What’s In Your Letter?
As you travel on your journey through higher education, you will, at times, face the following dilemma: “Do I figure this out all by myself, or do I seek help from others?” Sometimes you will choose one thing; sometimes the other. But when you choose to seek help, know that you have chosen wisely. There are many knowledgeable guides on campus, and the folks in Student Learning Support are among them. It is our job to guide and support you in your academic endeavours. In order for you to get the most from this help, it is important that you understand something about the nature of this relationship, which is the purpose of this letter.
Most importantly, our relationship with you is not just a series of business transactions. It’s more like building an ongoing conversation—complex, sustained, rich, and unpredictable.
That conversation will enable discoveries—for you and for us. You may discover things about yourself you didn’t know, ways to approach academic life you never considered, or support systems you never knew existed. You may also discover other people who struggle with the same challenges that you do. We may discover a unique student situation or approach to learning that compels us to explore new ways to help. A business transaction is relatively predictable; conversations like ours are unique every time.
Our job is to be the experienced voice in that conversation: to listen to what you tell us about your academic life and goals; to help you articulate new questions, and goals beyond the first bend; to help you navigate the road towards achieving your vision of academic success; to help you know and understand what will be necessary for realizing that success, what help is available, and to motivate you towards those goals and teach you the skills you need to achieve them. It is our job to do all that thoughtfully and with care.
Your role in that conversation is to be open, to actively engage in the learning process, to take responsibility for your own success and development, to respect the limits of our resources, to put serious effort and thought into your own learning, to implement the suggestions we make, to try things and do the work that is necessary, to be honest with us when things are unclear, and to be open to the idea that this is a messy process that takes time, effort, and patience.
If you responsibly engage us as meaningful partners in your academic journey, we know that we can help you towards your goals of academic and personal success, whatever they may be.
Student Learning Support
Why we wrote this letter…
Many springs ago, members of the Student Learning Support professional development committee worked on organizing an event for its full-time, professional staff. The group settled on organizing a panel discussion about the concept of “customer service” as it relates to the work that learning support professionals do with students in our various roles across the department—Writing Support, Math Support, Academic Accommodation Support, and more. Through the panel, the professional development committee wanted to explore the rapidly changing nature of the relationship between students and SLS professionals. One of our guiding questions was: “What does ‘customer service’ mean and look like in an academic support context?”
At the end of our panel event, we handed out surveys to all the participants, asking them specific questions about their vision for our services, our relationship with students, and our respective roles & responsibilities. We invited the participants to first discuss these questions in groups of five to eight people at each table and then to reply to the questions individually and anonymously. After collecting and studying the responses, we synthesized them into a narrative and called the document The Open Letter. Its goal was to invite all incoming first-year students to explore what we do in SLS and to start a conversation with them by openly communicating our understanding of our respective roles in order to build an open, productive, and mutually respectful relationship.
What we learned…
During the PD conference and the conversations that followed, it became clear that better defining what we mean by “service” was important. We needed to define that territory occupied by students in their interactions with us. What exactly is that relationship? It is complex and differently understood by us and the students we see. From our perspective, the relationship we aspire to forge with students is more transformational than transactional. In other words, our job is not simply to serve but to attend; not simply to deliver but to guide; not simply to provide but to counsel. In some real sense, students, at least at first, fail to understand this vision of ours and the capacity we have to go beyond the mere provision of service to development of character. This more profound, transformational capacity of our work only succeeds if there is a mutual regard for that vision and an acknowledgement that students, too, bear equal responsibility. Our goal is to do a better job communicating this capacity and this expectation to students.
What’s in your letter…?
Have you ever written an open letter to students, as an individual or as part of your unit? What’s in your letter? What do you want students to know about you and your relationship to them?