Discovering Disequilibrium

It started innocently enough.  Another post of Facebook with questions that were designed to help people think about their purpose in life.  I usually stay away from these kinds of posts because they typically over-promise and under-deliver … plus, well, it’s Facebook. But, something told me to click on the link.  I was immediately hooked when I read,

So when people say, “What should I do with my life?” or “What is my life purpose?” what they’re actually asking is: “What can I do with my time that is important?”

I continued on to the seven questions posed by the author.  In-your-face writing doesn’t always appeal to me, but the questions were intriguing nevertheless.  I started thinking about how I might adapt them so that I could include them as class assignments.  Then I got to question number six: GUN TO YOUR HEAD, IF YOU HAD TO LEAVE THE HOUSE ALL DAY, EVERY DAY, WHERE WOULD YOU GO AND WHAT WOULD YOU DO? The narrative below the prompt included the following: Let’s pretend there are no useless websites, no video games, no TV. You have to be outside of the house all day every day until it’s time to go to bed — where would you go and what would you do?

As I thought about this, I knew immediately that I’d want to do what I had been doing over the summer: Tromping around Alaska, kayaking and camping in Glacier Bay, and enjoying the cool, wet weather in Gustavus.  My second thought, and I admit this with trepidation, was: I do not like what I’m doing right now. There. I said it.  Gulp.  Followed by a strong sense of dissonance and discomfort.

This sense of dissonance last a few minutes as I sat, reflected, and thought about this.  What’s not ringing true about this, I wondered.  Oh, yeah:  I love my work.  I have great colleagues, I enjoy teaching, I like advising students and helping them solve problems, and I love service aspect of my work (ways to give back to the community, university, and the profession).  Hunh.  So, what was that earlier thought all about?

Uncertainty.  Let that sit a bit.  Reflect.  Let the mind and heart work this out.

Four days later … I’m driving to work – my commute takes me along Highway 4 through the delta, open space, farm lands, home of hawks, dirt devils, and coyotes.  This little thought continued to niggle at my brain.  Then, light bulb.  The theoretical framework that informs my current research on community college presidents held the answer:  Satir’s change model explains what I’m feeling.  Suddenly I felt like Dorothy in Oz: I had the tools I needed all along.

Virginia Satir developed a model of change that is usually used in family therapy but can be used to describe a variety of change processes.  The six stages of change, as described by Satir are:  initial status quo followed by an external catalyst that alters the status quo and leads to chaos/disequilibrium which gives way to the integration of new learning followed by time to practice new learnings to strengthen new state then ultimately new status quo emerges.

Last semester (spring 2014) I was in a happy status quo as a faculty member: I was comfortable, energized, and engaged.  Then at the end of the semester, I was asked to serve as the Director of the MA – Student Affairs program.  An exciting opportunity (AKA major external catalyst) that knocked me out of my comfortable status quo and … wait for it … into the third stage of change: chaos and disequilibrium.

Of course, I’m uncomfortable.  Disequilibrium is not a fun place to be – we’re off balance; we’re often uncertain; we’re adjusting to new information, new relationships, new expectations, and new ways of being.  A wave of relief washed over me as I made sense of what I was feeling.  Even more important, Satir’s model offers a promise:  Disequilibrium will give way to a new stage where learning comes together and a new state evolves.  The model doesn’t suggest how long the journey will take, but it does provide a way to make sense of the journey from one state of being to another.

A New Semester

Another new semester is quickly upon us and although the semester actually begins today, I had the genuine pleasure of starting a class, Applied Inquiry IV, last Saturday. I’m looking forward to what the new academic year brings as we welcome new students and a new department chair. Additionally, we’ll be considering the future of our programs in the Benerd School of Education (BSE), including the way we offer classes, the types of classes we offer, and evolving options for the dissertation.

I’m also happy to be participating in the faculty success program sponsored by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. This 15-week long program is designed to strengthen/enhance/improve our productivity as we cultivate habits that support teaching, writing, and research. The program includes two conference calls per week – one on Sunday evening with everyone in the program and the other with our small group. In addition, we have homework (!) that’s designed to build on the Sunday conference call. This week, for example, we discussed the benefits of developing a semester plan focused on meeting our personal and professional goals. We worked through the steps on Sunday then were asked to post our plan. It sounds very simple, but can become daunting in short order. I made it through one week of planning and posting the appointments to my calendar … When I began to look at what I wanted to accomplish, then actually schedule time devoted to the smaller tasks that will take me toward that goal, I found my calendar filling up quickly. At the same time, I noticed that I do have time for these activities — it’s a matter of making the time for them.

The five-step process includes (1) identifying 2 – 3 personal goals and 2 – 3 professional goals. Then (2) writing them as SMART goals. From there (3), we wrote out the specifics steps we needed to take to achieve those goals. Then (4) there’s the process of mapping the steps out over the semester and finally (5), scheduling activities week by week/day by day to get us to our goals. This is part of the process of what Steven Covey described as putting the big rocks in first. Here’s a little of what my specific plans look like:

Steps One & Two: Personal and Professional Goals (I’m only listing one of the goals I wrote)

Revise and resubmit manuscript to NJAWHE.

Step Three: Specific Steps to achieve the goal.

Re-read editor’s comments

Identify additional research/literature

Respond to editor’s comments

–Revise manuscript as needed

–Prepare response sheet for editor

Resubmit manuscript

Step  Four: Mapping out the semester

This involves looking at other activities I have scheduled over the semester and identifying when I  might be able to work on the small steps.

Step Five: Put them on my calendar.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to add the steps to achieve this goal in the writing portion of the faculty success program. We write at least 30 minutes/day, Monday – Friday. So what I’ve done is identify in those 30-minute blocks a time for re-reading the editor’s comments, adding to the literature review, and so on.

By breaking down the goals into smaller tasks and making the effort to get the activities on my calendar, I feel more confident that I’ll reach my semester goals. In each of the classes I’m teaching this semester students face a variety of deadlines and projects; many often feel overwhelmed and concerned that they won’t be able to meet their goals for the semester. I’m going to introduce this planning process to them as one tool to help them organize their work to be sure they, too, accomplish their goals.

Shift Happens

Although this blog is “On the Road to Tenure” the journey really isn’t about tenure but about what is happening inside of me as I continue to grow & develop as a faculty member. What does it mean to be a university faculty member — a big question, bigger than it may seem at first. For me, it means to be alive, to be making contributions to an academic community in ways I never have before. In contrast to my prior administrative work, being a faculty member means there’s a different way of working with others, a different way of creating change in an organization, and such a different way of impact the students I work with (and indirectly, the students they work with).

One way that I’m able to contribute is through scholarship. The age old question is whether or not anyone actually reads our articles. I’ve received phone calls and email messages from students who have read my articles, which is immensely satisfying, Knowing that an article I wrote is helping with their research is a good feeling.

I’m working on a series of articles related to first-time community college presidents in the first-year of their presidency. Understanding how people chart their path to the presidency can impact the experiences of the students in the colleges served by future presidents. There are doctoral programs and professional development programs currently helping prepare future community college presidents. Mentors play a big part in the development of future leaders usually by identifying the gaps in skills and strategies for filling those gaps.

What I’ve learned from my study is that in addition to professional experiences, professional development activities, and mentors (all of which have been identified in the literature), presidents experience a key moment in their career when they realize, “I want to be a president. Now, what are my next steps?” This moment of awareness is facilitated by outside influencers, people who say, “You know, I think you’d make a good president because…” These comments help create an awareness of a possible future. The presidents in my study all said they didn’t begin their careers with a presidency in mind. The path to the presidency began when they listened to these outside influencers and asked themselves, “Could I be a good president? Is this something I want to do?” For most of the presidents, the outside influencer was a person. For one it was an experience (leading a disparate group of people through a difficult project). One president intentionally sought advice from a group of influencers when the presidency opened at his college. These external influencers led the presidents to adopt strategies that would prepare them for the role: completing their doctorate, participating in key professional development activities, broadening their professional experience, and working with a mentor. For the presidents in my study, the mentors were most influential in identifying (and creating) key professional experiences. The participants themselves identified the doctoral program that would be the best fit for their interests as well as professional development activities that would help them either understand the presidency or apply for a presidency.

These professional experiences, professional development activities, doctoral studies, and mentoring relationships helped transform the person from thinking about a presidency to knowing “I am ready for a presidency.” They served as transformative leaning experiences — external activities that created an internal shift in how these then-aspiring presidents came to see themselves. This is the pattern I came to see through a short conversation with a journal editor and further reflection. The editor encouraged me to create a visual model to depict this … I haven’t quite figured that out yet, but I do know a very creative graphic artist who can probably help.

What also shifted for me as I thought about this was the timeline for (re)crafting the manuscript. I prepared a first draft of the manuscript in about 40 hours of concentrated work plus additional reflection and research. Prior to my conversation with the editor, I thought I might be able to revise the first draft and submit it this summer. I suppose I still could and it would be a technically solid manuscript. Recrafting the manuscript using transformative learning as a theoretical framework brings a richness that I wanted, but didn’t realize was possible prior to talking with the editor — so it’s worth the time and effort to revise the manuscript.

As a result, I’ve switched my thinking about the manuscript and am taking a longer view of the project. I have some publications coming out this year plus two other manuscripts I’m working on that are in the “revise and resubmit” process. Knowing this, gives me the freedom to take the long view with this manuscript. It feels like I’m giving it the attention and thought it deserves. This also means that I can prepare conference proposals that will allow me to fully utilize the conference presentation process to vet this manuscript and receive feedback.

I’ll be able to prepare conference proposals, get feedback on those proposals prior to submitting them, and increase my chances of being accepted for a paper presentation. While I enjoy the casual experience of the round table sessions I’ve led, they are usually attended by fewer people than a paper presentation session. Being able to present at a paper presentation will help increase the visibility of the work.

My sense is that I’ll be challenged during this process. But much like the presidents in the study, an outside influencer (in this case the editor) is encouraging me to delve deeper to fully develop the potential of this paper. He has opened me to consider the possibility that I can be more than I am right now.