May 30, 2006

Dancing Through Life

My friend Bethany and I went dancing last week at Lawrence University. I've always been a big fan of learning how to dance formal dances (swing, waltz, salsa, etc.). My freshmen year of college I lucked out and got into a social dance class for winter interim. It was a quick class but I learned a lot, some of which still sticks with me. The other day though, one of the young men who was running the swing dance event, Andrew, ended up teaching us some interesting thoughts which go beyond dancing.

"Dancing is like having a conversation with someone...hey why don't you come overe here, no wait I'll follow, how's the weather today?"

It seems silly, but I think Andrew's light tone (and his extremely humorous demonstration) reminded me that dance is one of those things we can take too seriously, and when we do, we lose the meaning to it. He essentially wanted us to think and realize that dancing is casual, no matter how formal it is, or how 'graceful' you should be. I applaud any number of person who can get out on a dance floor and just lose it, yet enjoy themselves. When dancing with someone else, it's the same concept...have fun with it, keep it casual.

"You need to pay attention to what she's saying when you dance."

Good dances aren't obviously sitting out on the dance floor having loud conversations with each other about where they are going to go next, or what move their going to attempt. It's because they learn how to communicate and listen through a variety of means. A simple touch, a simple look, a simple respositioning can all convey different things. But the communication is still of outmost importance. Even though there is one person who is leading, you still need to practice give and take with your patner to make sure they are in synch with you.

"A typical dance lesson takes hour and hours...the goal is not to give up."

I've talked a lot the past couple of months about time and patience and how they fit into life. Dance obvsiouly is one of those activities that you just can't learn over night, and if you want to enjoy and understand it, it takes slow patient steps. This also caused me to realize that there are some people who do have natural gifts and talents in certain areas. What has really hit me though is that they too still need to practice and work hard to maintain their level of mastery and confidence.

"You should be able to drop your hand, without worrying about her falling over."

There's a move in the swing dance we were learning where hold onto the other person's hand, but as I soon learned, you're really only sort of hanging on to it. There's some small amount of tension, but each person should be individually balanced, so that when the tension breaks, neither person falls over. What a powerful thought about couplehood. It still includes sharing a tether with somoene, but that each of you are stable enough that you if need to let go for a short time, both people will be ok. Letting go is not a bad thing.

"See that's what's great about most of these moves, the guy isn't doing any of the work."

Yes I threw this one in here because Andrew was really cutting us up at this point. Again it just made me laugh. And it made me appreciate how good a teacher he was since he ahd the ability to break down dancing and make it light and easy without minimizing what we were doing.

My hat off to Andrew and the rest of his Swing Dance Club at Lawrence University. I hope they continue to have fun and success. And thanks for teaching me some great things about life!

PS: Of course this is the big NACURH weekend, and I want to wish the UW Oshkosh delegation much love and luck as they will attempt to bid to host NACURH 2007. One small step guys, one small step!


May 19, 2006

Back to School

A title that is neither in reference to the time of year or a fantastic Rodney Dangerfield movie. It denotes the completion of my first year back in grad school. Although I'm only going part time (ie one class a semester) the experience has educated more than just what was in a standard syllabus.

Student's Schedule
I forgot how difficult a student's schedule is. As a student affairs professional it's often easy to enjoy the academic year without worrying about similar academic deadlines. This past year, I was reminded what it was like to have a duty night with a paper due the next day. That last minute scurrying that makes you think someone intentionally planned it just to torture you. Even getting into a new eating schedule at Oshkosh it's easy to go eat at noon; lines are relatively short, you're feeling pretty relaxed. My first semester I had a class that ran over lunch and in order to eat and make it back into the office, I was humbled like every other student waiting to eat.

As student affairs professionals it's easy for us to forget about the 'other side' of the University. My suggestion is that if you haven't been to a regular class in over three years, take a class again. Take something you wanted to take as an undergrad. And don't audit it either. Go through the homework, remind yourself what it means to be a student again.

Something else that I hadn't experienced in a while which came as some adjustment for me, was being the neophyte in a room full of younger experts. Many times I was humbled, forgetting that I had a master's degree, as I listened to younger students say wiser, smarter things in class. I'll admit the egotistical feeling when the professor would constructively criticize my writing. Internally I'd feel as if I didn't need the class, that I had already been through grad school, and who was he to tell me in such an undeveloped manner what was wrong with my work?

Yeah, that's something I needed to get over quickly. Our expertise on students cannot solely rely on our day to day interactions with them. As a field, we need to take the time to read and engage in healthy philsophical discussions about what we do. I imagine at most of your universities there are some professors who would be more than willing to to engage in such a discussion. And as far as the reading goes, I admit, I haven't read a journal in a while. But I do have a friend who sends me regular clips about higher education. It's also good to read something that your students are also reading to gain an understanding for what is entertaining or relevant to them.

Lesson 1: Reading is Fundamental
My first semester class was a literary history and criticism class. Lots of reading. Tons of reading. As an undergrad I didn't often put lots of time into my reading. I skimmed, I got over a 3.0 with little work. That semester, I finally learned how to read, and how long it takes me to read critically.

Reading helps us twofold in life. One, it expands our mind and challenges our creativity, whether your book is fiction or not. Our brain still must take all of what we know and stretch and work it out so it's stronger. Second, reading us allows to learn how we view the world. As I was reading an article on the creative writing process by Sigmund Freud, I was fighting it the whole way through. I was thinking, "well Freud is just a perverted quack." I had to actually force myself to read it twice, the second time around letting down my individual bias in order to fully hear what he was saying.

Lesson 2: Focus
My second semester class was Playwrighting with a brilliant and witty professor who has had many plays performed on Broadway and around the world. He would often refer to as the economy of a play. In short, it means how can you use the least amount of descriptions to accurately portray the idea you want the audience to experience. He also talked about knowing why you're choosing to write something before knowing what you're willing to write.

This is hard for us as people. Not hard when we're inspired or have a muse in our lives. But creating focus can be done without outside focuses. Strangely it's simple. Visualize the target, visualize the end. While that vision is there, create, or do. Just by having the vision in your head, you'd be amazed how even unconsciously you will start to include parts of your vision in your actions.

Lesson 3: Discipline
This ws the lesson I wish I would have learned academically a while ago. In my Literary Criticism class, it took discipline to keep up with the readying, and challenging myself to share ideas in class. In Playwriting it was the discipline to keep at your work, even if it is creative and doesn't constitute research. It takes work to go with that focus.

The largest lesson here was actualized when I was writing the major projects for both classes. For the literary criticism class it was a 15 page paper with an annotated bibliography that needed constant revision and research. It took a month to write it. For the Playwriting class it was the need for constant revision. And not just, you change a page or two or some lines here and there. I went through four different drafts before I finally felt comfortable with the story I was telling.

In anything that you do, you have to keep at it. Small or large tasks, you have to keep pusing yourself to get to the point when you can comfortably say, I've looked at it many different ways, it may be able to get better after time, but right now, it's good.

I thank both Professor Henson and Professor Kalinoski for the experiences this past year. I'd like to thank all the cool students I met who reminded me of the hard work students do go through (often unseen by the eyes of the people not in the academic house). And I again feel humbled from having learned that the focus, discipline, reading, and even patiently waiting in a lunch line can help someone grow.


May 10, 2006

Angels Part 2: RJ

The following is a monthly 'special' posting dedicated to some people in my life who have served as angels, providing guidance, support, love, humor, etc.

As a Hall Director it takes some adjustment to get used to a new job. Simultaneously you are getting used to a new staff, a new building, a new home, a new city, a new department, and a new university. I imagine few professionals end up finding their "place" right off the bat of their first professional job. The University of Columbia Missouri has a handful of characteristics that will be near and dear to my heart...but as plans unfolded, it was ok that it was a short stay.

As I transitioned at the beginning of the year, one of my staff members, RJ, has taught me some of my more favorite lessons on supervising. RJ was pretty strong willed when I arrived on staff. He definitely had a vision and focus about what things on staff were going to be like. RJ has a brilliant mind (highly philosophical) and is never afraid for any type of philosophical discussions.

As a supervisor, even one like myself who enjoys the occasional philosophical banter, this can be troubling at times. I remember many long conversations I had with RJ regarding many of the philosophical things we do in Student Affairs, some tied directly to his job, some not. In some cases RJ and I butted heads and definitely could not see eye to eye.

One of my closer moments with RJ came right after I attended MACURH as an Advisor with the University of Missouri delegation. Having been fortunate enough to be able to go to what was 17th conference in a row, it was a treat to be with these delegates. This was also the point in the year where I was starting to formulate and tweak aspects of my supervising style.

When we returned, RJ and I had some really good chats about why I did some things the way I did. At the time we were averaging two hour staff meetings, slightly unexpected from the one hour staff meetings I'd been used. There was much philosophical discussion at some of those meetings, mostly centered around "why do we do this? why do we do that?" What RJ got at that moment was that there are some aspects of the hairball (thank you Gordon MacKenzie) that are just there no matter what...and sometimes you just get them done.

RJ's humility during those months, and another trip to an RA conference at the University of Northern Iowa, taught me a valuable lesson I shared with him later. The supervisor doesn't always know what's right, the leader doesn't always make the best was RJ who first taught me how to be patient with the transitions of staff members and their frustrations and passions. It's not always easy to do, and even to this day I would not lay claim to being an expert on it.

One of the other things that RJ learned that year was "it" that ability to see and understand the essence of student affairs. He reflected "it" in all that he did for his Honors community and even his personal life. I saw this rational, logical young man, let his heart overpower any philosophy he had and achieve some truly remarkable things.

I thank RJ for when he reminded me of me and humbled me of me when it was important, a lesson shared both with his kind heart, and potent mind.