Wednesday, September 23, 2009

What Would Cliff Huxtable Do?

Have you ever just wanted to take a fraternity or sorority chapter, a student leader, or a brother/sister, who you know is capable of so much more than they are doing, and yell at them to wake up and try harder.

I love the scene below from The Cosby Show, one of the greatest television shows of all time. This is a scene from the pilot episode, and it’s a classic because of the unexpected way Cliff (Bill Cosby) reacts to Theo (Malcolm Jamal Warner) and his monologue about being a regular person. In the sitcoms of the 80’s and early 90’s, it was common to have a moral or lesson at the end of the episode, expressed by one of the characters in a stirring way, and punctuated by uplifting music and audience applause. Family Ties, Growing Pains, Full House, and Facts of Life all had these moments. The Cosby Show mocked this formula in its first episode, and the series became the gold standard for portraying family life for over a decade. Here is the scene, and my thoughts about its connection to fraternity follows...


I sometimes show this clip when I’m talking to alumni advisers because it portrays something very powerful – the importance of raising expectations. Theo thinks he is on the path to becoming a “regular person” and he has convinced himself that he actually wants this for himself. There's nothing wrong with the professions he describes (such as driving a bus), but he believes that having a goal like this absolves him of the need to work hard. Enter his very successful father who tells him point blank that it is not enough to just be “regular” and that he will work harder.

Cliff’s approach is very parental and we shouldn’t necessarily mimic his tone or language. Try the line “I brought you in the world and I’ll take you out!” at the next chapter meeting. It probably won’t work. The principle behind it is the important thing. Many undergraduates only expect and/or want a “regular” fraternity experience because that’s all they’ve known. For them, regular often includes accepting apathy, unethical decisions, and dangerous behavior. If regular is good enough, then it's natural for them to avoid the hard work required to build something grander. It’s often not their fault. They just haven’t been challenged. As advisers, friends, and supporters, it’s our duty to not allow them to be mediocre.

I learned a term in graduate school called “plus-one staging,” and I’ve built my work around it ever since. Plus-one staging means that a teacher should teach to a level one step above the standard expectation for their students. The theory is that you’ll better meet the advanced learners where they are, and the other learners will elevate their game to catch up. The opposite of this is teaching to the lowest learning level. This does nobody any favors, including the student at that low level. Advising at a lower level means saying things like "if it's worked in the past, let's do it again" or "some people are just lazy." Instead, think about what the students are capable of, and coach them one notch above that place. You might be surprised by the results.

This is applicable to peers leading peers as well. Lead at a higher level and quietly demand that your brothers or sisters get to that place with you. Don’t let them off the hook. Don’t believe them when they say that being average is good enough. They just haven’t had a “Cliff Huxtable” in their life to sternly tell them that they can and will do better. You can be that person.

We are dealing with the brightest and most capable young men and women among us. They deserve for us to teach, lead, and advise to a level that’s just beyond their reach – because they can get there. If we stop accepting that it’s just okay to work towards mediocrity, then hopefully those we lead will no longer accept it either.

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