A passage I can't get out of my mind from my recent reading of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. This quote comes at a point in the book where a character is categorizing what was lost after a deadly flu wiped out a significant portion of the world's population.
A passage from Between The World and Me that has been rolling through my mind and heart over the past week.
As we enter a new era of political order and social dialogue, I hope to keep these words at the forefront of my mind.
"Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: 'I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.' Healthy striving is self - focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other focused: What will they think? Perfectionism is a hustle."
-Dr. Brene Brown
Being a new professional is lonely. My personal experience of launching off to establish a professional identity in a new place has included occasional feelings of isolation and a sense that I'm running a maze I should know but can't always recall where to turn. I find myself asking "am I doing something wrong?"
I think the fundamental dissonance I'm experiencing boils down to the following question: do my peers think I am doing a good job? Tragically, finding a verifiable answer to this question wouldn't assuage my sense of loneliness or perceived inadequacy. No, the question itself reveals the engine of disharmony I feel about my chosen profession and professional identity.
I should note the delineation between my professional and personal identity. I refuse to believe that life is so easily compartmentalized. I choose here to draw a distinction between the two to illustrate a larger point about transitioning into a new job or workplace. Much about my recent move to Kansas has gone splendidly, and I truly appreciate both the Lawrence community and the place I work. That being said, I know I'm not the only one experiencing a sense of frustration and isolation in the midst of working at a place you KNOW you belong. My hope is this post will serve as an acknowledgement that YOU (dear reader) aren't the only one feeling those feels.
The Tyranny Of Perfectionism
New professionals do things wrong. I've already said "oops" and "ouch" several times this year. The first couple of times I would walk away from these instances with my insides all tied up in knots. If my supervisor made the comment, "well, lets make sure that situation doesn't come up again," or "in the future this is how this situation needs to be handled," I assumed that I was a fundamentally flawed employee. At no point in the conversations that followed such mistakes did my supervisor express that I didn't deserve to be where I was. I drifted towards such thoughts anyways. My perspective in such moments isn't rooted in a desire to do my job well, it's rooted in a desire to be perfect.
Perfectionism is a terrible burden to carry. Where does the imperative to remain crystal clean come from? The answer to that question is probably grist for years of therapy, but professionally, there are some systemic elements that encourage this unhealthy striving.
In "Becoming Socialized in Student Affairs Administration" (2009) Tull et. al. posit that there are three initial stages connected to a professional's integration into a new administrative position:
1) Formal Stage: characterized as "learning the ropes" and full of formal training and integration.
2) Informal Stage: characterized as learning "the realities of working life in the position." A professional hasn't necessarily personalized the role, but is learning beyond how things should be done to how things actually look when addressed in the position. Another way to characterize this might be by saying that a new employee begins to run up against the "unwritten rules" of the position.
3) Personal Stage: characterized by "Having learned the ropes in the formal stage and decoded the unwritten rules in the informal stage, the new professional truly inhabits the professional role and develops a personal style consistent with the role."
Each of these stages is composed of personal, professional, institutional, and extra-institutional realms that influence the day-to-day experience of being-in-the-professional-workplace. Each of these stages carries its own set of burdens, challenges, and potentials for excellence. Each stage requires a crucible of trial and error, courage and perseverance. IF one's goal is to "stick a perfect landing" in each of these stages....to remain pristine and not make mistakes, professional growth cannot occur. Perfectionism can ultimately mean operating out of a sense of fear, not inspiration.
Finding Space For Vulnerability In the Workplace
Mastering the on-boarding process is not the solution to the potentially debilitating effects of perfectionism. Cultivating a posture of vulnerability is a helpful step towards a sustainable solution. Moving to a new area of the country, cultivating relationships with coworkers, and tackling the typical problems associated with my line of work are all grist for the nagging feeling in the back of my mind that my efforts aren't enough.
In her book Daring Greatly, sociologist Dr. Brene Brown highlights the effects of living in a culture that is hyper aware of scarcity, and ultimately encourages dwelling on the things we lack. As she puts it:
Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyperaware of lack. Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted or lacking. We spend inordinate amounts of time calculating how much we have, want, and don't have, and how much everyone else has, needs and wants. (pg. 27)
Dr. Brown's solution, ultimately, is seeking a posture of vulnerability in relation to the world around you. Vulnerability here is described as "uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure." ...It's hard for me to think of a better encapsulation of the first year in a new job. For Dr. Brown vulnerability, when understood and utilized incorrectly, can lead to intense feelings of shame. Shame, particularly when combined with perfectionism can lead to a debilitating loss of agency.
I've taken to routinely asking two questions in my effort to embrace the inherent vulnerability of being a new professional:
1) Are there individuals with whom I can be real? We all need space to vent and individuals we can share our work stories with, but this question also cuts deeper. Inherently, I'm asking whether or not there are folks I'm willing to share my shortcomings and fears with. Are there people I'm willing to reveal my missteps with? We all need to be honest about where we need to improve.
2) Am I framing an issue or a problem I'm facing through the lens of "what will my standing with others be based off the action I take?" Should I be mindful of the implications of my actions on my supervisor, those I supervise, and the students I serve? - Yes. However, addiction to the approval and praise of the constituents involved can quickly turn toxic.
This too shall pass
Eventually, being a "new professional" gives way to familiarity with the institution and a personal interpretation of my role and how I can contribute to the life of the community. Meanwhile, this crucible that is "the first year" provides an opportunity to examine both personal and professional assumptions that influence my being-in-the-world. I'm comforted to know that I am not the only individual working through this transition.
What do YOU (dear reader) think? How have you managed the transition into a new phase of professional life? What did you learn along the way?
Brown, Brene. (2012) Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. New York, New York: Gotham Books.
(Ed.) Tull, Ashley., Hirt, Joan B., Saunders, Sue A.. (2009) Becoming Socialized in Student Affairs Administration. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus.
"Learning Reconsidered defines learning as a comprehensive, holistic, transformative activity that integrates academic learning and student development, processes that have often been considered separate, and even independent of each other."
Have there been moments in your professional career, at either a conference or other gathering of practitioners, where you thought "oh my gosh...these people GET IT. I thought I was the ONLY person who had some of these ideas!"
A primary take-away from my recent attendance at the Residential Curriculum Institute (RCI) could be easily summed up as "I'm not alone!" RCI was deeply affirming of the reasons I got involved in Student Affairs. I also walked away from RCI with several thought provoking challenges and a reframed perspective on my day-to-day work. Specifically, a challenge to question how I frame my work - as primarily an educator or an administrator? I was challenged to abandon the idea that academic administrators and "student affairs" administrators inhabit mutually exclusive sphere's of student growth and development. I also gained resources on how institutional departments can begin to build narratives for how their work is woven into the greater campus ecosystem of learning.
Am I an administrator or an educator?
"Student affairs staff members at [highly effective] colleges and universities are partners in the educational enterprise, engaging in enriching educational opportunities for students, team teaching with faculty, and fostering student success."
Fundamentally, what is my career and work about? I think many individuals, including myself, get involved in higher education with educational ideals but if I'm being honest about my day to day work, I spend most of my time in "administrator" mode. I churn through spreadsheets, fill out forms, and call other offices to get other administrative processes in gear. Framed improperly, this work can be deeply disappointing. A good question was asked during RCI by Keith Edwards- do you spend 80% of your work time fighting to protect the 20% of your work time you spend doing the things you "really love?" If so, why are you expending so much energy on all those other items?
If I'm being honest I spend a LOT of time in this mindset of "how quickly can I get all these other things cleared off my plate so I can do what I actually want to do?" I'm not sure that this is a sustainable mindset for a fulfilling life long career. I DO think that RCI is an attempt to hew some of my day-to-day work back into the educational ideals that drew me into Student Affairs.
College is meant to be a transformational experience. A common refrain I hear from my colleagues about why they remain committed to this career field is that they want to have a hand in the transformation process. A phrase that commonly follows this desire (and I'm guilty of using this myself) is "when you think about what was most impactful about your college experience, do you usually think about what happened in the classroom?" To compartmentalize the college experience is such a way is incredibly counterproductive and antagonistic to a substantial constituency group in the institutional ecosystem.
"...learning must be reconsidered – that new research, changing times, and the needs of today’s emerging generations of students require that our traditionally distinct categories of academic learning and student development be fused in an integrated, comprehensive vision of learning as a transformative process that is centered in and responsive to the whole student. Every resource on every campus should be used to achieve transformative liberal education for all students, and all colleges and universities are accountable for establishing and assessing specific student outcomes that reflect this integrated view of learning."
Much of the theory and practice that informs the RCI model of community education is rooted in Learning Reconsidered, a document published in 2004 that called for sweeping reform in how student affairs/services administrators approached their work. RCI pushes a mode of student engagement that emphasizes individual interactions and an assessable, co-curricular structure for engaging with students who live on campus. The hallmark of this approach is a laser-like focus on curriculum/curriculum mapping, rubrics, and assessment.
For my colleagues with B.A.s in Education this might sound like junior year all over again. That's because it's supposed to sound that way. The common RCI refrain is, "why are we expecting student staff to be experts at planning programmable experiences connected to a wellness wheel when we have reams of educational data and theory about how students develop in college and how they develop cognitively and socially." Instead of trying to get residents to come to events staff think are beneficial, lets meet the student where they are AND implement some assessable learning outcomes within those individual meetings.
RCI was deeply affirming of some of the unspoken questions I had about how Residential Life Departments try to engage with students in the halls. There were plenty of activities and events that occurred in the residence halls that left me feeling a little bit uncomfortable with how we try to develop students. Many of the programs I worked to facilitate went something like this (tell me if you've had a similar experience):
Want some of this delicious pizza?! Sorry, you need to go get your passbook stamped by a few tabled campus partners first and then I need you to complete this brief survey. Or...
It's almost valentines day. I just spent a number of long hours putting together this elaborate bulletin board with facts and figures about safe sex. My tissue pomp game is totally on point for this one...lots of shades of colored paper. Since it's right by the elevator I'm going to stand here with a bowl of candy and condoms. Let's hope I have some good conversations over the next 2 hours.
I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with this method of engagement, but is it really the best use of precious time and treasure? Can a 1st year student gain a nuanced understanding of privilege and oppression from one event that included pizza as a reward for their participation? There has to be more to residential programing than the wellness wheel!
Towards a Curricular Approach
"We came to understand that while student interests are an important consideration when selecting program topics and methods, student learning should be the driving force.We realized that we had been functioning from a paradigm that required students to be exposed to ideas without paying any attention to the actual learning that was or was not occurring."
The RCI model represents one of the best applications of student development theory to "administrative" work. Specifically, through the curriculum development process departments are able to clearly square what students should be able to learn by engaging with the Residential Community. As an educator I'm no longer grasping to apply Kholberg in a conduct hearing. Instead I can refer you to the curriculum map and learning goals our department has structured. Departments can critically analyze the institution's educational and strategic goals and then target the work of student staff to address those goals appropriately. Instead of inviting campus partners into a residential space for a few hours, our shared institutional learning goals mean I can weave them into the fabric and physical architecture of the residence halls.
Some of the work remains largely similar to "traditional" modes of promoting learning in a residential environment. Roommate agreements, room condition inventories, sociograms, ice breakers, and roster test pop quizzes all remain tools in the residential learning tool kit, but the emphasis is placed on lesson plans and emphasizing individual interactions around specific topics of discussion. Why do we expect a resident assistant to absorb how they should be teaching their residents? Perhaps giving them a lesson plan is a more appropriate vehicle for facilitating a learning experience.
If you're interested in examining the theoretical and academic foundations for curriculum models there are several articles I would recommend picking up. Learning Reconsidered, Beyond Seat Time, and Are All Your Educators Educating? are excellent, and relatively short reads that can begin to reframe how you think about the work you do as a student affairs administrator. You might find that you prefer to consider yourself a student affairs educator.
Keeling, Richard P. (Ed). Learning Reconsidered: A Campus Wide Focus On The Student Experience 2004. NASPA & ACPA Publications.
Kerr, Kathleen G. & Tweedy, James. Beyond Seat Time and Student Satisfaction: A Curricular Approach to Residential Education. About Campus, 2006 (6), 9-15.
Whitt, Elizabeth J. Are All Your Educators Educating? About Campus, 2006 (1), 2-9.
I feel the need to post some sort of update about the state of my life and travels. After a month of travel and visiting friends and family we've made it to Lawrence. We are now nominally moved into our apartment.
That being said, I am knee deep into on-boarding and professional training so I can't find the mental energy to provide much of substance. I promise to post a deeper narrative at a later date.
Lawrence, Kansas is a charming little town and while I'm forming thoughts of how I hope to sink into this community I've found my mind dwelling a lot on the midwest and what it means to come back to this part of the country after having lived in the south for the past two years.
I'll have more succinctly formed thoughts at a future date but for now I post Midwest, a poem by Stephen Dunn. I first heard this poem on "The Writer's Almanac" a podcast from APM. I've embedded a recording at the end of this post.
by Stephen Dunn
After the paintings
of David Ahlsted
We have lived in this town,
on this prairie. The church
always was smaller
than the grain elevator,
though we pretended otherwise.
The houses were similar
because few of us wanted
to be different
or estranged. And the sky
would never forgive us,
no matter how many times
we guessed upwards
in the dark.
The sky was the prairie's
The town was where
and how we huddled
against such forces,
and the old abandoned
pickup on the edge
of town was how we knew
we had gone too far,
or had returned.
People? Now we can see them,
invisible in their houses
or in their stores.
Except for one man
lounging on his porch,
they are part of the buildings,
they have determined
every stubborn shape, the size
of each room. The trailer home
with the broken window
is somebody's life.
One thing always is
more important than another,
this empty street, this vanishing
point. The good eye knows
no democracy. Shadows follow
sunlight as they should,
as none of us can prevent.
Everything is conspicuous
and is not.