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.

Not quite how I expected this to turn out…

At the beginning of a semester, I try to find ways for students to get to know each other before we begin our work together.  I often select an activity called “Where I’m From” that provides students with a template to create a poem about themselves.  After briefly introducing the activity, I ask students to work on the poem over the next week, bring a printed copy to the next class session, and upload an electronic copy to our course site on Sakai. I also let students know that sharing the poem (either in class or electronically) is optional, that if they prefer to keep the poem private to let me know.

My poem

Here’s a wee picture of my poem. Click on it for a better view.

Each semester that I’ve facilitated this activity, it has gone so well that I didn’t prepare for a time when it might not.  And while I wouldn’t say that the activity failed this semester, I would say that it didn’t go as well as I had hoped or as well as it has in the past

So, what was different?  There were more students who didn’t complete the poem, who completed the poem but forgot to bring it to class, and who said they didn’t want to share it with the larger group.  Because I work with graduate students, I often don’t share my work first. My thinking is that I want to create space for others to go first.  I had uploaded the electronic version of my poem, but thought it would be better to not be the first to share in class.  Students did share in small groups, pairs and triads, but in both classes there was an unusual amount of reluctance to share with the larger group.

When we talked about this, some students thought their poem wasn’t good enough, wasn’t poetic enough.  Students were, admittedly, feeling more vulnerable than other groups had in the past: they shared that they didn’t feel ready to write about their family or they didn’t want to share specific personal stories; for some, the recent death of a loved one made writing the poem much too emotional. I’m still sitting with these reactions, looking for ways to build connections in our learning community and pondering the differences between this semester and prior semesters.

In thinking how I might re-structure this activity for the future some things occur to me:

When introducing the activity during the first class session, (1) clarify the learning goals (that is, community building is an essential component of the classes I lead; building community provides a foundation for learning together), (2) show a video of the poem (there are lots of examples on YouTube), and (3) read my poem.

It would be helpful to remind people to try to follow the template without any judgment about the quality, without any second-guessing.  It’s easy to get in our heads and become overly critical of our work; kicking out that internal editor can be liberating.  It might be helpful to talk about the types of emotions that can surface during this kind of reflection.  Finally, I think it would be good to remind people that they can be creative with the template and that, if after completing the poem they would rather keep it private, that this is okay.

During the second session, I’ll ask students to work in pairs and talk about what it was like to write the poem.  For example, was it easier or harder than they expected?  What surprised them about the experience?  I could also ask these types of questions in the large group.

In terms of sharing their poems, in both the large and small groups, I would remind students that they don’t have to share if they don’t want to; if they do want to share they can either share the entire poem or just one line that they think will help us get to know them better.

Perhaps it would be helpful to show another video of a poem at the beginning of the second session.  It’s unclear whether students found the videos helpful or intimidating. It does seem that the videos illustrate the ways that each person’s poem can vary; at the same time, the elegance of the videos might cause some people to think that whatever they have to say won’t measure up.

And, maybe, it was just too early in the semester for the poem.  Perhaps we needed more time to get to know each other on a “safer” level before jumping into this.  I want to ask students about their experiences with the poem, but I think they need to be able to provide feedback anonymously…and I think they need some weeks to pass in order to reflect back on the experience and share their thoughts. I know I’ll keep thinking about this for awhile to see how I might approach this activity in the future.