A Call for Academic Community

Note: The author serves has served as a Science Associate in the biology department, currently serves as an Alchemist in the chemistry department and lab teaching assistant in the biology department, and is a peer tutor in both biology and chemistry. He serves on a the Natural Sciences and Engineering Division Inclusive Excellence Student Advisory Council for peer mentorship and inclusive classrooms as the representative for the biology department and coordinator.

“Anything but linear” is how I would describe my academic trajectory at Swarthmore. I applied to the college with interest in neuroscience and English literature. After making my way through classes in economics and philosophy, I found homes in the biology and chemistry departments. The studies and labs I found myself participating in pulled me into my established major and minor. That being said, sheer love of these disciplines did not keep me there; the community within these disciplines has. Beyond the relationships I have developed with faculty and staff, the support from my peers has been critical in my education.

Last semester, however, I realized how regional this experience of department-sponsored peer mentorship is across campus. Peer mentors range from Teaching Assistants in a lab, Science Associates in a lecture hall, or Dean’s Tutors across the college. These programs, with a notable exception made for peer mentors in the department of economics, are unique to NSE Division courses. This leaves students in the divisions of social sciences and humanities without the community-based support that natural science students enjoy, from which they could gain more meaningful relationships with professors, students, and course material.

Peer mentorship is a defining experience for many students that study in the Natural Sciences and Engineering Division. Each department, at levels including and above introductory sequences, holds Science Associate meetings. These meetings are staffed by students that have succeeded in the course for which they have been hired, and these associates also have been deemed by faculty as capable of aiding students in understanding course material. Not to belabor the point, but mentors help students identify their place in a discipline, which might open the door to students a once removed school of thought. Concretely, however, students, peer mentors, and faculty can improve the academic environment through programs like this one.

Fundamentally, students have more structured time to understand, apply, and synthesize materials in concert with others struggling through the same course. Surveys of instructional technique demonstrate over and over that students learn more in peer-instructed and interactively engaged classrooms in comparison to a traditional lecture, as seen in Hake 1998 and Crouch and Mazur 2001. That might be hard to see moment to moment in a classroom, but when I am at an associate session, nothing is more rewarding than seeing students’ understandings change for the better because of a debate among them. The ideas of students need to be molded, and that comes from consistent engagement with a course. Students have the opportunity to see material again and train themselves to be stronger in a field of study.

Students also build relationships with students across class years. In the first two semesters of biology and chemistry classes I took here, I would often walk home with my SAs after the session. We became friends, some of us close. This development was significant for me, particularly in my first year. I had fellow students who would show me study techniques and tell me tips about intermediate and upper level courses. Even more importantly, because my associates and I became friends, I gained a better sense of who I would be studying with and how I would apply myself once I completed a few more courses.

The benefit extends to the peer mentors and the faculty as well. Mentors take on an important role in each department. They get to know their professors more. They might be seeing information for the second or fourth time, mastering it over time. Also, they can meet younger students that have different and sometimes informative points of view. There is an opportunity for greater responsibilities at the student level to a department and to incoming students of a discipline. Faculty can then promote a larger support system in a discipline. Professors often offer themselves as available, but in some cases, students do not approach them. Students, on the other hand, might be more accessible, and therefore, fewer students might fall through the cracks of a course or out of love with a discipline in its entirety.

It is clear that peer mentorship, for students and professors, is worthwhile. Some would be sure to argue, however, what the benefit to students in the social sciences and humanities might gain from having these peer resources. For one, reading and writing are independent ventures, or so we have often been taught. Discussion on that topic occurs in class, and there is the Writing Center and professor feedback detailing how to improve writing. Where might a peer mentor serve in these contexts?

Peer mentors can give students the opportunity to have smaller discussions and time to critique materials. In some classes, there is not always room for what is deemed an adequate discussion. In classes of 20 or more, a critical engagement of each student in a classwide discussion is diminished because there is only so much time for each student to voice their thoughts. Peer mentors could offer students space for a seminar atmosphere to enter a course, whether that be to critically read through a paper as a group or discuss more outward implications for the reading. Similarly, for papers, a peer mentor and Writing Associates can work in conjunction to workshop the analysis of the readings or data as well as the writing style of a student and how that compares with the discipline’s form of writing.

These sessions would by no means subtract from office hours or classes. Students would be better prepared, if anything, for these conversations if they attend sessions beforehand because it will not be the first time they must formulate ideas in words to other people — I, for one, do not practice what I will say to a class aloud while completing readings. On the back end of a class discussion, a student could again approach their analysis of a reading or be more expressive in a small group. Lastly, the mentors benefit, as stated above, by engaging with materials they have seen in the past in new ways, and faculty can have richer responses to the courses they set out to teach.

Peer mentors, at the bottom line, serve to give students added time with a more experienced student. By spending more active time with material, students learn the materials that make up a school of thought. Therefore, they can then better participate and contribute to that school. Overall, it could better prepare students at every level of study for future studies. If this peer mentorship program is developed across departments, we must wait to see if students take advantage of these programs.

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