Changing Mindset

When I tell folks that I work with or interact with that I work with fraternities and sororities, their first question is almost always “are you affiliated?” to which my response is “no.” This short exchange is always comical to me as the reactions to my answer range from surprised to shocked. And to be honest, I am surprised that I keep being assigned to this type of work when I do not have any affiliation.

Yet, this past weekend I was afforded the opportunity to facilitate at a weekend retreat for the interfraternal community that I work with in my first professional position. I was anxious heading into the weekend, as my knowledge of fraternities and sororities is limited even though I have worked with the community on two campuses.

The weekend was draining. As an introvert, it is hard to have to be on in facilitator mode for 12 hours each day. Yet, it was a weekend that I felt started to change my mindset. Most of my concerns and hesitations in working with the interfraternal community centers on my lack of affiliation and lack of knowledge of the community. Yet this weekend illuminated how I can do good work with this community and help those students develop into more impactful leaders.

The weekend retreat utilizes Peter Block’s book, Community: The Structure of Belonging, as a way to engage the students in conversations on creating change within their community. It is a text that is not about fraternities and sororities, nor higher education. But it contains valuable lessons for leaders in organizations, whether undergraduate students or elected officials. Facilitating those discussions was a positive experience and saw me engaging with students who are thinking critically about their experience in their fraternity/sorority. They were receptive to my probing and reflective questions. They left those discussions thinking differently about their experience and the role they play in creating a more positive interfraternal experience.

Having engaged in this experience, I am now seeing my ability to educate these students, in spite of my lack of affiliation. My skills in facilitating and educating are transferable to this setting. While I cannot relate to their experience in a fraternity/sorority, I can make them think critically and evaluate what role they have in creating positive change. I had to rely more on the students I was learning with to share their stories in a different way than if I had an affiliation. Facilitating this leadership retreat was mindset changing, as I started to see the impact I can make.

I will never be fully comfortable in a fraternity/sorority setting, but this weekend was what I needed to begin to make me feel more comfortable in the role I play in educating these students.

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Teaching Discourse

Part of my morning ritual is to turn on the news and watch a half hour of CNN, just to get caught up on the days events. For the most part, this is a helpful aspect of my morning ritual, yet all too often there is a segment or two that devolves into two guests shouting at each other. The shouting is mind numbing, not because it is early in the morning but because the shouting commenced because the two individuals have no respect for one another and a hatred of facts. The shouting matches are ever more disturbing each time I watch them, because they all follow the same script. The loss of a respect for ideas and varying viewpoints is troubling, particularly as our nation grapples with issues that require thoughtful and solution focused policy.

The educator in me finds this rather troubling. In my own experience working with collegiate students, I find the same troubling lack of respect for different ideas. My own hope as an educator is to expose my students to multiple perspectives on a given topic and to allow them to interrogate those perspectives in a civil and critical manner. Yet, the students I have worked with go to their basic instinct which is to simply criticize and wright off a perspective from which they disagree. It took most of the fall semester to get 20 first year students in a leadership course to be comfortable with critically investigating an idea that they disagreed with.

This critical interrogation of ideas is missing from our society. Looking at our political climate, there is a dualistic, ‘with-us-or-against-us’ mindset that permeates through todays political climate. There are some bipartisan efforts being worked on, but those are few and far between. As a society, we seem to have lost the basic respect for our peers and a desire to move forward together by finding consensus.

For educators, reteaching this respect for different view points and critical interrogation (which I view as the act of analyzing and discussing an idea) is critical to the work being done in and outside the classrooms. Students need to be okay with engaging in ideas that they may seem detestable because when they are in the ‘real world’ and outside the comforting walls of the classroom, they will be forced to work with ideas and perspectives that they may disagree.

How do educators reteach respect for different view points and critical interrogation is beyond me. There is no ‘perfect’ solution, but the themes and values embedded in those two ‘soft skills’ are essential to the survival of the Republic in which we live and the health of public discourse.

Springtime in a College Town

The sun is shining bright and the blue sky is full of large puffy white clouds. The windows of my car are down as I drive back to campus after grabbing some things from Walmart. I enter the Mile Square, which is where most of the undergraduate students at Miami University live. The eccentric house signs took a back seat as I notice students of all sorts doing yard work.

Yes, undergraduate students are doing yard work on a beautiful spring evening.

Of course, this is not the yard work that often comes with a nice spring day. Instead, the students are setting up tents and fencing off parts of their yard with orange construction fence or rope. Newly laid hay covers some of the more worn lawns, and students line up on the porch of one house, cash in hand, ready to purchase a green and white t-shirt.

Now, were I new to Oxford and Miami University I would think that the Miamians are jumping on the Michigan State bandwagon as the NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament is starting up. Instead, I am firmly aware that this yard work and green and white t-shirts have nothing to do with March Madness or a nice spring day. Green Beer Day is a few hours away and students are eagerly awaiting the start to their debauchery.

Green Beer Day is a Miami University tradition that has students wake up at 2 or 3 in the morning to drink, have breakfast, and continue drinking for the rest of the day. Always the Thursday before spring break, Green Beer Day is a long standing tradition here at Miami. The students are enamored with the tradition and want nothing more but to engage in the holiday.

The entire town of Oxford is fixated on the tradition. Local bars have been gearing up for the holiday at the start of the spring semester. Walmart and Kroger have ‘Green Beer Day’ cakes and goodies in their respective bakeries. Bagel and Deli, the local late night drunk food location, has been selling the green and white Green Beer Day shirts for the last two weeks. The entire University community is aware of the impending holiday and the implications that come with it. Student affairs educators and the rest of the University community do their best to provide alternatives to the drinking holiday and educate students on healthy practices. Yet, the tradition goes on.


Holidays like Green Beer Day are a part of the greater collegiate culture. Michigan State had their NCAA tournament debauchery occur after any loss (or win) with couch burnings and (more recently) bagel throwing. Ohio University has ‘fest-season.’ I could pick any institution of higher learning and find a similar event that leads to unnecessary and unsafe binge drinking.

But why? For years colleges have faced this problem. They have implemented countless educational measures and policy changes to combat the problem. Yet the problem persists. I cannot help but think that nothing will soon change unless our laws and culture around alcohol change. But that is a larger societal issue, and one that no college will be able to face alone.

 

Are We Being Effective? Strategies to Integrate Assessment Into the Work of Student Affairs Educators

It is rare in higher education that during a meeting, assessment is not mentioned. In the seemingly endless call for more assessment, higher education (and student affairs in particular) is struggling to increase assessment efforts to meet the demand from both internal and external stakeholders. This is not to say that there is a lack of quality assessment occurring in higher education and student affairs, because there is quality assessment, but the overall tenor of assessment in higher education and student affairs is one of anxiousness.

This post will not address the potential solutions to increasing the assessment efforts in higher education and student affairs. That will need to be addressed by Senior Student Affairs Officers (SSAOs), and is addressed in Leading Assessment for Student Success: Ten Tenets That Change Culture and Practice in Student Affairs. Rather, this post is going to deliver three ways that graduate students and new professionals can integrate assessment into their daily practice, even if that is not an expectation in their department. However, the importance of assessment needs to be addressed first.

Why Assess?

Graduate students and new professionals working in student affairs are the first to groan when assessment is mentioned. Assessment is, rarely, why folks enter the field. They would much rather spend time building relationships with students, designing and implementing programs, and working on curriculum. The perception of assessment is one of a difficult task that simply needs to be done to appease SSAOs or external pressures. Yet, the purpose of assessment is often missed.

At its core, assessment allows educators in student affairs (i.e. all of us!) to ensure that learning is occurring as a result of our work. That leadership retreat that was designed to allow first year students to develop a leadership style prior to their arrival on campus needs to be assessed. The learning outcomes of a women in engineering living learning community need to be assessed. Every program that student affairs educators design and implement needs to be assessed in order to ensure that learning is occurring.

We assess not to please SSAOs or external audiences (though that is a benefit) we assess to ensure that our programs and initiatives are meeting students needs and that they are beneficial to students. That is it. That is the only reason we assess; to ensure that our work is being done effectively. Assessment is the ultimate student centered practice!

Now that we have figured out the why we assess (though, admittedly, I glossed over a great body of research that should be reviewed for a deeper understanding of why we assess) we can delve into the three strategies to integrate assessment into the daily work of a student affairs educator.

Assessment Tips

  1. Reflection. A great deal of our work as student affairs educators is in the hopes of long term development. A weekend retreat for Greek leaders should have learning outcomes associated with the weekend, but educators are interested in how Greek leaders are using the lessons learned at the retreat beyond that weekend. Thus, student affairs educators could implement a reflection journal. A reflection journal can be a way for educators to pose questions to students to cause reflection to occur. Additionally, these reflective journals can be a guide for a one-on-one conversation with a student. The assessment portion of the reflective journals comes in how a student affairs educator reports on the learning. Back to our Greek leadership retreat, a Coordinator of Greek Life could use reflective journals with the Presidents that attended the retreat for the rest of the semester. Questions that they could ask their Presidents would be “How have you used the Social Change Model in your leadership as President?” or “How have you seen the values of your organization on display in your organization?” These questions allow the educator to get a sense for how the lessons covered at the retreat are impacting the Presidents beyond that weekend.
  2. Pre/Post Test. The most overused assessment tool, but one of the most effective. A leadership programs graduate assistant has designed a three hour workshop for newly elected student leaders. The graduate assistant is going to focus the workshop on Kouzes and Posner’s Leadership Challenge (1987) and wants to see how well participants understand the key elements of the theory. Prior to the start of the workshop, the graduate assistant has participants take a pre-test addressing the components of the theory. After the workshop, the graduate assistant gives participants the same test. The graduate assistant then analyzes how the group answered after the workshop, compared with their answers prior to the workshop. This allows the graduate assistant to see that while participants really understand the “Encourage the Heart” component, they did not understand idea of “Challenge the Process.” This allows the graduate assistant to change the curriculum of the workshop to better address the idea of “Challenge the Process,” better meeting her learning outcomes.
  3. Rubrics. Advising student groups is a busy and challenging task. Volunteers can be unmotivated, there are the pressures to meet programmatic demands of the department, and students want to see a value-added experience that they can add to their resume. Thus, the Hall Director (HD) who is advising the Residence Hall Association (RHA) Executive Board developed a competency rubric to guide their advising. This rubric has four competencies: leadership, teamwork, facilitation, and event planning. The five point scale for each competency is explicitly laid out what would lead to being scored a 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5. This rubric allows the HD to tailor their one-on-one conversations. They indicate to the Chair of the Campus Programs Committee that they are not performing well in the facilitation competency, and that this competency is key towards their goal of becoming the President. Additionally, the HD writes an executive summary for the Director of Residence Life at the end of the year which summarizes the learning which occurred on the RHA Executive Board, noting that every member of the Board scored a 4 or higher on the teamwork and leadership competency, but 60% of the Executive Board scored a 2 or lower on the facilitation and event planning competency. This leads to focusing more time in Executive Board retreats on facilitation and event planning.

Conclusion

The three suggestions to integrate assessment into daily work outlined above are easy to start increasing ones competency in assessment. Assessment is not about pleasing a SSAO, but rather it is about ensuring students are learning and that programs and pedagogies are effective.