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 I created manuals, updated outdated processes, and established rubrics and assessment tools to standardize, then measure the outcomes of, initiatives that had previously felt haphazard.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 🙂

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