Hope, Reflection, Resilience

Don’t Forget the Joy

Higher education (all education) is a lot of hard work. Faculty are writing curriculum, grading papers, advising students, and doing research. Tutors, advisors, mentors, and counselors of all kinds are not just meeting with students, but they are actively evaluating their impact and striving to do more. The folks in admissions, registrar’s office, and financial aid are equally engaged in the question, how do we do more to meet the needs of our students? They evaluate processes, looking for the points where they might reach one more student and meet one more need. Student Affairs is endlessly reaching out to meet the changing expectations of our students, trying to find ways to bridge the gap between classroom and life beyond the university, supporting recreation, career development, and access to interest groups that represent the students we serve. Even those of us in administration are obsessed with improvement, digging into our outcomes and looking for new opportunities to thrive. We are positively obsessed with doing better.

All of this hard work can be taxing and sometimes we get lost in the details of the immediate questions on our plates. This can keep us from looking up and seeing all of the wonderful things going on around us. As we head into final exams, this is a good time to reflect on those wonderful things and remind ourselves that even the hard work is rooted in joy.

Joy, you say! How can this final slog through papers, exams, registration rates, and analysis of data be truly joyful? Well, I boldly claim that it can be. Why? Because those of us who choose higher education as a career are dedicated to learning as a way of life. Every activity that I have listed is all about learning. We are the original life-long learners. We are the ultimate data wonks. We are the very definition of a learning organization. And learning brings us joy.

The key to recognizing the joy in the myriad lists of problems we hope to solve, and the goals we have not yet met, is not to neglect the small triumphs and breakthroughs that occur while we’re striving for more. Let’s face it, when we are focused on doing things better, we will always fall short. There is always one more thing to implement. There is always another percentage point to reach in improved outcomes. There are always pieces that we miss as we lay out our plans to do good things. If that’s all we see, joy will be elusive.

Duh! Right? How simplistic can this provost be? Don’t we all know that already? Yes, but we have a habit of short-changing ourselves in those small wins. We have a way of focusing on what we missed, not what we accomplished. Let’s take this moment to shift that focus and celebrate what we did, not what we have left to do. To get us started, I’ll mention just a few things that I’ve seen on our campus this fall that are filling me with joy.

Our Computer Science program applied for ABET accreditation. We will see how it turns out, but here is what was joy inspiring. The department fully engaged in questions of what they do well, how they might do better, and what they’d like to do next. They had intense pride in their work– and, deservedly so. The visiting team saw that spirit of collaboration and the hard work. This gives me such joy. I am proud of their efforts and their commitment to growth.

We launched our new peer mentoring program, using the data on the students we are losing and acting on that information. Even as we complete the first iteration of this program we can see places for improvement for next year. Nevertheless, getting this started involved collaboration between library faculty, our tutoring centers, the first-year program director, academic advising, orientation leaders, and the director of education access programs. They shared knowledge and resources to get this off the ground. This effort brought together constituencies that often operate separately. They left those silos, focused on student success, and built something together. When I see that collaboration, I can practically walk on air from the joy it brings me.

Building on the momentum from our abrupt move to online last year, several programs have identified online as the best modality for their students moving forward. This means tons of work in the move from emergency online courses to fully developed online programs, yet faculty in these programs are willing to do that work. Their commitment to meeting the students where they will thrive has driven them forward in this effort. I am proud of their ability to learn from this crazy pandemic and build new things. I am excited by the thinking and effort that this represents and feel inspired to imagine new educational models and opportunities that these dedicated faculty might explore. That student-centered innovative spirit always brings me joy.

I feel immense joy every single time I hear from faculty and staff about the great experiences they are having with students now that we are back on campus. Those stories include tales of experiments in teaching, reports of honest conversations about tough subjects, strategic group projects that inspired students to cheer for each other, and the relieved smiles of people happy to just be in the room with other people again. Stories also flow from people reflecting on the good things that happened as a result of the pandemic — like remote access to career services or advising or counseling — and how these things have expanded the opportunity to connect with students. I love when these tales are shared with me because it allows me to share in the happiness that my colleagues are feeling.

There is so much more because there are so many people doing things large and small every single day. There is so much more because we are always looking for the opportunity to do things better. There is so much more because we work hard. As I think about all of these wonderful and inspiring accomplishments, I think it is safe to say that the hard work of higher education is the joy. Let’s just remember to notice it.

Higher Education, Resilience, Thinking

What have you learned?

We’re speeding toward final exams, papers, and performances at a breathless pace. The Thanksgiving holiday always ends with that terrifying thought that we’re almost done and now what? Students are scrambling to catch up on the things they missed earlier, while juggling the remaining assignments and exam preparation. Faculty are wondering how they will complete the goals they set out for their classes and if it is possible to live up to their own aspirations. Administrators like me are wondering how it is possible that my to-do list is longer than it was at the start of the semester. Whew!

Well the good news is we always seem to make it to that finish line one way or another. The interesting news is that for most of us it was another. Clearly our planning processes are open to re-interpretation. Maybe that is a good thing. So, as I reflect on all that has occurred since classes began in late August, I am thinking about that simple question: What have you learned?

My husband once told me that when he was an undergraduate one of his professors asked only this question on the final. He says it was the most challenging exam he ever had. Being able to sum up all of your knowledge from one course in an essay addressing such an open-ended question can be truly daunting. Where are the essay prompts directing us to address specific details? Where are the multiple-choice questions that limit my thinking to which answer is correct? Where is the list of core concepts from which I choose my favorite and show off what I’ve learned about that one thing? What have I learned? That is just too much.

Or maybe we could have fun with this approach. It might free us from preconceived notions about what our students should have learned, letting us open our ears to what they really gleaned from our courses. It might show us how they have prioritized the course content, giving us clues about what went well and what did not. It might even help with course design next semester. I know, it doesn’t really work for everything. Sometimes there are very specific things that students must master by the end of the semester. Still, in some instances this could be a great question.

But, I’m not advocating for anything in particular today. Just thinking. For me, I’m considering what I have learned from my list of projects this fall. You see I had a long list of things to work on and almost none of them are complete. In some cases, this is because my list was problematic, and I was working on the wrong thing. In others it was because the scale of the job was larger than I’d hoped. And, of course, in several cases other priorities emerged. So, what have I learned?

First, I’ve learned that managing during a pandemic that appears to be under control is only slightly less exhausting than when we had no idea what would happen next. We started the fall pressing for vaccinations and hoping for normalcy only to encounter Delta. We did well, but just as I was getting optimistic about an even more normal spring, Omicron appeared. I guess, from this I must learn not to predict more than two or three weeks into the future. That sure makes it hard to plan things!

Second, I’ve learned that simple tasks have a way of turning into giant, multifaceted projects if I don’t continuously rein them in. This is, of course, the nature of the academic mind. We see the connections from one idea to the next, never wanting to settle on the narrow focus. This is wonderful in so many ways, and it can keep me from ignoring critical variables, but at some point this habit of expansive thinking is a way of avoiding decisions. In this case, I’ve learned to try to limit the number of variables to be considered in any project that I’d like to see completed. Note the word try. I might not be able to do this.

Third, I’ve learned that really good conversations are still better in person than on Zoom. I don’t hate this technology. I find it valuable for all sorts of quick, problem solving, task-oriented meetings. Remote meetings allow me to schedule more check-in meetings that are not too taxing for those involved. In other words, if I don’t have to ask folks to come to my office, it is easier to fit in a quick chat. Nevertheless, the tough stuff, the complicated stuff is still better in person. It takes time, trust, and focus to really uncover where things are going right and where they are going wrong. Somehow, being in the same room makes this more likely to happen than online.

Finally, I’ve learned that, as stressful as the world still is, good educational experiences remain at the heart of what is going on at WCSU. Faculty are starting to tell me about the clever ways that they modified their courses to deal with gaps in learning from last year (yes, there were gaps). Students have reported great support as they navigated a COVID scare or two. Activities on our curriculum committees show that departments are fully engaged in reviewing and updating their offerings to better support the goals they have for their students. We even have some new programs moving forward. In a climate where we might just tread water and wait out the chaos, people are actively working to make new things happen.

There is a lot more, of course. If there wasn’t my to-do list would not have gotten longer. But I am inspired from the lessons learned and more so by the great things that are actually getting done. So, let’s think of this race to the finish line as a sled ride and just say wheee!

Engagement, Higher Education, Hope, Resilience

Collegiality and Happiness

Over the past two weeks, I have hosted and/or participated in four different gatherings with students, faculty, and staff. We were trying solve problems, develop plans, and improve infrastructure and, well, to be better. After the year of Zoom meetings, it was fun to be in the room with colleagues, listening to ideas and working together to figure out what to do next. Preparing for these meetings took effort, but being in them was a joy. I am grateful to the many who participated and feel energized about the work ahead. Thanks everyone!

It seemed serendipitous, then, when I discovered an interesting essay about collegiality in Inside Higher Ed. Michael Weisbach argues that being a good colleague can benefit both the university and the person. He writes:

To be a good colleague, you must find some productive way to contribute that goes beyond your direct job description. By doing so, you will benefit your co-workers and the organization you work for. But equally importantly, you will benefit yourself. Your colleagues will appreciate you more, your evaluations will improve and you will most likely enjoy your profession more. (In Praise of Academic Collegiality, Inside Higher Ed, November 5, 2021).

I had two thoughts: 1. More? You want more from all of the over-taxed people who work with me?! 2. Maybe it isn’t the more, but the ongoing interaction that really defines collegiality.

Higher education is filled with work that is often invisible to the world outside of our (not so ivy-covered) walls. The work that most people associate with us is that of direct instruction in the classroom (virtual or otherwise). When looked at as a simple number of hours “at work” this looks like a pretty light load. At schools like WCSU, this means 12ish hours per week. The ish in my statement reflects the variability of this formula when we consider different types of classes–studios, labs, clinical placements–which may increase those hours. Still, even after those adjustments life looks pretty good. Except the work is way more than that. Faculty are also grading papers, preparing instructional materials, staying current in their field, which should also be regularly incorporated into their teaching (read new instructional materials). Oh, and they conduct research, attend/present at conferences, advise students, mentor scholarship–and this is just the stuff related to their actual job descriptions.

Right after the list above is the rest of it, which is not just faculty but everyone else at the university. We are an institution committed to peer review and shared governance. This means there are committees for everything from evaluations of personnel to the development and/or closure of academic programs, to the evaluation of co-curricular programs or student support services, to discussions about campus master plans or strategic plans. We also believe in the wisdom of our community and regularly see initiatives emerge from small groups with big ideas and these also require time and effort and evaluation. Each of these things happen regularly (weekly, monthly, and so on). We have no trouble identifying the hundred ways that the entire community “adds value…beyond the specified requirements of the job.”

So, the first part of what Weisbach discusses — looking for opportunities contribute beyond job requirements — is just a given of life in higher education. Indeed, the larger concern is how to keep those opportunities from overwhelming us. It is very easy to do too much and undermine some of one’s core job requirements. National data suggests that this overdoing often ends up disproportionately impacting women and colleagues from under-represented groups, which is an ongoing concern. Add to that the reality that those who volunteer to lead committees tend to become the go-to people for other projects, thus overburdening them in general, and we have a situation that needs to be thoughtfully monitored for equity and health.

Nevertheless, there are two other pieces of the essay that I think are incredibly valuable for thinking about collegiality on our campus. The first is his observation that while some people demonstrate collegiality in their willingness to take on committee or project leadership roles, or by participating in social gatherings or campus events, for others it takes the form of less visible action. Perhaps a colleague shares teaching materials or offers to talk about how they approach a topic with another faculty member. Maybe a person makes it a point to share information about grant opportunities with a colleague whose work is in a relevant area. Maybe a person reaches out to a colleague in a very different kind of role to talk about improving a process for students or colleagues, initiating a productive examination of where improvements could be achieved. Sometimes a person might just pass on positive comments they’ve heard about a colleague’s work. All of these examples, and the many more that take place every day, need to be acknowledged as the actions that contribute to a collegial environment.

The second important observation is that the actions we take to be collegial can also make us feel good about the work that we do. I couldn’t agree more. Nothing raises the spirits more than the feeling that we have had a positive impact on other people. Each time we reach out to help, to offer suggestions, and even to ask for input, we are building our sense of community and feeling more engaged with our colleagues. As frustrated as we may be now and then with a process or an individual, the ongoing commitment to having a positive impact is the best path to getting past those disheartening moments and feeling hopeful again.

It is not just the big projects that demonstrate collegiality, those smaller day-to-day interactions may matter most. They help connect us and they demonstrate a commitment to creating a great university. There is room for each of us to define the boundaries of those interactions; we don’t all have to contribute in the same way. But I think that we all benefit from the contact and the conversation that collegial interactions can bring. So, I’m thinking about how to foster that sense of happiness and common purpose that a collegial community can create. I promise not to create a task force, but I will be on the lookout for small actions and ideas.

Resilience, Uncertainty

The Other Long-COVID

Last week I was chatting with a faculty member about how things were going in her classes. Looking at the third week census data and the first hint of color in the trees on campus, we both realized that we were well past the feelings of starting off and now fully immersed in the fall semester. With so much attention to the transition back to campus, that simple fact had escaped our notice. We are no longer in transition; we are here.

I am very proud of all that has occured to get this done. Between the rearranging of classrooms, to the creation of processes for collecting all of the relevant health information, to the managing of curriculum with an eye on any abrupt departures, everyone has worked tremendously hard to get back to something like normal. I am looking with joy at the performing arts and athletics schedules, and smiling as I observe students scurrying across campus to their classes. It feels almost like what I like to call the before times.

But it isn’t quite the before times.

Shortly after the conversation with my colleague, a series of messages came to me. Several were about managing campus spaces in this COVID environment. There were questions about addressing people who are wearing masks improperly, the limits of our obligations to students who are quarantining, appropriate strategies for dealing with a missing COVID test reports, and how we are handling contact tracing in an environment where the majority of people are vaccinated and wearing masks. As I responded to each question, I could see the frayed nerves in the language of the messages. I did my best to respond in ways that might soothe those frayed nerves, but I’m sure I missed the mark here and there.

Then there were the other messages about normal things – schedules, governance, new programs or initiatives. These messages also seemed to carry an intensity of tone that was, well, a little overwrought. People are trying to get on with the usual things that universities do, but everything feels a little extra right now. Messages are a little more accusatory than the tone of our normal, healthy debates. Things that might have taken a few exchanges to get to frustration, now seem to start at a yell. Maybe the fact that so many of our conversations are still in Zoom-like environments, is causing us to lose the ability to recognize our shared efforts and camaraderie.

I think what we are experiencing is the emotional equivalent of long-COVID. Please know that I understand the seriousness of the physical symptoms of long-COVID. I am not being glib. What I am observing, though, is that this pandemic has created a sustained period of uncertainty and it is wearing us down.

In the field of communication, there is a body of research about uncertainty flowing from Berger and Calabrese’s Uncertainty Reduction Theory. The gist of the theory is pretty simple – we don’t really like uncertainty and we work hard to reduce it. Sometimes this behavior results in short cuts that are problematic (stereotyping, for example), but in all cases we tend to seek information to reduce uncertainty as quickly as possible. We build understanding with each interaction with new people or places or ideas and try to build ourselves a map of what we are experiencing and how to proceed. With COVID-19, it has been very difficult to get to the part where we feel confident about the predictions we are making for how to proceed.

We thought we would be through this by now. After all, the promise of the vaccinations became real last December. Many of us couldn’t wait to get our appointments and our biggest concern was holding on until our age group was scheduled. Yet, even as we did this, many were still in that limbo that comes with family members who are too young for vaccination. They have to hold out longer.

Then we were faced concerns about getting the vaccination in it’s experimental status. The FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine helped, but there was also the emergence of the Delta variant and suddenly everyone seemed to know someone who was vaccinated and still got COVID. Doubts began to flourish and all my hope for returning to classrooms under normal conditions were dashed with a quick pivot back to masks. We all have to hold out longer.

Despite these lingering concerns and disruptions, there are lots of reasons to be optimistic. We have emerging science on the impact of booster shots that is very encouraging. There will soon be vaccinations available for younger children, helping all members of our community get just a little more peace of mind. Today the trend data shows that the rate of infection is slowing again, so maybe we’re turning a corner. Fingers crossed.

But even with the good news, we are still living with uncertainty. We can’t get that feeling that we have things under control, and it is stressing everyone out. I wish it weren’t so, but that stress is showing up in interactions all over the place. We are going to have to find a way to reset our perspectives and figure out how to live in this limbo a bit longer.

This leaves me thinking about what I can do to support everyone through what I hope is a not too much longer period of not quite normal. I would love to be able to just mandate some hours of relaxation for all of us. Instead of a common hour for meetings, we need one for breathing. Would that I could alter our schedules for this immediately! But I can’t so I will suggest things that are totally obvious, but maybe need to be said. Here goes:

  1. Take more walks. Right now is the perfect time as the temperatures drop and the leaves change. A walk on a trail or a sidewalk is fine. Getting outside is the crucial part. I want to also recommend that you actually leave that phone home while you do it, but if you must carry it for emergencies, keep it in your pocket.
  2. Try a little yoga. I know the complex routines of advanced yoga can be intimidating and some see it as something that is outside of their worldview, but the most basic of stretches are really soothing. The most important thing about them is that you stop focusing on to-do lists and inhale deeply. It is a natural way to slow your heartbeat and re-group. If I really can’t convince you to do yoga, try any other quasi-athletic thing you enjoy. The point is to shift your attention from your work life and the rest of things you feel you must do.
  3. Listen to or play some music. If you are playing music, you will not be able to worry about other things. If you are lucky enough to play music with other people you will reignite those collaborative skills of nuanced listening and mutual support that seem to be suffering in the zoomiverse. If you are a listener, do it with your eyes-closed. Tune out the world and tune into the sound. It is a break from the endless screens that we rely on all the time.
  4. Most of all, examine your schedule and delete a few things. We just don’t have to do every task we have set for ourselves. If we take a good look and cut out a few things, the rest of this marathon of uncertainty might be just a little more manageable.

But I always say to do a little less. It isn’t just COVID that pushes me this way–it is the general observation that our society – especially education – is trying to do too many things. We really can’t teach everything or ensure that our students will absorb or engage everything we thinks is interesting and important in a few short years of their lives. Nor can we do all of the research that interests us, even in a full career. We can afford to do a little less and still learn interesting and valuable things.

For today, though, my case for less is really about making room for the breaks we need right now. This long pandemic is wearing us down and we need to get a grip. So I am encouraging everyone to do a little less so you can log off and turn your attention to anything that makes you breathe deeply. You’ll be glad you did.

Resilience

Doing More by Doing Less

It is the start of the fall semester and I am already worried about my ability to keep up with the hundred tasks before me. The emerging list is so long that, as one of my favorite professors once said, “it’s a full-time job just updating my to-do list.” No! I cannot be tired before September. This will not do.

As always, whenever I feel this way, I reflect on the lives of my colleagues. Faculty are in that first exhilarating rush of the semester, when everything seems possible. Fresh syllabi, fresh faces, and hope are the order of the day. This will be the year when all that hard work of planning pays off in student engagement and professional growth.

Sort of.

The planning was probably a little more stressful this year as we tried to take all eventualities related to COVID into account. The research agendas are somewhat disjointed as we plan for travel but know that some is likely to be cancelled. And, those fresh faces are partially covered with masks (for now), dampening the sound and a little bit of the excitement ahead.

Colleagues not in the classroom are also happy(ish) to be back on campus. It is so good to see each other, to hear noise in the hallways, to have some direct interaction with peers and students. It is a refreshing change from those endless remote meetings of the last year. The possibility of the casual conversation, the collaborative events, and just being together feels good. But, it is moderated by that nagging sense that things could shift quickly, and we should be prepared.

Many students are looking forward to in-person experiences this fall. Some stayed in online courses, but most are here and ready for the things that just work better when we’re in the same room. They are looking forward to the conversations in classes and co-curricular activities that we once took for granted. Students who started college last fall are finally able to feel like they are in college, which is wonderful. This year’s first year students are here from the start. It is good, and as I watch them scurrying across campus I note that they are pretty good at the mask thing at this point. I am sorry that they have to be.

In the face of this quasi-normal life and the potential for disruptions, those wonderful aspirational feelings of a new year are just a little dampened. We find ourselves having to plan two options at every step, and, well it is a lot. Like my endless to-do list, it can make a person feel a little tired at this point when we are usually energized. So, considering our extra load, I am returning to a common theme in my writing… can we do just a little less?

Deep breaths, everyone. I know you just made your plans for the semester and that may be all you can do right now. Perhaps you don’t want to think about anything else until conditions change (if they change). Ok, do what you need to do for your own sanity. But, if you’re willing to think for a minute, with your students’ chaotic lives in mind in addition to your own, maybe there is some room to trim those plans just a little.

For courses, this means taking one more look at the readings and assignments and asking yourself about the goals for each. Is there a way to focus those goals a bit more and eliminate one thing? When I was still teaching, I found this question very helpful. At one point, it resulted in reducing assignments by 3 and gaining as many opportunities for learning. I cut some short papers in favor of more focused goals in those that remained. This made room for more detailed and timely feedback. The experience and the learning was better for everyone.

For co-curricular activities, how about just focusing on small opportunities for engagement. With most activities safest outdoors it seems like our outdoor recreational opportunities will serve us best this year. I’ll add that our students feel a great deal of reward when they have been of service to the community, so adding those events that foster community service (outdoors), will likely go a long way to just making us all feel a part of something. It is a welcome change from the dislocation of Zoom.

For the initiatives in departments and in governance, perhaps we can think just a little more strategically and lighten our load. I was recently reading about several Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion initiatives around the country, and I am struck by the smaller steps that can go a long way. Some universities have elected to look at the expertise and offerings already available on their campuses, and worked to bring those resources together into majors, minors, and certificates. This is more manageable than creating something entirely new and can often create interdisciplinary relationships that are invigorating. Others are looking at existing courses and programs for opportunities to revise from within. This generally involves a scan of topics and readings to find opportunities to include new voices in our favorite courses. This is easier to get our minds around than trying to think about re-imagining an entire major from a DEI perspective.

For my part, I’m looking at opportunities to draw on existing committees and departments to accomplish tasks. Most pressing right now is preparing to do a self-study of the university for our next accreditation visit. I’m trying not to build a new structure to figure out processes that members of our community are already doing. We’ve got most of what we need embedded in our normal practices, so why complicate things? In this case, I think we can accomplish more by doing just a little less.

I think there are more things I can do to simplify processes and projects and reduce all of our loads this year. Just thinking about this is bringing that energy and excitement back to this start of the semester. Hooray. Finding simplifications is now the most important part of my to-do list. I will be the champion of doing more by doing less. Maybe you will, too.