Friday, January 27, 2012

Fighting the Power?

In keeping with my post of last week about "stepping outside of the echo chamber", sometimes we come up against policies, trends or traditions at work that we don't agree with. I am a tremendous supporter of my university and the work that we do here. We develop some of the most hardworking, diligent, and good-hearted students that I've ever met. But sometimes...they're tough.

Without giving away too much, I will say that I have students who I work with less often that are challenging me a little bit. Unlike the students I advise (who are fantastic, by the way!), I don't have the opportunity to train these students, and yet I work with them pretty closely on a collaborative project. And while I know their hearts are fully committed to the project, and I LOVE to see their excitement as our project develops, they are not as giving with their time and focus as they are with their enthusiasm. I've essentially been told that the process will continue, however, even as their time put into the end product continues to wane.

As someone who truly treasures the opportunity to develop students, it frustrates me greatly that I don't have the chance to work with those students more closely to educate them on the initiative that they're supporting. Moreover, I bristle at the suggestion that they should have a sterling end result for something that they're not fully committed to. Part of that frustration comes from the fact that students who do have their full hearts, souls and schedules in their work, will be "covering for them". I've always been of the belief that the end result should reflect the work put into ALL who are participating. Ultimately, I'm being asked to pick up the slack, and ask other students to do the same. That sits...well, in a shaky fashion with me.

I've managed to comfort myself with the understanding that I will have an opportunity to speak with the incoming new head of this group as soon as he is elected, and start to build a foundation for a more effective model, in a few weeks. And the rest? Well, it's going to be a matter of adjusting my attitude. The end result of this project reflects on me too, not just them. And I will do what I can to ensure that it goes off well.

How do you deal with discord between what you hope students will do, and what they actually do?

Blergh. Just...Blergh.

For the first time in quite a while, and absolutely for the first time at this particular job, I had a rough week at work. I've been antsy and exhausted, and never felt like I had a chance to recharge from the day before I woke up, and had to do it again.

This is not the first time I've felt this way, to be fair. Feeling too exhausted to be effective at work is by no means a new feeling. To use another Arrested Development reference in this post,

"I think this feeling that you're feeling, is what we call...a feeling."

Do I think I'm more aware of it because our field talks about it a lot? You betcha. Is it considered as big of a deal in other fields? Maybe, maybe not. But that's a discussion for a whole other day. For now, let's say this: it was a rough week at work. They happen.

But I will also say this: unlike my previous "first year" in a position, I have had a pretty good bad week. Why? I have support here. I have supervisors who will talk things out with me, help me solve some of the things that I struggle with. I have students who uplift me and make me smile even when I'm overwhelmed or exhausted. I have colleagues who help pick up the slack and also will help me smile through the ridiculousness. And I have friends who will talk through all of this with me, with their thumbs or with their words :)

I can honestly say that I had none of those things the last time I wanted to curl up and hide in my office.

So even as the intensity of the coming weeks is staring me in the face, I know that I'll be able to handle it. Moreover, I know that this is building me up to be a better supervisor down the road. Having the ability to contrast a less than ideal work decision with such a supportive one will help me make it to the end of those rough days, even when I can't see the way there on my own.

We all try to strike balance in our lives. Sometimes, we don't always make it there. How do you cope? Who helps you?

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Stepping Outside the Echo Chamber

I was inspired and intrigued by a post from a Twitter friend and inspiration, Becca Obergefell, about where we get our information and what that information says about us. It was enlightening to see that someone shared my occasional guilt about knowing as much about theory and student development as I do about celebrity gossip ;) But another part of it struck me particularly deeply- the concept of living and working in an "echo chamber".

This was the second time I had heard the phrase in the past week (the first was courtesy of Jeff Lail, who was being praised for being a "certified Devil's advocate"). It made me realize how much time I spend in close proximity with people who agree with me, and what that does for my thinking. The picture to the left is from an actual echo chamber in Scotland's Hamilton Mausoleum. It has a long lasting, although architecturally unplanned, echo. Sometimes, student affairs can have a similar effect. Although we treasure our ability to embrace all different types of people, we all have a common reason for getting involved in the profession. With that common goal comes a remarkable similarity in sensibilities.

With that in mind, combined with my #oneword2012 ("learn"), I have been fairly intentional recently in seeking out alternate opinions, and seeing what I can learn from them. As a liberal living in a state capital during Republican debate and primary season, I've admittedly had a wonderful opportunity handed to me. (Thanks are also due to Joshua Gaccione, who has been remarkable in challenging me to consider new points of view, and in the most civil and respectful of ways I could ever imagine. He's kinda great!)

That was demonstrated in a big way this morning when I had the opportunity to support our student union in welcoming Rick Santorum to campus in conjunction with our College Republican organization. Rather than dismissing an alternate opinion for lack of agreement, as a younger me would have done (and frankly, as the older version of me- my mother- consistently does), I took the opportunity to listen, to absorb information critically, and to learn. Without exposing my political views (as this isn't the place for that), I can say that I found several points with which I agreed, and several that I didn't. I heard things that made a lot of sense, and things I would have justified differently. But I found myself more open to hearing an opposing viewpoint than I ever would have thought. I welcome the challenge now, and am hopefully becoming better for it.

We encourage our students to expose themselves to a variety of viewpoints- both those of like mind, and those discordant with their own beliefs. How do you live that in your daily life?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Gladwell's Blink And The Art of Thinking About Our Work

I've just finished Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. I was a tremendous fan of The Tipping Point, and wanted to see what I could get from this work. For those who aren't familiar, Blink (subtitled "The Power of Thinking About Thinking) is about how our brains work to know things we aren't always aware of. Some examples given in the book include art appraisers who can tell if a piece is authentic just by looking, or being able to judge the talent of a musician better when the musician can't be seen.

When I think about the role of "thin-slicing" in my everyday work, I am immediately drawn to the example of selecting musical artists. Admittedly, this strategy works better when one is familiar with the artists that I'm familiar with. I am reminded of my senior year of college, early on in my tenure as president of the concerts committee. We were offered an avail on a popular artist at the time. I wasn't sure how well it would do, so I asked around among some friends and was eventually convinced that it was worth the considerable expense it would take to bring the group. However, the concert had a FAR smaller draw than expected. Years later, I know that my gut feeling is usually right on something like that. I might not be able to explain why I feel like one artist will do better than any other, but that first instinct is usually right.

But I would also say that we should exercise this strategy with caution with regard to our students. Why? My theory professor Dr. Barry Hubbard would be proud to say that his class gives me pause about applying the lessons of this book so broadly with our advisees, student staff, and mentees. The majority of the examples given in Gladwell's book refer to reliable patterns of behavior in adults. But because of the development that (hopefully) goes on in college, the changing identities with which we deal each day, it would be irresponsible to rely on the same assumptions of a student and his or her behavior in his or her first year and his or her final year. In fact, if we are doing our jobs properly, we stand to be dealing with two very different people over the course of that time period. As such, we would have to adjust our "first instinct" about that student and his or her behavior, as the student grew into this new version of him or herself. But regardless of whether or not we find the right way to use this strategy with our students, or with a departmental decision, or even the decision to take a job at an institution, there is a lot of power in something "feeling" right.

We tend to believe that having more information (more student opinions, more statistics, more assessment results) can lead us to the right answer. Sometimes we ask for information to do the proper diligence, back up that feeling with facts or supplemental opinions. But sometimes we ask because we already know.

Do I wish to dismiss the importance of assessment or consulting different constituents in the work that we do? Not remotely. I wish to say, rather, that we should trust ourselves more than we are first inclined to. Think about a student who may not have all the qualifications for a position, or a potential staff member who, despite being different or challenging, has a quality that you see hope for. Follow that gut instinct. Similarly, if something feels wrong, consult with those around you, but trust yourself. You may be right!

How do you see this phenomenon in your work? Have you ever had a moment, a "blink", where you knew something no one else seemed to?

Warrior Dash 2012: The First Time I Got Dirty for Fun!

Let it first be said that I'm not about getting messy. Both my sister and my friend Jeff (this young man to my left) always tell me that it's the reason I get sick as seriously as I do- no immune system.

Whether they're right or not, I think I made up for 25 years of being careful in just under an hour this past weekend. Warrior Dash 2012 was a race I signed up for on a whim, as a means to do something I've never done before, and to hang out with Jeff when he came down from Colorado for a weekend.

From the beginning, it was a serious challenge. Of all the running surfaces there are to love or hate, I hate sand the most. As I told Jeff during the race, there are other things I really enjoy doing in sand. Like sitting, lying down, and sleeping. But running? No. And as much as I hate it, my calves hate it more.

That is, until I hit the mud. Uggggh. I tweaked my knee right off the back trying to maneuver through the sludge. It slowed me down at first, but ultimately it came down to this: I didn't collectively drive 6 hours to walk a 5k, especially one as unique as this. I ran through the inconvenient, but not dangerous, pain, and survived 3.1 miles of madness. Among the highlights:

The "over/under" obstacle: over waist high barriers, under barbed wire. As I huffed and puffed, trying to negotiate an aching knee and avoid scrapes from the barbed wire, I got some encouragement from the runner next to me...burning through the course with a prosthetic leg. Her perseverance carried me through!
  • Unexpectedly realizing the race involved swimming. Saw people sloshing through water, and thought "Cool, let me get on in there." As I sank to shoulder level, I was quickly reminded of my height, and gave it my all to swim through!
  • Running up to the wall scaling obstacle with Jeff at my side...only to see a guy dressed as Batman scaling the wall ahead of us. For those who watched the original Batman TV series and first movie, you get why this is so awesome.
  • The final obstacle- big ol' mud pit. In traditional Parker fashion, Jeff tucked and rolled right in, getting quite the reaction from the spectators near the finish. My first instinct? To yell at the same crowd "He's getting in my car after!"
Ultimately, we made it through. Jeff and I have been through grad school, comps, and the job hunt together, and now can add trudging through sand, mud and fire to that impressive list of feats. Thanks for giving me a once-in-a-lifetime experience in the mud. I hope you don't have dysentery.

And now, the phrase of the weekend, as coined by Christopher Turk:

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Amma Marfo, B.A., M.Ed, CSAP (?)

Today's discussion in #sachat about credentialing of student affairs professionals really got me thinking about how we demonstrate being good at our work.

One of the things that I love so much about the field of student affairs is its ability to unite professionals with interests in so many different areas under one common goal- educating and developing students. And even within the fraternity of SAPs (student affairs professionals), there are those who come from backgrounds other than student affairs.

Think about how often we speak to colleagues about their "unconvential routes to student affairs." When meeting professionals from a variety of functional areas during my graduate program, everyone had a different story about how they arrived here. From musical performance, law enforcement, the courtroom, and a multitude of other disciplines. Does it affect their ability to practice? Not necessarily- some of the best SA pros I know have degrees in other areas. And their ability to serve students is unaffected by whether some credentialing agency (be it a university, governing body, or functional area organization) gave them a collection of letters after their name or a certificate to hang on a wall.

One of the definitions of "credentials" given during today's #sachat alluded to a need for a set of requirements to fulfill in order to prove competency. My response to that is, does a credential actually signify competency? Or does it simply signify the ability to follow a set of guidelines resulting in said proof? For those without awareness of credentialing agencies, or the means by which to pursue said credentials, who's to say that their ability to effectively practice would be "less than" those with the means to pursue those appending letters? As I remarked to a fellow #sachat'ter during today's discussion, "you can be competent without credentials, and unfortunately incompetent with them." I think at one point or another, we've all worked with someone that fits in each category...

When I think about fields that require significant credentialing, such as law, accounting, or medicine (or, to bring in student affairs, fields such as wellness promotions and education which have credentials such as Certified Nutritionist or Certified Health Education Specialist), what do these fields have in common? Law-based or life-and-death based consequences. In the absence of qualified law practitioners, plaintiffs and defendants run the risk of breaking the law. The same goes for those who are lured into unjust accounting practices or medical malpractice. Ultimately, there are a set of clearly defined practices and skills that conform to a standard of the profession. And in the absence of adherence to those standards, consumers risk serious harm.

Is it to say that we assume no risk in dealing with students? Not at all. But those risks are very different. We should adhere to competency guidelines, and ensure that these competencies can be demonstrated when hiring professionals. But exams such as the BAR or the CPA exams are designed to create a barrier between those who can adhere to the stringency of those professions, and those that can't. Student affairs, a field often noted for its culture of inclusion, is fundamentally different from fields like that.

There is no one way to educate in our work. In fact, a diversity of approaches is encouraged, a wonderful way for us to challenge our students with alternate perspectives. We should follow the lead of the students we teach, and continue to foster a diversity of approaches in our own work. Should we be qualified? Yes. Competent? Absolutely. NASPA and ACPA have worked together to create a comprehensive list of competencies that we should continually strive to adhere to. As was repeatedly voiced this afternoon, as a field that supplements learning, we should never consider us "up to date" on our continued education. But married to a list of guidelines that could potentially homogenize the route into this work? I'm not so on board with that.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Learned...For Me

I've always loved school. In fact, one of my major struggles in my "finding myself" period between college and graduate school was finding a job, when I felt like I was only good at going to school. This is the longest period that I've not been taking classes in a very long time, and it's an odd feeling to not be working toward a midterm, a final, a certificate, or a degree. Very odd.

As some of you may know, my #oneword for the year 2012 is LEARN. Learn about myself, about the people and institutions around me, about life. One major part of that is to learn more about the field of health and wellness promotions, to determine if that's a functional area of student affairs that I might want to look into.

In learning about the field, I am realizing that there is a major gap of knowledge from a content standpoint. And that's not surprising. With degrees in communications and education, I can talk to people about things, and teach them, but the content of what I would be teaching them? Less familiar.

Enter course openware. This is a strategy that I never even thought to consider. I was looking at doing a certificate in Health Administration and Policy through FSU, or even a certification course through the American College on Sports Medicine, to brush up on the knowledge base needed to counsel students from a position of authority. But then I found the OpenCourseware Project at Johns Hopkins University. Lo and behold, many of the classes I was looking to take, for free and online, many readings included. I'm so excited to get started on this- learn for the same of learning. No certificates, no degrees, just taking part in coursework in order to learn.

Starting tomorrow, I'm "going back to school"...and I couldn't be happier :)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The First Time I...Led the Charge to Wellness

As some of you may know, I am dabbling in wellness education as part of research as to whether or not this is an area I'd like to explore professionally. I've been talking to staff, both at FSU and at other campuses, and am really learning about how I could incorporate this interest into my work.

To that end, I've been working on a wellness plan for our office, called "Student ACTIVities". I compiled wellness tips that cover nutrition, exercise, and mental wellness as well, and put them on a calendar. I've also been sending weekly emails about a different topic each week, some articles to add more to the information given, and am trying to encourage the staff to participate in a 5k/1 mile race together.

I've been genuinely encouraged and really excited about how it's been received so far. So far, the staff seems to be excited to be involved, and we are having our first healthy food potluck/brainstorming meeting tomorrow!

To the rest of the Student Activities staff, thank you for indulging me in this practice- it's helping me learn how I want to approach wellness, and I hope that you're getting something from it too.

How are you finding opportunities to learn about your passions, even if they don't necessarily line up directly with your current work?

Sunday, January 8, 2012

First Race of The New Year. In Which I Embrace Humility.

This weekend was my first race of 2012, The Walt Disney World Half Marathon. I will also say this race was a first, in that it is the least prepared I have felt for a race. A lot of it was making sure I rested my knee, lest I risk hurting more when I had such a big race to finish. But I'm not afraid to say it- some of it was fear. After the last race, not finishing and having training runs go less than ideal, I was afraid to get back out there. Afraid to get worse, afraid to have to give up, afraid to have to stop running altogether.

But after a few hiccups to ensure registration (props to the RunDisney folk for being so thorough in helping me troubleshoot!), I was in it for sure, rose at 3:00AM to get after it, and accompanied this young lady, Jessica Searcy, for our first race of the New Year, and our first race together! (The picture was at the end, we were tired!)

This was the hardest race I've ever done. Possibly harder than the Women's Running Half. Why? Because I hurt pretty early on, and just kept going. Walking felt worse, and quitting felt wrong. So I kept going. I tried to block it all out, periodically surge to make it go faster, and to force good running form so I didn't get injured again. I kept going. The result? A painfully slow 2:28:33. Painful physically, absolutely. But it hurt psychologically too. This time last year, I finished the same distance in 2:09:57, and hit a personal best of 2:05:10 only two months ago.

Getting back to top speed is going to be a road. And I need to recommit myself to that process. I need to not let fear keep me from improving, and I need to use my one word (LEARN) to figure out the best way to be better. But I am humbled by the struggle that this race was, and am prepared to put the work in to start getting better.

Thanks Jess, for sharing the experience with me. LOVE spending time with you, and you ROCKED this race!! You're amazing!

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

#oneword: Looking Back at 2011, and Ahead to 2012

While I'm less of a resolution person, I like the concept of #oneword. You choose one word for the year, and try to live by it. It makes me mindful of changes that I want to make year-round, and with so many other friends participating (both near and far), we can encourage each other to live the word that we've chosen.

Last year's word was BALANCE. With so much upheaval about to happen (completing grad school, and with the prospect of a national job search ahead), it seemed like a good concept to pursue. I succeeded in many ways, and could stand to work on others. Some points of pride for my year of balance:
  • Learning more about, and starting to conquer, a lifetime of anxiety
  • Making running part of my regular routine. That said, I think I was unbalanced with it at times, and will use this year's word to help right that ship
  • Spending more time reading.
  • Being vocal about finding a job that allowed me to keep that balance
  • Making more time, and saving more money, to travel and see friends
  • Finding opportunities both inside work and out to express my non- student affairs interests

And now, for 2012. Being the nerd that I am, it should come as no surprise that I've chosen the word LEARN. However, I want to present an additional challenge for myself. I've never had trouble learning about things I already know about. Watch a Disney movie (hell, any movie) with me one time- you'll see quickly what I mean by that. But I want to challenge myself to learn about things I'm less educated about. Some goals for 2012 to underscore my one word:

  • The week before winter vacation, I purchased a copy of the Bible. Religion has been something that I've never formed an opinion on, because I never really had the information to do so. I want to spend at least a portion of my year learning about the Bible, and deciding for myself how I would best like to express my faith.
  • A professional goal of mine is to start to pursue opportunities that could allow me to work in wellness education and promotion. That will include joining the American College Health Administrators professional association, working with student wellness groups on campus, collaborating with other student affairs pros to put together an ed session on mental health concerns for SA pros, and taking classes to become certified in nutrition. It seems like a tremendous opportunity to learn more about something I'm interested in now, and turn it into something I would be qualified to pass along to others.
  • I want to become more involved with professional organizations in student affairs, and will actively seek out opportunities to place myself in the position to learn from more experienced pros.

What one word will drive you for 2012?