Like many others that do the work that I do, this past week was an eventful one. Nearly 8000 of us traveled to New Orleans for the NASPA Annual Conference in New Orleans, prepared for several days of learning, networking, and spending time with friends and colleagues from all over the country. However, the more “connected” (digitally, not necessarily interpersonally) among us became roped into controversy over the use of an app where controversial thoughts, opinions, and actions were shared. As reactions to the issue began, swelled, and intensified, I had mixed feelings about the situation. Let’s assume for the duration of this post that the comments shared are (a) from our conference- there were several in the geographical area, (b) at a critical enough mass to be representative of the field- that is to say, that it was a fair number of people, and (c) true- that is, not someone trying to make a point about something. Is it the tool’s fault? (I don’t think it is, no.) Is it the field’s fault? (In a way, probably.) Why there? (Why not there?)
*In the interest of full disclosure, I am not a user of this tool, but received samplings of its contents from other professionals. Like the girl that “doesn’t even go here” in Mean Girls, I just have a lot of feelings and this incident provided an opportunity to express some of them.
But the controversy itself also brought to mind a lot of other feelings I’ve been trying to sort out over the past few months. As was likely to happen to someone who absorbs pop culture as I do, the answer came to me in a song. Just as Mary Catherine Gallagher (of SNL and Superstar fame) expressed her feelings best through monologues from made-for-TV movies, mine can best be expressed through “Stick to the Status Quo” from High School Musical. For your review:
A sampling of the lyrics, for those not wanting to watch:
Look at me
And what do you see?
Intelligence beyond compare
But inside I am stirring
Something strange is occurring
It’s a secret I need to share
Open up, dig way down deep
Hip-hop is my passion
I love to pop, and lock, jam and break!
Is that even legal?
Not another peep
It’s just dancing
And sometimes, I think it’s even cooler then homework!
No, no, noooooooooooo
No, no, no
Stick to the stuff you know
It’s better by far
To keep things are they are
Don’t mess with the flow, no no
Stick to the status quo
Now ask yourself, seriously- seriously…does this sound familiar?
Whether in our online circles, or in our own offices, there’s a major disconnect between honoring dissent, individuality, and the all-too-popular concept of authenticity- and actually allowing it to flourish. A feeling of accountability to those that ushered us into the field has created a mold for what professionals that do this work should look like, and it’s pushing people that dissent to places of stress, crisis, value misalignment and, for a few days at a conference, to an app that allows them to speak their mind without putting a name on their thoughts and opinions. Further, this is a small fraction of people. A very small portion of 8000, which in turn represents a field of considerably more. It, in some ways, echoes conversations on our campuses about retention or high-risk drinking- at what point is the percentage of people affected small enough to accept? How much energy, time, and vitriol are we willing to put toward a vocal superminority?
I hesitate to say it this way, but I know of no better example- it’s a Kanye West problem.
Lots of people have opinions about Kanye West. Many of those people have negative opinions about Kanye West. He’s outspoken, he’s opinionated, rough around the edges, and often comes across as rude as a result. I would never condone his more outlandish behavior, especially when it’s at the expense of other people (as it has been many times). But I would also argue that if we really want to talk about being authentic, there is no better model. Granted, there are miles of middle ground to traverse with him- his authenticity could use some polish in more high-profile moments, and so could ours- but he is who he is. He knows what people think of him (yeah, he’s in on the joke), and behaves as he does anyway. Am I saying that we should all Kanye our way through the rest of our lives? No. In fact, I’ll say that part again. I am not suggesting or condoning that our level of disinhibition hit Westian levels. But I do think we should show more comfort with people being themselves, even (hell, especially) in moments where their decisions don’t align with our own.
No more foreboding calls of “it’s a small field,” which is on par with saying “the unemployment boogeyman will follow you if you don’t behave. When someone confides in you a dissenting opinion or action, seek to learn more without conflating that kernel of information with their whole being. Do as you would with a friend who makes a decision that challenges you (and for a field that loves calling one another “friend,” let’s really let that approach grow some legs). Let the status quo stretch to include real people, flawed and never fully formed, instead of cracking at the first sign of “incongruence” or “imperfection.” When someone demonstrates the vulnerability it takes to stand up in the lunchroom and tell you their truth, even if it’s scary…listen to them. Honor their disclosure. Recognize that as a piece of the person they are, and not a ding against the professional they serve as. A little less “Stick to the Status Quo,” a little more “We’re All In This Together?” Who’s with me?