“Our lives could be a TV show.”
I can’t tell you how often I hear that remark from people at the office- and have heard it, regardless of where I’ve worked. Those pleas get answered in the most seemingly random of ways; It would appear that enough current and former RAs have verbalized this need that we received Resident Advisors, which premiered on Hulu this past Thursday.
In the interest of full disclosure, I am still warming to the humor. I’m working hard to give it a chance because, as is often the case, I am a fan of several of the people involved. And additionally, as someone who did have several ridiculous situations happen to her as an RA, its always nice to see how our lives get dramatized. But even as I continue to adjust to how the story is being told, I’ve already gotten something from the two episodes I’ve seen so far to date.
All staffs are going to have people who come from different walks of life, and will need help adjusting to that reality.
At the outset of the show, we are introduced to ambitious and high-achieving Resident Director Olivia (Jamie Chung) and her four RAs- “old guy” Doug, slacker/dumb guy Tyler, industrious Sam, and offbeat Amy. We’re made to believe that some of the humor comes from exploring each RA trope, as well as how these tropes interact with one another. And, to a certain extent this is true. The second episode sees two markedly different RAs dealing with a problem together but differently- a situation that any two student employees could encounter. But the part that stood out to me was how clear it became early on that each staff member had a different reason for taking on the RA role. Tyler (falsely or otherwise) believes that he can use it as a means to meet girls, Sam sees it as one of six jobs he holds on campus, and Doug is in it because he honestly enjoys working with students, helping them develop and set a path for their lives (sound like anyone you know?). Whether they know it or not, most RDs will work with staffs that have some combination of these three personalities. Yes, some would strive for six, eight, or twelve people that want to do this work out of the goodness of their hearts and the desire to impact lives. But that isn’t always going to be what we get…and we need to be okay with that. We train for diversity in a number of other ways- but do we allow for diversity of motivation? We need to be okay with the idea that sometimes, the ability to do the work is the thing- and as long as its getting done, aspirations of inspiring learning and changing lives don’t have to come standard.
Those paying attention closely in the first episode will take note- this could also apply to the staff member supervising RD Olivia. She’s not what student affairs would call a “lifer,” she instead sees the competency and people skills that could be developed in this role as key to success in Silicon Valley- and so she takes this job en route to another destination. Based on that avowed decision, how would she do in your res life department, in your division? For Olivia, residence life work isn’t the endgame, and that’s okay. I’d argue that it should be just as okay for the people we work with in our day to day lives. It occurs to me that she’s not the only residence life professional on TV portrayed in this light: the same could also be said for A Different World‘s Walter or Saved by the Bell: College Years‘ Mike. I could speculate as to how this portrayal informs how we’re interacted with by those outside the field…but that’s a musing for another day. What I will say instead is that we’re generally accustomed to accounting for differing motivations in res life employment for students, but less so for professional staff. My counter would be: if the work is getting done, relationships are being built, and learning is happening- why should we?
Related to that, we need to allow for stylistic differences in how the work gets done. I previously spent a great deal of time in the world of gymnastics (a point I’ll come back to in a moment), a world that features two main levels of competition: compulsory and option. In compulsory competition, all competing athletes learn the same routines and will be judged based on their adherence to those specific moves and how they should ideally be performed. After a number of years and progressing through levels, you arrive at those levels that are modified optional (a combination of compulsory and optional maneuvers), and finally, fully optional. These are the elite level gymnasts that you see on television, with routines that (not accounting for trends- I miss consecutive whip backs…) don’t look anything alike and often include moves that athletes themselves make up. Things like student development theory, knowledge of diversity and mental health, and emergency safety protocol are the compulsory moves of this field, with other moves in other areas falling more on the side of optional. Is it easy to assume that residence life work, or indeed any facet of higher education work, should operate as compulsory exercises? Sure. But to tailor to the needs of individual differences, to ascend to higher levels, we have to embrace an “optionals” mindset. When I competed, compulsories were comforting in their predictability, but ultimately were not that interesting. I worked harder to get stronger and master skills that would help me advance because I thirsted for the opportunity to put my own spin and my own personality into my routines (and anyone who saw my mod-op beam routine would never mistake it for anyone else’s!).
Student staff, and even professional staff, will similarly thirst for opportunities to put their personal spin on the skills and required elements that must be in place. That may mean that they’re going to handle problems differently than you do. Are you okay with that? If the students are happy and safe, an agreed upon outcome can be reached, and no rules are broken, do you create an environment where your supervises (student or professional) have space to individualize their approach?
Let’s seek to loosen our grip a little bit. Here’s the part where the film studies major in me steps up on her soapbox.
Nobel Prize-winning economist and mathematician John Nash was noted for his brilliance in an approach to game theory, and his story was beautifully adapted into 2001’s Best Picture Winner, A Beautiful Mind. But what those less familiar with his story may not know, is that his hallucinations were of a wholly different nature than portrayed in the film (rather than government conspiracy, he hallucinated encounters with extraterrestrials), won a Nobel for economics (rather than math), and was divorced from his wife Alicia Larde Nash for much of what was portrayed as the middle of the movie, making their demonstrated enduring love seem less bulletproof. Does that change your opinion of the film’s cinematic merit? It probably shouldn’t.
When we articulate the desire to see our lives made into a TV show, we often mean that we want it told from our perspective, with all the same information that we have and with plot points dictated exactly as they happened and with all our knowledge imbued into their coverage. Even highly notable people don’t often get that treatment. But here’s a secret: shows like Resident Advisors, or any show that deals with a specific profession, have creative consultants and researchers. They have fact checkers and lawyers. And they report to network heads that can give notes on how things will be perceived. Why do I say this? To drive home a simple point: the creators and writers of Resident Advisors know that the term residence hall is the correct one, but they don’t care.
To say that they don’t care is harsh. What I should probably say instead is that they likely had a version of the battle that we have in the field- do we call it dorm, a term that most people can immediately identify, or do we give its correct terminology and risk being misunderstood by those who don’t understand that? And because their loyalty lies in building a large audience and not a specific one, they elected to take on the latter. Yes, you can’t fire an RA without due process. No, the resident director probably doesn’t report directly to the Dean. They found one of roughly six student affairs folks that doesn’t care for hugging?!
[And if you ask me, the idea that Doug could have been an RA for eleven years and completed multiple graduate degrees without being drafted to work in student affairs is the real grievous oversight ;)]
This approach is not one unique to our field. Sorry. In fact, I want to thank Dan for this note that came up during an online discussion about the show last night:
— Dan (@DanMcDs) April 10, 2015
This is a great example. Would most average people be savvy to the inconsistencies that could (and likely do) exist on The Big Bang Theory? No. But does it stop it from being entertaining (to some, not me)? Not really. But it is popular. And there’s a tradeoff there. Most shows that strive to get the facts exactly right, aren’t also the ones that boom with ratings. Just ask Matt Groening about Futurama.
When I first started watching ABC Family’s Make It or Break It several years ago, I was drawn in by the idea of a TV show that took place in a world that I knew so well. Full disclosure: as someone who has also worked in a community college and two Parks and Recreation departments, I’ve dealt with this a few times more than some people. And at first, I let the factual (and athletic) inconsistencies get me down. But I came to understand that for most showrunners, writers, and creatives- the setting is secondary. Make It or Break It was only occasionally good television, but that had little to do with how good the gymnastics was- the setting was secondary. Resident Advisors happens to take place in a residence hall, but it didn’t have to. Similar issues could have been explored on a cruise ship, or a day camp, or with lifeguards. The setting is secondary to the stories.
An additional point to consider here: the writers of the show and those they consulted for the show weren’t residence life professionals, they were RAs. Many of the stories that are based on real-life situations (and some are) came from the RA perspective of the situation. Is it incomplete? Sure. And so long as paraprofessionals are at least partly shielded from the full scope of decision making, it’s going to be. But their stories are valid, as we generally strive to teach them. Should that affect how you receive the show? That’s up to you, but I choose to take off my work hat for twenty or so minutesand see life through the eyes of some former students who thought a formative experience in their lives was worth sharing.
Have you watched Resident Advisors yet? What do you think?