Obliquity of the Ecliptic

This morning, while I was transcribing, my five year old came into the front room and began looking through the bookshelves, asking me if we had an encyclopedia. With a quick flash memory of the blue volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica we had when I was a kid, I responded, “No, what do you need?” She responded, “I want to ask some tough questions.”

I should pause to say that I was quickly struck by the fact that she knew that encyclopedias can potentially hold answers for those tough questions, since we obviously don’t have any volumes in our house (go school!). Further, I am always floored when my children so readily display their willingness to learn.

So, I asked, “what tough question would you like to ask?” as I called up Google on my computer (I didn’t feel the need for a ERIC or ProQuest search for her query, at least not yet). She stated she wanted to know, “How do planets get on their axis?” With a nod to her tough question, I typed it in, and we discovered together that the Earth’s axis is called the obliquity of the ecliptic and it is currently 23.5 degrees (since after all, it does vary from 22.1° and 24.5° with a 42,000 year period). Now, we did not answer the “how” to her question, since she didn’t seem interested in astro-physics (thankfully) or further dissecting the big bang theory, but she was impressed about learning something new, a challenge we pose to her daily.

Armed with her newfound knowledge, she bounced away to play with her Groovy Girls, and I reflected on the incoming first year students with whom I am currently spending my days, acclimating them to campus and helping them enroll in courses. I just wrapped up the first two of six weeks of orientation by meeting with a group of prospective students who are heading into their senior year in high school. With both of those populations, I kiddingly referred to academic advisors as their GPS during their time here, to help plan the trips, to avoid construction, and possibly to get roadside assistance (yes, I know that’s more in the AAA realm, but go with me). I relieve them from the pressure of knowing the entire university in their short four years, and that all they need to know is that they can ask for help, from many different people, but always from us, as academic advisors.

There is a constant discussion about this next generation of college students: Are they more involved? Less empathic? Are they more choosy about schools and careers or less picky? And the ever present discussions of sense of entitlement. I am not a huge participant in much of this debate, simply because I believe that these students are different. They are not the same generation that went to school with me, pre-email and pre-cell phones (except for Zack Morris’ behemoth). However, there is one thing that is as true today as it ever was: they are new here. And if they take just one thing from me, from orientation until I hand them their name card at commencement, it is to ask the question, tough or otherwise.

For obvious reasons, I advise asking to make the soon-to-be college students’ lives easier and more satisfying while they are in school. Too often, we see students try to go it alone until the situation is almost past the point of salvageable (that’s fodder for a whole different post, best exemplified in my two year old’s “I do it” mentality). I meet with students who have been recessed from the institution and with students who stop by my office to ask where the nearest computer lab is. In both instances, the ask-for-help model is pivotal. In addition to their answers being found, often I have the opportunity to learn from their question, for which I am always grateful. Just as today I learned the definition of obliquity of the ecliptic, which as @KellyLux pointed out, will make me quite impressive in casual conversation.

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