Advocacy 101

Most students will never be student advocates in a formal sense.  For that reason, while I love the topic, I try not to say too much about advocacy, or give a whole lot of advice about how to do it.  I realize that most students are just trying to succeed in their own studies and ambitions, and while broader issues may affect or interest them, they aren’t trying to change the whole system.  At least not most of the time.

All the same, every once in a while, you inevitably run across something you want to change.  Maybe it’s something personal that only affects you, or perhaps it’s something that affects other students also.  These changes don’t have to be huge or earth shattering.  Most of them are very small, in fact.  I often hear students say “I wish Professor Smith would post his lecture notes on-line,” or maybe “I wish the coffee shop wouldn’t close at 9pm because so many classes get out at that time.”  Maybe all it takes to change that is just a private word with Professor Smith, or else asking to speak with the manager of the coffee shop, with a class schedule in hand.  Oftentimes people simply don’t know what would help you, as a student, and until someone takes the time to speak with them on the subject they’ll never know.  So obviously, I encourage everyone to go and do that.  It isn’t such a big deal, after all.  And now, whether you realize it or not, you’re a student advocate.

As I indicated, there’s a lot of say on this subject, and I’ll try not to get sucked in.  I just wanted to get to an essential point that might help anyone who has ever been motivated to go even this far, and to talk with someone, at some point, about something that might change.  Often, it’s very immediately rewarding to do this.  Maybe Professor Smith really doesn’t realize that on-line notes might help students.  Maybe the coffee shop simply doesn’t know a whole lot of students get out of class at 9pm.  When it’s that simple your job is easy, and you probably get what you want right away.  And then sometimes, there’s a bit of information or a difference perspective you never considered.  Perhaps Professor Smith used to post his notes on-line but noticed a real dip in attendance when he did so.  And maybe the manager of the coffee shop would like to stay open later, but some kind of union agreement means they’ll have to pay overtime to anyone who stays after 9pm, and they aren’t sure the extra business can justify that.

Now you’re in a fascinating place where it isn’t just about what would make your life better, as a student.  You’ve got to consider your interests as balanced against other concerns.  There are good replies I can imagine to both Professor Smith’s concern and the manager of the coffee shop.  Probably you can also, but I won’t continue these scenarios.  The main thing is to realize that even when people see things differently from you, and maybe make decisions you’d rather see changed, they are generally well-intentioned, decent people.  Most people are, after all.  So the whole lesson of advocacy 101 is simply to approach people on this level.  Assume they want to do the right thing and try to persuade them that your idea of the right thing might be more accurate than theirs.  If you can deploy a good argument you’ll probably get your way.  The other approach (which is far too common) is to go into every discussion with the assumption that people are negligent and ill intentioned, and that they’ll screw you if they can, and you’ve got to claw and scratch and threaten in order to get anything out of them.  Although in rare cases this may turn out to be true, it’s definitely not the default option.  And if you start there, you’ll only annoy the very people who are probably inclined to help you, if they can.

I’m reminded of this today because I just received a very nice note from a senior university administrator who I’ve never met, previously.  Of course I’ve worked with some very good people at U of T, and I have great relationships with them, but I too am susceptible to the illusion sometimes that I’ve had good luck, and I know good people, but probably everyone else working out there in the shadows are jerks.  Well, it isn’t true, and it’s nice to be reminded of that.  I write this blog with students in mind, and I make no attempt at all to appeal to administrators and professors.  But if someone with decades of experience in both can read the same blog and think, “that’s worth reading” it’s just a reminder that our values and priorities aren’t really so different.  That doesn’t mean that you, as a student, need to agree with everything professors or administrators may say or suggest.  Sometimes people will simply disagree, and their position in the system does imply different priorities that may occasionally be at odds with your own.  Nevertheless, when you get into one of these discussions – and sometimes even the most innocent request becomes the occasion for one – try to take what they say seriously.  Don’t put it down to malice, because that’s just an excuse to avoid thinking about it.  Understand why things are the way they are, and why the people with authority believe they need to be that way.  Then, you have the best chance of making a coherent argument for whatever alternatives you’d like to propose.

Incidentally, you may think this reasonable attitude will make you vulnerable to the few real jerks out there who choose to be unreasonable in return.  It isn’t really true.  There are some truly irrational people in the system (and some are even professors) but the reasonable people outnumber them.  Even as a student you can develop a reputation for being one of the reasonable people, just as the unreasonable ones have made their own reputations.  When you get into a disagreement with one of those folks, those reputations will weigh in.  You may never hear an administrator admit to this, but they’ll hear you out, and then they’ll close the door, and they’ll say “we know Professor Jones is an idiot sometimes, maybe we need to take this student seriously.”  So it does come out in the wash, I promise.  Be reasonable, as a default setting.  It’ll pay off, in the long run, in matters both large and small.