[VIDEO] SA Speaks: Lighting Up Introverts on College Campuses

Back in March, I had the pleasure of giving one of seven SA Speaks talks at the 2016 NASPA National Conference in Indianapolis, IN. Spread over two days, the presentation style resembled that of a TED conference- right down to the big stage and unseen crowd.

At last, my talk is available for viewing. I present it to you now- hope you enjoy, and that you learn something that could help a colleague, a student, or even you live and work better.

5 Ways to Embrace Introverts in a Residential Community

Last week, I had the pleasure of delivering a twenty minute TED-style talk about “Facilitating Quiet Success in Residence Life” at the NEACUHO Annual Conference in Westfield, MA. We had a lot of ground to cover in the twenty allotted minutes, and was pleased to get through it all and have time to answer questions from those who attended the session. Thank you so much for having me, I had a great time!

However, in going over my evaluations, I noticed a few common themes. First, more time. Yup. I feel you. It’s a big topic, and twenty minutes only scratched the surface. To that, I say: please get in touch, so we can chat more about it!

A second note I got, requested some concrete strategies that could be incorporated into residential communities to demonstrate an understanding of a variety of temperaments. That, I can do here. So for those seeking to include introvert-friendly practices into their residential communities, consider the following (and please let me know how it goes, should you choose to try them out!):

For First Year Students: Vary Your Icebreaker and Team Building Strategy
Particularly at the start of the school year, the environment that we cultivate on campus and in our halls is more conducive to students who take flight like rockets, than ones who do so like planes. Large group gatherings, loud opening events, and expectations for enthusiastic participation fill the docket- on many campuses for at least the first week of school, and can dominate up to the first six weeks. That’s a long time to exist in a draining environment!

Finding allies in this space (and allies can be of any temperament!) is crucial, but individuals have to have the psychological space to do so. Facilitators of “getting to know you” games and activities can lower the stakes and the energy required to succeed these spaces in a few ways:

  • Use nametags as a “head start.” In addition to providing nametags so individuals can pair names with faces, pose a question for the group and have folks write their answers on their nametags. For example: what was your favorite cereal growing up, what pet would you have if you could choose, what part of the college experience you’re looking forward to the most. This can allow the “me too!” phenomenon to take place with a lower burden of energy expenditure- that small talk that can lead to these commonalities is made a little easier once one commonality is already found.
  • Carefully consider the questions you pose to the group. Irrespective of temperament, early social interactions are tough when you feel as though your answers are being judged. Common icebreakers, that place an emphasis on “most unique” or “most interesting,” create an unseen burden to craft an answer that satisfies the group. Comparatively, asking an individual’s favorite or most significant lets the person decide the value of that answer. Both types of question are perfectly acceptable, but thoughtfully varying your use of each can make a difference in helping more introverted folks warm up to a group.

Create Community Standards That Support Temperament
Rules about quiet hours and quiet spaces likely already exist on most campuses, and these rules can be the saving psychological grace for individuals that need that quiet time to recharge after a long day or week. These rules can be supplemented with some floor-based or hall-based guidelines (e.g. “headphones in” or “book up” means please don’t interrupt while I’m studying; “ID face up on the table” means please stop by and say hi) that help your students navigate common spaces.

These guidelines could be as general or as specific as you’d like, and can be decided ahead of time or crowdsourced from residents. The latter strategy could be an educational asset, providing students the opportunity to learn more about those around them and how they can best interact.

Articulate the Structure and Motivation Behind Community Standards
As these standards are being articulated, at floor meetings or in early gatherings of residents, emphasize the “why” of rules and guidelines as often as you can alongside the “what” or “how.” For example, if certain lounges are quiet after a certain time of day and others are designated 24-hour quiet lounges (an option you could consider for creating alternate “quiet spaces” for residents), articulate why there are spaces you’ve chosen to keep fully quiet. In my experience, students are generally willing to comply with a rule if they know the motivation behind it, even if it doesn’t apply to them or they don’t personally agree. By sharing that the addition of these quieter spaces allows some members of the community to be better classmates, roommates, and friends, they’ll likely have a greater understanding of what it means to comply.

Should it be helpful, feel free to use the rockets and planes analogy, or the rice and pasta analogy, to articulate the difference between the types.

Dig Deeper When Moderating Conflict
When moderating conflict between residents, be they roommates, hallmates, or other acquaintances, our default mindset is to consider the issue behaviorally. And in most cases, that approach is appropriate. However, I’d urge you to also read more into how each party is handling the issue- and how temperament plays a role in it. What seems like one roommate not being spoken or listened to may be an extrovert, not fully understanding what the other party needs to be communicated with. What seems like an over the top reaction to a noise complaint might be an outburst from an overstimulated introvert, at their physical wit’s end. These orientations to the world make a world of difference when managing conflict. You can help in this navigation by facilitating the asking of questions like “What’s the best way to share my feedback or constructive criticism with you?” “What signs should I look for to know if you’re having a tough day?” “If we realize we’re having a conflict, what’s the best way to talk it out?”

As you seek to help these people come to a resolution, help them understand how the people they are – and how they interact with the world – might contribute to the impasse they feel they’re at. It may not quell future conflicts, but at least they’ll know a little more about the person they’re sharing space with.

Rethink Student Staff Hiring Strategies
This last bit speaks to finding the people that are on the front lines in managing these issues. Having strong student support leads to strong peer support for residents- and this support needs to be more than willingness to do a role, and an ease in expressing this in an interview.

Yes, framing our residential life opportunities as “exciting,” or “in need of enthusiastic and energetic individuals” is a true statement, but it’d be just as true to emphasize elements of the position as “thoughtful” and in need of “contemplative leaders and good listeners.” Both brands of skill are essential to these critical leadership roles, and yet I rarely see the latter on job descriptions. Please note: while I maintain the belief that none of these qualities are the exclusive province of any temperamental type, I also believe that a broader application will yield a broader swath of applicants – ones who fit the former, the latter, or both.

This broad interpretation should also be carried into interview scenarios. Let all reviewers review candidate applications- introverts tend to be strong writers, and can yield significant insight on paper; if their applications are hidden or seen by few, that insight can’t be shared. Look not just for individuals who are quick to answer in interviews with rehearsed answers, but also those who appear to carefully consider their words before speaking. Listen to not just how they respond to questions, but to the questions they ask, and the level of thought they put in to that opportunity. And take note not just of the candidates who speak and interact with ease at group interviews, but also those who listen well to those in their groups, and contribute quietly but significantly to the task at hand. All these skills are valuable in creating a balanced team.

I hope this has helped you to take a closer look at the practices you employ in your residential community to embrace introverts, but in turn create an accepting space for all your students. None of these practices are designed to exclude the more extroverted members of the community, but rather to ensure that there is space for all in their ostensible home.

Again, if you have more questions or are interested in chatting further, please don’t hesitate to get in touch!

Call for Submissions: “The Defectors”

Since we last spoke, the six-month anniversary of my shift to independent work has come and gone. There are moments in the past six months that have felt like incredible triumphs, and just as many (in fact, likely more) where I’ve felt lost, confused, and wondered if things were going to work out. But one thing hasn’t wavered: this was the right decision for me. Doing the work that I really enjoy, in this fashion, was how I was meant to work. Most anyone who I’ve spoken to since this journey began, has heard me say that.

But now, I want to hear and share more stories like this. Judging by the popularity of last week’s released article, Attrition from Student Affairs Perspectives from Those Who Exited the Profession, there is a lot of curiosity in this area about alternative options and what drives people to select them. While the assumption is that people leaving do so for different fields altogether, there are some that select what I like to call “higher education-adjacent” roles.

There are a great many ways to work with students and facilitate their success; campus-based, student-facing positions are not the only way to make an impact on student lives. Have you chosen to take an alternative path – a move to the K-12 space? Independent consultancy? Association work? Auxiliary company that creates products or services for higher education? I want to talk to you, and in turn allow you to talk to others.
*If you’ve left student affairs or higher education, and then come back, your perspective is also welcome! 

What Am I Looking For?
While I won’t be policing what is shared, I’m interested in answers to some of the following:

  • What were you doing before you “defected”?
  • What factors, internal and/or external, contributed to the change you eventually made?
  • What are your favorite and least favorite parts about the work you do now?
  • What challenges do you see facing student affairs or higher education, from where you sit now? Any ideas on what changes could help improve the student experience or the outcomes we wish to see?
  • A question I get often that I’m genuinely curious about: would you ever go back? What would it take?
    • If you have left and then returned, what informed that decision?

You can submit however you’re most comfortable: 500-750 word blog post? Cool! Video diary? Awesome. Comic/doodle/art piece? I’d love it! I want to incorporate as many different perspectives, in as many different formats, as possible.

Recognizing that this can be an acrimonious or emotional topic for some, I’m assigning a tone of “constructive venting” for the pieces I hope to publish. That is to say, I want you to be authentic about any frustrations that might have contributed to the change you made, but also seek to be hopeful about what this experience taught you, and how it could inform changes to the field, the nature of the relationships in it, and the overall structures that govern the work. Make sense? If not, let me know- I’ll elaborate.

What’s In It For Me?

First, the material element: I’m vocal about not believing in writing for exposure; as such, I stand by the idea that those who choose to share their stories should be compensated. Those writers whose posts are selected (I’m aiming to publish ten posts between August 1st and September 1st, 2016) will get $25 for their contributions. The how, when, and whatnot will be discussed with those contributors whose posts are selected.

As or also important, I want to start a conversation around what student affairs and higher education perceives in the act of “defection.” I’ve written about this before, but will encapsulate my stance thusly: there are a lot of ways to do this work, and there are a lot of “whys” for wanting to do this work. Expecting only one model (campus-based, student centered work) to properly encompass all the ways we work best, doesn’t make sense. What’s more, diverse perspectives make the field and the impact we have on students richer.

Furthermore, for those seeking to enter the field, it’s important to know that there are options. Feel like your talents are well utilized in an educator role with an association, helping vet and recruit talent at a college- serving agency, in the K-12 classroom with eyes on what they’ll need to succeed once arriving at our gates, or building and promoting a product that serves the students you got into this work to help? All those pathways are legitimate. I want to collect an array of posts that prove that.

Wanna Be A Part of It?
If you’re interested, and have a story you want to share, please sign up here for more details. I’ll be accepting pitches until Friday, June 17th at 5pm ET– those selected to generate their pitched pieces will hear from me by Monday, June 20th at 5pm ET. And as I mentioned above, pieces will appear at ammamarfo.com twice a week between August 1st and September 1st.

Not Just Another Manic Monday

I’ll start here: I don’t talk enough about how mental illness affects me.

I don’t talk about how I’ve learned to tell when an anxiety attack is coming on, and have left the office (or house, now) on more than one occasion to walk around the neighborhood, calming my breathing and willing my hands to unclench. I don’t talk about how, in the years before I could quantify the signs, I spent these moments under my desk with the lights off, feeling powerless to move or answer the door when someone knocked mid-meltdown. And I certainly never talk about how my mindset of near-certain doom effectively kept me out of any positions requiring on-call responsibilities.

To be clear, the fact that I speak minimally about any of the above is, in my eyes, a problem.

But I recognize where I’m getting better. In a separate conversation with a friend a few weeks ago, he was telling me about the trouble he was having writing a joke about a situation he was dealing with. My response: “you might be too close to write that joke. It’s hard to joke about it, when you’re in it.” And I will say, that’s the area in which I’ve made the most progress. For such a long time, anxiety and panic weighed on me so heavily that I couldn’t joke, couldn’t find anything funny because the world was just too heavy. The comedy of other people was what helped pull me out of it- once I realized I couldn’t laugh and worry or panic at the same time, I was hooked. Ever wonder why comedy’s so important to me? Now you know.

Two seemingly unrelated, but at the same time wholly related, events have brought me to a place of talking about this. First, I spent much of last weekend glued to Maria Bamford’s profoundly revealing and incredibly funny Lady Dynamite (streaming now on Netflix). In it, she tells a multi-layered fictionalized story about a return to working in Hollywood after a breakdown and institutionalization for bipolar disorder and OCD. I’m starting to notice that while I have spent a few of my 100 days writing jokes about the things that make me anxious, the idea of an entire show dedicated to chronicling a breakdown and subsequent return to form is still terrifying.

I’m not sure what it is about Netflix that they’ve decided to tackle the “humor and mental illness niche” – perhaps something about those affected already being in the house? I have no idea. But in any case, I suspect that a lot of things I love so much about the dark but hilarious BoJack Horseman, and hear I’ll like about Flaked (haven’t watched it yet, but it’s on the list!), draw me to Lady Dynamite. Even as I laughed through many of the jokes about common situations that I’ve felt (there’s a joke about faking a personality at a party that includes an out-loud proclamation of “I’m a natural extrovert, and so this is a pleasure” that I was standing when watching…and then was almost on the floor I laughed so hard), there was an ever-present level of awe that came from the realization that I was watching someone tell an incredibly personal story with a level of distance that left it feeling both deeply personal and relatable, while also making it really really funny. I don’t know if I’ll ever make it there, but I am forever grateful to Bamford for doing so. Watch it if you haven’t yet.

Second, and closer to my professional home, was the public disclosure of University of Cincinnati’s president Santa Ono that he’s struggled with mental illness, and attempted suicide twice. In a field that advocates strongly for student well-being but often balks at being open about struggles its own professionals face, this was a major event. I am incredibly appreciative of Kristen Abell’s response to his admission, applauding him for speaking up about how mental illness has affected him but also calling upon our colleagues to help the people that make these disclosures. She makes a distinction between an understood support for those struggling, and active support in those moments when they need help:

Here is the challenge for me: I believe that in higher education we are conditioned to say the right thing – whether we really believe in that thing or not. This is why I believe that it is easier for us to stand up and advocate for our students with mental illness – because we actually believe that is the “right thing” – than it is for us to advocate for our coworkers and colleagues. It’s one thing for students – it’s another thing when we realize we have to work with someone who has a mental illness. And while we might say that we support someone with mental illness, it’s another thing entirely when we have to figure out a way to work with that person.

In defense of higher education, we are likely far from the only field that is having trouble reconciling these two ideas. But I speak about it here because (a) we’re more vocal about it than most, and (b) it’s where I work, so that’s how I’m speaking about it.

This pair of events, at first glance, may not seem connected. But I believe they are. For those unfamiliar with Bamford, Lady Dynamite is not the first instance of her speaking out about how mental illness informs and affects her career. It is, however, the most mainstream and comprehensive conversation she’s had about it. It also highlights how her relationship with coworkers and employers, as well as family and friends, played into her breakdown and eventual return to a “normal” life. President Ono, as he discusses with The Chronicle, very nearly made this speech without any nod to how the topic at hand affected him- but chose to speak up and let his story be heard. And that shift in approach matters.

I had the opportunity to speak with Kristen, as well as the other two founders of The Committed Project (designed to reduce the stigma around mental illness in student affairs and higher education), and asked what they saw as being the ultimate vision of the initiative. My favorite answer of the three provided? In the best version of the future, the brightest of timelines, The Committed Project won’t be necessary. An initiative won’t be needed to draw attention to the legitimacy of mental health days for sick time, or time taken to ensure that depression and anxiety can be effectively managed, or that there is no shame in taking medication to manage symptoms. Whether that acceptance comes from more people speaking up, or more people being able to make their experiences accessible through humor, we have to keep working toward that brightest version of the future. By writing about it, talking about it with students, and even by joking about it, I’m committing to playing a part in that- how about you?

Parody in Practice: The Gentlemen of Humans of Higher Ed [Interview]

Last week, we discussed the nature of parody, the challenges associated with doing it well, and why it feels like the type of comedy we really need right now. This week, I want to take an in-depth look at a higher education-specific example of the form, in  (the award-winning) Humans of Higher Ed.

Developed earlier this year as a creative outlet for three professionals working in the field, Humans of Higher Ed is a Tumblr that parodies the now-famous “Humans of New York” concept. It takes many of our common frustrations and wild stories from our work, and transforms them into straightforward stories that (generally) bridge the gap elegantly between being relatable and familiar, without that “too specific to be hypothetical” feeling that prior higher education-themed Tumblr accounts sometimes had. What I love most about Humans of Higher Ed, truly, is that their desire to lampoon this field that both challenges and entertains us comes from a place of wanting to do the work well. Successful parody is predicated on an appreciation of the form that one seeks to mimic; for HoHE, that appreciation extends to the profession that makes up their site.

Here, I talk to the three founders (noted here as M, B, and J for an added air of mystery) further about how the site came to be, their writing process, and where they hope to see the project go from here.

The Humans of Higher Ed concept, or any concept that seeks to ground work with a bit of humor, appeals to be because it is a reminder that we don’t work at the Pentagon or the CIA or anywhere that can’t allow for a bit of levity. Yes, the work we do is serious, but there are also moments of silliness – or moments that can be seen as silly. HoHE plays on those moments, and expands them to help others find them when they may need them most. In fact, it was that need to see those light moments that spurred the page’s creation.

M: I think the idea first came about back in February. I was in the midst of a crazy time of year with events so I may have had an extra chip on my shoulder – or, a nicer way of putting it, [in] need for an outlet. There was also something going on in the higher ed world on social media platforms. Honestly, I can’t remember what it was, I just remember thinking it would be fun to take all of those annoying things in my work life and put a positive spin on them. I had probably just had a meeting where we discussed meetings and meetings and meetings. So annoying and so relatable. Instead of my normal backhanded or passive aggressive tweet/Facebook post I thought let’s have fun with this!

J: M reached out to me, in what, February, and another colleague with the idea of a spoof Humans of New York account, focusing on our lives in higher ed. I jumped on it immediately, as I had been missing this kind of stuff from my days as an occasional freelancer for CronkNews, which was a bit more longform satire of the Chronicle of Higher Education.  Writing and engaging with the Cronk folks throughout grad school and the beginning of my career helped really ground me in a field, I felt at times, was not a right fit for me.  It taught me that there is a lighter side to the sometimes serious work we do.  HofHE is just a continuation of that for me… continually looking at higher ed through a lens of humor in order to find ways to improve and do better.  I love to write humor, and I know I could never be a good actor or stand up comic.  I need the time and editing pen writing allows to refine a joke over and over until it hits just right.

B: I came on right after the page was launched, but I’ve got to imagine the inspiration was the need for a release valve. I’m what you could call a “short-timer” in this field, meaning I’m not going to be doing this the rest of my life. I’m not even really going to be working in true Student Affairs for the rest of this calendar year. And I can appreciate, now, that maybe if I’d had the cathartic release of writing for Humans of Higher Ed – skewering and poking at the madness we work in – maybe I wouldn’t be headed to Business School in the fall.

As I learned more about their writing process, I realized just how much of their work embraces the principles that are used in true parody writing. As you ape an art form in parody, you have to do so with an exactitude that allows only a few hairs to be out of place. The team embraces that as they write. 

M: When we first started writing these, we were all nervous about doing it daily. We were afraid we’d run out of content. That was such a silly thought. At first, we started making lists and saving drafts of upcoming topics to make sure we could fill every day. After about a week of this we realized we didn’t have to. There’s enough silly things going on in our world each and every day that we can just pick one of those. I think that’s my favorite part of the whole thing.

B: I think my favorite part is seeing how close we can get to making something completely accurate while also being completely absurd. That’s satire to me. That’s the balance. My favorite writer is Kurt Vonnegut, largely because nobody rides that fine line like he does. So I look at a situation that I’ve heard about, or experienced, or imagined, and I think “What can we do to ground this in reality but tweak one minute component to make it outlandish.” Because, frankly, after 10 years in student affairs, that’s how I view our whole field: Small, but beautiful, Real moments surrounded by a loaf of the Outlandish. The people who are most able to stomach the outlandish get to savor the most real moments.

J: At this point, B and M do a lot of the writing, and I try to pitch in wherever I can.  we all pitch in and improve and deliberate on pieces throughout the day, and find the best possible pictures for posts.  It’s the most chaotic, but hilariously fun, team effort I’ve been a part of, which I think is my favorite thing.  Our Facebook messenger chats are other worldly.

An inherent uncertainty in parody lies in its reliance on volume, which means that the response to HoHE posts is highly unpredictable. It’s difficult to know which jokes will “hit,” which ones will reveal themselves as funny to the reader later, and which ones will fly right by. 

M: I don’t think we truly ever know which jokes are going to hit. There’s been a couple times where we think something is so so funny and it just whiffs. Then there’s other times where it’s like an ‘OKAY’ joke and it blows up. One of our first posts was just about how younger professionals get confused for students all the time. It was a fine post. Funny enough. But definitely should not be our most shared, liked, viewed post. Sure is though! Our most successful posts is when we can really isolate the issue. Most of the issues that are frustrating in higher ed area also frustrating outside of higher ed. Meetings are a universal annoyance. So in my mind we write the frustration/joke/bit and then place a higher ed lens over it. It’s still for the Higher Ed community but can be digested and understood by all. Lately, we’ve also gotten into the habit of trying to do a pop culturesque post a week. Sprinkling in some Game of Thrones, Lemonade, Running Man, Kanye, whatever is happening we try to pepper that in. That’s enjoyable for the audience but is also just so much fun for us.

J: The stuff I’ve written, I’ve written from personal experience.  I looked back at some of the early posts I wrote when M first approached me, and its totally cringeworthy.  Completely.  Like, I was all excited that first day M approached me about it, but if I could burn a google doc, yeah, I would burn that one. But, having worked with M and B, and growing to really understand where we want to take this, what boundaries we want to push, and what boundaries we surprisingly push, I’ve learned a lot more.

B: I have also found that the audience is 100% unpredictable. One of our most surprising “rockets”, as I’ve taken to calling our most successful posts, was the grocery shopping post, with the picture of a cart full of junk food. I wrote that, almost 100% the way it was published, standing in line at Shaw’s buying snacks for that night’s RHA meeting. That was my actual shopping cart. In my head it was “yeah, this is one of those things people will look at and chuckle for a second and move on”, but it took off in every way. People were commenting about when/why they’ve had shopping carts like that, people were tagging their co-worker who does the shopping or hates junk food or had their pro-card privileges taken away, and it was a banner day for Likes. We had over 80 people subscribe to the Facebook page that day, which is a really, really, really solid day for us. Of course, that snack post was followed immediately by the Facilities post…

As you might guess, knowing both human nature and the nature of higher education over all, not all posts are hits. Humans of Higher Ed hasn’t launched without its fair share of critics, challenges, and…those who miss the point. But as is often the case with comedy, they are learning to take those moments in stride and let them inform the writing rather than deflate it.

M: None of the topics should feel ‘off limits’ or ‘too touchy.’ I think if we’re able to isolate the realness of it all, it should be on the table. The only time we really run into issues is when someone recognizes the behavior we’re calling out and (in my opinion) reacts negatively because they are either embarrassed that they feel they are being called out or just believe that behavior is accurate.

We had one post that was relatively controversial for the language that was used. I stand by the post. In retrospect, there were absolutely some tweaks that could have been made. It’s tricky writing for someone else’s POV. In this particular instance we didn’t clearly articulate who we thought this person was and because of that people (who probably already weren’t fans) were able to misconstrue the message. On a personal level, this was very difficult for me at first. 1. You don’t want to be in the business of marginalizing people. Not a good look. 2. It’s weird when a group of people come out and voice to the world ‘You’re not funny!’ ‘This is dumb!’

I think after that day we were a little gun-shy and  tried to stay away from anything that could be controversial! But that’s silly! This is why we created the page in the first place It doesn’t mean we’re right every time we call something out. We are just trying to show different POV’s and call out aspects of our world that often go uncalled.

J: The chalk post, the INFAMOUS chalk post, was a legit post. I brought the idea to the crew because I had just gotten done yelling in my boss’s office about a group that chalked on a vertical surface on our main academic building… assholes (leave that in)… and it was prime for a HofHe take.  B took the idea and ran with it in a beautiful, multifaceted, and layered piece that just kept giving me smiles.  They day we posted that in the Student Affairs Pros Facebook group and it got primarily decried as stereotyping and offensive (we even got blamed for mocking California’s drought situation, which I will never abide by, but the other issues people brought up I understand), was rough, but it never deterred me from wanting to continue.

B: Ah, the facilities post. Or, as I remember it, “the day the internet called me an oppressor.” J had seen a social media posting of someone’s vertical-surface chalking – it was posted from their official university account – and obviously, any facilities-minded person knows vertical-surface chalking is basically the worst. THE WORST. so we decided to write something about the rivalry between facilities and chalk, since most of our various shops use chalk on sidewalks as a major “social media platform” – which is still one of my favorite lines I’ve written for this project, by the way – and very rarely do we consider how our programs impact our partners in Facilities.

I’m a huge supporter of facilities, I was actually in interviews that week for a search committee for an assistant director position in our maintainers’ shop here. So when J pitched it, I decided to take the idea and write from the heart. My family lives between pig farms and sweet potato farms in rural North Carolina. My younger brother cleans industrial floors for a living, my older sister is a hotel maid. My father made sure asphalt was level on road construction crews. Me, though, I work a desk job where I mostly process the feelings of 20-year-olds and come up with spreadsheet formulas.

When I wrote the Facilities post, I was tapping into the voice of who I really feel like I should be, my own internalized workaday voice. Not the kind of voice I routinely have to use to feel like a professional, where I use obscure words like “workaday”. When I sent that Facilities post to M and J, I honestly never felt more secure in a post coming from a good place. I wrote that Facilities person as the hero of our joke. And then the internet took a huge shit all over my intentions. Because that’s what the internet does.

I remember one person in the Student Affairs Pros group complaining that I’d written the character as someone unable to read greek letters, despite the fact that I explicitly wrote a line indicating the hypothetical worker completely got it, but the greeks just suck at chalking their own logo. One person complained that I wrote it full of grammatical errors, when in reality I *thought* I had written it perfectly, intentionally, but apparently I have internalized saying something like “them boys” for so long it actually is correct to me.
J: We had no inkling of the impact of our intent on that one, but we are very on point with each other on posts that have a clear negative or derogatory intent – they won’t fly.  Obviously, we want to write something that pleases each person, but we also know the people we don’t please will never be pleased, and honestly, they are the reason why I have to write this humor, because they make our field that much more ridiculous and unfulfilling.

B: Has “the Facilities post” changed how I write, or how Humans of Higher Ed posts? I’d like to say it hasn’t. I don’t think we’ve walked any posts back from being offensive or actually oppressive, because we’re not writing those to start with. If I’d been sending the team really offensive stuff and then finding ways to bowdlerize it down to something that won’t trigger anyone, that’d be one thing, but we don’t start anywhere near that kind of material. Conversely, it has made me more intentional about the pictures we use. I often think if we’d had a different picture for the facilities worker, more in line with the photographic tone the project routinely uses, we wouldn’t have ruffled quite as many feathers. Bowdlerize is another one of those words I don’t know why I know.

I will also say: no such thing as bad press. On the day of the facilities post we had 14 people UnLike the facebook page, and 191 people Like it. By raw number of Likes, it is Humans of Higher Ed’s 3rd most successful day. So, as some people might say: Scoreboard.
But despite the occasional misfires and rough receptions, the team plans to continue, and wants to go even bigger in the future, telling funny stories that show even wider swaths of the higher ed experience.

B: Personally I’m looking forward to how we continue to push boundaries and come as close as possible to stepping on toes. I’d love to see us writing more posts that might not even feel funny. that goes back to my Vonnegut love – the shaggy dog stories that may not go anywhere but still take you for a ride. We’ve settled into a nice groove where Friday is experimental day, because we know from DATA ANALYTICS! that Friday is our lowest day for all sorts of ASSESSABLE METRICS! so if we swing and miss on Friday, who cares? At worst, we miss out on getting a handful of page Likes, at best we connect with a new style of post that gives us another branch on the creativi-tree. God I hate myself for writing that.

I do think we need to look at who we have on our writing team, with an eye towards expansion. I’d love to see us reach out to a woman, and it’d be great if we had a person of color. having three white cis-gender dudes write for an audience we know is exceptionally diverse is a treacherous proposition, but, honestly, where are you going to find a proven comedic talent that works in higher education who is a woman of color? where oh where could one such as this beeeeeee?

(And yes, Dear Reader, I know who that’s directed toward. B, I’m still weighing it. )
And as you continue to read their posts (or perhaps discover them for the first time), I want to again drive the point home that this exercise in parody comes from a good place. 
B: For me, the core voice I write with is “I love my work, but hate my job.” So this is an opportunity to give a voice to that part of my brain that sits in staff meetings and yells “WE JUST SPENT 20 MINUTES TALKING ABOUT WHAT KIND OF SNACK BOXES WE CAN HAVE AT TRAINING!” while I have to sit there and nod and at least pretend to be a non-contentious professional. Again, I’m drawn to the idea of a release valve.
M: We are all very lucky to work in this field. It’s important work. But if we can’t laugh at ourselves then what are we doing?

Surely You Can’t Be Serious: On the Necessity of Parody

What’s it called when you read a diagnosis and its symptoms, and immediately determine that you have the disease in question? Whatever the technical name, I’ve got an ailment to add to my hypochondriac’s litany of likely diseases: witzelsucht.  Witzelsucht is a neurological condition in which the sufferer is essentially a nonstop fountain of jokes and puns. Yep, this is a real thing. Regrettably, it can show up in the early onset of those with dementia, but is nonetheless a fantastic trick of the mind.

I learned about witzelsucht in the same week I embarked on a binge watch of TBS’ Angie Tribeca, a parody of police shows like so many Law and Orders (Laws and Order?) or CSIs before it. Created and executive produced by Steve Carell and Nancy Walls Carell, it has a comedic sensibility that you would expect from such a brain trust. As I watched, and compared its characteristics to other types of comedy, I agreed with the source that taught me about witzelsucht: in a world that’s gotten accustomed to binge-watching and repeated viewings of our favorite shows, parody is the form of comedy that benefits most from the barrage of jokes it generates.

One of the signs of a good joke, for me, is that it gets more funny with subsequent views (rather than less). And I found new things to love with repeat viewings of episodes, sight gags that I missed before or jokes that didn’t land the first time but I noticed on a second go. Parody is ripe for this, because of just how many jokes it needs to work successfully. These jokes have to strike a balance of universality and specificity, one delicate enough to let Airplane be continually funny to those who didn’t live through the epidemic of disaster movies of the 1970s (which it does), lest you end up with the later Scary Movie installments (lots of problems there, but for now…at times too specific to be relatable). Tribeca recognizes its need to honor its predecessors so fully, it debuted on TBS with a 25-hour marathon, not unlike the manner in which many consume its serious counterpart on its sister channel, TNT.

Where stand-up is carefully crafted to provide the maximum number of laughs in a finite period, sketch comedy is tied into a structure that dictates how many jokes make sense, and improv relies less on going for humor and more for authentic reactions that feel funny in their own right, parody relies on volume to create a layered experience that is funny for different reasons each time it’s viewed. Take this exchange, from early in the second episode, as Angie tries to explain to her partner Jay Geils (another layer!) why she’s so closed off in their interactions; I love it because it plays on exactly what you’d expect from a situation like this on its actual counterpart, but takes a sharp turn toward the end.

GEILS: Man, you don’t let anyone in, do you?
TRIBECA: Let’s just say, I was engaged to my partner and he died under unusual circumstances.
[beat]
GEILS AND TRIBECA, IN UNISON: I was engaged to my partner and he died under unusual circumstances.

Parody is popping up with greater frequency in other media too- think The Onion or Reductress (which if you’re not reading, I give you permission to take a break and check out the amazing stuff they’re doing), the phenomenal run of The Colbert Report, or books like Megan Amram’s Science! For Her or The Daily Show’s America: The Book. In higher education (where I normally live), it’s been attempted with Tumblrs like What Should We Call Student Affairs, but refined through the currently popular Humans of Higher Ed (more on that later). I have a theory as to why, and we’ll get to that later too.

Where other forms of comedy balance the silliness that you find in parody with a “straight man” (or person) to demonstrate the absurdity, parody leaves that role to the viewer/reader/consumer, something that IndieWire noted shortly after Angie Tribeca’s debut:

One of the keys to the series’ success is its total commitment to the type of world being depicted.Everyone is in on the many jokes. No one questions that a dog is driving a cop car or rolls their eyes when someone makes an obvious pun (sometimes repeatedly). Each character embraces the premise, and that allows the audience to do the same. We all feel connected to this strange world, and the jokes land because of it.

But the most important ingredient for solid parody – an art form that is designed to provide entertainment through poking fun at a genre or concept – is to demonstrate some semblance of respect for the “source material.” Even when the format is used to make a commentary on or criticism of its original, at which point parody moves into the territory of satire, it lands best when it takes painstaking care to work within the confines of the medium it seeks to lampoon. Tribeca does that admirably, as noted by The Wrap, much in the spirit of the original masters of the form:

With Airplane and Police Squad!, creative partners Jim Abrahams, David Zucker, and Jerry Zucker created a perfectly straight-faced brand of comedy that aped its targets by replicating them almost exactly, only with slight variations that called attention to the source material’s self-seriousness.

Here, parody and satire distinguish themselves from its close cousin snark by caring enough about the source material to mimic it artfully. In a climate that supports headline-based pontification and hate-watching, the commitment that good parody and satire writers make to understand a form of expression before speaking on it, is admirable. We need parody to exist as an antidote to other less thoughtful forms of commentary, ones borne from an incomplete or ill-informed understanding of a topic. Parody and satire do the heavy lifting of understanding how a concept works before deciding where the funny is. It’s hard work, but the payoff is worth it. And while a case of witzelsucht might be helpful to deploy it, it may not be necessary.

We’ll talk more about this next week with the creators of the parody/satire site Humans of Higher Ed, a Humans of New York parody site designed to lampoon the many frustrations hidden in higher education.

Doing Away with Hobbies

After a few weeks on the road, I’m settling back into my regularly scheduled program and sifting through my thoughts on a number of things. I got a head start, however, at the tail end of last week, while volunteering at the 99U Conference in New York.

Let me back up a little bit: a few weeks back, I responded to a prompt on Femsplain and was selected to be published on their site. It’s a piece that had been sitting inside for quite a while, but I struggled to find the words, and then the venue, for all I was thinking and feeling. After a few weeks in their queue, it was published on Wednesday to a response that, frankly, overwhelmed me. Among the responses was an inquiry from the Huffington Post, asking if they could republish the piece on their site.

Now, this is a significant question. On the one hand, publication in the Huffington Post presents a level of exposure that is far beyond what I could generally acquire for myself. It goes without saying: as a writer, this is good. However, on the other hand, the Huffington Post counts on this reasoning (the promise of high exposure) as a rationale for not paying its contributors, something I don’t believe in. Their policy on nonpayment operates in stark contrast to that of Femsplain, who shut down briefly earlier this year when they ran out of money, rather than make contributors work without pay. So yes, eyes on exposure is good (see that thing I said above), but compensating people for hard work is better.

So I was left with a choice: with arguments on both hands, which one would be the dominant hand? I’m a writing righty, sports lefty, so that was no help😉

It didn’t take long to realize that there wasn’t a choice to be made. I was reminded, perhaps by my surroundings and my attendance at The Daily Show the day before, of a great quote by Jon Stewart about values (pro tip: this is where the title of the post comes in):

Do I believe that a corporation that is able to pay people, should do so? Yes. Which means that even if they want work I’ve already been compensated for, I don’t play in that system. Simple enough.

Except it wasn’t. It was a hard decision, even though I knew what the right thing to do was. I was lucky to be fortified by a few of the talks at 99U in the days that followed. First Cap Watkins from Buzzfeed talked about a tool he uses with his team when trying to decide things. It’s a little crass, but I still love it.

When making a decision, or trying to figure out whose course of action to follow, Cap and one of his colleagues used to say “how many f***s do you give about this?” Whoever cared more, won. Similarly, Cap now does this when trying to make a decision on what to pursue. How much energy should he put into it, and does the fervor merit the gravity of the decision – or is it just about the win? Without realizing it, that was part of my decision. Yes, this is a value that I hold, but how many f***s do I give about this issue? As it happens, a lot – and that guided my decision.

Later, Yuko Shimizu gave an awesome talk about her thoughts on personal work and how it fits into your overall philosophy about your art. She drew a great comparison between popstars (those that actively seek mass popularity for their work), and originals (those looking more for the chance to be unique). She was also quite specific about the issue at hand; she is quick to point out that free work isn’t unilaterally off limits, but you get to make it serve your needs. Of particular note: people who aren’t paying you for work don’t get to “art direct” your work. This line of thinking also unconsciously informed my decision; you should get what you pay for. The level of vulnerability and openness put into that piece is not the sort I would put out without significant thought, and for an organization that valued that disclosure. In my mind, the value that Femsplain put on that public disclosure is greater. That matters to me, and it matters enough that I let it guide my actions.

Ensuring that values aren’t just hobbies can be harder work than we give it credit for. Sometimes letting them be a hobby is easier, or less messy, or more considerate of others’ feelings. In fact, as I think about it…several elements of the post that started it all speak to this principle. Where does your allyship turn into action, into activation? What causes are we for in word, but balk at when the time comes to confront them in our day-to-day lives? I’m nowhere near perfect at this, to be sure. It’s a struggle every day to move these ideologies from theory into practice.

But I learned this week that doing the right thing feels worth it when you decide to honor it. My stand likely won’t be the sea change that causes them to reexamine their practices (and in fact, I’m sure it won’t), but enough people believing that and acting on it, might. Do you do it because everyone can see? Perhaps – being a values educator, doing the right thing mattered because I teach people how to do this. But as Yuko Shimizu said later in her talk, you have to be able to sleep with your decisions. And Thursday night, I slept great.

What decisions have challenged your values? How did you decide how you were going to act?

Hooray for May Book Sale!

Welcome to May! To those for whom April is an especially busy season, making it to May feels like a major achievement. To those about to sleep…I salute you:)

As a little end of the school year treat, I’m offering a discount on books, something I haven’t done in a while! Consider them for the graduates, moms, or advisors you appreciate in your lives:)

Head to Createspace for a 30% discount on paperback copies of THE I’S HAVE IT and LIGHT IT UP!

 

The I’s Have It: Reflections on Introversion in Student Affairs

Use the coupon code CWJY73KE to get 30% off here.

 

 

 


light it up front cover art

Light It Up: Engaging the Introverted Student Leader

Use the coupon code BHZ682KX to get 30% off here.

 

 

 

 

Congratulations on a busy season well done, and happy reading!

Rumbling with Difficult Laughs

WARNING: This post contains mild spoilers for season 2 of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, streaming now on Netflix.

From Episode 3:

KIMMY: You’re playing a Japanese woman?
TITUS: Playing? I was a Japanese woman!
KIMMY: Well, if Aisha Tyler can play a white woman on Friends, then I guess it’s okay!

I love rumbling with jokes. I love a joke that I have to wrestle with after my first impression with, something that hit me weird the first time but needs further examination to fully understand and appreciate. And maybe it’s because I was reading Brené Brown’s latest, Rising Strong, on the weekend that I dug into season 2 of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, but I came to it particularly excited to pull some jokes apart.

The nature of Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s material invites that in a lot of ways. It’s dense, it’s fast, and it’s smart. I watch most TV with captions, but find it a necessity when watching Kimmy Schmidt because of the quick pace of the dialogue and heft to the jokes. Nevertheless, the line above thumped me on the chest hard- possibly because I saw it before I heard it. I had to pause playback, and audibly whispered “Whoa.”

This is a complicated episode, that touches on a lot of interesting issues. Cultural appropriation comes up when considering Tituss’ insistence on playing the talented and troubled geisha who he believes he lived as in a previous life, Murasaki. Is that a stab at Rachel Dolezal? Might be, no direct link is made but a case could be made…To the credit of both Titus Andromedon the character, and Tituss Burgess the actor, that performance (when it does happen) is not played for a laugh, or treated as a joke.  The show has taken similar stances on other controversial portrayals of cultures, most notably Jacqueline Voorhees (now White)’s Native American heritage. It did garner something between frustration and outrage in the show’s first season, but nevertheless made a return in the second. But we’ll come back to that in a moment.

Unbreakable-Kimmy-Schmidt-Titus-as-Murasaki

There’s a story here. Stick with it. IMAGE CREDIT: Screenrant

Also addressed in the episode is the culture of Internet outrage itself. A group finds out about Titus’ play and comes to protest, placing him on a list of “Top Five Internet Hitlers” (on which, it’s worth noting, the original Hitler doesn’t actually appear) and insisting that his portrayal will be offensive without yet having seen the final product. We’ve all become well aware of what that archetype looks like, so I won’t rehash it – other than to say that the line from one of the commenters, “I don’t want to hear the end of anything anyone has to say!”, might encapsulate the problem better than any other explanatory line to come before it.

Believe it or not, for me, neither of those jokes were particularly arresting; for others who have more personal connections to the issue at hand, that may be different. The Aisha Tyler line however, likely designed to be a throwaway line to bring Kimmy into agreement with Titus, threw me. Hard. NOTE: it did not offend me, but it did make me stop and think about why I reacted as it did. And that was the important bit to me, an important role that comedy can serve if we allow it to.

Whether you agree or not, Tina Fey and the showrunners of Kimmy Schmidt have opted out of the apology culture that we often see for jokes that are deemed “problematic,” an abstract term that has somehow come to encapsulate discomfort, confusion, and true offense all at once. She has addressed the issue only once, noting that the jokes falling in that vein poke fun at a character, rather than a culture. This approach is reinforced in season 2; in addition to Titus’ straightforward and gag-free portrayal of Murasaki holding all the gravity he believed her life merited, the jokes made about Native American culture were geared more toward a character genuinely struggling to incorporate her initial denial of heritage, with her current wish to embrace it. They seek to understand and write to where the joke is (with the characters and the easily lampooned elements), and not with the culture in question itself (Japanese and geisha culture, Native American culture). These sorts of portrayals often get painted in the press or minds of consumers as thoughtless; I don’t happen to believe that’s the case here.

I realize I’m having trouble getting to my point, so let me make it here: I think problematic comedy can be good. Now, unlike the Internet commenter refusing to get to the end, hear me out here. Well crafted jokes, ones not purely out for shock or amateurishly slapped together, can provoke thought and encourage the listener to examine their behavior. A joke that you struggle with is telling you something, whether you’re ready and able to hear it or not. But there are two sides to that process, and that means the listener has to be willing to rumble with it a bit.

What I’m sure you’re looking like as I say this. Stay with me. IMAGE CREDIT: Giphy

By rumble, I’m borrowing from Brene Brown’s definition: wrestling with the story we’ve told ourselves in our mind about what we’ve heard, what experiences or feelings we have that inform that reaction, and what we might be able to take away from the experience. As an example, I’ll walk you through my conversation with myself about the Aisha Tyler joke.

“Whoa.”

“What’s going on with you?”

“That felt weird.”

“Yeah? Why?”

“Doesn’t feel weird to assume Aisha Tyler was white.”

“Why?”

“Because she isn’t!”

“Yeah, I know. But why would Kimmy have come to that conclusion?”

“Oh, I don’t know, the whole rest of Friends’ run? There weren’t many other black people, so her reasoning was that they must have just assumed she wasn’t”

“Yup. And what was that about, by the way? Where in New York was that even possible?”

“Not now, you’re watching something, remember?” 

A rare sighting on Friends. That’s the problem, not the joke about it. IMAGE CREDIT: DailyMail

The conversation above is pretty close to the rumble I had with myself. And being a fan of comedy who is also constantly searching for ways to be understanding of underrepresented populations and their experience in the world, I’ve learned to do this regularly. I have to wrestle with the idea that some of the comedy I regularly enjoy, is also comedy that doesn’t include people that look like me. I rumble with that reality, and how odd it can appear when those elements are seemingly thrown in, often. I rumble with how shows that do it more naturally (see: Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Superstore) are discussed- groundbreaking! Diverse! Progressive! It’s not a quick process, and I have to do it with a LOT of content because of how big a part of my life it is. But I’m better for it.

It’s the easiest thing in the world to change the channel or declare a comedian off-limits when something feels “problematic.” But I like doing the hard work of digging into the feelings that these issues summon to the surface. I know myself better because of it. I know better how to speak up for myself in situations that make me uncomfortable, and how to call out other people when they’re making me uncomfortable. I can push past that “I don’t know why I feel this way” barrier far more quickly now. And, even with jokes that are legitimately problematic, I can find some semblance of enjoyment in them while recognizing that I don’t have to agree, or let them dictate or represent my thoughts on a topic.

That doesn’t mean I don’t get offended by things, nor does it mean that I don’t grant other people the right to offense. There are things that life circumstances have allowed me to declare off-limits, and I respect that in others. But I remain firmly of the belief that discomfort, and offense or trigger, aren’t the same. I work through the things that offend or trigger me with the help I need, but I explore those things that make me uncomfortable with curiosity and an eye toward positive regard.

As you continue your quest for things that make you laugh, I hope you’ll keep an eye on the distinction and rumble with what makes you stop and say “whoa.”

YOU, IN PRINT (v. 2.0): Registration Now Open!

So remember last week when I shared my plans for a summer project?

Well…now I have one for you.

I’m of the belief that everyone has a story to tell. Back in 2013, I did, and that story eventually turned into a book. Throughout my process and well after, I got a lot of questions about how I did it. These questions persisted when I went through the process the second time around, and I realized there could be something there. I decided to centralize those answers through a pilot online course this past fall, and had a great time talking to others taking their book journeys!

This summer, I’m doing it again- bigger and better. Starting May 8th, YOU, IN PRINT, v 2.0 will be live right here! Six units of recorded lectures will be supplemented with worksheets, articles, case studies, and even a few interviews with individuals at all stages of the independent publishing process. And for $79, all of these resources are yours for as long as you need them. Comparative courses cost many times this…so take the deal. It’s a good one!

You don’t have to be an established writer in order to benefit from this course. At all. It’s designed to be a resource to any writer curious about the independent publishing process, and how I built a life around participating in this process for the release of two books.

Presale is open now (giving you advance access to the workbook and other class prep resources), and you can preview the “syllabus” and welcome letter from the instructor here!

Presale students will receive early access to course materials, but also receive countdown emails and resources highlighting:

  • Some of my successes and missteps that will help you prepare mentally for the content you’ll receive in the course;
  • Advice on some of my writing inspirations and where you can find them and start learning;
  • Spotlights on some popular books that started out as independently published works; and more!

Ready to go? Click the image below to start your journey toward earning the title of “published author.” The “self” is silent, I promise:)

You, In Print Promo Image

Start your indie publishing journey right here!