Take Your Program Improvements to the Streets

We’re coming to the time of year where we’re starting to ask questions. Be they questions of our advisers about their experiences with us, or students that have learned with us in our classrooms, wee want to know how we’re doing. And how do we do this typically?

IMAGE CREDIT: Funny or Die

Course evaluations.

Focus groups.

Surveys on surveys on boring, disengaging surveys.

But how often do we just ask? Just walk up to a student, introduce ourselves, and ask?
If Billy Eichner is to be believed, we should be doing that more.

As host of Funny or Die’s Billy on the Street, Eichner spends much of his life in New York running with a microphone, interrogating strangers, and generally causing a commotion in an already raucous environment. But what results from these largely random interactions is hilarious, surprising, and tremendously meaningful to Eichner. An example of his work:

Applying Billy’s strategy to the work that we do keeps it’s accessible. Too often we get hung up on fears that we “don’t know how to do assessment.” Or we’re afraid of what we might find. Or we don’t have time. Or any number of other excuses that keep us from learning how we can do our best work, from the people most affected by it. I could say more here, but J Chase has already done so, far better than I ever could.

To that, I say: don’t think about it that way.

Many of us didn’t get into student affairs to work with coding, numbers, or spreadsheets. That doesn’t mean that we don’t have to do these things. Find ways to incorporate the things you did get into the field for, like conversations with students and learning more about them. That’s all Billy on the Street is- talking to people, and appreciating the result. And for those familiar with Billy on the Street  or other similar forms of comedy (e.g. Da Ali G Show), the result can provide quite the payoff.

So how do we overcome this deficit model that tricks us into believing that we don’t have the capacity to learn more?

Put the work in first. Billy Eichner didn’t just walk up to people on the street one day and start talking. He graduated from the Northwestern theater program. He engaged in the improv and stand-up circuit in Chicago for years. He wrote and auditioned for pilots, many of which failed. Those were the moments that he called “frustrating at the time, but enough to let me know it was close.” Who among us hasn’t had many of those moments? To sum up: he knows his stuff.

You should know yours too. Asking questions from cluelessness isn’t particularly helpful when doing assessment. Study your subject, know what questions could be asked of you, and then go forth with designs on improving your product.

Get out of your own head. When Eichner first started his “man on the street” interviews, he wanted to mock the self-interest of new New York transplants, convinced that conversations should revolve around their interests. The hallmark of this style was a bit where he took his headshots to his dry cleaner and forced her to help him pick one for auditions. However, he quickly realized that the bits were funnier when he focused on thing that other people could reasonably have an opinion on.

The most effective assessment pieces do the same. Pose your queries in a manner that allows students to guide the narrative; we work with smart adults that can tell when they’re being manipulated. Don’t use biased questions or frame them using language that students don’t use. The quality of the answers suffers when students don’t understand what’s being asked of them.

Ask everyone. Not just the people you know agree, and especially the ones you don’t expect. When asked how he decides who to approach on the street, Eichner said something pretty important:

The more I try to predict who will be funny, the less right I am. You never really know who’s going to be opinionated and want to talk to me.

After trying to seek out those who would give him the best result, he decided to control the process a little less and just ask at random. Some of the best encounters came from places he didn’t expect. And those of us who have worked with students at length understand how this can be the case. Students surprise us, often. Allow for those surprises in your methods. Will you get good data from students you like, who get your programs, and who are fully benefitting from the goals you’ve set for them? Sure. But you also stand to get good data from students who aren’t participating in your programs, who are underperforming by conventional standards, or who don’t understand why things are as they are. (Some of the best BotS bits have come from people that disagreed with him.) And though their feedback will likely sting a bit, you need it. So don’t shy away from it. That’s the feedback that, after humbling you, makes you better.

Play well with others, but don’t lose yourself. After a few years of his Funny or Die show being a largely solo endeavor, Billy landed a supporting role on Parks and Recreation this past winter. His deadpan delivery and occasional histrionics fits the character of Craig, an office staff member with a flair for the dramatic. Some will say that his character isn’t altogether different from his FoD persona, but who says that’s a bad thing? He’s true to the comedy that he’s comfortable with, that has made him successful, and that fits the character he plays. He has found a great place in the ensemble, and the show has accommodated his style well.

As you move forward with collection of student opinions, be prepared to play well with others as Billy has on Parks and Rec. There will be some that may not understand your methods; exercise the patience needed to explain them. There will be others who may not like what you uncover and have to report; demonstrate the savvy required to show implications. People might resent the idea that your results could yield more work for them- have the foresight to help them craft a plan of action that honors the data presented. There’s a certain level of fear associated with completing assessment and implementing its results. Should you be the pioneer that moves forward with getting this information, understand your role in the orchestrating its effective use.

With all of that said, the process will begin when you grab the microphone, throw on a hoodie, run forth into the street, and tap your students on the shoulder. Will you be brave enough to walk up, with a dollar to offer or not?

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