Photo Credit: Alexander Payne

Of the many movies I saw over winter break, only one was a viewing experience for the whole Marfo clan- myself, my sister, and my mother and father. Family movie outings are always notoriously difficult in our household. My mother is the stickler, indicated by the fact that she only likes about six movies in the world. Among her selections: E.T., The Sound of Music, and As Good As It Gets.

But we got her this time, with the Alexander Payne film Nebraska. An understated but quietly funny movie about the dreams we have for ourselves and the full lives our parents live before we come along, it was one that she thoroughly enjoyed. For those unfamiliar, Nebraska tells the story of Woody (Bruce Dern), an aging man headed from Montana to Nebraska to collect on a letter he got in the mail promising him $1,000,000. Concerned for his father’s well-being while also bewildered by his determination, his son Davey (an impressively restrained Will Forte, known best for SNL) offers to make the trip with him. As they travel, stopping in his father’s hometown to see family, Davey is afforded opportunities to learn more about his father’s background, and in the process pieces together why this prize money is so important to the old man.

Earlier this month, The Student Affairs Collaborative posed a question that resonated with me as a former film student:

While I saw several movies that week, this one was a lesson that I often need the most encouragement on. My response to the query:

We all have worked with those students. The ones who aspire tirelessly to be president of their class, but don’t have the same ability to connect with their classmates as other students might. The student struggling in anatomy but who sees no other future for herself than being a doctor. The student who is convinced that the rules don’t apply to her. At times, it seems that there is no form of reason that these challenging students will accept, no way to help them see what we perceive to be reality. But as I watched the Grants’ story unfold on film, it gave me a few ideas on how to look a little more closely at these “problem children.”

Listen to the story behind it all. During his time in his father’s hometown, Davey had the opportunity to see his dad’s childhood home, the cemetery where many of his family members were buried, and the newspaper office that held clippings of Woody’s history (I should also note here that my good friend Nick proclaimed the role of the newspaper owner in this film, a maybe three minute performance, his favorite of the year. See the film- if you enjoy little else, the honesty and soulfulness she brings to the role is undeniable).

What role do the backgrounds of these students play in their aspirations? Did a childhood hero see something in them that is pushing them toward this path? What role do their parents’ or family’s expectations play in their insistence on their stance? This last one is of particular importance: while we are conditioned to help students fulfill their individual dreams, cultural or familiar elements beyond our understanding may make their decisions less cut and dry than we believe them to be. Be sensitive to that.

Build a relationship that allows them to come forward and share these things with you. Motivations are often more clear when we see what drives them.

Be critical, but not demeaning. As I wrote about in my Cine-Spiration post about Her, there is nothing wrong with being critical where criticism is needed. Indeed, when someone is doing something that seems crazy, questions can range from being helpful to essential. However, keeping context and our role in the situation in mind is critical. Woody finds many detractors en route to Nebraska, none more vocal or memorable than his wife Kate (the positively perfect June Squibb). She constantly calls his crazy and misguided, and admonishes Davey for entertaining his seemingly ridiculous whims. With knowledge of his background that well exceeds that of her son, she feels justified in raining on his parade.

As outsiders to the circumstances of most of our students, it would be inappropriate for us to take as critical stance with them. For my part, I strive to pose a series of questions that can gauge their understanding of available alternatives, as well as ones that can help uncover the motivation for their behavior, as mentioned in the previous section. This allows us to guide them toward an alternate viewpoint, without throwing them into it unceremoniously or potentially traumatically. Here again, to be critical of a student’s choices if they are motivated by cultural or familiar pressure could be equated in their mind with a critical eye toward their background or home life. Be careful there.

Look for the compromise. At the risk of spoiling this heartwarming film for you, I will say that…a creative solution is found for Woody. We should aim for the same if we can’t outright honor the wishes or whims of our students. Perhaps the student so passionate about holding an office can serve in an active capacity on a committee, or could be appointed to another position. Maybe the student so hell-bent on going to medical school could pursue another avenue to working in the health professions. Maybe the solution is beyond you and the student, and other parties need to be called in to facilitate a discussion. Most of the time, it is within our power as professionals to find a workable solution for the dilemma at hand. And if we truly can’t…well, that’s part of life too and we should ensure that reality is shared as well.

What strategies have you found for dealing with problem students? And what would you do with a million dollars?

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