Monday, September 19, 2011

180 degrees

The whiteboard schedule that sits above my desk is color-coded. Red is for sessions that the students have without us. Black is for sessions we have without the students. Blue is for sessions we have with the students.

For the first month of the semester, the schedule was mostly blue. Every once in a while, there was Thai class scattered in there in red but those were always simultaneously scheduled alongside a black planning session, and were always followed by something blue. We thought that was intense, but that was nothing compared to the Mock Unit which literally four days of straight blue.

But not four days later, the schedule is all red. Orientation is officially over and we've passed the batons. The semester is in the hands of the students. They've chosen their process and unit facilitators. The former remain constant throughout the entire semester and oversee the ups and downs in the group's process in working and living with one another. The latter switch every unit, and are responsible for facilitating the learning process for the group in terms of content. Currently, the Unit 1 facilitators are plowing away at planning the first Reading Activities and Discussion and Briefing session for the agriculture unit. We sit and wait in our office for them to come up with goals, brainstorms, agendas so they can check in with us, and then we help them do run-throughs, but ultimately it's their gig. We have no control over what happens in there. We guide and suggest, critique and evaluate, facilitating the small group to be able to facilitate the large group. It's terrifying at times, because empowering others means letting go of control, letting go and allowing people to learn from their mistakes and improve themselves. Having us up there facilitating sessions may have taught them something about whatever topic the session entailed, but it didn't teach them how to teach themselves and others, how to truly work as a team to achieve something.  Now they have the foundation and need to run with it.

When we're not checking in with them, we complete other tasks in our office, overwhelmed by what we can't do in order to get people through the learning process. Our involvement hinders the learning; every time we fix  their process means one less time that they were able to fix it themselves. Man, it's so crazy to be on this end of things- understanding the structure, the learning phases and model, the end goal; not just going through the motions because there's a program set up for me to do so. Then I think how much more fulfilled I am as a P'Fac, and realize that I'm just one level up in the cycle. This is a learning process for me too; these structures are here to push us as well, but it's easy to forget that, when you're bopping around from meeting to meeting with staff, making decisions about larger program structures, accessing things you weren't able to as a student. I think about Miles and Shayne, the P'Facs I worked with as a UFac, and what they must have felt like letting us go make our way through this ag unit - how they sat in this office waiting for us to figure our stuff out, improve our process. I hate it, because every time I wonder what they must have thought, I realize that it's exactly like how they students want to know every moment of our student experience. "But it's not about us, it's not about the comparison, it's all about your student group," we tell them. "It's just the cyclical nature of the program- you need to figure it out for yourselves." It's easy to tell them that, but do we get stuck in the same situation? Do we beg for answers from p'fac alumns? We base our sessions off theirs, off deltas we had for them as students, off Josh's advice from our semesters. Is that hindering our learning process as we believe their obsession with our student experience would hinder theirs? Or is there a difference in the nature of the cycle we're in?

We got feedback on our facilitation from the students today - I think of the 24 (students) x 5 (evaluations - one for each of us, plus one as a team), there was a maximum of 6 comments that could even remotely been construed as constructive criticism. The rest was gloriously positive. Most people would think this is wonderful news and take it splendidly. We read it and grunt - how are we going to learn if everyone thinks we're doing everything well already? We know we're not perfect, why won't they figure it out already? Granted, the other scary part about giving them control is the potential for backlash; the potential for them to gain so become so empowered that they don't only not need us, but they reject us. Rendering us useless- great; disrespecting us- more problematic. Don't worry, we're nowhere near that point, but just another balance to strike.

What else do I have to rant on about? I am so excited to be headed back to Yasothon, where my favorite host family lives - here's another one of those things, sharing host families, roommates, peer tutors, with students - as a student, I always knew that other students had stomped in my stomping grounds, but I had no perception of them, I had no perspective to realize what that meant, I was so stuck in my experience. I get it now, but I still have to check myself - PFacs have been here before, sharing favorite restaurants, sharing Thai friends, sharing office spaces, with me, just defying a small space-time continuum. Being part of the larger picture is mind-blowing, but exhausting, trying to separate what is your experience and what is the simultaneous experience of others who walked in your footsteps before.

I reflect on this in a lot of ways - high school and college were the same way - you make your mark, but you leave it for someone else to come into, have their experience, and go on. There are permanent residents of all those places - staff, residents, buildings - that remain constant and overlook the cycle of people coming and going, but your experience is transient and has been experienced by so many before you and so many to come. It's not invaluable by any means, it's actually much more valuable to realize the common ground that you share with people you may never have met. In a culture of such individualism, it's easy to forget the collective experiences that we share. I spend time trying to reject that collectivism, trying to make my experience different, better, than every one that came before me, when I could be creating connection, seeking out people with whom to share our differential experiences amongst the shared space.

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