2014 books on the wall…

ammamarfo:

Thanks Joel for including me on your year-end list! For the record, I agree with several of your other choices :)
There’s more news on the way in 2015 regarding “The I’s Have It,” and I hope you’ll stay tuned!

Originally posted on Polar Bears and Coffee:

So this year saw quite a bit of new-ish things for me: 1- a desire to learn more about the urban condition, and to translate urban studies and urban architecture into how student unions on urban campuses influence the student experience, and 2- lots of reading at home and on the T (I count 2014 as the start of that, because the latter half of 2013 was marked by reading all 5 books of the Game of Thrones… which I mean… I guess it counts).

When the T suddenly stops and you rip a page…

The end of the year is a fun time, because all the great book lists come out, and my Amazon Wish Lists grow longer and longer.  Much like the World Cup of Literature that I blogged about earlier this year, finding new books is a fun fun thing.  So, I wanted to recap some of…

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How to teach a young introvert

ammamarfo:

Great post from TED, along with Susan Cain, talking about how our classrooms can be better designed and utilized to harness the power of introverted students. Of particular interest to me: “One thing I think that educators should bear in mind: we allow adults all kinds of flexibility in terms of what kind of social life they want. Adults who have two or three friends, no one thinks twice about it. But we don’t allow children the same degree of flexibility.” How can we avoid setting a “standard” for what level of interaction is “normal”?

Originally posted on ideas.ted.com:

See all articles in the series

What should we do with the quiet kids? A conversation with Susan Cain on the future of classroom education.

Susan Cain sticks up for the introverts of the world. In the U.S., where one third to one half the population identifies as introverts, that means sticking up for a lot of people. Some of them might be data engineers overwhelmed by the noise of an open-floor-plan office. Others might be lawyers turning 30, whose friends shame them for not wanting a big birthday bash. But Cain particularly feels for one group of introverts: the quiet kids in a classroom.

Cain remembers a childhood full of moments when she was urged by teachers and peers to be more outgoing and social — when that simply wasn’t in her nature. Our most important institutions, like schools and workplaces, are designed for extroverts, says Cain in her TED Talk. [Watch: The power of…

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Balancing Humor and Humanity

IMAGE CREDIT: Washington Post

One of the better articles I read this week focused on an interview Chris Rock gave to Vulture magazine in support of his new film, Top Five. This particular press tour has brought several interesting perspectives from Rock, but this one is of particular interest to those working with students in higher education. When asked about Bill Maher being banned from speaking at a college, he took the opportunity to mention that he no longer plays colleges, and stopped about eight years ago because they are “too conservative.” He elaborates:

I stopped playing colleges, and the reason is because they’re way too conservative […] Not in their political views — not like they’re voting Republican — but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody. Kids raised on a culture of “We’re not going to keep score in the game because we don’t want anybody to lose.” Or just ignoring race to a fault. You can’t say “the black kid over there.” No, it’s “the guy with the red shoes.” You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.

This idea is consistent with a post that I saw from a colleague a few weeks back, asking about how students respond to comedy on college campuses:

Is it just my campus? Last night we had a comedian on campus and had a good turnout for the show. However our students don’t laugh. Afterward they all said he was great but they won’t laugh during the show. Have we over PC’d these kids so they think it’s innappropriate [sic] to laugh at someone? Is it just WI kids or is anyone else seeing this too?

As someone who is deeply interested in both comedy and its inner workings, and the work that higher education does for students, this idea fascinates me. As I read, turning the idea over in my mind and reading critiques on why this might be, a few ideas came to mind (courtesy of a few friends who also provided thoughts- thanks for giving me so much to think about!).

Theory #1: Is this a lesson?

Shortly after I posted the article, my coworker John came down the hall to chat theories with me. One that he posed of particular interest: the line between education and entertainment on campus has been blurred to the point that students may not be fully sure that a comedy show isn’t designed to teach something. And their apprehension is legitimate- the college entertainment market is full of people embracing the hybrid of “edutainment;” with that comes the question: what is this program designed to do? Is this a lecture that is supposed to make me laugh? A comedian that will teach me something? Fully one? Fully the other? It’s easy to know what to do when a spade is called a spade. But when there’s a gray area, it’s harder to discern what conduct is expected of you. Speaking of that…

Theory #2: “I don’t know how to be an audience member at this.”

John, who has a dual background in both comedy and higher education, talked to me about a symphony performance he attended with his wife recently. He recognized the talent associated with what he was watching, but ultimately realized his experience suffered because he didn’t have the tools to appreciate it. Those who have a background watching and appreciating classical music, such as his wife, view these performance differently, and can react in a manner befitting the venue and occasion. But ultimately, those unequipped to enjoy an event have a difficult time doing so.

John made a connection between that and his introduction to stand-up comedy as an art form years ago. Watching young comedians develop their craft on MTV weekly gave him an idea of what good stand-up was, what bad stand-up was, and how to identify patterns and talent in the comedians he was seeing. While there is no shortage of comedy these days, the ability to see stand-up on TV (save for Comedy Central’s Half Hour on Fridays and full-length specials on some Saturdays) is less common than it has been, compared to other forms of comedy like sketch or situation comedy. And yes, Netflix is making great leaps in allowing stand-up comedians to stream their specials there. But Criminal MindsGilmore Girls, and every episode of Sons of Anarchy are on there, too- shows where we know what we’re getting. And taking chances on a special by a comedian you’ve never heard of isn’t something most students I work with are likely to do (more on that, later). So when a comedian goes into a room and delivers a set to a mostly quiet crowd, the result may be because they simply aren’t sure of the right thing to do in that particular space- do we laugh? Do we appreciate it quietly? And even if they are sure that they find it funny, and they want to laugh…they still might not.

Theory #3: Pantomiming Offense

Perhaps the best comment I saw in response to my posting of the original article came from my friend and colleague Curtis:

I don’t think folks aren’t laughing at home, or within groups of friends…What we’ve taught then, is not to take offense, but to pantomime offense.

My exact response to Curtis’ post. IMAGE CREDIT: Imgur

There are norms to behavior in most settings. You can’t speak loudly in church. You can’t smoke on airplanes. Wear shoes in a restaurant. One norm we may have cultivated, intentionally or otherwise, is don’t laugh if someone can be offended. Now, this next set of statements has the potential to sound offensive, and I promise I don’t mean for it to. But my sensing a need to preface my coming statements…may be part of the problem.

I am absolutely in favor of social justice education, and the work that we in higher education do to expose students to a variety of walks of life. It is an essential practice to cultivating an understanding that the humanity of all deserves to be recognized and revered. Further, should we ever elect to not address it, many individuals may never learn it at all. All people have value, this is an absolutely true statement that I would never refute.

However, in encouraging recognition of all (again, a worthy and necessary pursuit), we run a significant risk of sanitizing human interaction rather than enriching it.

I worry, often, that we are asking students to assume similarity instead of appreciate difference- and part of that makes it hard to laugh at things that are different. By saying “that’s not funny, don’t laugh at that,” we close off a conversation that could be a truly transformative one: What experiences inform these jokes? Where do stereotypes come from? Why have these norms come about? Can we laugh at this? If we do laugh, and people get offended, what will that offense be grounded in?

Most students (and people, for that matter) equate laughing at something with minimizing it or deeming it unimportant. But there are lots of reasons to laugh. We smile, make jokes, and show our senses of humor to those we know, respect and care about as a way to build commonality and community. We can even laugh, at times, to get through the difficult moments that inequality, hardship, and human suffering inevitably provide. But espousing these two messages simultaneously can be challenging. Does asking students to laugh in the same space that we teach them to show respect confuse the message? And moreover, does their refusal to laugh in our presence reflect actual understanding, or simply reflect their ability to enact a form of ‘code-switching’ wherein they recognize that they can laugh at these things, just not with us? I don’t know that I have the answers to any of these questions, but it gave me a lot to think about this week.

 

I remember watching a clip from Key and Peele with a coworker and a student a few weeks back. I had forgotten how many elements of it could be deemed “NSFW” by some, but I rolled with it once we had started. That clip turned into a conversation- what parts of it were uncomfortable? Why were they uncomfortable? If you had to have a conversation about the things in this clip, what parts do you know have the potential to be offensive, and do you understand why? Not everyone has the ability to conduct these conversations, based on the conduct of their office or the nature of their time. But they’re important conversations to have.

Life will challenge the people around us. That’s the nature of humanity. Humor can be a great weapon against those challenges, if we allow it to be. Challenge yourself to laugh- not with ignorance or hesitation, but with compassion and understanding.

Live Show Review: FUFU AND OREOS

Obehi Janice explores the thin and tenuous line between “African” and “American” in her one-woman show. IMAGE CREDIT: Fufu and Oreos

I don’t know for a fact that Obehi Janice and I aren’t related, but the facts seem to line up in many places. We both grew up in the US, the children of West African parents. Based on the stories told in her one-woman show Fufu and Oreos, we probably share some aunts and uncles (or, at the very least, our relatives overseas share opinions). And if we spent some time together, we’d probably compete over men (You loved all the -icans and all the -ians on the playground? Me too, girl. Me too.). The one-hour preview of Fufu and Oreos I saw this Friday night got me excited to hear the full story of someone I could easily call a friend, in the span of one hour in an intimate setting.

The show is described as follows:

A multi-culti 20-something navigates the collisions between her Nigerian heritage, her American lifestyle and the loaded promise of Prozac.

Her acting chops are real; she wouldn’t have earned the title of Boston’s Best Actress from Improper Bostonian earlier this year if they weren’t. Her comedic timing is great, finding ways to point out short-sighted attempts at multicultural understanding through a scene lampooning National Public Radio. And she even demonstrates rap skills in a live performance of her “Black Girl Yoga,” first appearing online earlier this year:

But the thing I appreciated most about Friday’s show was its ability to create a sense of sameness for the audience. If it’s not your experience that Obehi shares with beautiful timing and lots of laughs, it’s an experience you can relate to or understand through her accessible storytelling. Yes, she made friends when she passed Oreos around the theater for the snacking pleasure of the audience, but she also made friends by humorously calling out assumptions and missteps that we all make when talking about culture without unduly shaming anyone in the diverse crowd. Case in point: she starts the show by singing (but not really) “Circle of Life” from The Lion King, an all too common benchmark for most people’s knowledge of Africa…until the whole Ebola thing. But I digress.

Those conversations aren’t just limited to her experiences in the US; she is equally candid about her struggles to be seen as authentically African when she visits Nigeria. Relatives that don’t understand her acting career, parents that reject attempts at vegetarianism, how she would pass along heritage if she married a non-Nigerian…she covers it all. Her expression of the odd in-between that exists for the American-raised children of Africans spoke deeply to my soul, but didn’t dominate the show so much that others without that experience couldn’t enjoy the show.

Fufu and Oreos is, first and foremost, a comedy, but it doesn’t shy away from the serious stuff either- as she noted to an audience member audibly distressed at a point made early in the show, “I never promised you joy in this show.” She shares stories from her childhood and struggles of mental illness with a level of openness that endears her to the audience without overexposing herself. What results is a theatergoing experience that is equal parts heartfelt and honest, emotional but also endearing. I can’t wait to see the full-length production early next year

The full-length production of Fufu and Oreos will be at the Bridge Repertory Theater, directed by Rebecca Bradshaw, in February 2015.

Banjos, Baldwins, and Big Questions

For the better part of the 2000s, I have assumed the machinations and motions of a normal human being while also following a band- well, a man, really- very closely. Not to the level of stalking, but…you know. Closely.

This is Andy. He’s in a band.

For the uninitiated, this is Andrew McMahon. He is a piano player and singer who has served as the frontman for Something Corporate, Jack’s Mannequin, Andrew McMahon and the Pop Underground, and most recently Andrew McMahon in the Wilderness. Those of us who follow music closely recall with great clarity those moments where a song or an album seemed to be speaking only to us at the very moment we discovered it. As it happens, most of those moments have happened for me with the same artist.

I realized last night in New York, at the Dear Jack Benefit Concert (designed to benefit the Dear Jack Foundation for Young Adult Cancer), that a similar moment is surfacing once again.

The final track on the current album is a song called “Maps for the Getaway,” all about a house that Andrew and his family lived in in LA, before moving back to his hometown to escape some of the turmoil and strife that seemed to be coming from that place. However, a collaboration with a producer that lived near the house he fled so forcefully brought him back to that same neighborhood often. Reflections on what caused him to leave led to this song, and this chorus has been on replay in my head for quite some time now:

No cash in the bank, no paid holidays
All we have, all we have is
Gas in the tank, maps for the getaway
All we have, all we have is time

Additionally, Andrew acknowledged something that many of us have suspected for a while now but he captured eloquently before performing the above song live: “I have a small addiction to new beginnings.”

That hit me hard at just the right time.

Separately, I’ve been on a tear of comedic autobiographies and memoirs, a joy renewed with the release of Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. While a little older (written in 2007), I have to strongly recommend Steve Martin’s beautifully written Born Standing Up, which primarily details the rise of his stand-up career and eventual decision to leave the craft that he had worked so hard to cultivate and toiled to succeed at. The passage in which he describes this monumental decision is, given its gravity, relatively simple:

In the wings, I began swearing to myself. I ripped off my coat and threw it against a wall. Of course, my fury was not from the failure of the King Tut guitar to descend from the ceiling- it was that over the last few years I had lost contact with what I was doing, and I was suffering an artistic crisis that I didn’t know I had a capacity for. I went to my dressing room, opened my travel-weary black prop case, and stowed away my magic act, thinking that one day I would open it and look at it sentimentally, which for no particular reason, I haven’t. I never did stand-up again.

 

I’m at an interesting time of my life to have these two testimonies about a fervent and deeply felt need for change coincide so serendipitously. I’m 28, what actuaries would call a SINK (Single-Income, No Kids) and have a level of freedom that quickly alternates between being liberating, and absolutely terrifying. I have a lot of things I enjoy doing, and I think I’m even good at a few of those things. So the idea of cultivating a path at a point where the itch for something different is starting to get stronger (I think it took Andrew speaking up about his addiction to new beginnings, for me to step forward and unanonymously acknowledge my own similar ailment) is a tough one.

If there is, in fact, a map for the getaway, where is it leading me? What stops do I need to plan for along the way? Is it in that dreaded moment of recalculating just when I need it the most?

As you may be able to tell from the tone of this post, I don’t have answers for any of this. And I certainly don’t have answers for any of my friends who seem to be similarly struggling with these sorts of questions- there seem to be a lot of us, and one of the few things bringing me comfort as I wrestle with these questions is the understanding that I’m not alone in my need to address them.

Ultimately, the best chance I have- that any of the people I know who are trying to find where they fit- to get through any of this is alluded to in both Andrew’s song and Steve’s memoir. Steve recounts his pledge to give up on his dream of professional comedy by age 30 if it didn’t materialize significantly. However, he realized shortly before the self-imposed deadline that it didn’t work that way, couldn’t work that way. Life happens when it happens, and you just have to wait and see where your goals and path will go. And just as Andrew says in Maps for the Getaway…all we have is time.

Recognizing Real Life

A few of my coworkers and I have an ongoing reference circulating in our conversations: “Real Life [insert name of the individual]” (always said while clapping, one clap per word a la Kevin Hart).

IMAGE CREDIT: Tumblr

We use it to talk about what we’re doing over the weekend, about our families, as well as how we may respond to situations if we weren’t at the office. Bottom line: we’ve created a distinction between the us that we bring to the office, and who we are when we get home and immerse ourselves in a different environment. We recognize that there are elements of who we are that don’t always fit at the office, and may not be the result of our work experiences. My big question for today: do we do that with the students we work with?

This weekend called into question how much space I create for these lines with students. I spent time at two events on Saturday that underscored my wish to consider this further. In the morning, I worked with our Student Government Association in a session about communication, and how they could improve theirs by considering Pat Lencioni’s Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive. At the fourth stage (the “top” of the model, if you’re looking at Lencioni’s diagram), we discussed how to create human systems that reinforce what they find important. I prompted them to think about how to reward and recognize students that aren’t on the board, or even on an SGA-recognized organization’s board.

We got around to talking about students who continue pursuits from before college- we’ve had literal world champions in baton twirling and Irish dance- and how SGA should recognize those successes just as much as ones that happen in the confines of a student organization meeting, event, or competition. After all, one of Emmanuel’s most famous alumna- Nancy Kerrigan- excelled strongly at a craft that the school did not teach her. Should that achievement mean any less to those on campus because it had nothing to do with us?

Later on that night, I played judge at COF’s Got Talent, a competition that pulled talent from all six Colleges of the Fenway. It’s always really cool for me to see what students do when we’re not around. Not the relationships they’re building, or even the things they’re getting in trouble for, but the really cool things they’re building and skills they’re developing that we don’t always get to see. On this particular night, we had musicians, stand-up comedians, dancers, beatboxers, students in bands, and even a student who solves Rubik’s cubes…really fast (not even the talent he came to the show for, just another thing he could do that came to light when we needed to stretch for time). And what did the majority of these talents have in common? They had very little to do with what we’re teaching, offering, or providing opportunities to learn.

Yet, I feel like if you asked some of the professionals on their campuses about some of these students, you’d hear: “they’re not really involved in anything.”

There are students like this on every campus. Students who aren’t signing up for organizations, aren’t staying on campus to go to meetings, aren’t taking on leadership positions. And it’s easy to assume it’s because they haven’t looked hard enough to find their niche among their offerings. I’m speaking up for a different viewpoint: perhaps these students have niches elsewhere, niches where they feel at home and are flourishing, niches that we’re not providing.

We should appreciate those students and the gifts they’re developing elsewhere. In fact, I can’t help but admire them for traveling a path that may require more work on their part. They may have to balance coursework with travel and long practice hours that takes them away from campus. They may have a harder time explaining to professors and administrators what they’re doing and how it all works. And they may see students around them doing things that we’re quick to recognize or reward because we can see the effects more easily, all while wondering why the institution doesn’t seem to value what they’re doing. Admittedly, we can’t congratulate what we don’t know about- that’s as true off-campus as it is on-campus. However, where we do know that these skills and talents exist, we should honor them.

It can be as easy as sending a message from your institutional social media accounts wishing someone luck in an upcoming competition, as public as creating a category in student leadership award ceremonies for off-campus achievements, or as personalized as sending that person a card signed by the whole SGA (a suggestion that surfaced in this weekend’s session).

“Real Life [insert name here]” isn’t just for staff who maintain active lives off campus. It can also apply to some of our most creative, skilled, and talented students. Are you prepared to look beyond the confines of campus to reward accomplishments?

 

 

Sharing Our Struggles

It’s been a heavy few weeks for many of my friends working in Student Affairs. Times when students are the busiest are also the busiest for us- planning Homecoming and Family Weekend festivities, helping students navigate red tape as they aim to plan programs, while also helping them balance their hectic academic schedules with other aspirations they have for themselves (internships, leadership roles, and maybe even social time or sleep if there are enough remaining hours in the day) can admittedly take a toll on us. For those of us who are called to do this work, the net gain is ultimately deemed worth it. But I want to talk about these moments, because the struggle associated with working in student affairs gets considerably less airplay this time of year.

I was intrigued by a recent post of Paul Brown’s that featured an informal survey of student affairs professionals sharing why they entered the profession. As I expected, based on conversations I’ve had, a high number of respondents indicated a desire to effect positive change, or a desire to pay forward a positive college experience of their own. For the record, I agree with those sentiments, and these feelings are essential to me continuing to do this work. One of the things I love most about this field is the desire of its people to be good to one another- to help each other out, to cheer each other up, to create environments of support and caring. I have become greatly appreciative of the moments I have with students where I can tell they’ve considered a new idea, learned something new, or developed a new skill.

I was incredibly appreciative of those who live-Tweeted NASPA President Kevin Kruger’s keynote at the recent TACUSPA conference, where he spoke about the changing role of student affairs in the higher education landscape. I’ve been lucky enough to hear him speak on this before, but there were elements of this speech that stood out to me as new. The piece I was most grateful to hear (well, see- you know what I’m saying):

There are enough complaints out there that our work isn’t taken seriously enough. Hell, I’ve contributed to that conversation in the silliest of ways. However, this was one of the first times where I’d heard our shift to crisis managers as one that is defining our roles; it is one major element of what counteracts the levity with which our work is occasionally treated. And that shift has been on my mind this month, Careers in Student Affairs Month, as I continue to strive to share the difficult parts of my work as well as the good. Marci Walton did an amazing job with a post earlier this month- please give “Sometimes My Job Sucks” a look, it is a refreshing and absolutely essential read.

October is a great opportunity to provide organized opportunities to give students insight into what this work could look like should they choose to pursue it. We organize webinars, host conferences, and share our moments when we knew student affairs was “for us.” These opportunities are important, because they draw new potential professionals to a path that they may not otherwise consider. I’m always wary of “drafting” students to this field, a concern I’ve voiced before, but I do understand the value of presenting another avenue to pursue something you enjoy and are good at.

However, we don’t talk as much about the other moments, the ones that we enjoy less, the ones that students called to the field for their appreciation of the RA role, organization executive board post, or Orientation Leader experience, don’t often see. To put it simply, there are moments where we aren’t sure we’re making a difference; further there are moments where we truly don’t believe we can. That feeling of futility or discouragement could come from an administrative place (departments slow to advance new ideas, cuts in funding or personnel challenging our abilities to effectively complete our work) or a motivational one (difficult encounters with students, disappointing assessment results, questioning our ability to deal with the magnitude of high-risk and high-stakes scenarios); these moments happen. And I often worry that if we aren’t open about these struggles when they happen, they will eventually cripple the now undergrads or grad students we work with today. 

Make no mistake, the feeling of questioning our ability to make a difference happens to most everyone. But few student affairs webinars, graduate program open houses, or preparatory curriculums bring it up. In the absence of hearing or seeing that these worries are normal, how will a new professional know how to handle themselves in the moment when this completely normal, but rarely discussed, feeling seizes them? Discussions around attrition from graduate programs or professional roles frequently cite things like “I didn’t know it would be like this,” or “This isn’t what I signed up for.” This is a disservice to our field, and to the students that we encourage to join us.

Here are the facts:

  • We do hard things. Often, the overlap between the circle of people who help students find their leadership potential and watch their development, and the ones who are on hand to help them deal with the hardest moments in their life to date, is significant.
  • Doing hard things is hard. You’re not always going to feel confident that you’re doing the right thing. You’re not always going to do the right thing! Further, even with strong experiences as a student leader and graduate preparation (should that be the route you elect to take), you will often be surprised, challenged, and even demoralized.
  • Having trouble dealing with things being hard is okay. Again, we are a field of welcoming people. If you need affirmation that these sorts of issues are normal, there is nearly always someone willing to provide that. This community of educators can help to troubleshoot solutions and share encouragement. You need only know where to look, and be willing to ask. Like I have become fond of telling my students, “You can’t get mad at someone who’s not a magician, for not being able to guess your card.”
    If you’re having a hard time coming up with a solution to a problem, or struggling to emotionally adjust with the magnitude of things you will be doing, I would strongly encourage you to find someone to talk to or share these concerns with.
  • Not sharing that “the hard stuff” exists is not okay. Our jobs are going to have difficult parts for a great while to come. Expectations of high-quality supervision and crisis management are part and parcel of all our jobs now. We do much of this work without students fully realizing the magnitude of responsibility we carry, and that’s largely okay. Not every student needs to know just how much we do. But the ones who could potentially do it themselves, do need to know. We are doing them a long-term disservice if we don’t share that this work can be hard. It can be hard to complete, and it can be hard to “leave at the office” at the end of the day.

This should be as much at the forefront of our minds when explaining our work, as the rewards that the work provides are. In fact, knowing that we get this value from our work despite the challenges it presents could make our testimony all the more powerful.

This call for transparency is not designed to encourage an opening of proverbial floodgates. Sharing our struggle can (and should) start with the smallest of steps. Whether it’s answering honestly (with a filter, of course) when students ask how we are, being careful to explain full processes (not just what a student is responsible for in a paperwork process, but also where it goes once it is handed in), or explaining the motivation behind safety policies, these measures can give a peek at the difference between the work and challenges of a student leader, and that of a professional.

Rallying Through the Remix

IMAGE CREDIT: New York Post

Last night was a big night for John Mulaney and I. Mulaney, former head writer of Saturday Night Live (best known for his co-creation of Bill Hader’s iconic Stefon), saw his sitcom Mulaney debut on Fox. I saw it too- that’s what made it a big night for me :)

Mulaney’s background is largely in writing, and has emerged as a talented stand-up comedian; his pedigree resembles that of another stand-up comedian who made it big on TV, Jerry Seinfeld. And Mulaney’s newness to the medium showed in the pilot- laughs fell at interesting times, and timing is clearly still being felt out. Some are calling for him to cut his losses and move forward. But I plan to stick with it, and think Mulaney should too. Here’s why.

Take a look at the first dialogue from Seinfeld (below). It’s nothing special- not terribly polished, or even particularly engaging. But as we know, the show tightened up as additional characters were introduced and story arcs developed. It’s too early to tell when these elements will come together, but time will tell us if it has the potential to become the multi-season hit that other Fox shows have (The Mindy Project is an amazing example of this- post for another day). But there’s another thing to consider, too.

Before I watched Mulaney this evening, I followed the keynote of a friend and collaborator, Courtney O’Connell. She presented on the role of innovative educators at a conference in New York, a great topic that she’s tremendously passionate about. The part of her talk that is relevant here, is the need to take chances and try to take existing knowledge to new venuesThis, in effect, is what John Mulaney is doing.

Yes, he’s worked in TV before, but 3-5 minute sketches differ sharply from 23 minute multi-camera situation comedies. And he’s having to, in effect, remix the craft that he’s worked so hard to previously transform from stand-up comedy to sketch.

This was also the challenge of Jemaine Clement and Bret McKenzie, of Flight of the Conchords. Their challenge as musical comedians was to incorporate their music into a half-hour show. But they found ways to make it work hilariously in the first season of their HBO outing:

For the first season, they took songs they had been performing previously and created conceits for the television show to fit around. Their challenge in the second season was writing their music as normal, and then finding show scenarios to fit their songs. They admitted to struggling with this task, and the struggle showed at times in the program.

What am I getting at in sharing all of this? It’s hard to get good at a craft. It takes years of practice, research, application of learned knowledge, and feedback from those around us to truly get good at what we do. However, once you elect to take those talents, and apply them to a new domain, it gets hard again. It’s awkward at times. It challenges us in ways that it wouldn’t if we defaulted to what we were used to doing. And we may fail at it now and again, as is evidenced by the cancellation of Flight of the Conchords after its second season. But if we push through those awkward moments and accept that our hard-earned knowledge needs time to flourish under new conditions, we can be great once again. John Mulaney’s new show has that potential, and I truly hope that FOX gives him the time to push through his moment of adjustment to bring that greatness to a new venue.

First, take a moment to consider: What in your daily life or work are you really good at? What are you confident that you excel in? Now, consider this: Where is there a gap that could benefit from what you’re good at?

And lastly, ask the hard question: are you willing to put in the patience and time in that uncomfortable space to become great somewhere new?

I definitely know where I could apply this in my own life- what about you?
If the spirit moves you, check out some John Mulaney live performances or Flight of the Conchords shows as you think. It’ll make you think, and also make you giggle :)

Onboarding Done Right: SNL’s Pete Davidson

As a longtime SNL watcher, the premiere of each season always feel a little bit like Christmas morning. All summer, you watch the news on who will leave and who will come back, silently ache at relevant news stories (“It’ll be too late to do a sketch on it!” should be classified as an emotion- who can I talk to about that?), and the preamble up to that first shout of “LIVE from New York, it’s Saturday night!” makes that first cold open seem like it takes an eternity. But finally, at long last, season forty is under way. The first episode’s success was uneven, but they did one thing really well that I want to talk about.

Good job dude. Glad your employers set you up for success! IMAGE CREDIT: Staten Island Live

Among the gifts that we were given in last night’s outing were an introduction to Pete Davidson. The first SNL cast member to be born in the nineties, he also joined the cast relatively late in the summer (last year’s additions, save the midyear addition of Sasheer Zamata, were completed in late August; Davidson’s addition was announced only 13 days ago). It should also be noted that Pete’s background is in standup, and he entered a cast with considerable experience in improvisational and sketch comedy; these are far different crafts from standing up in front of a crowd and telling jokes. Coming on late, learning a new craft, and far younger than the rest of the cast…what’s a boss to do?

Lorne Michaels has been doing this job for (with little interruption) forty years, he doesn’t need me to tell him what to do, or if he’s done the right thing. However, I do love what he did to ease Pete into the show. For those following along at home, I’m referring to his “Resident Young Person” bit with also-new Michael Che on Weekend Update:

Guest hosts, with one week to shine on the show and no make-or-break implications, can be thrown into the sketch format quickly. If they succeed, they’re lauded; if they don’t, it’s no great loss. They have other day jobs to fall back on. But for new featured players, their transition should look different. They’ll be in this environment for a while, and should be allowed to find their bearings. The way that Pete was allowed to find his was, essentially, to deliver stand-up in a sketch. This let him be funny in a way that felt natural to him, while in an environment that allowed him to interact with his new coworkers.

Further, the show did little to mask the fact that he’s the baby of his proverbial office. By slating him as the “Resident Young Person,” Davidson got to make light of his “new” status, making it easy for him to ask big questions of things or processes he didn’t understand. It’s hard to know if this segment will recur for the duration of his time on the show, but it was a good way to start him off.

As you may have suspected, I believe there’s a lesson here. When you’re new to a work environment, and especially when you’re young, it can be hard to find your place. Getting to know your coworkers, transferring what you’ve been good at to a new environment…it can be hard without the right guidance. In introducing Pete in this fashion, Lorne Michaels and SNL’s writers set a good example for employers seeking to position their new hires well:

  • Capitalize on their strengths. Yes, it’s incumbent on new hires to do some assimilation to the company, and apply their previous successes to new projects and in new ways. But not on their first day. Never underestimate the power of a big win early on in your employment. The confidence that it could build can garner loyalty and willingness to work hard. Any way that you can find for a new hire to apply his or her strengths to a current project, do.
  • Recognize who they are. This is a tricky endeavor, don’t misunderstand me. Please understand, there is a difference between giving generational perspective on a project or initiative, and assigning the millennial to social media. The former recognizes their expertise, while the latter simply makes assumption based on their age. While Davidson’s contribution (intentionally) went off the rails quickly, we ultimately got to see his timing, sense of humor, and personality in what he was able to share. How can you do this for someone new on your team, regardless of their age?
  • Once they’ve had a win, stretch them. Yes, Davidson turned some heads in his first outing at the Update desk. But that wasn’t the last place you saw him that night. He turned up in two additional sketches in minor roles. Loyal viewers of SNL will recognize that he still has some work to do to get where he could be- a tight, reliable member of an ensemble. But it was important to get him doing the important work that will get him there. He wasn’t allowed to rest on the laurels of having been on camera once, and then spirited away for the rest of the episode. And this is important for your new hires too. Find a way to get them a win, but then make it clear that they can’t rest on those successes. Help them stretch into strong and versatile performers by challenging them.

Pete Davidson still has a long way to go in his first season. And in a year where far fewer new faces were brought on, I think writers and producers have a chance to develop him into a strong player. Last year too many people joined at once, and cast members like recently departed Brooks Whelan (who shares with Davidson youth and a stand-up background) suffered for that. So as the season goes on, I look forward to seeing what else this Resident Young Person will bring to the table.

Combating “Contact Glow” with Captivating Stories

I remember a distinct moment in a return visit to my high school during college, chatting with one of our assistant principals.

“What are you studying?”

“Communications and business, and I just decided to add a minor in film.”

“What are you going to do with that?”

I got this question a lot after adding the Film Studies minor. No, I had no plans to direct. No real plans to do professional film criticism, though I often do that in an amateur capacity. And I don’t have the constitution to act- makes me too visible.

However, I’ve found many ways to use my film minor in a few jobs I’ve had. I am very particular about creating a flow for events that makes sense in the mind. I am extraordinarily particular when I have to edit film and find an appropriate score. And, above much else, I am a sucker for good storytelling. Movies, done the right way, captivate. They consume. In Sally Hogshead’s words (which I have recently consumed and am finding countless ways to apply), they fascinate.

 

This past weekend, I finally got to see a big project of mine- a revamped iteration of our student organization training- come to fruition. While I didn’t realize it in these exact words, I was trying to build a program that fascinated. Rather than having student government officers break the group of roughly 200 into positional meetings and let them know about SGA’s expectations for them for the year (as previous iterations of the event had done), we allowed officers to spend a part of their morning defining the roles of their board in an interactive project, and then offered breakout workshops on how to effectively serve in those roles.

My attempts to fascinate thankfully succeeded, on a scale that truly blew me away. The number of snarky tweets about the day being a waste of time diminished significantly. Students praised and thanked me, unprovoked, for the change of focus in the event- it was no longer about what SGA needed from them, but rather about what their capabilities were and how SGA could help. And- most importantly to me- they engaged with the content. They took notes in a way that many of us had never seen at a previous event of this type.

[Hold this point for just a moment.]

IMAGE CREDIT: GrandYouth.org

This morning, on a day off earned from running this training on a weekend, I went to the movies. Surprisingly, years spent studying movies hasn’t (for the most part) ruined my viewer experience. And thankfully no one else ruined my film experience either.

If you’ve been to the movies recently, you’ll notice that there are more and more warnings about silencing and stopping usage of cell phones and other mobile devices. Movie theaters have become a rare safe haven from the near constant glow, buzz, and chirp of our mobile devices. I naturally thought about the connection of this phenomenon in training and educational environments.

I was interested to read a recent piece from Clay Shirky about why he, a prominent Internet and media researcher, elected to ban the use of mobile devices in his classroom.  One of his relevant points was that the use of these devices wasn’t just to protect the attention of the device user; it was to protect the attention of that user’s neighbors. As research in the area has shown us:

I have known, for years, that the basic research on multi-tasking was adding up, and that for anyone trying to do hard thinking (our spécialité de la maison, here at college), device use in class tends to be a net negative. Even with that consensus, however, it was still possible to imagine that the best way to handle the question was to tell the students about the research, and let them make up their own minds.

The “Nearby Peers” effect, though, shreds that rationale. There is no laissez-faire attitude to take when the degradation of focus is social. Allowing laptop use in class is like allowing boombox use in class — it lets each person choose whether to degrade the experience of those around them. (emphasis added)

When we ask moviegoers to silence their mobile devices, that’s not done to preserve the viewing experience of any one individual; it’s done to protect the viewing experience of the collective viewing public. And, with little exception (and those exceptions tend to be violent), such measures work. In exchange, the consumer is getting a product that, barring a bad choice of film, holds the attention in the place of the device. But it’s also worth it to note: if what’s in front of you is captivating enough, the seductive power of our ever-glowing devices decreases.

Now, back to the original point I asked you to hold. We saw precious few students captivated by their phones over the content that we presented. And they weren’t distracting others either. In its place was active engagement with those overseeing the workshops. Thoughtful questions asked, experiences shared, notes returned to groups with fevered discussion after they had been dismissed. No ban on devices was needed, because the temptation for attention to stray, dissipated significantly. Is it possible that we have students with herculean levels of resolve or superhero-level interest? Maybe. But I know them, and have seen them enough in other venues, to know that’s likely not the case.

As I worked with presenters to craft their content, I asked for a concentration on stories. I asked them to engage with the content they were going to be sharing, and I asked for them to facilitate in such a way that students could bring their own experiences to the table. For the first time, we brought alumni back to teach sessions; I requested that they bring their time as students to their sessions, and demonstrate what they learned from their experiences as student leaders. This was in stark contrast to sessions from previous years, which delivered directives and information in a manner divorced from its practical use. And as I say to the students I work with often, “That inspires nobody.”

It goes without saying: that’s what movies give us. They give us stories. They give us narratives that no matter how fantastic or whimsical, connect to something within. And if they’re captivating enough, quick enough to the point (this method shortened this training from 6 hours to 3 hours and 53 minutes), and attentively delivered and edited, they can help us examine our own actions and affect who we are when we leave the theater. I am excited to have created, guided, and implemented a training method that was able to do that. 

So, Ms. Stewart, that is what I’m doing with my film minor. Any questions?