Monday, July 30, 2012

"It's Like We're Breaking Out of Prison!"

 You can tell a lot about a race by its waiver. The Prison Break Mud Run, one of the inaugural events for Runners for a Muddier Tomorrow, was no exception. After surviving the race, here’s what I learned that I would have been able to tell from the waiver.

NOTE: As I watch this, an episode of the Andy Griffith Show is on, featuring escapees from a women’s prison. How appropriate!

The surroundings were unlike anything I have run in before. The Prison Break was held in, according to GPS, “Sawdust, FL”. I have run in some pretty remote areas before, but as soon as I realized I had no phone signal in the parking lot it was a whole other ballgame. But there was more to it than that. The signage was crude (something I always notice thanks to Campus Ecology with Jody Conway), and the host location appeared to be someone’s house. Like Woodstock. With registration on the front porch and merch/food in the backyard. It was just odd.

This course was designed to challenge you, but not like most challenge courses. At one point, we were going up a hill, and I was reminded of a scene from Heavyweights where they capture the crazed leader of their camp, Tony Perkis. 

Think this, but more trees and less Spandex. It was minimally cleared with machetes, but otherwise it was large stretches of just running through the woods. And with a waiver that warns you about the possibility of running into deer, boar, or “black beers” ( I can only assume they meant “black bears” [more on that in a moment], but for me either version is dangerous) and urges research of forest plants in advance of participation, I knew this was going to be a whole other experience. It had the adventure aspect of a Warrior Dash or Tough Mudder, but with the added challenge of abject fear of unknown surroundings. Thankfully there are no odd rashes or bites from wildlife! But I’m sure that wasn’t the result of effort from the organizers. Which brings me to my next point…

These organizers are clearly new at this. I am a stickler for a well-run event and a properly crafted legal document. Being a worry-prone former events professional does that to a girl. That being said, this was neither. Sometimes holding an event for the first time “shows”, and sometimes it doesn’t. With an event email that came out less than a week before the event (which was the first time we knew where the event would be), countless last minute changes to race elements, difficult signage (I know I’m harping on this, but for someone who gets lost all the time it’s really important to me!) and the crude nature of the organizer’s website, there is easily room for improvement here. I’m pleased to have participated in the inaugural version of this race, and I don’t regret participating, but it was a rough experience.

For something I was terrified of, I made it through pretty well. Despite significantly more natural surroundings, my time at Warrior Dash prepared me well for some of the obstacles I encountered on this course. However, the greater fear was admittedly an internal one. I was concerned about my own level of endurance, given the severe slump I find myself in from a training standpoint. It was somewhere between 3 and 3.5 miles, and yet I was anxious about being able to make it through. But I survived and emerged in a far better state than I expected to. I tripped but didn’t fall, stumbled but didn’t hurt myself, and varied my pace but didn’t lose my motivation. This race was a good shock to the system, and a great way to rekindle my desire to keep running.
Clearly misunderstood the directive as far as emotion for the picture.
Now that I’ve survived my second adventure race, I’m feeling a lot more confident about my upcoming running endeavors and excited for new challenges ahead.

What have you done to recharge your running batteries? Any races that have re-energized you?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Five Stages of Understanding Student Evaluations

For many of us, the tail end of our first year includes evaluations of our performance. We often get it from our supervisors and in some cases also from our students. In my office, an anonymous survey is administered via email, sent to our director, and then the results are forwarded to us. The process of truly understanding these results has, for me, mirrored grieving. Stay with me- I’ll explain how. And who knows? Maybe you’ve felt the same way as you peruse your students’ thoughts on you.

Stage One: Denial
You go over the results, in some cases really pleased by the positive things you see, in some cases dismayed by what a student thinks of your performance. Suddenly, one comment sticks out. Something that cuts you to the quick, hurts a little more than the rest of what you’re seeing. Your first instinct, even for the most self-aware of us? “That’s not true! How could he/she think that? Surely I don’t come off that way…”

Stage Two: Anger
As you try to process where this comment could have come from, you start to get angry. “How could this student possibly understand what I do? Clearly he/she is upset because he/she doesn’t like me-  I’ve given this job everything I have, of course I’m getting everything done!” or assorted other justifications that put the student at fault, rather than you. It’s a natural reaction, designed to protect our understanding of our accomplishments, as well as to justify our station in life. As new pros, we’re new and still learning the ropes. As such, we’re vulnerable when someone tells us we haven’t done what we’ve set out to do. At this point, the mind springs to action.

When students wonder how I know what they've done.

Stage Three: Bargaining
I have read emails and texts from my students well enough to know their “voices” when they write. Immediately, I thought “if I can figure out who wrote this, I can ask them what they meant by it and how I can be better!” Resist the urge! I say this for two reasons. First, if you guess correctly, they may be reluctant to tell you. The responses they’ve given have come with an understanding of anonymity. If he/she is approached about what has been said, trust in the process is likely to be lost. Answers will be sanitized to protect detection, and the results will be far less helpful. But more importantly, you don’t need to. We are in an introspective field. Upon further reflection, you may be able to better understand what you’ve read. But we’re not quite there yet.

Stage Four: Depression
My self image in my first job.
In what is hopefully the shortest stage, you will do what many of us do when we get negative feedback. You will wallow, you will whimper, you will doubt yourself. “Maybe he/she is right. Maybe I don’t know what I’m doing. How did I even decide to do this work?” Do not despair! This is where the words to “I Have Confidence” from The Sound of Music may need to come to mind. You have been hired to your position because you’re qualified. We all make missteps, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be doing this work. If that truly were the case, hopefully your supervisor would have already made you aware of a larger problem! So be gratified by the good work you have done, and don’t let your negative feedback define you.

Stage Five: Acceptance
By this point, you may be starting to see the student’s point. You are far enough away from the evaluation to see the comment for what it (likely) is: a legitimate critique of what is likely otherwise good work. Let this time be constructive: is there a solution to the problem voiced? Set a plan to work toward it! Receipt of feedback is a time for renewal, use it as such and start making your next year great!

Processing Penn State Penalties

#whatshouldwecallstudentaffairs: "Our colleagues at Penn State"

One thing is to be agreed with: Dr. Mark Emmert’s assertion that the sanctions handed down to Penn State University are designed to punish the culture of an institution that allowed for a cover-up of heinous crimes, and not to punish the crime itself. When looking at the end result through such a lens, the severe charges appear more reasonable. That being said, I have some philosophical differences with the NCAA on their decisions. For those who care to read why, I’m going to tell you!

First, there is the question of jurisdiction. An objection that I raised in the days surrounding the Freeh report centered around the question of if punishment for this case fell within the purview of the NCAA. Previous sanctions handed down, in some cases crippling ones such as those handed down to SMU or USC, were the result of a violation of NCAA policy. That said, the board in this case is acting on a violation of law. As it stands right now, no NCAA rules were broken. The decision to allow for NCAA investigation into the school’s policies could turn up findings of actual violations; in fact, based on accounts from some in student affairs there, I wouldn’t be remotely surprised if they did. In the event that violations are found in that investigation, the sanctions would seem more justified. Am I saying that punishment is not deserved? No. I am, however, saying that the reasoning behind punishment isn’t as clear to me.

I also wonder about the question of relevancy. Several of these individual sanctions make sense to me in the goal they’re trying to achieve. The vacation of wins, while seemingly bewildering to some, makes sense to me. The egregious negligence of Penn State in this matter was justified by a desire to win, no matter the cost. In vacating those wins, there is a symbolic message sent that such behavior is intolerable. Similarly, the ban from postseason play allows for playing to be placed within the proper context- a diversion and complement to academics, but not an at-all-costs end goal. However, implementation of academic integrity measures (who said that was the problem?) or compliance officers (there aren’t compliance officers already? Even my Division III institution had those) is irrelevant to the problem at hand. If the NCAA does wish to exercise influence in a situation such as this, it should levy punishments that fit the crime. They should fit the crime not in severity, but to match the problem at hand.

And finally, I am concerned about the nature of due process. I spoke earlier about the difference between violation of policy and violation of law. If the former was the case, I would feel far less itchy about the desire of the NCAA to intervene in such a grave case of misconduct. But the fact of the matter is, to date the NCAA has not investigated on its own. The Sandusky family has responded to the sanctions with shock over their severity, but also the speed with which the board acted. While I don’t like the source of this concern, I agree with it. The NCAA has not done its own investigation. They have opened the door for such an option to be exercised, and I’d be interested to see what they find when they actively look. What punishment do they have left to levy if they find anything else? What is worse than life without parole? Would it take that to merit the death penalty?

In attempting to give some semblance of resolution by throwing down a verdict with teeth, I fear the NCAA has only raised more questions. As the case continues to unfold, I can only keep the innocent in my thoughts- those who were hurt by the true cause of this scandal. Yes, many in State College will be devastated at their forced irrelevance in the grand scheme of football for years to come, but their “suffering” pales starkly to those who will never be able to forget what happened to them when an institution let football get bigger than common sense and decency.

And finally, for my campus, a campus that has something of a silver lining in this case, it is distasteful to treat it as such. If Bobby Bowden is not celebrating this "victory", given the circumstances under which it was achieved, you shouldn't either.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Thoughts on Aurora From a Lifetime Movie Buff

Bruce Wayne: You're gonna destroy millions of lives.
Ra's al Ghul: Only a cynical man would call what these people have "lives," Wayne. Crime, despair... this is not how man was supposed to live. The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years. We sacked Rome, loaded trade ships with plague rats, burned London to the ground. Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance. 

As with so many times in my life, when I've wanted to express a thought and couldn't find a way to, I turned to a movie to say what I couldn't. And this one is from Batman Begins (2005), an oddly prophetic one given the events that unfolded in Aurora, CO yesterday.

I should preface this by saying that I have been a movie fanatic for as long as I can remember. I've spent thousands of dollars on movies in theaters, have an obscene amount in my home collection, and was even a film minor in college- my Honors Thesis was on "The Evolution and Impact of Documentary Film". There are movies that I know absolutely by heart, and entire films that I know the music cues to, I've watched them so often. I listen to movie soundtracks in my spare time, and have a downright encyclopedic knowledge of actors and film contributors.

One of the things I love most about the moving image, and a major reason that motion pictures have been a sustainable art form, is their ability to facilitate escape. People go to the movies to have time where their real life is inconsequential. For that hour and a half, two hours, in the case of James Cameron epics, three hours, you are transported to a world that you do not live in. One that's elegantly tied together, one that's scored, and up until yesterday- one that's safe. When I go home at night after a rough day and throw on a movie, it's to feel insulated from whatever has bothered me.

To wake up to the news that the sanctity of film's insular quality has been threatened by someone aiming to cause chaos and harm to fellow moviegoers horrifies me. In the same way that we are sickened each time a place previously thought to be safe is attacked in this manner- airplanes, major landmarks, schools (another issue Colorado has had to face), and now movie theaters, our hearts go out to those who are involved and affected. But we also have to prepare ourselves for the possibility that such events will incite fear. I suspect that this will inspire bag checks and additional security measures at movie theaters- an understandable reaction given the events, but an unfortunate state of affairs for a society that can and should be better.

And so I return to the quote at the top, from the beginning of this trilogy. This is NOT how man was supposed to live. If you go back to the original version of Batman, starring Adam West, this was not the world that he had to save. We have descended into something more sinister, a fact reflected by the increasingly dark nature of the films in this franchise. People shouldn't have to alternate between seemingly common states of despair and mourning, and outright fear. What in our society is fueling such displays of hatred and carelessness for human life? And how long before it destroys us all?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

How to Succeed In Business Without Really Meaning To

A few days ago, I finally broke down and subscribed to the Harvard Business Review Blog Network. Faced with a dialog box restricting my access to yet another article of theirs I was itching to read, and realizing I could (a) make a commitment and join or (b) use the loophole I discovered and attempt to read a full article around said box, I chose the route of commitment and now have access to the network and a variety of other publications.

I consider myself to be a lifelong learner, and have used a summer without Internet at home (a commitment that I plan to stick to this fall) to read, and read EVERYTHING. Not just pleasure books, and not just student affairs books, but really expanding my scope to more literature that can make me better. And I'm finding that more and more business books and publications are speaking to me and how I want to do my work.

I always thought that I chose to work in higher education to avoid the trappings of business. But more and more, those two worlds are starting to collide. As such, I've gotten so much from the time I take to read articles and books from an area outside my own. Venturing outside that "echo chamber" we sometimes find ourselves in. Moreover, I've realized that the links I choose to click, or the pages I choose to turn, are fueled by what I want to make better, or a desire to effective change in my environment. Some great finds that you may want to check out:

Emotional Contagion Can Take Down Your Whole Team (the link that forced me to subscribe)

If You Don't Prioritize Your Life, Someone Else Will

The Best Strategy for Reducing Stress

Less Confident People Are More Successful

10 Habits of Remarkably Charismatic People

What is serving as your unlikely inspiration these days? What sources are informing how you work and live?


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Let Them Eat Cake! (Introducing #1yrdown)

Yesterday was the one-year anniversary of my time in Tallahassee. While I didn't officially start work until the 8th, it was one year ago yesterday that I ventured north with my parents in a rainstorm to try and shove all the IKEA boxes and books upon books into my apartment. 

I don't want to use this post to reminisce about the lovely time that I've had, the amazing relationships I've built, and the good work I feel I've done. Though all of those things are real, and I do feel them, there's something more important I want to talk about.

I know too many people struggling in this first year of work.

Perhaps because I'm working on ways to teach supervision to my grad, or maybe because a potential NASPA proposal I'm working on concerns adequate preparation for postgraduate work, I am noticing so many of my friends truly struggling in their first positions. Be it with their relationship with their supervisor, their adjustment to the institution, or building a social network in their (relatively) new home, everyone is having significant trouble.

The question, of course, is WHY?

Why are so many people coming up on their one-year marks and finding themselves unable to truly celebrate? Even while happy in my work, I was unable to rip into my proverbial cake in the fashion of this young man because of the areas in which I feel like I'm struggling.

I don't know where the blame of this lies. Is it the fault of grad programs, who are missing the opportunity to inform soon-to-be grads of some of the difficulties they will realistically face in the transition? Is it the fault of supervisors who ask new staff to hit the ground running without checking on their personal and professional well-being? Is it the fault of the recent grad for underestimating the reality of the struggle?

I have no idea. And I don't claim to have an answer. I just know that I want help for those who are struggling, and a field of helping professionals should- in my estimation- be able to do something about this for its own.

So I'm asking. New pros, I want you to be able to eat cake. If you're interested in answering a few questions for me about your first year- good or bad- please respond using the link below- I can't wait to hear your thoughts!

Cutting the Email Tethers

Ah, email. The fundamental backbone of our work.

Oh, it isn't?

Then why do we allow our productivity to flag whenever Outlook is down? Why do we have such a hard time communicating in its absence? And why do we allow its sudden arrival to dictate the schedule of our day?

In learning about how to calm anxiety, I've realized that a major source of anxiety for me is the sudden interruption. Not a student coming by to ask a question, or a task that quickly materializes. I'm talking about the ding. You know the sound I mean. The Outlook ding. [Author's Note: I tried to find a clip of it, but with no luck. Sorry!] The sound that I have seen reduce people to a positively Pavlovian response (I've seen this happen, and it's both funny and absolutely mystifying) of stopping their present, possibly urgent task, to see what has landed in their inbox. The prevailing mentality is: If it dings, I have to respond NOW.

What happens if you don't?

I have cut the tether, people. And I'm in love with how it feels. Does it mean I don't email? No. But I will say that the urgency of it has gone down drastically. My Outlook doesn't ding when I have a message, nor does it flash a preview of the message or who it's from. I get email to my phone, but I don't have push notifications. And if I have something to tell a student that isn't an emergency at that moment, I save drafts and send it when they're most likely to check. I know how I work, and I know that the interruptions that come with those sudden interruptions can be crippling to my productivity. 

Does your office have a culture of a near-immediate response time to emails? If not, cherish it. If so, are you willing to ask why?

If you have the luxury of doing so, I urge you to try to eliminate the sounds. Enjoy the silence. Monitor your productivity in its absence. And decide if you're willing to pull out your scissors and cut the tethers on your own.