditionally taught at a women's liberal arts college through a progressive educational model, but at times I have worried that we are falling into toward more traditional roles and straying from the fully reciprocal relationship we set out to build.

For these reasons, I believe it would have been helpful if we had spent more time deliberately discussing the structure of our partnership in the very beginning and clarifying what we planned to do before we got too far into the semester. We were placed in the unique position of developing for ourselves a new, ideally open and non-oppressive learning space, and it would have been helpful to start with a clearer framework incorporating a more equal exchange of time and skills. For this reason, I suggest that, in order to foster true reciprocity, it is important to clearly communicate throughout the partnership about who is taking on which roles, and to consciously work against the tendency to stick with the positions with which everyone is comfortable. Herman and Mandell suggest that "mentors must become very attentive listeners," and this is certainly a piece of it - we must learn to listen for what our partners might need and what they are experiencing - but we must also learn to listen to our own understandings of the process in order to take on the challenge of taking on the teaching role when it is our turn (29).

As we participate in these programs, we need to work to find commonalities rather than just focusing on the differences between us, but we also need to be aware of those differences and be willing to acknowledge the ways that they traditionally divide us. It is important that we find ways in which our different roles and understandings intersect, and to use those intersections as starting places for voicing and understanding the systems that shape our lives and interactions with one another. In this way, we can look at the TLI as a new context for us to allow these considerations a place in our conversation and consciousness as we work together to gain practical knowledge and build relationships. On a greater level, our shared work may even begin to alter the assumptions that people come in with in the first place, and allow us to start reshaping the systems that have had such a role in shaping us.


                                                Works Cited

Herman, Lee, and Alan Mandell. From Teaching to Mentoring: Principle and Practice, Dialogue

            and Life in Adult Education. New York, NY: Routledge, 2004.