Being Invisible

by Dr. Watson Scott Swail, President & Senior Research Scientist

There are many superhero powers that some of us dream about. As a kid, I wanted to fly. Not like a plane, but rather, hold my arms out and fly like Superman. I often dreamed of flying out of my bedroom window over to Oakenwald Elementary across the street. I’m sure I wasn’t isolated in that wish.

Flying is only one of many superpowers. The Hulk and The Thing had incredible strength; Mister Fantastic could stretch (weird, but cool); and of course Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel seemed to be able to do almost anything.

Invisibility is another superpower. We may think of the Invisible Woman and the Invisible Man. Doctor Strange can invoke invisibility, and outside of the superhero world, Harry Potter had access to the Cloak of Invisibility.

Invisibility is special because it provides a level of not only anonymity, but secrecy. You can slink around without people knowing. You can sneak up on others or spy with the ultimate in inconspicuousness. A very cool, if not icky, superpower.

On college campuses, there are many students that have this superpower. They are essentially invisible to campus faculty and staff. They may be present (well, perhaps not now during COVID-19 times …), but they aren’t visible. In fact, some of them do their best to remain incognito. This is interesting because so many other students work so hard for visibility. They get involved in activities, clubs, and campus politics. Some are gregarious and are noticed by their outgoing personalities. Some are teacher’s pets while others are noticed by their poor behavior. A lot of students get noticed one way or another.

The challenge for colleges are those that hide in the shadows. Many of these students are introverted and shy by nature. Others are quiet during certain occasions or events, brought on by unfamiliarity and discomfort with the situation. It is important to note that quietness isn’t a negative criterion. Some of our students may be quiet and introverted, but are incredibly smart and pass as “good” students. They achieve at high levels and enjoy the experience in their own particular way. We don’t have to do much with these students. They are fine. My concern are the quiet ones that aren’t achieving as required, socially or academically, and still lurk under the radar of our professors and campus support experts.

This brings to mind Uri Treisman’s famous work at the University of California Berkeley on the study experiences of Black students versus Asian students, whereas he found that the former tended to work alone while the later worked in groups. The thesis of Treisman’s work is that the Black students were isolated and had no one to lean on, receive encouragement from, or to access help when necessary. They were their own island. Conversely, the Asian students travelled as a pack, insulating themselves from a somewhat hostile environment and providing themselves with socio-emotional and academic support. Consider the isolation that Asians can have on campus, especially 40 years ago, and you can understand the sociological solution that they created to survive a typical North American campus environment.

A key to student success for institutions is to identify the quiet ones. Find those students who are flying under the radar; those who need help, both emotionally and academically. These are the ones we lose. Sure, we lose some of the others who we easily see; the loud and the proud. But we know if and when they will fail. We can help them, but they may be of their own devices. The quiet ones, though, they are a conundrum.

I’ve often said that, for many colleges, once you’ve found out a student is in trouble it is too often too late. They are either long gone or so far behind that the DFWs start crashing in. For institutions, the pathway to success includes intensive and intrusive early alert systems. Find students who are beginning to exhibit the symptoms of stopouts and leavers. The missed classes. The late or poorly completed assignments. Students who aren’t involved in classes or seem to be daydreaming or focused on other things. This is why, to a large degree, instructional faculty are critical to student success. They are the ones that see students face-to-face and can identify the root causes of failure.

This is why faculty are key to any initiative or strategies for student success on campus. They are the front-line assessors to the involvement of students. They can find the students who are lurking in the shadows and reach out to ensure that the students are fine or identify those who need some support.

Teaching is (or should be) an intrusive, participatory practice. In the relatively new age of online teaching, we have tools to see if students are involved. But in the physical classroom, we have to work to identify the students who aren’t participating as expected or warranted. We need to hunt them out, and the professors need to show the way.

For instructional staff, this can be as simple as taking attendance in some form or another. For smaller classes, it is relatively easy to see who is missing. For medium or larger classes, it may take specific strategies, like the requirement for hand-in assignments, quick quizzes, or the logging on via smartphones. There are very simple ways to do this.

Colleges need to look at the pedagogies and practices within the classroom and labs across campus. They need to provide professional development so that instructional faculty can learn new ways of doing thing and improve not just the transfer of knowledge, but the involvement and participatory nature of learning.

As we continue, as always, to find ways to improve teaching and learning, increase the ROI of postsecondary education, improve the lives of our students, and ultimately service society at large, we can start by ensuring that all students receive a quality education. And this only happens when we know they are there.

For now, watch for the invisible ones. Some of them desperately want to be seen.

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