Buddhism (unexpected opening, bear with me!) discusses four states or virtues known as the Brahma-viharas, the Four Immeasurables, cultivated through meditation: Loving-Kindness, Compassion, Empathetic Joy and Equanimity. Each of these has an antithesis, of course – a ‘far enemy‘. The far enemy of loving-kindness is hatred; that of compassion is cruelty. Empathetic joy – joy in the joy of others – is opposed to jealousy, and equanimity is the inverse of craving. These are easy to spot. However, each of the Four Immeasurables also has a ‘near enemy’– something that looks so much like the quality we strive for, but really, really isn’t it. The near enemy of loving-kindness would be a possessive affection, that of compassion would be condescending pity. Empathetic joy’s near enemy is perhaps a conditional, sentimental pride, and indifference can be mistaken for true equanimity.
It’s a useful idea in the practice of Learning Development too. We have our values, each of which might have a far enemy that’s easy to avoid, but also a sneaky near enemy which looks the part, but really isn’t actually aligned to our mission of helping students to become successful, emancipated, independent learners. You can see the near enemies of Learning Development values in the Study Skills and Academic Socialization models – so very nearly right, but actually coming from completely the wrong place and entrenching the very issues we’re trying to work with.
The Four Roles of LD too each have their near and far enemies. Let’s take the Teacher. Given that this is the most exposing of the four roles, being ‘found out’ as the far enemy of the Teacher (no knowledge, no teaching skill) is what every new teacher fears the most. But the near enemy? That’s the Expert. Someone who takes such pleasure and pride in their own learning that they leave no space for the student. That tutorial, when the student walks out the door, and you sit back exhausted from all the wisdom you’ve imparted…and a sneaky voice says “ok, so you proved you could solve it, but where was the student in all of that? How have they been helped to learn? Were you just…showing off…?”
The Mentor too is prone to over-involvement. The near enemy of the Mentor is the Editor. “This is how I would have written it. That’s what you should put. That’s not right. I wouldn’t do it like that, if I were you“. If at the end of a tutorial, you realise that what you’ve really offered is an ‘editing-with-commentary’, that’s not mentoring, or even Learning Development. That’s not offering up your own experience to help the student form criteria on which to base their own decisions. That’s just telling them what to do, if they were you. Which they’re not…
What about the Coach? The Coach is supposed to recognize that the learner themselves has the key to resolving the issue, and their role is to draw it out. Their near enemy is the Sheepdog. They have a clear idea of where the student actually needs to go, and every question, while seemingly open, is actually leading, herding the student to pen them where they ‘ought’ to be. “Have you tried…?” “Why don’t you…?” We pride ourselves with the subtlety with which we drew the student to a conclusion which seemed to them to be their own idea. Which, of course, it should have been all along.
And the Listener. Probably one of the hardest roles, in many ways. The Listener offers a mirror, a sounding board, a neutral space in which to rehearse, a way for the student to see more clearly for themselves. The near enemy of the Listener is the Beauty Therapist, which allows them to see only what we think they might best like to see. This might be seeing things in the best light, with false reassurance: “don’t worry, I’m sure it will be fine!“, or in the worst light, validating victimhood, “poor you – that really was a nasty bit of feedback and a very unfair assignment!” This makes us feel better, as it’s nice to be the one to make it all feel better, and play good cop to the academic’s bad cop, but it doesn’t help the student to see what’s really there, and find a way forward.
Feedback is a particularly problematic tool in combating these fake qualities and false practices. The near enemies of LD might us give a warm glow, a greedy pride that we’ve been helpful, we’ve been The One who made the difference, and the students are touchingly grateful and give us compliments and nice feedback. But sometimes glowing feedback should give us pause. Are we in this for gratitude and compliments? The nicest feedback I’ve ever got praised my skills as a speaker (“She should be on a TED talk!“). I glowed for a moment, before a little voice in my conscience said, “how can you yakking on, however entertainingly, ever be truly student-centered, Helen?” I know full well that by proofreading or even co-writing essays for students, overstepping the line into subject teaching, I would garner comments about how helpful I’d been, how I’d gone the extra mile, made such a difference. But deep down somewhere, I’d know I’d actually subverted what LD should be about – those students I’d ‘helped’ are now even more dependent on me for success, and even failure, if my interventions had strayed into collusion. Being ‘the one who it all depends on’ can be an enticing prospect -but it makes me faintly queasy.
It’s so easy to mistake the near enemies of LD for friends -they make us feel good, they might even make the students feel good, but reflecting on our values and ethics, and that queasy little feeling can help us see them for what they are. Mindfulness, which I first learned with the Buddhist Society when I was a student at Oxford, has become increasingly prominent as a way for students to manage stress and build reflection and self-awareness- I’m increasingly aware these days of how much a role it plays in my practice as a Learning Developer.