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

Residential Curriculum Institute 2014

The morning view from VT's Convention Center 

The morning view from VT's Convention Center 

"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 Reconsidered 

"...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."  

When Living Learning Communities Meets A Learning Reconsidered Framework

When Living Learning Communities Meets A Learning Reconsidered Framework

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. 


Articles Referenced

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.


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.