Reflection

A Quote on Current Events

A passage from Between The World and Me that has been rolling through my mind and heart over the past week.

A society, almost necessarily, begins every success story with the chapter that most advantages itself, and in America, these precipitating chapters are almost always rendered as the singular action of exceptional individuals. “It only takes one person to make a change,” you are often told. This is also a myth. Perhaps one person can make a change, but not the kind of change that would raise your body to equality with your countrymen.

The fact of history is that black people have not - probably no people ever have ever - liberated themselves strictly through their own efforts. In every great change in the lives of African Americans we see the hand of events that were beyond our individual control, events that were not unalloyed goods. You cannot disconnect our emancipation in the Northern colonies from the blood spilled in the Revolutionary War, any more than you can disconnect our emancipation from slavery in the South from the charnel houses of the Civil War, any more than you can disconnect our emancipation from Jim Crow from the genocides of the Second World War. History is not solely in our hands. And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life...

...This is the import of the history all around us, though very few people like to think about it. Had I informed this woman that when she pushed my son, she was acting according to a tradition that held black bodies as lesser, her response would likely have been, “I am not racist.” Or maybe not. But my experience in this world has been that people who believe themselves to be white are obsessed with the politics of personal exoneration. And the word racist, to them, conjures, if not tobacco-spitting oaf, then something just as fantastic - an orc, troll, or gorgon. “I’m not racist,” an entertainer once insisted after being filmed repeatedly yelling at a heckler: “He’s a nigger! He’s a nigger!” Considering segregationist senator Strom Thurmond, Richard Nixon concluded. “Strom is no racist.” There are no racists in America, or at least non that the people who need to be white know personally. In the era of mass lynching, it was so difficult to find who, specifically, served as executioner that such deaths were often reported by the press as having happened “at the hands of persons unknown.” In 1957, the white residents of Levittown, Pennsylvania, argued for their right to keep their town segregated. “As moral, religious and law-abiding citizens,” the group wrote, “we feel that we are unprejudiced and undiscriminating in our wish to keep our community a closed community.” This was the attempt to commit a shameful act while escaping all sanction, and I raise it to show you that there was no golden era when evildoers did their business and loudly proclaimed it as such.

”We prefer to say that such people cannot exist, that there aren’t any,” writes Solzhenitsyn. “To do evil a human being must first of all believe that what he’s doing is good, or else that it’s a well-considered act in conformity with natural law.” This is the foundation of the Dream - its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honor, and good works. There is some passing knowledge of the bad old days, which, by the way, were not so bad as to have any ongoing effect on our present. The mettle that it takes to look away from the horror of our prison system, from police forces transformed into armies, from the long war against the black body, is not forged overnight. This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown. It is still too difficult for most Americans to do this. But that is your work. It must be, if only to preserve the sanctity of your mind.
— Ta-Nehisi Coats in Between The World and Me

As we enter a new era of political order and social dialogue, I hope to keep these words at the forefront of my mind.

Vulnerability, Perfectionism and #newSApro Status

"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

The winter view from my office window

The winter view from my office window

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

The view from my typical lunch table. 

The view from my typical lunch table. 

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 

The place I typically reflect and collect my thoughts. 

The place I typically reflect and collect my thoughts. 

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? 

 

Sources

 

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. 

A morning view from my favorite stairwell in the KU Memorial Union

A morning view from my favorite stairwell in the KU Memorial Union

Made it to Kansas

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. 

                                                                                  Jay Hawk Country Indeed

                                                                                  Jay Hawk Country Indeed

Midwest

by Stephen Dunn


After the paintings

of David Ahlsted


We have lived in this town,

have disappeared

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

double, immense,

kaleidoscopic, cold.

 

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.


New Job. New Beginnings.

Exciting news: I've recently accepted a job at the University of Kansas! 

This announcement comes as the culmination of a very long semester of very hard work. From job applications, to Placement Exchange interviews (involving 1-3 rounds) and on campus interviews, KU emerged as the institution I was most excited about and also expressed the most excitement about me. I couldn't be happier to soon call Lawrence, KS home. 

ROCK CHALK, JAYHAWK!! 

ROCK CHALK, JAYHAWK!! 

My role will be as a Complex Director of McCollum Hall for KU's Housing Department. In this role I will have the opportunity to work closely with undergraduate and graduate students in community building efforts. This continues my involvement in Housing Administration, a functional area of Student Affairs I feel I still have much to learn from.

Beyond those decision factors that can only be attributed to "the gut" (and lets be honest the owner of said gut is the only one who truly understands the gut's reasoning), my primary interest in the opportunity to work at KU came down to their commitment to academic engagement in their residence halls, the continued implementation and refinement of a residential curriculum model, and the chance to work with graduate students preparing to enter the Student Affairs profession. I can't wait to get to know my new colleagues and supervisors! 

The job search process and resulting job offer are an affecting epilogue to the past 2 years I have spent laboring towards my M.S. degree. Thanks to all the peers, supervisors, and mentors that walked with me along the way! Rock Chalk!! 

Graduation Speech 2014

This past week I had the honor and privilege of speaking for my peers during our HESA Program graduation ceremony. I had several requests for the final quote of the speech so I decided to post the whole text of my speech here. 

A word of caution: this is the raw speech notes. I read directly from these notes and I used capitalization and font to guide where I placed emphasis. I haven't edited the text to make for easier reading. 

Not long after I was elected to give this speech one of my fellow cohort member came up to me and said “YOU SHOULD LET MINDY GIVE THIS SPEECH!” ….For those of you who don’t know Mindy is my wife of two years. We married 5 days before moving to Florida to start this program. Even though Mindy has no institutional connection to this program beyond being legally bound to me YOU COULD EASILY BUILD A CASE THAT SHE IS WWWAAYYYY MORE POPULAR THAN I AM. So popular in fact that my colleagues have begun apologizing for the obvious lack of enthusiasm that is shown when I show up to social events without my partner….

…Now that I am looking out and seeing so many familiar and unfamiliar faces I’m starting to wonder if that suggestion wasn’t a bad idea.

Last week the New York Times introduced the newest section of their website  entitled “The Upshot.” In do so the New York TimesThe Times joins a growing media trend attempting to wed traditional commentariate editorial journalism with big data analysis and predictive data mining. Anther great example of this trend is Nate Silver’s 5-30-8 media enterprise. Which was incredibly accurate in predicting the 2008 presidential election season.

So after browsing The Upshot and experiencing the supreme satisfaction of looking at a graph illustrating the positive association between polling data and an a incumbent senate candidate’s chances of reelection…..and more importantly understanding exactly what the graph was trying to communicate I had a startling realization.

This realization went something like this: “Uh – Oh… There is NO DENYING THE FACT…I’m a Nerd.” What is a nerd? If you google “define nerd” you get two definitions:

1: “a foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious”  2: “a single minded expert in a particular field”  ……It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

The reality is –  we’re all nerds now … NO REALLY … for all the collective groaning under the weight of research projects and literature reviews we find ourselves sitting here as single minded experts in a particular field, specifically, student affairs. A greater dispositional shift has occurred.

 What does this shift look likeWhat are the implications? Simply put:, “All of our future ideas will come with a built in literature review.”

Any future assumptions about whether or not we did a good job went or how well we articulated our ideas will be followed by a nagging urge to get some numbers or perhaps transcripted interviews to ensure it REALLY WAS a good idea or REALLY WAS a well organized event… like an itch that needs to be scratched.

Any factotum or opinion thrown out by a colleague will be accompanied by a whisper in the back of our minds that says “really? …Can you show me the data that supports that claim.?” Lets be real…it will probably be in the voice of Dr. Cox.

Most importantly our most cherished thoughts and beliefs will be properly formatted and cited according to the APA style Handbook…6th edition. TBJ will be proud.

So, bringing this whole reflection back to the New York Times and media trends, I think there is a new found power in being able to say “That subject or prediction is  all fascinating, well and good, but HERE’s WHAT’S  REALLY GOING ON.” This program has certainly filled that role for us. College attendance and student life….its all fascinating, well and good, HERE’s WHATS REALLY GOING ON.” Intellectual development….thats all fascinating well and good but HERE’s WHATS REALLY GOING ON.

 This program has given us a deeper understanding of what happens when students enter these hallowed halls of learning and how we facilitate their individual development. We now walk around with the satisfaction of knowing that when it comes to college student development and growth we understand WHATS REALLY GOING ON.

But lets not forget what brought most of us here in the first place. I would venture to say confidently that few entered this field because of a strong desire to one day successfully interpret a graph that illustrates positive or negative correlation. NO, most of us ended up here because someone, somewhere said “Hey, I believe in you.” Or “Hey, your going to do great things on this campus.” Something in that interaction stirred our passions or gave us the confidence to put ourselves out there and risk failure to achieve an impact. We then decided we wanted to facilitate those same conversations with others.

I think we should always be grateful and continue to push our understanding of the theories and methodologies that help us tell the rest of our campuses “Hey, [that student behavior:] HERE’S WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON.” But I hope that each of us continues to hold tight to those first interactions we had with administrators when we started college.

 I’m going to take a little bit of a risk and assume that if I were to ask some of our esteemed faculty and senior administrators present if they knew exactly when a student was going to be transformed by their work they would say no. Those life changing moments, the ones we cherish so deeply, aren’t statistically predictable. You never know how your intentional interaction with a student is going to transform their life. So hold tightly to your own memories of transformation. When the work gets hard they’ll serve as a vital reminder of the significance of why we do what we do.

 THANK PARENTS.

You were here. Before anyone else saw our potential you were there to catch us when we fell and encourage us to get back up.

 THANK SUPERVISORS.

There’s no going back. Your continual examples of professionalism and your actions that embody what it means to care for students will serve as a constant reminder and challenge that we can do better…that we can be more for our students.

THANK PROFESSORS.
Let it never be said that those who can’t do teach. The fingerprints of your scholarship, wisdom, and perspective will mark our work for the rest of our careers. Every time a future supervisor looks at us and says “wow, that was a really good job” please know that the seeds of that success were sown by you.

 THANK CLASSMATES

And finally for my classmates. I can’t think of a better group to start off on this adventure with than ya’ll. You truly are my LifeNet.

Final quote: “Our world is like a giant spider web. If you touch it anywhere, you set the whole thing trembling.... As we move around this world and as we act with kindness, perhaps, or with indifference, or with hostility, toward the people we meet, we too are setting the great spider web atremble. The life that I touch for good or ill will touch another life, and that in turn another, until who knows where the trembling stops or in what far place and time my touch will be felt. Our lives are linked. No one is an island...."

–Frederick Buechner.