Monday, October 31, 2011

I Wrote About Student Affairs and Pop Culture

Once upon a time, I was a film student. I minored in film studies at URI, in hopes of doing something that would allow me to work in film criticism.
Years later, I became a student affairs practitioner, and fell in love with applying theory. I merged the two loves while studying for my comprehensive exams, applying theory to films and TV shows featuring college, helping me to visualize the concepts I had been learning about for the last year and a half. I've done so again here, as I realized while watching The Nightmare Before Christmas that Jack was suffering from some serious career dissatisfaction. Seriously, that's what I said. Out loud in my living room. By myself.

In any case, I present to you:

I, Jack, The Pumpkin King: Jack Skellington’s Journey to Self Authorship


Aside from the deflection of a few complements, and his thanks to the denizens of Halloweentown for a successful holiday display, the first words we hear from Jack Skellington in Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas are an impassioned lament about his boredom with his stead as the Pumpkin King. My critical eye immediately traveled to my years of schooling in student development theory, and my heart went out to this man for his deep dissatisfaction with his work. Ultimately, I concluded that Jack’s identity crisis portrayed in the film is an excellent exercise in Baxter Magolda’s theory of self-authorship. Over the course of nearly ninety minutes, Jack takes a journey from disillusioned, to re-energized, to defeated, and finally to enlightened. Baxter Magolda’s stages can be applied to this sojourn to help us all find the joy in our work, be we student affairs practitioners or pumpkin kings.

“Just Like Last Year, And The Year Before That…”: Following Formulas

Our first journey through Halloweentown is jauntily shown in the opening song, “This is Halloween”. But while the town’s yearly display of holiday spirit is new to us each time, it is not new to Jack Skellington, the lead purveyor of these terrifying tidings. As the rest of the citizens celebrate the occasion with prizes and togetherness, Jack steals away to a graveyard to contemplate his state of affairs. He is concerned that being the scariest of them all has lost its meaning, and displays a remarkable sense of dissatisfaction in his accomplishments:

Oh, there's an empty place in my bones

That calls out for something unknown

The fame and praise come year after year

Does nothing for these empty tears (Burton, McDowell and Thompson, 1993)

While there is no indication that Jack feels he put himself in this position, he clearly feels that the expectations of others play a significant role in his continuation as the Pumpkin King, not unlike “young adults [who] follow the plans laid out for them” (Baxter Magolda, 2001). In the film, this step overlaps significantly with Baxter Magolda’s second step, that of the crossroads.

“Oh Could It Be I Got My Wish?”: Crossroads

The first inkling that Jack might have a change in his future comes when he falls through the door to Christmastown. As he sees the world of holiday cheer for the first time, he is fascinated and mystified by his surroundings. Moreover, he starts to feel fulfilled where he previously felt boredom and emptiness:

The sights, the sounds

They're everywhere and all around

I've never felt so good before

This empty place inside of me is filling up

I simply cannot get enough (Burton, McDowell and Thompson, 1993)

The crossroads stage of self-authorship goes a step further from following formulas, in that the dissatisfied party realizes that a change needs to be made. Much as any student may realize that he or she needs to pursue a new passion, Jack’s crossroads are reached when he finds something new that he wants to undertake.

At this stage, Jack’s self-authorship very much resembles an innovative career counseling theory known as happenstance theory. Criticisms of earlier forms of career counseling include a lack of regard for chance, spontaneity, and the course of life influencing career choice. In looking at a newer school of career counseling, Mitchell et al. (1999) “emphasize the importance of chance in one’s career, and helping clients become ready to take advantage of beneficial, unexpected events” such as Jack’s arrival in Christmastown. What results is a career choice he never could have dreamed of or pursued in Halloweentown, because he had never encountered it before. What results is a journey of self-discovery that spans two holidays and unexpectedly bridges two worlds (not unlike my desire to work in film criticism, as well as student affairs J)

“This Year, Christmas Will Be Ours!”: Becoming The Author of One’s Life

Jack throws himself enthusiastically into preparations for his town’s rendition of Christmas, even going so far as to kidnap Santa from Christmastown to ensure authenticity. He is rejuvenated with a new sense of purpose, and excited to redefine himself as the King of Christmas. Even in the face of doubt from his best friend and aspiring girlfriend Sally, he perseveres to set his own new beliefs and chart his new journey, however misguided it may be. A cornerstone of authoring one’s own life is the ability to sustain “a solid sense of confidence that [one] can direct [his] life”; Jack not only embodies that confidence, he instills it in the rest of Halloweentown. This transformation is evident in the cooperative spirit of the “Making Christmas” number that features the whole town packaging toys, learning new songs and generally supporting the new direction that their fearless leader has taken in his life. It is only on his maiden voyage, as he is shot down from the sky after “mocking and mangling this joyous holiday” (Burton, McDowell and Thompson, 1993) that he starts to realize that his journey was misguided and ultimately poorly informed.

That’s Right! I Am The Pumpkin King!: Internal Foundation

As Jack sits in the graveyard where he landed after his sleigh was shot down, contemplating the course that led him to a tattered red suit and a world filled with fear, he realizes that he was meant to be the Pumpkin King. He acknowledges that while he did the best that he could do, he ultimately was needed to preside over Halloweentown and be its leader. According to Baxter Magolda, the reprise of “Jack’s Lament” demonstrates the point at which individuals become “grounded in their self-determined belief system, in their sense of who they are, and the mutuality of their relationships”. And indeed, it is at that point where Jack determines his rightful place is in his old job, albeit recharged with new ideas on how to be a better Pumpkin King. Moreover, he realizes the mutuality of his relationship with Sally as he rescues her from Oogie Boogie in hopes of restoring the sanctity of Christmas. In a moment of despair for most, Jack sets the stage for his triumphant return to power. And as snow falls over Halloweentown, and Santa rushes off to rectify the madness wrought by Jack, he is gratified in his construction of his internal voice.


Jack Skellington starts and ends The Nightmare Before Christmas as the Pumpkin King, but takes a whimsical and harrowing journey to arrive at that point. Just as many of us have explored different paths to find ourselves, the undead are not immune to such crises of confidence. Jack’s journey to self-authorship through a happenstance trip to another world gave him the boost he needed to be better at his work. And whether your work is as the leader of Halloweentown, or working with students each day, perhaps we should take such journeys to rejuvenate ourselves each year!

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Ran a Race in Tallahassee

I've run several races since moving to Tallahassee. But I hadn't realized until well after I crossed the finish line of the FSU Family Weekend 5k that none of those had been in my new hometown. This course was a great one for me- somewhat familiar in that I passed through areas that I had seen before at work each day, but also still an adventure! Thanks to my atrocious sense of direction, I don't always know where I am in relation to other things. So in running on a planned course, I got to see how close some buildings were to others, found a few new ways to get to buildings I've heard about, and generally got a better feel for my new place of work.

And the TIME! My previous fastest mile split was 8:53, thanks to the encouragement of/my intense competitive spirit with Ken Getty, and that was for a 5 mile race. Fueled by inspiration from my sometimes running buddy and best friend Jeff Parker, I went in with designs on beating that milestone. And, without being a braggart (because I had no idea this was going to happen, and CERTAINLY did not expect it), I crushed it.

25:07 (8:06/mi)? Are you kidding me?

This is the fastest 5k I've ever done, and fastest mile split of my life. It's encouraging that I can still surprise myself. I don't plan on making a habit of running races that fast, but it puts a smile on my face and some added strength in my heart to know that I can.

So why isn't the picture for this post of me crossing the finish line? Because the little lady you see above stole my heart not too long after the race. After finishing the face and heading back to work at the registration tables, I saw one of our staff members walking around with her on an improvised leash made of two lanyards. Crafty! She had a collar on, but no tags. She was the sweetest dog, very happy but clearly without an owner. A few of the other staff members and I stayed with her for a bit until our union director said that she had to go. He wanted to call Animal Control or the Sheriff's office to come get her, moves that would have undoubtedly resulted in her being put down. NO GOOD. So I volunteered to take her, and figure out what the safer option for her was.

As an avowed aspiring dog owner, you can only imagine how excited I was. I walked with her to the car, and drove in the direction of the animal hospital on my street. I knew they were open, and knew they'd help me decide what to do and would make sure she was safe. She never barked once, only whimpering a few times as she tried to get comfortable in the car. But she sat once she had sniffer out her surroundings, and even lay on my lap for a bit as I drove. Positively adorable.

I did the responsible thing and left her at the hospital so they could transport her to the shelter, but I've been checking in to see how she's doing. Once they transport her to the shelter, I may even go visit if she's not claimed right away. But it gave me some perspective. Do I still want a dog? Absolutely, maybe even more so now. But I've got some work to do to make sure I'm ready for one. Here's hoping that's something that can come into my life in the not too distant future.

Monday, October 24, 2011

I Celebrated Careers in Student Affairs Month

We are in the final week of Careers in Student Affairs Month, an annual time to educate students about our work held each October. I have not yet had the opportunity to participate in Careers in Student Affairs Month as a professional in the field. Last time I was a pro, I had no idea what NASPA was, and was flying mostly blind coming out of undergrad, doing unrelated work, and had just dived into the world of student affairs Pete Rose style.

This year, I'm starting to look more closely at how we recruit student affairs professionals to the field. And it fascinates me. It recalls the #sachat about Intentional Recruitment to the field, the full transcript of which can be found over here. The chat talked a lot about what we as pros do when students express interest in student affairs, how we support them, and how to react.

The truth of the matter is, while I'm always excited when students decide this is the work they want to be doing, I'm tentatively excited. It is not to say that I don't think we should welcome everyone with open arms. In fact, that's a lot of what this work is about. But I do think that there are questions that should be asked, and discussions that should be had, when a student approaches you and says they want to do your job. The first, and biggest, should be "Why?"

In my experience as a student leader, a graduate student, and now as a professional, there are a few types of students who I am skeptical to blindly shepherd into the field. Here are examples of a few.

The "Protecting My Legacy" Leader:
A friend of mine once told me a tale of a graduating student leader who met with those following him, to share his "secrets" of success. That story concerned me quite a bit. I think that wanting to do the work that we do, and wanting to continue the work that he/she is doing, are very different.

To a certain extent, I felt that some of the Tweets that NASPA published in conjunction with CSAM failed to do this. I understand that 140 characters is not the venue to explain the difference! But to say "Like being Greek? You should work in Greek affairs!" is incomplete. The understanding that being a student leader is different from advising and developing student leaders should be clearly made, at the risk of allowing our students to enter the profession under false pretenses.

The Perpetual Student Leader
: When a student who holds such ownership over his/her work in an organization that he or she doesn't want to leave it, I feel we have an obligation to share more about what we do as advisors, educators, and supervisors, and how it is different from the student leadership that he/she is so comfortable with.

Similarly, if a student is choosing a student affairs career as a means by which to prolong or avoid altogether leaving college, it is incumbent upon us to help them manage those feelings, and find ways to help him/her transition into a world outside of our walls/gates/doors.

The "If Not That, Then This" Student Leader: I have heard many stories from students who started out in other majors, and then decided to pursue student affairs instead. And I think that's fantastic. If we're doing such impactful work that we inspire our students to want to do the same, that means that the work we do is being noticed, and that they want to make an impact on the world doing what we do.

It is important, though, to make sure that student affairs is what they want to do, and not just not what they DON'T want to do. That is to say, a business student shouldn't move into student affairs just because he or she doesn't want to do business anymore. I wouldn't feel comfortable aiding and abetting the escape of a student from a path that he or she didn't like, unless I knew that he or she truly wanted to meaningfully contribute to student affairs as well.

Sometimes we place such value on qualities such as teaching, inclusiveness, developing people, and understanding, that our students might feel like we're the only field that values them. But we're not. We just talk about it more ;) Part of our job is to help students realize those lessons in their intended line of work, not just to select those who exemplify those qualities well enough to have them work alongside us. So one of my big goals for this year is to make sure I build that into my interactions with my students- what are you learning here, AND how can you apply it to what you do in class?

I would never say "don't encourage students to go into student affairs!" We should welcome those who want to join our ranks, and help them succeed to the best of our abilities. But I would encourage those who do talk to these students to ask questions. "What do you like about the field?" "Why do you want to work in it?" "What do you know about it?" Be a resource first, and a cheerleader second.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

It Got Deep Between Food and I

As I write this, I'm watching hockey and concocting away in the kitchen. Rice and garlic vegetables on the stove, salt and vinegar kale chips in the oven, and I feel the most serene I have all day. More and more often, I've been finding myself going to the kitchen to settle down if my mind starts racing. I've found that a finite task when I'm feeling anxious helps far more than sitting and worrying would.

Woody Allen doesn't look like he agrees.

But this is the latest stage of a very long relationship that I've been with food. In my life I've gone from expecting it to be there, to taking what I ate into my own hands (by relieving my dad of lunch-making duties at the age of 9 after continued dissatisfaction with his strategy), to building an admittedly unhealthy relationship with it late in middle school and into high school.

Then, I enrolled in Principles of Food Preparation in my sophomore year of high school. Cooking to me was something that always sort of just happened, and it was never anything I was going to be particularly good at. But something changed that quarter. For the first time, I started to love cooking, and love discovering new foods. I remember finding a foolproof apple crisp recipe, learning to make bananas Foster on a Foreman grill (that dish needs to make a comeback, now that I can use rum instead of rum flavoring), and made some pretty good friends in the process.

That interest has expanded into a few other areas. I took and fell in love with cake decorating. I love to bake, and find healthy ways to do it. I have learned so much about nutrition and how to stay healthy, and now share what I've learned with the readers of MyStudentBody blogs. And in this latest stage, learning how to eat gluten free, I'm making a very important connection between what I eat and how I feel.

So Woody Allen, settle down. Drop the lobster in the water. And relax :)

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Got "The Itch"

Let me make it sufficiently, abundantly, and unabashedly clear: I love my job. Absolutely love it. I have so much fun in the office every day, even when I'm exhausted or dealing with angry club patrons or having to catch up on office work after a long night at an event. I love the work, and I love where I do it. I don't want what I'm about to say be overshadowed by the fact that I am SO happy with where I am right now. I wouldn't have it any other way at this point in my life.

That being said, I'm starting to get the itch. The itch to learn more. The itch to do more. The itch to do something different.

To a certain extent, this is normal. Especially for me. This is the most of a unitasker I have been for quite some time. Working only in an activities capacity is abnormal for me, as someone who is accustomed to doing that, AND committee work, AND some form of research project or presentation, AND school! I'm not in school at all for the first time in several years.

As much as I love what I do, I've questioned it a few times. Hearing about the programming initiatives that friends in other areas and at other schools are presenting, occasionally a voice in my head says "we only put on the fun stuff." Which isn't really true- only last week, I was humbled and amazed at the outpouring of students who fought to see Elie Wiesel as part of the Golden Tribe Lecture Series. And we give our students the opportunity to learn each day in planning all of these events, and I love watching them learn about themselves as they deal with vendors, manage budgets, and train volunteers. But when your day consists of grocery shopping; unpacking boxes from Oriental Trading; or adding "T-Pain" or "Spintacular" into your Outlook dictionary, it's sometimes all too easy to overlook those triumphs.

So what would I like to be doing? I have a pretty substantial, but thus far largely unresearched interest in wellness promotions. It strikes me as a means to integrate my interests in personal wellness (physical, nutrititional, and mental), while also being able to put on programming. The difference is, attendees walking away from the event would absolutely be able to incorporate lessons from the programs into their daily lives. As as much as I loved seeing a near sold out crowd walk away from a comedy show last night, I'm never as confident that equally impactful learning is going on. I think that's okay, but I'd like to be a part of some of the learning too.

So to sum up: love my work. Love it. But I want to do more. Both do more in quantity (A dangerous request, I KNOW), and do more in impact. Here's hoping some opportunities present themselves for me! And if you know of any, you know where to find me...on the Internet anyway :)

Friday, October 7, 2011

Was Called "Amma From Twitter"

Today's NASPA-FL Drive In truly was like coming home. It was a trip back to Tampa, I got to see so many friends, classmates and was a wonderful way to start a weekend at home.

However, I got to make new connections as I presented with Kelley on her 52 in 52 project and the spinoff assessment we did to help advise graduate students on their transition into professional life. I joked leading up to the conference that I was presenting with "Kelley from Twitter", as many people have come to know her.

At one point, Carolyn, one of the FSU grads that I have gotten to know and really enjoy, mentioned that she had heard me mentioned the same way! That blew me away. My Twitter feed is a mess of ramblings about sports, encouraging words to Biggest Loser contestants, running, and food. But I do also love to use it to interact with student affairs pros- to hear that I'm the one saying things that are worthwhile? Whoa. And I had a great time today meeting some people I knew only through a Twitter handle, a tiny photo, and clusters of 140 characters. To hear that people care about what I have to say on my feed, and learned from what I had to say in my presentation, was humbling. No matter how long I'm in the field (hopefully a long time), no matter how much I do this (hopefully a lot), it always will be.

To be able to share my knowledge, and know that people got something from my ramblings, has me all the more energized to keep reading, keep researching, and finding new ways to talk about what I've learned.

Thanks for a great conference all, I'll see everyone next year! And keep in touch in the meantime- here, on email, and especially on Twitter :)