What does it mean to be an administrator? A faculty member? A staff person? Are there themes to the roles played and the job done by members of each group? Are the roles well-defined? Faculty have “The Agreement.” Probably classified staff and administrators have similar types of documents. Do those documents clarify our roles? I’m thinking that in moments of conflict, we use those documents to make a decision. I’ve never read our agreement start to end. Mostly it’s a resource for me when a particular question comes up: “I’m going to a funeral and have to miss class; what do I need to do?” I don’t think that valued resource really provides a vision for my role in the college. Is it meant to? Does anyone think that it does?
I was 20 when I first started dating my husband. It was in interacting with his family that I became aware of many of my own assumptions. They were good people, but their roles, their rules, their habits were so different from those of my own family. Through years of conversations and actions, we came to know each other. And that process made me recognize that we experience every situation through the lens of our own assumptions, the net sum of all of our experiences to date. So what happens when 20 or 50 individuals work together in a department? Through years of conversations and actions, we come to know each other. And when we feel like we know each other and we feel like we each have a role that is understood and generally appreciated, then we can function well as a system.
A colleague recently observed that short-comings in a system end up costing the users time, energy, and morale. And as we put our collective attention towards Equity in Education, it is not much of a leap to conclude that short-comings in how we function as a college will disproportionately impact the poor, especially if they have to work while they’re going to school or if they are first-generation to college students. On the other hand, if we function well together, the benefits extend to EVERY student and also to ourselves.
So here are my numerous questions: Beyond the work that I do in my classroom, what is my role in our college? What is the role of various staff people? What is the role of a dean? What is the role of a Vice President? What is the role of the President? Who decides what our college-wide vision is going to be? How do we get buy-in for that vision? How do we talk about and share that vision in a way that makes us more likely to experience success in realizing it? How do we learn what the functioning parts of our system are? How do we connect system-wide to integrate the subsystems? And how do we improve how we function, as a SYSTEM? So many questions… Can you point me in a useful direction? Or share what you know?
When we communicate face-to-face, we get constant feedback via body language, facial expressions, gestures, and spoken word. So in real time, we adjust to that feedback. We change our tone, we change our body language, we change how we are speaking. It doesn’t require formal collection of data or justification or time. It happens automatically because it is part of how we are programmed as human beings. Much the same happens as we teach a course. We get feedback from students all the time. In class and during office hours, we can sometimes get information from body language and facial expressions. Even more powerful is the information that is entangled in student work and student questions. A certain mistake or a certain question provides a window into student thinking and that provides us with good information about our teaching: where we are and what we need to follow up on. It doesn’t require formal collection of data or justification or time. It happens automatically as we lead discussions, observe students working collaboratively, and work with students during office hours. We make small, marginal changes as we grow in our own understanding of how our teaching impacts student learning. And then, one day, after making numerous marginal changes, a type of transformation occurs and we realize that we now can see our teaching and student learning from a profoundly different perspective. And that perspective makes us more effective than we were previously. And those transformations are worth sharing. Because when we exchange ideas, we immerse ourselves in something akin to primordial stew, exposing ourselves and each other to all of the conditions from which new life can burst forth. So please, once you hear about my latest transformation, consider sharing one of yours.
For me, the most profound transformation that I’ve experienced in the last year is the realization of how powerful a vision can be, when shared with the people around you. Students want for college to be a transformative experience. They want to leave with the skills and the knowledge to be successful on the next stage of their personal and professional journey. We want the same thing for those students. But it was not until 5 years ago that I started talking with my students about that shared vision. And in the beginning, I wasn’t very good at talking about it. It was awkward. I was experienced and skilled at talking about topics, but outcomes were something mysterious, something beyond my control. Well, that was my reality 5 years ago. That is not my reality today. Today, I focus all of my planning on outcomes. The topics are the backdrop, the context in which students develop their critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, communication, and collaboration skills. And not a single week goes by without me reminding the students of this fact. I remind them that they are working hard because they want to be stronger thinkers, because they want to be able to understand what they hear in the media, because they want to grow their communication skills and because they want to have experience and skill working with other people. I remind them that they want to develop all of those skills so they can make better decisions, have a richer life, and develop the career that they want. It is no longer awkward. Sharing this vision puts us on the same side. I am no longer judge; I am a guide, hired to help them get to where they want to be. This has been transformative!