Friday, February 15, 2013

The Role of the Anti-Mentor

I'd like Michael Scott to be my hilarity.
Well folks, I'm still working on Making Good, and I came across a really interesting concept while reading the other day. As we craft our office personas, we often speak of paragons and mentors who have shown us what we want to be to our coworkers, students, families and friends. These positive forces have shaped us admirably, and hopefully we are thanking these people for their essential roles in our development...?

But, as we know, physics dictates that there are equal, but opposite, forces at play in the world. So for there to be influences from mentors to make us the workers we are today, there must be an equal but opposing force at play. Making Good even gives it a name: the anti-mentor. Anti-mentors don't just have to be horrible bosses either. Anti-mentors are simply people from who you not to be.

I'm sure there's physics at work here. Somehow.
For my part, I have anti-mentors with whom I consider myself to be very close, but there are elements of my style that I consciously do not emulate. A person is rarely unilaterally either one or the other- you can take the good and the bad from each person you come across. And I think that's just fine. Much like we tell students that internships are as much about deciding what you don't want to do as what you do, our experiences with coworkers and supervisors are as much about deciding how we wouldn't conduct ourselves should we land in that role, as how we would.

I like to think of an anti-mentor as a sort of blessing. Think about the ultimate bad boss on TV: The Office's Michael Scott. While his bumbling was at times both frustrating and uncomfortable, he had indisputable moments of brilliance and warmth that any of us would love to see in a boss. (His reaction to Stanley's insubordination and his sale of Michael Scott Paper Company to Dunder-Mifflin come to mind as great examples). And as I said before, since a person is generally neither "all mentor" nor "all anti-mentor", you may have something to learn from the alter ego of Agent Michael Skarn or any other anti-mentor you might be thinking of. So when you next feel tempted to thank your mentors for who you are, equalize forces and thank your anti-mentors as well (provided you have a good relationship with them, of course!). They could have as much to do with your successes as those who typically get your praise and attention.

Do you have anti-mentors? What have you learned from them?

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

The Scoreboard v. The Intangibles: On The Idea of a College Scorecard

After originally being unable to engage in the State of the Union address last night (I was packing during the beginning, but listened as I placed my life into boxes and bags), I hopped online in time to see many skeptical and concerned eyes turn toward Obama's College Scorecard initiative. Of the responses to it, Cindy Kane's stood out to me, and I immediately responded:

Will we be involved in these talks?

When looking into the topic further, I discovered that the College Scorecard, like the scoreboard at any sporting event, covers the more easily measured statistics of a college education: tuition, job placement rate, average loan repayment amount, and earning potential of its graduates. All good things to measure, but these metrics vary little from what is provided to ranking systems already in place like US and World News Report, The Princeton Review, or other agencies who have a longstanding reputation for ranking such things. But what all of these ranking systems overlook is what I referred to in a later tweet as the "intangibles". Student affairs, in so many ways, embodies those intangibles that supplement the elements of the stats that are simple to publish. 

I recognize that, as an assessment professional, that seems like an odd thing to say. And I don't say it to diminish the need for assessment in our work. I think that we should have a way to measure our successes, and to have reference points by which to improve upon our current methods. But (controversial statement ahead) is that why we have assessment professionals? Chris Conzen, in typical mentor fashion, made a great point about our field in relation to (or as we sometimes treat it, measured against) academic affairs and operations:

This one got some wheels turning.
I use the word "against" intentionally. Despite efforts to integrate the two sides (think Remember the Titans-style combination of two schools), there is difficulty in working together. But unlike the eventually undefeated Titans, the problem with combination wasn't (entirely) a matter of personality. Assessment has, in some circles, transformed from an essential function within our department to a way to prove the value of our work to those who don't do it. I believe in its value as a way to help us improve our own practices, but I have more trouble when it is done to say ", look! Our work is important too!" We know that the work we do makes a difference, and have been given an inferiority complex about its occasional immeasurability by outside constituents.

But this post isn't designed to talk me out of a job. Rather, it's a call for (or maybe at this point, just a hope for) a valuing of the work that we do. At one point, Joe Sabado brought it to a question that, for me, could merit a whole separate entryis the purpose of higher education to encourage learning for its own sake, or to get its graduates jobs? I am admittedly unprepared to answer that question right now. But what I will say is that our work, when done well, does both those things. "Our work" in this context includes the work of both student affairs and academic affairs. Students who are well prepared with both a broad base of knowledge that can be gained in the classroom, and the practical application of that knowledge in venues for student engagement, could be unstoppable. I truly believe that. And so do the future employers of our students, who are demanding with increasing frequency graduates with critical thinking skills, the ability to work well in teams, and an understanding of how to apply knowledge to "real-world" situations. All of those things can be learned in student affairs settings, we've all seen it from our best and most involved students.

Stats AND intangibles got Luck to the #1 spot.
To return to the title of this post, the best analogy that I can think of for this concept is draft reports used to select players in drafts. When NFL teams examine draft prospects, of course their statistics from their prior years of play as well as the draft combine factor into their decisions. But there are other factors- things like attitude in the locker room and on the field, ability to play in a system, and general spirit- that figure prominently into a team's decision to select or pass on a player. If those latter things weren't of consequence, players with poor reputations or mired in scandal wouldn't fall in the draft rounds as they sometimes do. Both the stats and intangibles make a difference when finding a player's fit. But the catch is, few behave as though the intangibles don't matter. Student affairs shouldn't either. Our work matters in the final "selection" of our students. And once we start valuing our role in it, perhaps other entities (including the government!) will too.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Can Students Buy In If You've Cashed Out?

My latest public transit literary conquest is the book Making Good: How Young People Cope With Moral Dilemmas at Work, a fascinating study exploring how training and new professionals in the fields of journalism, genetics, and theater deal with moral gray area in their work. I had no idea that as I dove into the material this morning, I would come to find my own moral dilemma before the day was out. Mostly because I didn't expect to get that far in the book today. Long MBTA commutes = extended reading time. Thanks, Nemo!

We have all been a part of that committee at the office or work project that exasperates us endlessly. Whether it's a policy that we don't agree with personally, or an initiative that just isn't panning out as hoped, it's difficult to go forth with all our hearts in supporting it. To avoid raising hairs on the arms of current colleagues, I will refer to a previous example to provide clarity. A former place of employment endorsed a pace of programming that was, to understate the issue, breakneck. I worried about the level of stress that it put students under- many were either constantly sick, unable to take advantage of all the options presented, or in a perpetual state of exhaustion- and I voiced my concerns openly about that philosophy of student engagement. But my worries were placed aside, and that pace continues even in my absence.

Current transportation reading.
My question from an ethical standpoint is, how do we sell students on a philosophy, a policy, or a program that we're not sure about ourselves? Is our primary responsibility to uphold the role of advisor, and guide students toward the "right" course of action (even if the right course is not the one being pushed by the institution), or should our loyalties lie with those who employ us, working to help students understand the reasoning behind our decisions and teach them to deal with changing environments and regulations? To offer a concrete example from the scenario listed above: is it my job to help students find ways to manage their time and energy in the system listed above, or to refuse to contribute to the system that wears them down so?

I don't have an answer here yet. And while I have not finished Making Good (if the roads don't clear, I could feasibly do it tomorrow on the bus with a little concentration and some earplugs), I suspect the answer isn't in there either. But the way I see it, there are a few possible answers to the question I pose in the title of the blog.

Yes, students can buy in if we cash out.
There are two ways to look at this.
Way A: Think of it as luck transferring from one gambler to another. Perhaps students can be the voice of the changes you wish to see. While we can speak on behalf of the students (and in many cases, it is our job to do so), sometimes their voices are more powerful than ours.

Conversely, there is Way B: They win big where you haven't. Perhaps the problems you're having, and are assuming students will also have, won't materialize. It is possible for students to succeed and learn in systems that we might not have chosen to put in place for them. But growth can come from struggle, and just as we'd want them to be able to learn from being uncomfortable, we too should be able to learn when we're uncomfortable.

No, students can't buy in if we cash out.
As we know, students aren't going to always admit the impact that we have on them. But we have the power to help them buy into an idea that they might not believe in or understand. That said, we have the ability to turn that in the opposite direction, and our negative thoughts could sour their experience. Therefore, our cashing out of the experience could hurt its ability to do well- perhaps more so than the setup of the program/philosophy/policy itself!

So what can we do? As I prepare to head back into the fray of my present circumstances, I am reminded of a philosophy for combating negativity that I learned from the Harvard Business Review: (1) understand how you feel on the issue and understand that those feelings are valid; (2) understand the point of view of the other party, and why they feel their stance has value; and (3) find out what the other party likes about that position and try to find the good in it. Use this method to stay in the game as long as you can. In doing this, you'll be able to find a point of agreement on which to sell students, and who knows? It might make you feel better about the motivation of the "other" side. And if you can't do this? Maybe it is time to fold (at least from this particular initiative), and leave the remaining players to continue the game.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Quiet in Person: A Night with Susan Cain

She doesn't look like a superhero, but she is...
I have been blessed in the last two years to find a pair of books that have helped me understand myself tremendously. 2011 was all about learning about, and coming to terms with, my anxiety. 2012 was the year of owning and understanding introversion. Susan Cain's book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking was essential in coming to that understanding.

Needless to say, when the opportunity to see Susan at the Harvard Book Store in person presented itself, I knew I had to take advantage of it. A woman at the appearance referred to Quiet as a valentine to the introvert; I've previously referred to it as an autobiography that Susan Cain didn't know she wrote about me. For so many, it has served as a reassurance to fellow introverts that they are neither alone nor abnormal; and for extroverts, it has served as a light to illuminate the plight of their less animated friends.

Although the book was quite informative, I still managed to learn even more from Susan in her brief time speaking. Some of the gems that she shared:
  • In just over 13 months, Quiet has been translated into over 30 languages. Whoa.
  • Prior to Quiet, there was very little language to discuss the effects of introversion on personality; it is now being floated as a legitimate workplace diversity issue.
  • Obama is the only president to schedule downtime between his meetings. It astounds his staff, and is proof that despite being animated and personable, he is also the sort of person who needs to recharge after exerting himself with human interaction. This propensity to need time for himself earned him a reputation for being aloof, and an article from journalist Maureen Dowd accusing him of being introverted (no wonder people think it's bad!)
  • At first, Cain struggled to tell people about what she was working on because of the stigma that tends to surround introversion. But as she wrote, she became more comfortable and no longer feels self-conscious about identifying as introverts.
  • Speaking of identifying as an introvert, more extroverts are starting to identify themselves as introverts. Why? Cain voiced two reasons: one, the hyper-introverted nature of our society is starting to become too much for even the most extroverted in our world (hence the rising popularity of decompressing activities like yoga and meditation, and asynchronous communication like texting); two, once good qualities such as increased care for people and thoughtfulness started being identified with introversion, it wasn't as undesirable of a state as previously thought.
  • A tip she gave students to help cope with their introversion in classes that ask for participation: speak first. If you speak first, the pressure to contribute meaningfully dissipates quickly, instructors appreciate you breaking the ice, and fellow students recognize the contribution as a good one. Also, preparing for class helps- there is a tendency to look as though you haven't prepared for class, but it actually could help reduce the stress and overstimulation that can come from the pressure to contribute.
It was also great to get to ask questions of Susan, and she welcomed dialogue with the audience warmly. I was excited to get to talk to her about bringing her research to higher ed, and how I have designs on making it a dissertation topic. After telling her about some of the research I'm doing with selection processes and introvert friendly practices, she was really excited and urged me to write up some of it for her website. Further, she urged me to send her any publications that came as a result of it. It was really cool to be encouraged by someone who is a well-researched authority on the topic.

All told, my time getting to see and speak briefly with Susan Cain gave me the energy I needed to keep pushing myself to research more, write more, and talk more about introversion in the work I want to do. Thank you Susan for the inspiration, I look forward to doing more with the work that you've started :)

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Dalton Institute in Review: On Reunions and Reflections

A beautiful campus, even with a slight chill.
I spent this past weekend in Tallahassee, FL, at the Dalton Institute on College Student Values at Florida State University. This year's topic, surrounding social media and "character in an age of self-promotion", spoke to me from the very moment I learned of it. I vowed to be a part of it, expecting to play my role while at FSU. But as so many of you already know, I'm no longer there. I refused to let my departure from the institution affect my involvement with the Institute, and so I made it a priority to be there.

After participating in the Institute last year, I admired it not just for its intimate feel and ability to draw marquee talent, but for its ability to engage and assist graduate students in their development. Major elements of the conference are planned by graduate students in FSU's HESA program, and they are also featured prominently as presenters. Special thanks and major props go out to the first and second years of the program- you do amazing work, and deserve to be recognized for it.

Fuel for the day, courtesy of the wonderful Carolyn Barringer :)
I learned a few things over the weekend that I hadn't really thought about. First, I will openly admit that I had no idea how much I was going to miss the friends I made in Tallahassee. While I wasn't always the very happiest when I was there, and I feel far better about life now that I'm in Boston, that doesn't in any way negate how much the people there mean to me, or how good it was to see them this weekend. We went to dinner at old haunts, bowled and watched movies, caught up and inquired about new projects. While there were a lot of things there that weren't the best fit for me, so many of the people were. I'm so thankful for them.

As much as this conference was a chance for me to connect with old friends, it was also a great chance to make connections with new ones. After so many months of following their thought-provoking posts and conversations, I had the long-awaited pleasure of getting to meet both Eric Stoller and Laura Pasquini. In them, I was happy to find kindred spirits in thoughtful inquiry and occasional silliness. I also got to make friends with first year graduate students at FSU, and some staff members from Baylor and University of Dubuque (a fellow Ghanaian in Iowa...lord bless him, we're not great with snow!). As I met people both old and new, I was surprised at how many people were familiar with my social media presence. I heard myself referred to a few times as "the queen of social media", which frankly feels like an overstatement of the issue.

I value the connections I've been able to make over Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and the like. They've made my life fuller, and have given me a way to ease connections that this anxious introvert otherwise has tremendous difficulty building. But the public element of that, the idea that others can see that and are interested in what I have to say, still escapes me at times. I was reminded by a student the other day of it, and was sincerely humbled by it. All I can say is, to those who appreciate what I bring to the airwaves (as it were), thank you. And if you were here with me, I'd say what I always do: "Happy to help!" with a smile and a giggle.
This is why I do this work. Happy to help :)

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

#SNAPchallenge2013: Takeaway Week, Day 5

Still trying to find a way to wrap up this past month eloquently, and have no idea how I'm going to put it all together. In the meantime, I'll continue to post tidbits as they come to me. Please feel free to challenge me on my opinion of their eloquence :)

Takeaway #5: Food-Free Fun Time!

I want to work my way through this list. You with me?
When you want to catch up with a friend or a colleague, what's your default offer? "Let's go to dinner!" "Let's grab coffee!" Or, my personal all-time favorite, "Let's go to brunch!" But in the absence of those opportunities for the month, particularly with momentum rising from conference interactions the month before, what was I to do when asked to go eat with someone?

I have to say, beyond any hunger I felt over the course of this experience, my biggest fear was an appearance of being antisocial. Despite the rising profile of government assistance and its increasingly common nature, it still places its users under a tremendous level of scrutiny and judgement. In fact, as I explained to a friend more about the challenge, she blamed such a culture for the often reported "food stamp fraud".

While I haven't spoken about it during my coverage of this challenge, it is known that some users of SNAP assistance sell their benefits and use the money on other, non-SNAP approved items, or even non-food items. Based on her knowledge of friends and significant others whose families depended on these benefits, she saw a culture that emphasizes the newest, best thing as essential to being perceived as successful as a major factor in misuse of these benefits. I admittedly am not qualified to assess how often that happens or what the causes are, but I can say that I understand the stigma that she referenced.

But after some initial discomfort, I seized this opportunity to take advantage of some opportunities I hadn't before. In the absence of a default option, I got creative. I bowled with work friends, found free days to go to museums, went window shopping, encouraged bringing of lunches to meetings, and many other out-of-the-box hangouts. As I spoke with friends who didn't always have secure food growing up, a common thread emerged: in order to give them a good experience, their parents got creative. I followed that lead. And frankly, I want to keep doing that. When I think about some of my best memories over the past several years, some happened at tables. But more of them happened out in the world, when I did something out of the ordinary. I want to keep creating those memories. And challenging myself to do something more adventurous than just share a meal, even if its cooking a meal together or using a coupon to take an adventure on the cheap, will do so many things to help me appreciate the plight of those who don't have that "let's grab a bite!" option.

I'm doing this in hopes to raise awareness about food instability, and money for the Greater Boston Food Bank. Should you feel compelled to give to the latter, please click the link below! I thank you, as will those who benefit from the money that you give :)  

#SNAPchallenge2013: Crunching Week 4 Numbers, and Week 5 Rule Shift.

So last night's trip to market (Trader Joe's) was the last one of the SNAP Challenge, but it is a partial week and the first week of a crazy travel season for me. So it had a slight rule change: the bill was kept to $30, but I am now incorporating some pantry items that have been on hand but I have abstained from using over the last several weeks. Again, with an impending move, using up bits of things has become a priority, and allowing for this will help with that.

I also want to share the costs from last week's bounty, so check it out!

Breakfast: Egg and Cheese Breakfast Sandwiches
1 egg ($0.19/serving)
1 serving Cheddar cheese ($0.43/serving)
1 gluten free English muffin ($0.87/serving)
TOTAL: $1.49/serving

Lunch: Turkey Sandwiches with Avocado and Tomato
2 slices Rudi's Gluten Free Bread (bought with a coupon- $0.89/serving)
1 serving sliced turkey ($0.62/serving)
avocado* ($0.14/serving)
tomato* ($0.11/serving)
*leftover from last week
TOTAL: $1.76/serving

Dinner: Corn Chowder
potatoes ($0.18/serving)
corn ($0.29/serving)
carrots ($0.14/serving)
celery ($0.19/serving)
chicken stock ($0.12/serving)
TOTAL: $0.92/serving

I'm doing this in hopes to raise awareness about food instability, and money for the Greater Boston Food Bank. Should you feel compelled to give to the latter, please click the link below! I thank you, as will those who benefit from the money that you give :)