Do you want to build a Tower?

Parenting a toddler is like being on a roller coaster. There’s the anxiety that comes with the climb (when a tantrum is looming or an almost slow-motion fall is about to happen). This is followed by the thrill of the ride itself (including some laughing, crying, and the occasional vomit). The ride is both fun and scary as hell. This particular ride just happens to come with many lessons along the way.

One such recent lesson came while playing with building blocks. My daughter can play with these little plastic accidents-waiting-to-happen for hours. Our simple process for playtime with blocks is this:

  • In an homage to her favorite Disney Princess, Anna, I emphatically sing my adaptation of “Do you want to build a snowman?” called “Do you want to build a tower?”
  • She proceeds to dump the blocks out in one, big, messy pile.
  • Daddy is responsible for building the base, as evidenced by the screaming of “DADDA” until the base is constructed.
  • Daughter stacks as many blocks as her little self can physically manage.
  • Like a baby version of Godzilla, she knocks them down when it is no longer possible to go higher.
  • She proceeds to laugh maniacally like a cartoon villain.
  • Repeat (about 20 times).

blocks

As an educator without an off-switch, I can’t help but want to help her. I try to build a base around her stack of blocks. I take blocks from the pile and suggest an order. She, of course as a budding independent toddler also lacking an off-switch, wants nothing to do with any of daddy’s suggestions. Sometimes, I have to tilt the stack, so she can stretch and reach one more. When she’s done, we usually celebrate. When she knocks them over, I want to be frustrated. I wonder how such excitement can come from destroying something you have worked hard at forever (or in toddler terms – 3 minutes). However, my daughter meets the knocking or falling down of her colored blocks with an enthusiastic scream and cackle. I can’t help but, eventually, join her in that laughter.

This whole process and subsequent reflection has taught me something about my work with students. How often do I try to dictate how they build their tower? How often do I get frustrated for them, when they are OK with the result? Maybe my role is simply to build and hold that base, let them build, cheer emphatically, and support them when they want to tear it all down and start over. Many people in helping professions, education specifically, often get too fixated on the end result (passing the test, getting the job, walking across the stage with diploma proudly in hand) and less on the process and the learning that comes from it. Either way, a tower is getting built. Let’s allow students the freedom to choose their blocks and their structure, instead of us carefully handing them the blocks one by one and prescribing to them what comes next. This way, they get the tower that they want – and all the laughter and learning that comes with it.

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It’s just Twitter

Without fail, the annual “how should we use Twitter as student affairs professionals” conversation started again yesterday. Call me a curmudgeon, but I am tired of this conversation and here is why:

It’s just Twitter: I have written about this before. Twitter is not the end all be all when it comes to conversations in our field. It is not representative of the field as a whole. I find that much of the conversation lately has been new pros and grads, which I think is fantastic. However, don’t fall into the trap that it is representative of the entire field or indicative of the pulse of the field.

Some of the BEST pros I have worked with are not on Twitter: I bet this is true for you two. This statement speaks for itself. Also, can we stop telling grad and other pros they need to be on Twitter? Show them the value, but let them make their own decisions.

Trolls will be trolls: I elicited a lot of responses when I tweeted this yesterday:

I used the word challenged: not bullied, judged, or trolled. The latter does indeed happen. However, it comes with the territory. I am by no means condoning the behavior. You can try to make Twitter something it isn’t, but it won’t change. It’s like sticking your finger in an electrical outlet: you know what will probably happen. You decide if it is worth the risk. Twitter has its own equivalent to the childproof outlet cover: it’s called the block button.

All of the things I just mentioned happen in other places too: Like in meetings, offices, and conferences. It is easier to see and to talk about on Twitter. Let’s have a conversation about how people feel invisible at conferences or are shamed in meetings. Let’s talk about how many professionals do not have a safe space at work. Let’s talk about this because it starts there. Let’s not mask the issue by trying to make a public social media that space.

Whatever happened to discourse?: The underlying and troublesome tone in parts of the conversation yesterday were about feeling and being supported. Want to support me? Challenge my thoughts and ideas. Cause me to reflect and change my perspective. Don’t ditto everything I say. I am better because people challenge my perspective. Why are so many seemingly afraid of this? The more we challenge perspectives and push each other to think differently, the better off we all will be.

Twitter is a fraction of a piece of your personal/professional reputation: Your work is most important. Tweets won’t get you a job or help you get promoted. Lack of a Twitter presence or voice does not make you a bad professional. Use it how and if you want. You do you.

I often reflect and ask those in my inner circle why I care about this so much. After all, is this very post not hypocritical? I am critiquing the way we talk about Twitter and our expectations of it by saying it is just Twitter, yet I am spending the time to write about it. I want people to feel heard. I want people to feel like they have a safe space. I want people to connect. I want people to share ideas. I want people to feel like they can be their true selves. However, I do not think it is reasonable to expect all of that to happen all the time on Twitter. Use it for what it is; one method of communication (albeit a really good one). Have realistic expectations, be prepared to challenge and be challenged, and know when to disengage because after all, it is just Twitter.

Dear #sachat, we can do better

My fellow student affairs colleagues,
We (myself included) can need to do better. The time has come, my friends, for us to lead the hard and important conversations about our work, our field, and higher education as a whole.

We spend too much of our time in conversation on Twitter arguing about things like the value of handwritten notes when significant injustice is happening in our country and on our campuses and to our students every single day.
We complain about being busy and our right to not have to answer email past 5pm when so many are without jobs and a decent wage or our students are struggling to work three jobs just to afford their education.
We pay way too much attention to the behavior of professionals at a conference on Yik Yak and not enough about issues happening around the world that are impacting our students.
We spend time lamenting that faculty don’t get what we do, when they are the least of our worries. We are in for a fight to defend our worth and the value of a college degree altogether.
Our students and our academic colleagues do not care about your favorite icebreaker. They don’t care about what you think “professionalism” means. They care that you show up to work, do your job, and do your damn best for your students and your campus community.
When articles comment on the inflation of administration – they are talking about us! Yet, we are too busy talking about other things to notice. It’s not my job tell you what to tweet or how to think. I am also not saying that conversations about the nuances in our field are not important. I also get wrapped up in these conversations. I have even started them on occasion and for that, I’m sorry.  To have these difficult, bigger picture conversations, we need to be willing to talk about things that are hard, challenging, and likely to polarize us a bit, but are topics that matter and need to be addressed. The echo chamber is deafening. It’s time for that to change. There is a whole lot of support happening in this community, which is wonderful, but where’s the challenge? Of course, these discussions are already happening, but they are not as loud or as frequent as our usual topics of Twitter conversations. Imagine if we used our collective voices for a greater good instead of how professionals use or misuse social media at a conference? Imagine the power of collective advocacy we could have.
I’m not calling for rogue chats. I am not blaming any one person, blog, or hashtag. This is on all of us. If we can’t talk about these things with each other (on Twitter or on campus), then how can we talk about them with our students, with our academic colleagues, and/or in our communities? Let’s use our precious time and energy together for this and not seemingly small topics that are more about internal bickering and less about advancing our field. Let’s take ownership and leadership in promoting the importance of our work, fighting injustice on our campuses and in our communities, and continuing to advance the educational experience for our students in ways only we know how.
Who’s with me?

Loving your work

This post was co-written by Kristen Abell, Monica Fochtman and Becca Fick after a lengthy Twitter conversation topic. You might find it cross-posted on their blogs, too.

Lately, we have been noticing several folks tweeting things about “reasons I love my job.” It made us think – are we setting up the expectation that you need to love your job to be good at it? Why can’t we say we enjoy it or like it or find meaning from it and that be enough? It all comes down to false expectations of what we should get from work and what we owe to it as a result. It seems like a very unhealthy relationship. Tim threw the initial question out on Twitter, and a conversation has now bloomed into a blog post.

When/Why did we start treating work as something that could be loved? And is this only something that’s happening online? We wonder whether this professed “love” has more to do with how someone looks online, their personal brand, than their true feelings about work. Maybe some people feel like they have to profess their love for their job in order to be taken seriously as a student affairs professional – as if they have to prove their dedication to the job and to the field.

It’s not a person, it can’t love us back. Why do we put so much into something, and what do we get back from it? This can set people up for failure and/or heartbreak. No job will LOVE you back. You can get fulfillment from it, and you can make an impact, but those do not equal love. It seems that some of us, as higher education professionals, have unrealistic expectations about how our employers and institutions will receive our efforts, our “love” for them. We seem to hear, “Love your job! Be passionate. If you do this, then all your needs will be fulfilled and you will be rewarded.” In reality, a job is a job. Yes, some can be more fulfilling than others, but it won’t love you back.

When you treat work as work, you tend to be a better self-advocate when it comes to promotions, time out of the office, saying no, etc. You also tend to take less of that home with you, knowing it will be there when you go back tomorrow. Are newer professionals even taught this? And who do we look to for our models?

When you are all student affairs all the time, you do a disservice to yourself, to your friends and family and to your students. That’s right – we said your students. Do you think they care if you were thinking about them at 2 a.m. if you can’t help them now because you’re completely exhausted and burned out?

So what do you think about “loving” your job – is it all it’s cracked up to be?

Hacking professional development: one year later

#suedle drawn by the talented Sue Caulfield

#suedle drawn by the talented Sue Caulfield

One year ago today, I launched a seemingly simple idea based on a single tweet:

If I had the $ and time, I’d go on an #sachat road trip. So many friends I’ve yet to meet in person.

— Tim St. John (@timstjohn) January 14, 2014

What has resulted since has been the most important, helpful, and meaningful year of professional development in learning in my entire career. The best part: it was completely FREE.

It seems like our community has been talking a lot lately again about professional associations, conference rates and the lack of accessibility that comes with ridiculously high fees. Here’s the thing – professional involvement and development is about the people, not an acronym, program, or conference in a fancy hotel with high profile keynote speakers. We learn from each other in presentations. We build our network through connecting with others online or in person. How is a Google Hangout any different? I have learned over the last year it is not much different, but a whole lot better.

When I started this project, I thought I would maybe chat with a few people. I did very little reaching out. I put this out there for the world and was at the mercy of people interested in taking the chance on an agenda free chat with a person they maybe had met before, never met but seen on Twitter, or never heard of at all. I was overwhelmed by the response.

What followed was 23 one hour chats, either through Google Hangout or in person (photos below). Many of the colleagues I met have become friends. Many of us still chat regularly. Folks I chatted with ranged from senior level to an undergraduate interested in the field and covered all functional areas. My trip took me from Canada to Texas, from New Jersey to Colorado and everywhere in between. We had no agenda and the topics ranged from the value of a PhD, how we recruit in our field, innovative educators, the trouble with how we overvalue social media in our field, running, family, starting a new job, and so much more. I am not exaggerating when I say that no single project has impacted my network, learning, and sense of belonging to my profession as this has.

Amma visits Clark!

Amma visits Clark!

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Hanging out with Courtney and Amma in Boston!

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Dinner with my #sabestie and queen of #sabullshit, Mallory Bower

It also led to some pretty amazing opportunities to be a guest on a podcast, contribute to an online course, and write for a prominent student affairs blog (the blog post I am most proud of).

What I have learned from this experience, above all else, is that we are a field of good people with incredible ideas that will are changing the course of education and the lives/experiences of the students we touch. You can only see this partially through Twitter or a conference meetup. These hour chats were everything that is great in a presentation, tweetup, informal coffee chat, and roundtable all in one.

My goals for year 2 of this continuous journey are as follows:

  • Pay it forward: help others see the potential in taking a hold of their own professional development and taking the steps to do so
  • Write more about the amazing people I have met and the profound impact they have had on my learning
  • Do more outreach and ask some people to connect
  • Bigger and better: take this to the next level by hanging out with an entire department, grad class, or even feed into a conference.

Who’s up for joining me on year two of my journey?

Reflect, relax, and just do you

We are under pressure as student affairs professionals like never before.

You can thank me later for the Queen ditty that is stuck in your head right now.

We are on information overload. As if the pressure for new grads to get a job is not enough to make one’s head explode, there are now added pressures in our field.

To write

To read

To be published

To have a side gig

To be professionally involved

To go to this conference or to go to that conference

To be on Twitter (and use it often)

To always be in the know for fear of missing out

To have a sponsor

To always be able to answer “what’s next” for you even if you have just started the next phase of your journey or are perfectly content with where you are.

To start an #sadoc program

To do research

To be a Vice President (and climb that ladder quickly)

Where does this pressure come from? I have struggled with this question for a while. Perhaps, it is largely internal – the drive or want to do the things these folks you admire,want to be like, or are (gasp) competing with are doing. I appreciate that our field is small. I love that I have a strong network of professional colleagues friends because of it. I know some people who are doing some amazing things (like Sue, Mallory, Matt and Valerie, or Paul Gordon Brown for example). I both admire and envy these people.

Or maybe, we pressure other people into this through social media, classes, and actual pushing (i.e. Hey you should really start a blog. Seriously. Start writing now. – kind of “advice”). I worry even more that we do this, albeit unintentionally, to our students. Join this club, apply to be an RA, go to grad school, run for this position, go to this workshop. We create this pressure  to compete – to do or fall behind.

We are a field of generally good people who want to help. We have taken that need/ability to want to help to a new level. Let’s slow it down. You do you, I will do me. More importantly, take it easy on yourself. Do what is important to you. Do your job and do it well. What else you choose to do with your time and how else you choose to engage in the field is up to you. After all your blog, digital identity, side gig, etc. etc. etc. is all for nothing if you are not good at your job or are generally miserable.

Let’s be ok with giving each other a gentle nudge now and then framed in a compliment, but back off when that person is not interested. I owe this site to the gentle nudge of Ed Cabellon, the voice to write this post to Mallory, and one of my best/most favorite ideas to Sue. Their advice was based on a foundation of knowing me, my skills, and my interests and not based in an “everyone is doing it” kind of approach. The distinction is of profound importance.

Let’s make 2015 the year to reflect, relax and just do you.

Permission to brag

I’ve written about this before: we have a branding issue in Student Affairs. We are misunderstood, and it is largely our own fault. We spend a lot of time in the classroom, on campus, at conferences, and especially on Social Media talking about this. How do we talk about what we do? How do we articulate and demonstrate our value to the academy? How do people outside of our field come to better understand what we do? I don’t have a solution, but I may have stumbled upon something, perhaps a starting point…

This morning, I was perusing my Twitter feed in the short few minutes I had before my next meeting and I stumbled on a particular tweet from my friend Jason Meier at Emerson College. He was talking about how proud he was that they addressed and discussed mental health at Orientation to begin to destigmatize asking for help. I immediately responded asking him to share what they were doing.

This is just one small example of many posts I see throughout this time of year; pictures of RA training, stories of move-in, Orientation program highlights, excitement for the start of the year, interactions with students, etc. I too find myself mostly posting about work this time of year. I do it to connect with students, but also, I am damn proud of what we do. I am proud of my team, my institution, and myself for what we accomplished during our Week One program. Here’s an example: I have posted several times about our new Consenting Communities workshop that was designed and led by students to begin to discuss the real issue of sexual assault. This program was created and led by students, with staff support. I was proud and felt the need to brag. Why does that not feel OK?

consent

Here’s my takeaway: we need to be better at ok with bragging. Jason’s tweet and my post are small examples. They show people outside of our field that we are more than just party planners or chaperones. It provides ideas and motivation to those within our field. My plea to all of you, my colleagues, is to keep these posts coming. Don’t let this just be an August thing. Make it an all year round thing. Let’s continue to talk about issues within our field, the future of it, and share ideas, but let’s also (and especially) be OK with showcasing our work. If it feels like bragging, embrace it. You do meaningful work – share it! At least in my mind, this will go a long way towards increasing the awareness and respect of what we do.

Let’s brag: share what you are proud about from the last few weeks!

Simple phrases that have a profound impact

Great leaders know how to say the right things, and when to say them.  When you are in a position of leadership, what you say matters. However, it is often the simplest of phrases that matter the most. Below is a list of things that great leaders say often and mean it. These can be especially powerful with students.

“Thank you.”

“I made a mistake” or “You’re right.”

“I believe in (or am confident in) you/your abilities/decision-making.”

“I know you can.”

“Great job!”

“I am proud of you.”

“I think you are ready to take on [project].”

“I support your decision.”

“What do you think?”

“Give it a shot!”

“What if?”

“I understand.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I don’t know, but let’s find out.”

“I trust you.”

“Be creative!”

“How can I help?”

“Can you give me some feedback on…?”

What would you add to this list?

 

The Trouble with Twitter

Disclaimer: This will not be one of those posts that tells you how I think you should use Twitter or what to tweet. Rather, it is a reflection of my own experience and professional development via Twitter. Take it or leave it.

Last night, I was fortunate to have an amazing conversation with Matt Bloomingdale and Valerie Heruska (to pros whom I tremendously respect and admire) as a guest on their Professional Reputations Aside podcast. After we stopped recording, the conversation continued. I had been lamenting my struggle with the transition on how I use and view Twitter for professional development and it finally clicked for me. Let me explain….

Twitter is not the end all be all of professional development. At one time for me, it was. This past semester, I embarked on an #saroadtrip where I have met with a whole bunch of amazing colleagues from around the world (thanks to my friend Lisa in Canada!). We discussed everything from branding in our field, to disrupting education, to creativity, to graduate preparation and much more. Including several conferences, webinars, and #sachat topics, this was by far the most fruitful learning I had experienced as a professional yet. The best part: it was FREE! While this post may at times seem like an anti-Twitter post, it is not. Rather, it is pointing out the limitations of only focusing on 140 characters and not using the network built on Twitter for even deeper learning and connection.

Twitter is fantastic for helping us to expand our personal learning network. It connects us to people we otherwise perhaps would never meet. The discussions that happen here are great, but very limiting. It is easy for something to be perceived differently than you intended. Dissenting opinions often seem like attacks. Trying to keep up with any given conversation results in a lot of agreeing or retweeting – and not enough actual dialogue. We start a great conversation about something important like mental health in our field or the purpose of higher education, only for it to take a back seat to the next topic a week later. These #sachat discussions are starting points – not a one time topic to be discussed tweet after tweet for two hours on a Thursday.

What I have found to be most helpful is to use Twitter as a stepping stone. It has allowed me to meet some fantastic people and then to further the discussion, connection, and learning in a much deeper way beyond tweets. 140 characters can be so painfully limiting. Twitter is also public. I can’t be completely vulnerable, honest, or authentic knowing my students and colleagues will see it. I need another space to have these honest conversations with colleagues in a way that does not come across the wrong way or harm my relationship with folks on my campus.

In many ways, I think our profession has grown to overvalue Twitter as a communications tool. As many have said before, it is but one tool for learning and communicating – not the only one. I think it is important that we remember some amazing professionals who are doing incredible things in this field are not on Twitter and you will never see them on #sachat. The mark of a student affairs professional is much deeper than his or her digital identity. I do not want to be remembered or recognized by my handle or profile picture. Instead, I hope people will connect with what I write here on my blog or appreciate the work I am doing on my campus or professional association.

Twitter helps us to connect, to share articles, and to have some base level conversations. I fear, though, that it has become for many the only place to connect, share articles, converse and learn. I challenge each of you to deepen and broaden your connection to your network you have built on Twitter. It does not have to be the way I did it through Google Plus. Many other people are doing this – chatting and meeting, learning and discussing. Make it your own and know that there are many professionals out there with stories to tell, ideas to share, and encouragement to give. All you have to do is ask.

What are you doing to learn and connect beyond Twitter?

My virtual #sachat road trip!

#suedle drawn by the talented Sue Caulfield

#suedle drawn by the talented Sue Caulfield


One night last week it dawned on me: there are so many great student affairs professionals with whom I have formed a strong online connection to, but have yet to meet in person, or have only met briefly. With this in mind, I tweeted
While the reality of an actual road trip is slim, thanks to an idea from one of these friends who I’ve yet to “meet”, Sue Caulfield, I will be doing a virtual road trip in 2014. With the hashtag #SARoadTrip and Google Plus as my vehicle, I plan to “see” as many colleagues (and perhaps their spaces on campus) as I can.
Here’s how it works:
I will try each week to have a G+ Hangout with one or several student affairs professionals. These will be super informal and meant for us to just chat about our jobs, careers, interests, and wherever else the conversation may lead. I hope to use this blog as a sort of travel journal to highlight the people I meet, the places I see, and the things I learn.

Interested? Tweet me or email me at tstjohn33@gmail.com and we can set something up. I look forward to meeting you!