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Steve Quinn, Olympic College

Steve Quinn.jpgTwo years ago, the pandemic sent me home from the office where I had spent a decade advising community college students. This represents an entire generation of students who have been directed to me in ways other than as the old guy with long hair and an office upstairs. Personal insecurities aside—the image of the hermit crab without its shell comes to mind—I have come to see officelessness as a good thing. My challenge is to hang onto its benefits even after I am allowed back into my shell.

While most of my colleagues embraced Zoom as the next best thing to being there, I found myself working from home in an old neighborhood with such limited bandwidth that any kind of streaming was an invitation for pixilation and signal loss. Even the phone is fraught with issues of caller privacy, reception strength, and voicemail garble. It was while using email to set up synchronous conversations that I discovered the many benefits of asynchronicity. These might be characterized as equity of inquiry, equity of identity, and equity of access.

When pandemic restrictions began to ease, a chemistry professor I work with was ecstatic about reopening the in-person lab: “At last I will be able to answer a question without six emails back and forth.” I totally get his point, but advising is not rocket science—or chemistry lab—and for me and my students the six emails and the laborious clarification they require can be useful.

One way of looking at equity is as a suspension of assumptions. Without body language or pregnant pauses, I don’t know what my students are asking until they ask it. This can be frustrating, but once we get past that to the point where they can express what they know and what they need, it can become empowering. The conversation-starter, “I need an advising appointment” becomes, “would psychology count as my last humanities class?” How cool is that? If a synchronous conversation comes at all, it often is to validate newfound confidence rather than plea for rescue. I miss seeing my students, but when I do return to in-person advising, I need to remember not to rush to fill the pauses between the lines. Helping them say what they need is advising too.

Another way of looking at equity is categorically, as an attempt at offsetting and overcoming disproportionate access and opportunity between groups. Most of my students probably guess my gender from my name, and I make similar assumptions about most of them, but the descriptive categories available to us are limited: I may be a guy, but I no longer am the old guy or the old guy with long hair—no more comments about whether or not I used to play guitar for AC/DC. No more reading ancestry into my pale skin.

The descriptors I have for my students are equally limited. Last week I worked with a student who was . . . and from there it is all about the inquiry and our conversation, and the blank is filled in with “confused about” or “changing majors” instead of anything about categorical identity. Even the autistic students I work with—and I am a primary referral from our disability support office—defy categorization in most emails. In the absence of other categories of potential inequity, relative adeptness and confidence in the inquiry itself appears as a category of its own. This is a source of inequity I can do something about, even if it takes half a dozen emails. What I need to know about the student—which blanks need filling in—becomes a more deliberate part of the inquiry here than in the synchronous world.

Perhaps the most common way of discussing equity is as it relates to relative privilege. Without easy access to categorical information and other assumptions, privilege in the asynchronous world manifests primarily as academic currency: knowing the jargon, navigational cues, and when and how to push back in this artificial world of higher education. As an asynchronous advisor, to be equitable is not to be anti-privilege—the student who knows what they want is not denied the answer—but to lift up those with less academic currency and give them access too. They challenge me to eliminate jargon that plays into privilege, to clarify contextual assumptions and help students do the same, and to present options and resources in ways that are relevant and accessible to outsiders and insiders alike. My challenge, when I return to being face-to-face, will be to not let appearances fool me. “What do I need to know about you to help you?” still needs to be asked.

Last week I met with a student who is registering for her last three classes in her degree. Yes, I know her gender—I looked it up to inform my pronoun selection. She and I never have met in person and are not likely to. She is an asynchronous success story. After a relative parade of advisors in the synchronous world, in almost three years she had accumulated a third of the units needed for her two-year degree. She felt misunderstood, discouraged, and jerked around, and her first question was, “How do I get out of this place?”

I am not saying asynchronicity was all that saved her, but from her emails when we met, she came across as relatively insecure. She insisted on a phone call early in our work together and took the call on speaker with a friend who had been to college and “knows how this stuff works.” Our relationship has been defined by the pandemic, and in that time, asynchronous except that initial call, instead of looking for the exit and who is to blame, she lately has re-evaluated her goals, raised her GPA by a third, and begun to ask questions that are resource-based, specific, and intentional. Not to mention the impossibility imposed by her having moved three time-zones away; synchronicity is overrated.

Confidence and empowerment always have been cornerstone outcomes of advising, but difficult ones to solidify in the crush of the synchronous world. I am not grateful for the pandemic, but being forced to spread advising inquiries across days of deliberate question and answer have taught me things I hope I will not forget when they let the long-haired old guy back into the building.  

Steve Quinn
Advising Faculty
Professional-Technical Programs, Business & Technology Division
Olympic College

Cite this article using APA style as: Quinn, S. (2022, June). The equity of asynchronicity. Academic Advising Today, 45(2). [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2022 June 45:2


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