Five Questions for Barbara Hofer

Categories: Five Questions

Another week, another installment of the new Five Questions series. This time around, the Middlebury Campus Editorial Board posed questions to Professor of Pyschology Barbara Hofer, who recently co-authored The iConnected Parent: Staying Close to Your Kids in College (and Beyond) While Letting Them Grow Up. Many thanks to them both for taking the time to craft questions and responses.

But before we get to Barbara’s reflections, I would like to announce that the next Five Questions subject is Missy Foote, who is the Head Coach for the Women’s Lacrosse team and the Assistant Director of Athletics for Physical Education. I turn to you, Across Campus Readers, for questions. Send them to vpadmin@middlebury.edu. We’ll pick the best five.

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1. You spend a lot of time working with and studying adolescents—what is your most awkward adolescent story from when you were growing up?

I grew up on an island and at 14 I got a job as a clerk at the local beachfront convenience store. Amazingly, the law said that 14-year-olds could sell beer – and check IDs. There I was, barely tall enough to see over the counter (ok, I was a bit bigger than that), checking IDs of sailors, surfers, party-goers, and everyone else who thought they could pull a fast one on a kid. I was very good at spotting fakes, but it was often a very awkward moment when I denied adults. I quickly learned to be assertive and authoritative at a young age!

2. In your professional opinion, what is the one technological development that has changed the transition into adulthood the most, and why?

The cell phone, since the advent of unlimited calling plans. College students are able to stay constantly connected to their parents, and if not used well, the phone can become an electronic tether. In our research, the students in the most contact with their parents were the least autonomous and self-regulating. College is a time to learn to develop some independence, while remaining closely connected to parents, of course, but in a healthy way. Daily calls just make it too easy to process everything with parents and to get advice about all sorts of problems and decisions students once resolved on their own or by seeking support from college resources.

3. You’ve been at the College since 1998. How have Middlebury students changed since then?

In many ways, not at all. For me it has always been an enormous privilege to teach such remarkable students who come to class prepared, interested, curious, eager to learn – even at 8am this semester.

I have seen increasing numbers of students in the psychology department interested in research and that has been a true pleasure. I could not have done much of my research without the kind of teams I’ve had, and it has been fun to work together toward common goals, and to see the kind of problem solving skills students bring to this work. I treasure the opportunities I’ve had to develop research projects with students who have such energy, focus, creativity, and commitment. The most positive change in my time at Middlebury has been the increase in the diversity of the student body and that has immeasurably improved the campus and enriched the learning/teaching experience here. One of my roles is as a cultural psychologist and I am deeply appreciative of how different it is to teach here now than it was just 12 years ago.

However, I think as Middlebury has become increasingly selective, we draw more students who are highly perfectionistic, and focused on grades. That sometimes has troubling consequences when they see their role as “doing school” and have perfected the process but have less interest in real learning, don’t take intellectual risks, and are too focused on the next rung in the ladder of achievement. I’m impressed by what I’ve heard about the proposal some students are drafting for a pass-fail option and think it could help students venture into new areas without the usual fears of failure (even though “failure” is sometimes defined as a B+). I hope as a community we can continue to think about ways to keep making this the best educational environment possible – and that means much more than just a place where students “succeed” academically.

4. If you had 140 characters to give a message to Middlebury students, what would you say?

Take time for reflection and contemplation. Don’t pull out the cell phone as a defense against being alone with yourself.

5. How did your relationship with your children as they went through college compare to your relationship with your parents as you went through college?

I went off to college on my own and my parents, busy with my younger siblings, didn’t even visit. I think I felt like an adult from the day I left home, and I was treated like one. We were much closer than this sounds, however, as my mother actually wrote me every single day of my first year of college. I still have her letters in a box. We only talked by phone rarely, as calls were quite expensive then. When my kids went to college, we were more connected and I saw them fairly often, visiting frequently, and we talked by phone about once a week. They both graduated just a few years ago – but before the current trend of parents and kids talking all the time. I think the progression of our relationships was quite similar to my own with my parents, in that we stayed connected and close but I tried to support their developing autonomy as emerging adults. The big changes in communication seem to have happened not between my generation and theirs but in the last five years, surprisingly.

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