Teaching RC on a College Campus

I have been teaching two RC fundamentals classes on a college campus every spring semester for the past five years. About a hundred students have taken the course, some two or three times. Because the classes have proved to be an effective way to get the basics of Co-Counseling to young adults from many different backgrounds, I thought I would write about how they came about,* with the hope of encouraging RC Communities to look to academic institutions in their midst as possible places in which to attract young adults to RC. I’ve divided the report into two segments. This one will focus on getting the classes going. The second will talk about what has worked well in the course itself.

Getting to teach RC in academia can be challenging. In a few places it has been accepted and openly taught as an academic subject, but more often it has been viewed as unscholarly and unscientific—and, in programs that train “mental health” professionals, even dangerous! I encountered this attitude in my psychology graduate program, clinical internship, and twenty-three-year career at a research-focused university. In my first year at that university, when I incorporated information about RC into a graduate seminar for clinical psychology doctoral students, several of the students wrote letters complaining about my not teaching real psychology and urged that I not be reappointed. So I learned to mask my enthusiasm and to present RC in a limited form, as one of several humanistic personality theories or expressive approaches to counseling. Each year though, Rational Island Publishers could count on my bulk order of The Human Side of Human Beings, which I included as required reading for every course I could fit it into.

After retiring and moving from New England to northern California (USA), I was eager to devote more time to teaching RC. A chance circumstance—I was looking to get library privileges at a local university—led me to the chair of the psychology department. We made a good connection over lunch, and she invited me to teach a course or two in her department, on any subject I wanted. I said there was only one course I was interested in teaching and proceeded to tell her about RC. To my surprise, she said it would be fine. I decided that rather than simply offer a course for psychology majors, I would see what student groups on campus might find it particularly useful or appealing.

After speaking with various administrators, I found my way to the director of a peer mentor program, which trained and then paid students to staff a center where anyone could drop in for help with the daily challenges of academic life. Calling my course “Seminar in Advanced Listening Skills,” I described it to him as an opportunity for students to learn how to listen and support their peers, learn how to deal with others’ emotional upsets, and become confident in handling challenging new situations. He was immediately enthusiastic, since these were not skills that were emphasized in his program’s trainings. The advantage for me was that I wouldn’t need to do any screening, as the students were all committed to helping others and had been selected for his program based on their motivation, maturity, and strong academic performance. I made brief presentations in his training classes and supervision groups, reaching about seventy-five students, forty-three of whom applied to take the course.

Five years down the road, here are some of the ways I’ve figured out to develop and expand the program:

Course structure

Although each year I have been paid to teach only one course, I decided to divide it into two sections of twelve students each. Eight or ten has also worked well, but fourteen proved to be too many, given that the class period is only an hour and fifteen minutes long. The classes have met once a week, throughout a fifteen-week semester, for one unit of credit. After the first year, some uncertainties about my health led me to invite Ruth Jacobsen, a lecturer in the social work department and also an RC teacher, to teach the course with me. We taught it together for three years. This year, because Ruth’s schedule didn’t allow it, I invited Rita Duarte Herrera, an educator and Community RC teacher, to be the co-teacher. The psychology department has been accommodating in granting appointments to non-psychologists, as long as they have a master’s degree in an area that seems relevant to the course. Co-teaching has been a wonderful experience. Someone can be there if one of us is sick or out of town, it feels more creative and supportive than teaching alone, and of course it’s much richer for the students. In addition, a student who took the course twice has served in the last two years as an assistant.

Recruiting

For the first three years, almost all the students came from the peer mentor program. But then, because the program’s funding was cut, the pool became much smaller and I had to look elsewhere. In addition, some of the students who had taken the course more than once wanted it to be more widely available in the university and began to talk about building a young adult RC Community there. So I met with the directors of other peer helping programs (such as academic tutors and freshman orientation leaders), knowing that students in those programs would have gone through screening and training and would be motivated to improve their helping skills. I talked as well with faculty and supervisors in professional training programs (undergraduate and graduate) such as nursing and nutritional counseling, giving them fliers to post and give out to their students. Two lecturers in psychology who also supervised peer programs got excited about the course and let me come and speak to their classes about it. In addition, Ruth got the word out to her students in social work, and each year an increasing number of them applied to take the class.

With program directors, the name of the course is immediately appealing—they invariably agree that students need to learn to listen better. I’ve found it most effective to focus with them on how the class will increase students’ ability to help others, only mentioning in passing any possible personal benefits. I don’t talk about the nature of human beings, the benefits of discharge, or people freeing themselves from the effects of past distress experiences.

With student groups, I’m more freewheeling and try to generate excitement. I start off by appreciating them for their commitment to helping others and to making a difference in the world. If they are part of a peer helping program, I tell them that I know they’ve been selected for it because of their outstanding leadership potential. Then I explain that the reason I’m offering the course, even though I’m retired, is because it includes the most useful information I’ve ever come across and that if they end up taking the course, it could change their lives. I provide details of how it will enhance their helping skills. I describe how they will come to understand better why people feel and act as they do and will know useful things to do if someone bursts into tears, is overwhelmed with anxiety, or is furiously angry (I provide scenarios to make it more dramatic).

Then I segue into explaining how the understanding and skills they will learn for helping others may also be applied to themselves. I tell them that they will most likely increase their self-confidence, and effectiveness in their studies and employment, and deal more effectively with stress, recover more easily from upsets and painful life events, and improve their relationships with friends and family members. Finally, I tell them that the course will help them understand and deal with oppressive behavior, such as sexism and racism. I don’t emphasize anything that might sound “therapeutic,” as some of them may be wary of self-exploration and re-visiting and discharging old hurts. The message I give is a practical one: that the course will provide useful knowledge and skills for helping others and may be applied to themselves if they wish.

Because the students often have full course loads and one or two jobs as well, the prospect of adding even a one-credit course is not appealing. I sell it by explaining that it meets only once a week, there are no papers or exams, and the small amount of reading I provide is optional. All they have to do to get credit is come to class, have a once-a-week session with a partner to practice what they’ve learned, and hand in a log sheet each week to show that they’ve done the session. If students are present who have already taken the course, I invite them to share what was useful for them. They often say that they had more time as a result of it, because they were less stressed and could manage their work more effectively. They also talk about the specialness of the group—that it became a safe, cohesive place where they got to feel close to everyone. One peer program director chimed in that she had taken a course like this (it was an RC class) when she was a student and that it transformed her life.

I then invite questions, and hand out applications that ask for contact information, whether they are in a peer helping program, and how they heard about the class. I offer several possible class times on two different days and ask them to indicate which they could definitely do, which they might be able to do, and which they definitely could not do. This allows me to select the times that can accommodate the most students and to also have more options about the make-up of the two classes, so that students don’t end up being the only person in the class from a particular ethnic background.

I use several approaches to try to determine whether students will be dependable class members who will benefit from the experience. I trust that those in peer helping programs have been sufficiently pre-screened, though I do ask the program directors if there are any problems that might get in their way. I also admit any students who have been referred by a previous class member, on the assumption that they are likely to know what they’re getting into. For students who come via posted notices or my visits to psychology classes, I speak with the faculty members and program directors to determine whether they know the students well enough to be confident of their reliability and emotional stability. For all other applicants, I require a brief interview.

This screening approach is the best I’ve been able to figure out, given time constraints and my wish to make RC widely available. But, in fact, I’m often not able to predict from my initial impressions who will make good use of the class and perhaps continue with RC. Sometimes those who have seemed the most distressed at the outset have ended up transforming their lives. A number of students have sat there in terror or confusion throughout the semester and yet signed up to take the course again the following year. One such young man took it three years running, and another is now an emerging RC Community leader who has recruited a half dozen people for the course. Interviews have been useful for letting students know more about what to expect, particularly that people may show strong emotions, so that they may decide that the course is not for them. This past year in an interview I was able to help a severely distressed young woman decide to opt out. (I connected her with the college counseling center.) The final screening takes place during the first two weeks of the semester; we jump right in with RC fundamentals, and by the end of the second class a few people generally drop out. They give various reasons, like work schedules or a required course they have to take instead, but I tend to assume they’ve decided that the course isn’t for them. If I have a waiting list, new people get added in to replace them.

Linking up with the RC Community

Getting students to make the transition to a Community RC class has been a challenge. We have tried a number of things, including half-day and day-long workshops on campus for current and former students, led by us or the Area Reference Person, with other RC leaders attending and leading support groups. Students have loved the workshops, and a class led by a Community teacher resulted from one of them, but when it came to the actual class meetings, the attendance was sparse. Possibly we have now turned a corner. This year’s end-of-semester workshop had good attendance and high energy, with a number of students indicating they wanted to keep having sessions and become part of the RC Community. Four students from previous years recently contacted me about joining a Community class, and four others have been assisting in RC classes in different Communities. They are all eager to promote young adult involvement in RC.

Summing up

Although we teach RC, our classes differ from Community classes in terms of the goals and expectations. We make it clear from the outset that our aim is to teach listening and helping skills, and RC theory and techniques are presented within that context. We definitely encourage discharge as a means of healing from past hurts, but we respect that some students may not wish to delve into their own feelings. All of the students end up with an understanding of the nature of human beings, the counseling process, and societal oppression. They feel a connection with other class members and have a more positive view of themselves, and most of them do choose to work on old hurts. But a few of them don’t. Our acceptance of this makes it possible for everyone to feel successful, and some of those who don’t work on their feelings surprise us by showing up the next year to take the course again, because they got a glimpse of something more to be gained. Usually the second (or third) time around, the discharge comes.

Unlike many RC Communities, we have access to a wonderfully diverse body of potential participants, many of whom are children of immigrants or immigrants themselves. Some have been migrant farmworkers, or lived in war zones, or been homeless, while others have been raised in privilege.

The main point I hope to make is that getting to teach RC in an academic setting is often not difficult, and doing it can be rewarding. Up until now we’ve been paid, but in the coming year, because of university-wide cutbacks, we will teach the classes on a volunteer basis. This may be a useful approach for RC teachers wanting to start a class in a college setting. In this time of austerity and cutbacks, a proposal for free services might be an offer that is hard to refuse.

Phyllis Bronstein

Los Altos Hills, California, USA

 

* Came about means came into existence.


Last modified: 2016-08-22 02:11:22-07