Laughter Through Tears, Laughter Through Fears

My face still tight and salty with tears, trying to negotiate nearby luggage and an airport dinner of tacos and rice, I clumsily fired off a text:

I just cried on a plane. Are we ever going to be funny again?

It was Thursday, November 10th, and I was flying to California for a conference- a day after learning the results of the US presidential election in a crowded room from Between the World and Me author Ta-Nehisi Coates. From Wednesday morning up until that flight, I hadn’t felt much of anything. My body hadn’t yet decided if it wanted to cry or throw up (and it made its erratic uncertainty quite public while I was at another conference), but finally settled on crying as I journaled over the Mountain Time Zone, prompted by Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State.

Even as I talked out my worries with this friend, my mind raced to think of the jokes yet to be written, the hot takes waiting to be served to an at times bewildered, at times emboldened citizenry. And as a child whose family spent late Saturdays playing Scrabble and listening for Don Pardo’s signature “Live from New York…” I was of course curious about how Saturday Night Live would handle this reality, one they didn’t seem fully prepared for. Their approach delayed a ruling, which prompted me to share this question the following week:

The “tweetstorm” that followed this entry into the debate revealed some complicated feelings I have about humor in this specific instance but also humor as a whole, and I warn you that this post holds no solutions about the conflict.

Now. On the one hand, you will find few greater proponents of humor as a coping mechanism when things get tough. I’ve spoken on this publicly, and few who know me would deny it. I regularly joke about difficult things to get through them- anxiety, fear, heartbreak, and other dark moments all need to be infused with humor to make them manageable. Without this type of comedy, I’m not sure where I’d be. Surely somewhere far darker and less productive, as these hard things threatened my peace of mind and perspective. And for that reason, as a political climate emerges that unquestionably provokes many of these same feelings (anxiety and fear for sure, and also even a sense of grief), I think that this type of comedy needs to exist. It allows the marginalized to maintain some sense of power in a situation that renders them otherwise disempowered, in some cases even powerless.

However, I’m struggling to consume it. 

It hasn’t always been this way. You will find few bigger fans of Donald Trump’s SNL 2004 parody ad, “Donald Trump’s House of Wings.” I wish I could link you to it, but the powers that be have erased its existence from the Internet. It was a really catchy takeoff of The Pointer Sisters’ “Jump (For My Love),” and I still remember the slight mimicked dance my mom did around the house in the days after it aired. The very second I find it, I promise to share. What’s the difference between this 2004 turn, and the one he made as a presidential candidate, some might ask? Fair question. My honest answer: 2004 was benign. 2015 wasn’t.

This next bit involves theory. You’ve been warned, so here we go.

FastCompany recently did a rundown of comedy theory from past to present, providing a number of frameworks by which to evaluate comedy and its effectiveness, a way to decide objectively if something is funny. Their most current metric, one that I use often when explaining comedy to colleagues and students, is the Benign Violation Theory. To sum up:

Broadly, benign violations theory asserts that all humor derives from three necessary conditions:

  1. The presence of some sort of norm violation, be it a moral norm violation (robbing a retirement home), social norm violation (breaking up with a long-term boyfriend via text message), or physical norm violation (purposefully sneezing directly on a child).

  2. A “benign” or “safe” context in which the violation takes place (this can take many forms).

  3. The interpretation of the first two points simultaneously. In other words, one must view, read, or otherwise interpret a violation as relatively harmless.

As someone with an extraordinarily high burden of offense, I’ve been able to fit most things into this framework; that is to say, I find a lot of things funny. Far more than most people, and often more than is professionally advisable. I like being able to find humor in hard things; again, it’s a coping mechanism and one that I believe in strongly.

So it feels odd to be this person that consciously, willfully, turns away from jokes.  I haven’t watched an SNL cold open since the second presidential debate. I’ve seen Alec Baldwin’s Trump impersonation maybe twice. I have seen other successful approximations of Trump that do the difficult work of making this public figure funny (most notably UCB’s Anthony Atamanuik). But I can’t find the laugh. I’m finding myself in a wholly different territory from where I normally live – not only can I not find the joke, and not find funny the jokes that are out there…but I’m seriously questioning whether those jokes should exist at all. And the overly analytical part of me – the part that can generally be quieted by comedy when needed – is starting to see why.

We have a norm violation. In a big way. We’re about to see a presidency that defies convention in innumerable ways. Sometimes groundbreaking ways. And as an advocate for creativity, that’d be exciting…if the norm deviation weren’t so dangerous. Therein lies the problem: we have violations, but they’re not benign. They’re past malignant, into the realm of toxic. Those who can laugh are likely in a position to frame some of these violations as benign. And I envy them for it, because I can’t yet. Yes, some of that is based in identities that I hold (Black, female, immigrant), and the perceived threat to them. For the first four days, I didn’t laugh because I was too afraid. But much of it is also grounded in identities that I don’t hold but don’t believe should be treated as dismissively or wrongly as they are (Muslim, LGBTQ, undocumented, Latinx). 2004 Trump is laughable because he’s not a threat. 2016 Trump demands gravity because the consequences of his actions are grave.

In that regard, I’m genuinely having a hard time believing (a) that the scenario in which we find ourselves can be funny, and (b) that any attempts should be made to lighten it. This post has no answers, and I truly welcome your feedback on which side you take. Can we joke about this? Should we? What do you think?

So back to that question I posed, taco in hand, tears still drying: are we ever going to be funny again?

To quote associate professor of education Tom Miller, “it depends.”

I talked to a friend several months ago who was having a hard time writing a joke about a difficult relationship. I told him that things can be hard to write about when you’re in them, but the laugh will come when the open wound has healed. Joking from the proverbial eye of a storm is possible, but incredibly hard to do. The jokes can come later, when the threat has passed. I’d like to think this counsel applies here too. In the event that we move past this threat unscathed, the current state of affairs will be easier to laugh about. If we don’t…well, this post will require a follow-up.

This mindset requires a few things, though. Most importantly, in my estimation, it requires allowing those with complicated and unpleasant feelings about all that’s happening to feel them fully and recover from them in their own time. This may be longer than some might expect, and provoke calls to “move on,” “get over it,” or accept the fact that a side “won” or “lost.” This notion is already being challenged in conversations I’ve been a part of, and at times loudly and rudely in my presence. Such a mindset is coded in so many challenging elements – who gets to mourn, for how long, and who gets to decide – but ultimately delays the process of healing to the point of humor.

It requires the understanding that there are circumstances that will definitively keep people from laughing. The jokes we tell can’t please everyone. They’re not puppies, Nutella, or shirtless photos of Idris Elba. (Incidentally, I’ll take any/all of those as I continue to heal). And there is a difference between the joke critic who “has something to add,” and the one whose life story doesn’t allow them to laugh. One of those demands considerably more respect than the other; as we cope with humor, keeping that difference in mind is essential to the community that comedy can build.

And finally, it requires the desire to bring people to a place of brightness again. As I fumbled toward jokes, any jokes, after the election, I had to hold tightly the idea that it was worth it to laugh. I know how much I need it, and I know how hard life can be when I don’t create space to. So if you’re funny, keep doing it. We need you. If you like to laugh, support the folks who make that their life’s work.

Where do you find laughs in difficult times? How do you decide what’s okay to laugh at?

The Defectors: Erika Lamarre, To Be Determined (And That’s Good!)

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Today’s Defector is searching for a new next place, after seizing an unexpected opportunity by working in a position of change. The experience, working on a political campaign, provided new challenges and a wholly new environment. I am so thankful to Erika for reaching out with her story, and admire the freedom with which she is pursuing her next steps. Read on to learn about her experience as a “reluctant Defector,” and what it’s taught her about herself and her larger goals.

Not sure what we’re doing here yet? All is revealed here.


I’m unemployed for the first time in 20 years. This job loss was an abrupt, and slightly messy affair- the result of the shifts in upper management when a new Vice President or Dean comes on board. Oddly enough I find myself at a hard-fought peace with it.

This was THE job I’d been angling toward for the past 3 years. It met all of my perceived professional needs and played to all of my perceived professional strengths. It was my preferred institution type, in the geographic area I wanted and most importantly had THE title. It was my next step up and I gave it my all. I upended my husband’s and my life and moved us to a different state. We bought a house because I was in for the long haul. I made sure my business cards, nametag, and email signature featured this snazzy new title as prominently as was prudent. I worked long and hard for this role and was rightfully proud. After a full year that culminated in praise and promises of promotion, my professional potential dried up within a couple of weeks of the arrival of the new manager.

The warning signs during my short tenure were there- newer president on chilly terms with the current management, a completely new and inexperienced team who were squeezed in with a disgruntled staffer who had clearly been there too long. Optimist that I am, I embraced these challenges as opportunities to prove myself.

I proved myself alright. I was an excellent relationship-builder, had a good reputation across campus, and went the extra mile to give struggling staffers a chance. It’s that last part that always gets one into trouble. You see, the higher up you go the more exposed you are to the whims of the next administration. The relationships of the past don’t mean as much, and any inadequacies in your team are your fault. One year in, and I was out (along with two others).

My unceremonious and unexpected ouster meant that I missed the usual higher-ed hiring season. I was stuck with plenty of time on my hands before an opportunity in my now very narrow field might present itself. On a whim and with a little luck, I was able to land a temporary job working on a political campaign. To participate in such fulfilling, meaningful work, without the burdens of being the boss helped ease the pain of my lay-off and gave me new perspective.

There are many lessons I can take from my campaign experience and current unemployment situation. The biggest benefit of my situation has been the freedom to try other things and time away from the stresses of student affairs. I’ve learned the skills from a career in higher education are beyond transferable. The office politics, schedules and stresses that we endure on our campuses prepared me well for work in real politics. The laws and policies we navigate are the same at any secondary or prep school, and the communication skills we must have to build partnerships with the diverse agendas of students, faculty, parents and service staff make us an asset to any office.

IF I remain in college student affairs (it’s very freeing to not feel I that I MUST return) it will be as a wiser, and more self-assured woman. No more will I ignore my instincts in the name of positivity. I also refuse to accept the model of ‘do more with less” and I object to student affairs’ lower status in the ivory tower. That is no way to treat an entire field of dedicated  educators. My presence in higher-ed will also be as someone far more interested in fulfilling work than finding the right title for the resume.

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For the next month, proceeds from The I’s Have It and Light It Up are going to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Dedicated to addressing incidents of hate and infusing justice into American lives, I am proud to support their important and essential work. 

I deal with words a lot, and yet the past few weeks have left me at a loss for them. It has been an emotional and anxious time for me as I grapple not with the loss of an election, but the loss of safety and security that plagues me and many of my friends and family members. I’ve struggled not just because I normally have the words, but because words didn’t seem like enough here. Trying to respond honestly when people ask “How are you?” doesn’t feel like enough, nor does trying to pick apart the reasons things went as they did.

But this use of words, the ones I’ve already written that I know are coherent and have value, feels right.

So for the next month, I’m proud to donate all proceeds from my two books on introversion and higher education, The I’s Have It and Light It Up, to the Southern Poverty Law Center. For those needing a primer on what they do:

The Southern Poverty Law Center is dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and to seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of our society. Using litigation, education, and other forms of advocacy, the SPLC works toward the day when the ideals of equal justice and equal opportunity will be a reality.

Proceeds from both the digital and print editions will be eligible for this donation, so feel free to choose what works best for you. And if you already have them? (a) Good work, and (b) consider purchasing a copy for a friend, colleague, or graduate student you work with, or donating a copy to a departmental or campus library.

In the meantime, take care of one another. Be kinder than normal. And listen – really listen – to the people around you.

Good Books Doing Good

PODCAST: On Creativity, Humor, and Podcasting with Why I Social

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Last week, I attended and presented at GSMI’s Social Media Strategies Summit for Higher Education. This gathering of social media professionals from across campuses – admissions, marketing, student programming, and alumni relations – was a great breath of fresh air, as I got to work with and meet professionals who use social media in their everyday work. In addition, I got to meet face to face some new Twitter friends, including Chris Barrows. He was nice enough to feature me on the SMS Summit edition of his Why I Social podcast. Give it a listen (click above), and thanks so much to Chris for the chat! I had a lot of fun🙂

Rethinking Rewrites

This post is part of my bi-monthly email newsletter series, The Dedicated Amateur. I don’t cross-post often, so sign up for these GIF-packed dispatches to get early access to pieces like this. No spam, just thoughtful fun. Promise!

I’m not sure if it’s the former dancer in me, or the Gene Kelly birthday mate in me, but my all time favorite movie is 1957’s Best Picture winner An American in Paris. It tells the story of Jerry Mulligan, a GI who stays in Paris after the end of World War II and falls in love with a young shopgirl despite her engagement to a stage performer. The dance numbers are captivating, the story has just enough conflict to stay interesting, and it features a seventeen-minute ballet near the end that I’ll sometimes watch on YouTube to brighten a slow or sad day.

So, needless to say, finding out that it was being adapted into a stage production was pretty exciting.

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Ran to get my tickets to the Boston tour like… IMAGE CREDIT: GIPHY

I missed the show in New York, but had the chance to see it last week when the touring production premiered at Boston’s Boch Center. Now, I’m not the sort of person who likes to go too deep into the mythology or content of a play before I see it (case in point: I listened to the soundtrack of Hamilton twice before seeing it), so I wasn’t aware of what was coming. And the stage version is…different from the movie. Markedly so. Significant plot details are changed, some of my favorite songs from the film are replaced with new ones, and the arrangements of the ones that remained. Something I loved was wildly different from what I expected it to be. And initially, that jarred me.

In the early moments of what was a wholly different experience, I flashed quickly to earlier outrage over a pop culture phenomenon that differed from its “source material”: Ghostbusters. The blowback from Paul Feig’s entertaining but distinct 2016 take sparked loud and angry vitriol across the Internet, particularly in the direction of SNL’s Leslie Jones. That outrage was fueled by some terrible things – namely sexism and racism – but also showed one way people react when a confirming worldview is seemingly taken from them. For over thirty years, Ghostbusters had been a boys’ story. This year, Paul Feig and his cast and crew challenged that. I’m going on record and saying: I think that’s good.

Earlier this year, I engaged in a chat that was hoping to elevate the life stories of marginalized groups through a Facebook “blackout.” In the chatter that surrounded that event, someone posed a poignant query that I wish I could properly attribute (so if anyone can recall, please let me know): What do you lose by validating the experience of someone else? I hold this question with me closely as I encounter dissonant or uncomfortable perspectives. As I’m challenged by something unfamiliar, I think often about whose perspective it represents, and how I need to incorporate it into my thinking.

As the stage edition of An American in Paris unfolded before me, with new dance steps, songs, and plotlines, I consciously recognized that a few stories from the original were better fleshed out this way. A few characters endeared themselves to me in ways their film counterparts could never. And I left with an appreciation for this new incarnation of something I loved. Was it as good? Yes and no. Was it better? I honestly don’t know yet. But it was different. And that’s okay. For the record, I feel the same about Ghostbusters.

 

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I know this is from the other one, but I need it to make a point. Besides, Bill’s had a good week. IMAGE CREDIT: GIPHY

This next bit’s important, so stay with me here.

Sometimes history needs a rewrite. Versions of the story that we learn first may have inaccuracies, or skew in a way that disadvantages others. And as we evolve as a society, new perspectives arise that should be shared. In 1957, there was less commentary to be made about World War II; years later, more nuance could be written into the portrayal of Lise’s protection during the Occupation. This plot point is blown past in the original film, but is crucial in the stage play- because we have perspective to allow that. There are other characters whose stories were minor in the movie, who got the chance to tell bigger and more personal stories this time around. Jerry and Lise’s love story still takes center stage, but the other plots – namely those of minor characters Adam and Milo – were stronger this time around.

Similarly, 2016 gave women the opportunity to be heroes against ghosts in a time that can (generally) appreciate the power that women have to be smart, strong, and marketable at the box office.

However, there are dangerous ways to rewrite narratives. The examples I’ve cited above are powerful rewrites because they allow more people to tell their stories. They hold up the value that previously silenced or overlooked actors/characters have in a story. Dangerous rewrites do the opposite: they silence, they deceive, they erase. This type of erasure keeps important stories subordinate to those of the majority. As an example, look to Roland Emmerich’s widely panned Stonewall, a film that centered the seminal Stonewall riots around the experiences of a Hollywood-friendly white male, instead of the women and people of color who actually started this revolution. (Want a better version? Drunk History’s got you.)

In a week where readers in the US can’t (and shouldn’t!) ignore the story that’s about to be committed to the history books, I have to say this: we have an auteur who is actively working to expand who gets to tell their story, and one who is actively working to diminish this. America’s pool of prospective storytellers is only getting more and more diverse; this latest edition to the history books can literally decide whose stories have the potential to end happily. Although one op-ed from the Washington Post believes that this story ends well for most of us, I know many for whom that is overly optimistic at best, and flatly false at worst.

November 8, 2016 is about more than deciding who gets to shape economic policy, be the face of the US’s presence internationally, or who gets to pick Supreme Court justices at a crucial time in judicial history. This election has the added power to declare openly, in front of the rest of the world, what sort of rewrite the country is prepared to undertake. Will it be one that unlocks rich, varied, and valuable alternate perspectives? Or will it be the sort of rewrite that not only does little to advance the original, but actively hurts its legacy (lookin’ at you, 2016 Ben-Hur)?

So I’ll close with 1-2 challenges for you this week, depending on who you are: first, vote if you can. To an extent, I don’t care for whom. If you have a voice, use it. City, regional, national scale: get on in there.

Second, think about the stories that challenge you. Think about the people who may have challenged you during this seemingly interminable election cycle. A lot of muting, blocking, and unfriending may have happened as a result; what will those relationships look like on the other side of Election Day? Is there common ground that can be found through acknowledging the sources of challenge? Sometimes yes, sometimes not. But let’s all find one small way to do the work.

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We’re done talking politics now. Thanks for sticking with me. IMAGE CREDIT: Tumblr

The Very Real Notion of Act-GIF-ism

While I don’t typically cross-post content from my fortnightly newsletter, this one felt too good to not share. If you’d like more posts like this in your inbox on alternating Monday mornings, get on in here. We’d love to have you🙂
48328f70-0215-4d29-b854-1ec9d9056437Yes, the pronunciation debate rages on. I’m not here to correct you on it, I promise.

I remember, in my sophomore year computer science class, learning how to make animated GIFs. The technology (in 2005) was less sophisticated, it was used FAR less, and I was only partially paying attention because it was a Wednesday night class and I had vowed loudly to drop it the first time the professor ran long enough that I missed LOST. (He never did, so I didn’t have to.)

But in recent years, I’ve learned to have fun with GIFs, playing with them as a form of expression, a supplement to stories or jokes I’ve wanted to tell, and to share emotions that I – even as a writer – couldn’t always pin down with words.

At some point, the effort felt incomplete. And that realization came in tandem with several other realizations that I shared in my piece for Femsplain, “The Wake Up Call.” The realization, as with many others during that time in my life, was one of representation. When I shared a GIF, it was indicative of what I was feeling, or wanted to say…but it was hard to find people that shared that emotion or sentiment that looked like me. Actually, I’ll own that the previous statement is incomplete. It was hard to do, and I had never considered the implications of why.

From “The Wake Up Call”:

My reset is vocal and it is visible. It shows when I seek to elevate the voices of colleagues and leaders in my field of higher education who others might not see. It shows when I help lift black students to their highest potential because I know few others are looking out for them. It shows in small ways, like accenting pithy tweets with GIFs featuring Black faces (which are too hard to find, by the way — who’s working on that?); and it shows in big ways, like forgoing my former “TV Christmas” — the Academy Awards — because I couldn’t see myself in it anymore.

I’m so thankful that conversations are expanding to recognize that being able to see yourself in a piece of art – a book, a film, a TV show – is a right that is extended to far too few people. And the result? When I wanted to express an emotion through a GIF, I was using imagery that featured white males, sometimes white females.

When anyone who deviates from these highly available norms can see themselves in a narrative, in the world, it matters. It matters when Luke Cage allows millions of comic book enthusiasts to see themselves as something other than a sidekick, as the New York Times would apparently rather relegate them. It matters when most actors in high profile roles with disability, are played by those without- save an exception on this season’sSpeechless. It matters when celebrated creators like Tim Burton shirk their ability to create these worlds, leading to responses like this beautiful and heartbreaking thread from one “blerd.” And it matters because in the absence of proper representation, hurtful and offensive stereotypes can persist unchecked.

My decision to change the way I “GIF” (that’s a verb there) was part of a larger reset, but it’s something I pay far more attention to than most people might think. And luckily, I have an answer to the “who’s working on that?” in Jasmyn Lawson of GIPHY, who is very open about the work she’s had to do at GIPHY to make diverse GIFs available for those who shared my concerns. Her efforts, paired with ones like Jesse Williams’ Ebroji and Kevin Hart’s Kevmoji has literally placed a new face on digital expression, and it’s one I’d love to see more of. But in addition to showing others that there are options, there’s another deeply personal reason that the seeds of change in GIFing matters to me.

My friend Matthew opens most of his standup bits by disarming the audience about how they perceive him when he hits the stage. With descriptors like “80s movies have taught you not to trust people with my hair and bone structure” and “incorrectly assumed to be a lacrosse player,” he calls out the idea that people who look like him are usually labelled the villain. To be quite clear, he’s not; Matthew is lovely and brilliant and hit the genetic/good human lottery in an embarrassing number of ways. But he looks it. So he closes that portion of his set by saying “I want you to know that I know.”

And to me, choosing to pick GIFs that look like me does that. A big part of the wake-up call that I wrote about earlier this year was about challenging my understanding that I push what many expect of “people who look like me.” In ways small and large, I defy expectations- which is at once gratifying and heartbreaking if I think about it for too long. But these small but consistent reminders that I’m as much an Issa Rae as I am a Liz Lemon, as much an Oprah as I am an Ellen, and a Retta more than anything else, remind those around me that I’m not trying to “transcend” or “defy” anything. This is who I am, this is how I see myself, and this is how I want you to see me.

So the challenge that I issue to you this week isn’t as active as usual, but nevertheless: look around you. Look at the images you see. Who’s elevated? Who’s relegated to second or third-class status? How do you know? And what can you do to even the playing field, from the picking of a GIF to the elevating of a voice?

What We (Usually) Miss When We Talk About Millennials

Someone far smarter and more technically adept than I created a Google Chrome extension that automatically changes all instances of the word “millennial” on a webpage, to the as useful term…”snake people.”

From Refinery29: What’s the “Snake People” Whoop, and Why Is It In Almost Every Song? 

From the Boston Globe: Navy Seeks to Adapt Training for “Snake People” 

From Buzzfeed: 19 Reasons Why “Snake People” Are Totally Destroying This Country
(although let’s be honest, that’s probably actually a headline on Buzzfeed somewhere.)

With that said, I’ve not yet installed this extension. I prefer to do it manually, via an occasional Twitter hashtag: #ReplaceMillennialWithHuman.

In my experience, most writing about millennials suffers from one of two problems:

(1) It’s too specific. A trait being ascribed to a blanket group of adults within a 16-20 year age range (depending on who you ask), like values, lifestyle, or – my favorite, WORD CHOICE – is one that is by no means out of the reach of the rest of the general population. Who can ascribe the same metric other than age to accurately group myself, Justin Bieber, DeRay McKesson, Laverne Cox, and Mindy Kaling? (Yep, all millennials by the numbers)

Yeah, in this instance someone between the age of 20 and 36 used a curse word on TV. Betty White’s done it too. It’s an extraordinarily common storyline on situation comedy for toddlers to use them. And let’s not talk about the middle-aged football coaches who get caught doing it on TV every week between September and February.

But it’s the second issue, being too general in our assumption of who a millennial is and what it does, that I want to address here at length. Most of us, when we say millennial, are using far too broad a brush to paint a picture of a generation that is significantly more nuanced, and needs several smaller brushes, to be able to see anything of consequence.

(Some of you may be saying, “that’s true of all generations.” I agree. But most other generations aren’t dealing with the needless vitriol of this one, so hang with me here for a minute.)

More often than not, the headlines you see – and the traits they purport to reveal – are negatively oriented. The paint applied to that broad brush includes hues of indifference, entitlement, myopia, defensiveness, and a lack of gratitude or focus. Who’s racing to buy that painting? Few people, which is likely why so millennials are feeling as though managers and supervisors aren’t investing in them or their development. Even as attempts to temper these assumptions popped up (most notably for me, Managing the Millennials by Chip Espinoza, Mick Ukleja, and Craig Rusch- some of the wisdom from which I’ve written on previously), it couldn’t be ignored that the traits assumed inherent simply weren’t wholly representative of the differentiated generation that I grew up in.

Thankfully, more nuanced portrayals are starting to crop up. I heaved a sigh and teared up at the first part of awesome human (and my former editor) Nona Willis Aronowitz’s series in Fusion on the millennials we aren’t talking about, which included the crucial passage below, written as she compared the millennials she had just interviewed at a Midwestern startup, with the ones that were rallying for a $15 minimum wage on the block outside, “looked to be under 30, black or Hispanic, and not the least bit concerned with the issues of the white startup kids”:

I understood then just how much talk of “millennials” had been aggressively focused on college-educated, upper-middle-class young people, even though they were hardly in the majority. There was a swath of millennials out there who grew up with entirely different financial baselines and cultural values, and they were being ignored.

Think now about the bill that too many, including those who can play a crucial role in the development and success of millennials, have been sold.

We can’t invest in these “kids” because they’ll just leave. I’ll try to teach them things, but they’ll either choose to not listen or assume they know better. They think they know more than me anyway, so what’s the point?

Before I get to this point, a word from those who insist on conflating “millennials” with “kids” or “twentysomethings”:

Okay, I’m good now. On we go.

Are there millennials who fit that bill? Oh yeah. I’ve met them. Worked with them, too. It was not enjoyable, so I understand the frustration associated with it. But think about what sort of psychological, developmental, and financial safety has to come with an attitude like that in the workplace. That sort of safety – the security of knowing that if you don’t get what you want, that you can jump ship and land safety in a net of some kind – isn’t common. I knew that intrinsically as these headlines kept popping up.

This summer, the Center for Talent Innovation gave me numbers to back up that sinking feeling I’d held reading news headlines for so many years. In their book Misunderstood Millennial Talent: The Other Ninety-One Percent, they revealed the numbers behind the massive miscalculation we’ve made in this up-and-coming generation. How many millennials fit the doomsday thinking we’ve been taught to identify with this age group? Nine percent.

Here’s how they define it:

It turns out that, in our nationally representative sample, Millennials who have a financial safety net – those who have families who could support them indefinitely, were they to quit or lose their jobs, or who receive financial gifts from family members totaling at least $5,000 per year – are more likely than those who do not say they plan to leave their jobs within a year.

[…] But only 9 percent of Millennials, we find, have such a safety net. The vast majority – 91 percent – do not have such financial privilege.

For those curious, the nationally representative sample in question included both “a US survey of 3,298 college-educated men and women working full time in white collar professions in the US, and [a] multimarket survey of 11,396 college-educated men and women working full time in seven critical markets (Brazil, China, Hong Kong, India, the Philippines, Singapore, and the UK).” Imagine, by the way, how the numbers would bear out if you included those without the means to go to college!

The “other ninety-one percent,” as the books’ authors Joan Snyder Kuhl and Jennifer Zephirin, falls into a category that we must pay attention to if we are to change this sour perception: millennials without financial privilege.

This distinction matters.

It matters because a large swath of this age group when looked at from an intersectional standpoint (not just socioeconomics, but gender and upbringing based on culture and values) has been discounted unfairly, based on the high-profile ability and behavior of a small cross-section.

It matters because the perception of this large swath of the workforce is affecting how leadership training, advancement, and security measures for organizational prosperity are being executed.

It matters because the animosity that is being fed all too often…is baseless in a large percentage of cases.

And it matters from a representation standpoint: I’m not ashamed to admit that I teared up reading parts of the book where they spoke to millennials of color, first generation Americans whose families affected their work, about their experiences- because I’d never seen that before. How many others might you live with, work with, or interact with daily who have never seen themselves in this narrative before? How might that affect how you treat them or what you assume of them?

Are there entitled, spoiled, difficult, and frustrating millennials? Absolutely. I’d argue I’ve also met Gen Xers and Boomers that fit that bill. Those traits are not new. But the fact of the matter is, there are far more millennials who are eager to work in a way that makes a difference- and are willing to do the learning it takes to get there- than those who fit the narrow scope so many have trained on them. These millennials understand what it takes to be successful, and go to great lengths to do so. They do so while raising the next generation of their own families. And they’re far more humble about their accomplishments and potential for growth than they get credit for. For every wunderkind who creates a dazzling prototype for a flashy new platform or service with a net and copious outside funding, there are thousands others who are toiling on a smaller scale in relative obscurity to build new things.

I’ll be honest, I don’t fully know what my point is in sharing all of this, other than to encourage you to think bigger. Be open to adjusting your idea of what millennials look like. Be mindful of the language you use, as it matters. Be mindful of the assumptions that accompany that language, and what we believe about the people we work alongside when we plan outings, seek input, and determine our target audiences. And as you do this, next time you see others hemming and hawing about the legitimacy, attitude, or behavior of millennials colleagues or coworkers? Push back. Learn more about who we’re dealing with, and then share the wealth. We’ll all be better for it.

And finally: get ready to throw all this out. Gen Z is coming. And that is a wholly different ballgame.

PODCAST: On Introversion and Influence with the NASPA Leadership Podcast

Today, I am so pleased to share with you my appearance on episode 11 of the NASPA Leadership Podcast. In it, I talk books, influence, Great British Bake-Off, and how to help introverted students find their power to be influential. Thanks so much to Myles and the NASPA Student Leadership Programs Knowledge Community for having me- it was a blast! And yes, Myles, I was serious: let me know if you want me to go to the book swap in your place. I really would!

The Defectors: Wrap-Up Pt. II, on Defecting From Your Desk

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I’m realizing now, as I write this final post for The Defectors, that my Defector story hasn’t been told much throughout this series. In this last entry, I’ll do my best to intertwine it with the stories of a few other folks who have had the opportunity to work with a Defector mindset.

As I’ve mentioned, it’s neither feasible nor advisable for everyone to live a defector lifestyle. It goes without saying that campuses need qualified, energetic, and dedicated people to do the work of supporting students. And further, that is some people’s ideal and most effective environment. But as we’ve seen, both in the JSARP article and in the testimony of several professionals in the past month, there can exist…an itch. An itch to stretch the bounds of one’s professional role. An itch to make a mark on that role, and the students one serves within it, by doing more than “what’s always been done.”

For a number of years, that was me. 

I found myself entering new roles not just excited to do the work that was being asked of me, but also to “find the orange power cords” that were tripping people up without their realizing it. With the input from students, staff, and other offices, I became dedicated to solving problems and positioning myself as a resource for those around me. I’m grateful to have found a series of roles that were open, and even welcoming, to me taking on this role for the office. I created manuals, updated outdated processes, and established rubrics and assessment tools to standardize, then measure the outcomes of, initiatives that had previously felt haphazard.

The key in this story is not that I found these opportunities to create and infuse parts of myself into the roles, but that I had supervisors and colleagues who were supportive of it. Believe it or not, there is a difference between being “allowed” to do something, and being “supported” in doing it. The former permits it to happen, the latter helps it.

In my most recent campus-based role, I was lucky enough to have a colleague who found similar support in a project she wanted to create. As she talks about it, Alissa reveals a bit of the energy that such a project has given her:

I’ve worked in Residence Life for over six years now and the work can get repetitive. There are the same waves that happen every year. I needed to find something to re-energize myself and get me motivated. I was certified to be a Strengths Based Educator about two years ago and I can’t say enough how much it has helped me to be more engaged in my work. I help train other departments, different student groups that I would normally not work with, and have even started to teach a leadership development class on it. Now more than ever I feel excited for a new year, because I know that this will allow me a new outlet to focus on.

Supervisors who fear giving their staff members the autonomy to “defect” within their roles, should weigh the energy that such freedom and trust will give their staff members, against the perceived time constraints and potential conflicts they could present. Sinclair, whose chosen “defection” is expressly dedicated to empowering and uplifting his colleagues near and far, shared:

I send motivational emails and handwritten letters to those in the field in who are starting new jobs, on a job search, or just needing a pick me up. Doing this fills me, because I know I’m helping another person show up a little better to the work they do. Inspiring others encourages me to be more hopeful as well, because I’m able to notice the successes, wins, and triumphs in my daily work. It’s easy to be constantly bogged down by all the negativity I encounter working in residence life.

I want to speak for a moment to the negativity that Sinclair references. We’re all aware that it exists. And most of us are aware of the culture that breeds it. Higher education professionals carry a burden of sorts in shaping the next generation. It takes a lot to do this- a lot of time, a lot of energy, a lot of patience and understanding. To give all of that, while not always seeing the end result of that hard work, and to do so as a national spotlight continues to critique the value of said work, has moments of sheer exhaustion baked right in. We can swear up and down that the validation shouldn’t matter- but for many, it does. We can insist that the work fulfills us at all times- but that’s an unrealistic expectation. So when we find those projects at our desks that can provide a jolt of energy, inspiration, and reaffirmation? We should follow those wholeheartedly- and those of us in a position to support those folks, should.

Shelly, a first year student advisor, shared a unique example of how the work she “defects” to do at times, places her work in a context that helps her fight more fiercely to do it well:

I’ve been very fortunate in pursuing my political aspirations by having an extremely supportive supervisor. In general, my school board work does not interfere with my day-to-day work functions; meetings are typically in the evenings and I use lunch breaks to catch up on emails and phone calls. However this past spring I was campaigning to keep my seat and that required more time away from the office. While I used my vacation time to account for time spent campaigning, my supervisor was also supportive of me doing some work remotely (my home is about 45 minutes away from campus) in order for me to stay on top of my responsibilities and attend daytime functions. My supervisor and I have a relationship built on trust which allowed us to work together to continue the operations and functions expected out of my role but also give me the space to pursue this lifelong goal of running for office. (Some background, I was initially appointed to fill a vacancy so I didn’t have to run for office when I first got on the school board, but then when I wanted to stay on I had to campaign.)
For me, what has been fun and interesting is seeing the connections between PK-12 and higher ed and leveraging my roles in one realm to support the other. My primary work function is overseeing the university’s first year advising program and as such I am extremely familiar with the curriculum for our first year students and how their high school courses can impact their academic experience at JMU (e.g. if they earned credit through APs or dual enrollments). I’ve been able to have conversations with members of academic affairs and admissions regarding what’s happening in the district I represent as well as encourage faculty in my district to understand what higher education might be looking for in incoming students.Needless to say my brain is constantly ticking thinking about the relationship between PK-12 and higher education and how I can best support students moving through their education.
Education is something I value, so being able to promote education both in my work and in my civic involvement allows me to feel more fulfilled in all that I do. [emphasis added]
These are the sorts of stories I love to see, because a bit of support and flexibility can go a long way in strengthening relationships, creating and sustaining fulfilling work, and building loyalty that helps schools keep staff for a long time.
With all that said, there are points at which the allowances made simply aren’t enough. For me, that’s why I ultimately decided to defect. I am grateful to have had a supervisor who allowed me time away for conferences (both higher ed related and non), days at home to write or plan presentations, and the space within my role to integrate those interests into lasting campus initiatives. And while I was incredibly appreciative of that, I realized in October 2015 that it wasn’t enough. The thing I wanted to do, to build my life on, would never be as much of my role on campus as I wanted it to be. As I explored other campus-based roles, it became clear that such an arrangement would be unlikely anywhere else. So my defection was borne of necessity, and buttressed with substantial savings – I want to make that part VERY clear! But, as Jason shared with me, not everyone needs to.

I guess I don’t have to defect. It’s not that I haven’t thought about it. I have. It’s just that I don’t need to.

Life can basically be broken into thirds. You should spend 8 hours of each day sleeping. That’s a third of your day. Most jobs require 8  hours of each day working. That’s a third of your day. That just leaves another 8 hours of each day doing things that bring you joy.

Those back two thirds? They intersect for me. My job allows me to investigate things that inspire and motivate me – pop culture, comedy, creativity. 16 hours of each day I get to do what I enjoy the most.

I’m lucky. I’m lucky that I’m at an institution that affords and allows me to dive into topics I care about. I’m lucky that I have a support system both at work and in life that pushes me to follow these topics. I’m lucky I don’t have to defect. And for now, I stay.

So if you’re looking to split the difference, living some hybrid between a traditional role and one infused with the spirit of “defectorism,” here are some tips:

  • Try things out. Stakes are low when your livelihood doesn’t depend on them. Start a journal. Take a class on campus or at a local community center in something you’re interested in, to see if it’ll stick. Use those vacation days to spend uninterrupted time on something you’re excited about.
  • If you want to try something new within your role, talk to students and your supervisor. If what you want to do benefits students – and they can articulate how it would help them – you heighten the possibility that your supervisor will support it. When in doubt, frame your new pursuit in terms of its benefit to your work. Note: refreshing you in a way that allows you to do your work well, is a viable reason.
  • If you anticipate wanting to make a jump at some point, save money. Save more than you think you’ll need. Budget toward it. It is not a cheap endeavor, by any means.
  • Talk to the Defectors who are listed here, and any others that you might know. Several indicated specifically that they’d be willing to talk- take them up on it! A caveat, however: some of them make their living, dispensing the very advice for which you’re asking. Please, please, please be respectful of that.

And finally, let’s all be cool to one another. We all have our place in the world, in terms of how we wish to contribute. Working on campus isn’t inherently better than finding a different way to work. It is precisely that – different. The only people who need side hustles are the ones who inherently feel they need to (for the money, the fulfillment, or some combination of the two). Those who chose to defect aren’t (usually) looking down on where they left, they’re simply looking for a better fit. Support them in this. And those who stay, may be getting exactly what they need where they are. Support them in this. Both sides of the fence are nice, as long as the side you’re on is where you want to be🙂

The Defectors: Wrap-Up Pt. I, on Creating Space for Defectors

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The Defectors project is, in some ways, pretty new for me and pretty familiar at the same time. It is the first blog series I’ve hosted, my answer to a challenge from a friend who encouraged me to “stop ranting and start creating.” But at the same time, my response reflected the things that I value: sharing stories, and positioning myself as a resource and a means to connect people. I hope this series has succeeded in doing that for you. Another round of heartfelt thanks goes out to each of my contributors, each kind enough to share their stories with us all- and special encouragement goes out to those who submitted with qualifications of “I’m not a writer.” You are, and I’m so appreciative of that fact🙂

Even though we’re starting to see real research in attrition rates about departure from student affairs, I’ve always maintained that those numbers need stories behind them. Yes, there are people who are leaving the field to pursue wholly different endeavors- I have colleagues and classmates who are recording studio engineers, flight attendants, designers, real estate agents, and small business owners. But between campus-based professionals and the unaffiliated, there exists an intermediate designation that has grown wildly over the past few years. In large part, this series is for them. We/they didn’t leave the field, we just exist in parallel.

With all that said, I want to dedicate the rest of the month to two topics. The remainder of this post will provide recommendations on how to integrate the “higher education adjacent” into traditional functions of the field, where possible. Then, on Thursday, I want to talk about how to incorporate a bit of Defector DNA into a more traditional role. I fully recognize that defection is neither attainable nor desirable to everyone in need of a change. I’ll share a few stories from professionals who have found support on their campuses to adapt their jobs for their needs and interests.

But first, let’s chat about those living in the “in-between.”

As I’ve discussed in prior posts, the available space for higher education professionals off campuses is growing quickly. Professional associations, national organizations for fraternities and sororities, auxiliary organizations that provide technological and housing solutions, and independent contractors seeking to serve college populations can all become a home for professionals trained in higher education and student affairs administration. And all of these professionals are working – albeit differently and in different environments – for the benefit and ultimate success of college students. Yet, the field has not yet adapted to count these professionals as part of the community.

What do I mean by this? I think about conference registrations – which make independent professionals and those deemed “vendors” pay considerably more to participate in learning opportunities – and the challenges of obtaining professional organization memberships as key areas where relationships could be redefined. By finding ways for nontraditional practitioners to join and thrive in these communities in meaningful and less complicated ways, we can start to redefine the relationship that these folx have to the field as a whole.

 

I suspect that these unaddressed challenges are symptomatic of a larger problem: the “defector” life is wildly misunderstood. As I mentioned, this series was borne of a crush of questions- first the ones I asked before setting out on my own, and then later the ones I answer often from those considering making the leap.  By creating space for those living the defector life to share their stories – at conference, through webinars, and even/especially in graduate preparation programs – the curtain can be pulled back on this otherwise mysterious way of life.

I think back to my final year of graduate school, and the idea of doing student affairs work anywhere other than a campus was never mentioned. I’d worked in student activities for several years, and yet no one told me I could work at those agencies who we worked with to book talent. I learned to code in middle school, but the idea of working at a company that built and maintained software for housing and residence life departments never came up. These conversations need to change, especially if we plan to usher more people into the field with fewer and fewer roles for them to fill.

A closely related recommendation: let’s not relegate these alternative roles to “second place.” All too often, leaving campus-based work is framed as a backup or last-ditch plan, and the decision to leave it is viewed with a side-eye or hurt feelings from those left behind. And that language matters to those choosing to walk that path. In reality, we should celebrate anyone seeking to find fulfilling work- after all, that’s hopefully what we’d do for students when following a career path that both excites and can sustain them. So, then, think of those seeking a new path not as pushing themselves out, but as being pulled to something that they love and can succeed at. No, it’s not always easy- and I’ve written about my own challenges a number of times (here, and here). But at the same time, those who have defected know those challenges well.  Trust me, if your relationship calls for it, you’ll hear from them when they’re struggling.

Stay tuned for one last post in this series, to hear from a few folks who are innovating from inside the box to get that ‘defector’ field while in traditional roles.