Changing for Change

By Ryan Manning — This week, I rearranged my office. Well, I moved my desk so that now it’s perpendicular to the wall it used to be parallel to (side note: I have forgotten mostly everything I’ve learned in every math class I’ve ever taken, except I somehow remember all kinds of geometry terms. So, serious kudos to my 10th grade Math Teacher.). I like it, for the most part, it lets me look out the window better, and I can almost see who’s there when someone knocks at my door (which was my biggest pet peeve of my previous configuration). But it’s taking a lot of getting used to, and every once in a while, I notice some things I don’t like about it.

But I guess that’s how every change works. With thousands of graduate students embarking on their job search in the coming months, I figured I would talk a little bit about what I’ve learned about creating change as the newest cog in a well-oiled machine.

Recently, my department has been talking a lot about “change”. We even have a committee on “change” and twice a year have a department-wide meeting to discuss all aspects of “change.” What has changed in the past few years? How do we make change? Why don’t certain things ever seem to change even though everyone wants them to? What is keeping us from changing? What would the department look like if we were more open to change and less averse to risk? It’s the first time I’ve ever heard of change talked about as some sort of ethereal concept, and not just something that happens organically. With such a large department, and such a storied reputation, we actually have to prepare ourselves to make change, before we can even begin to plan for a specific change.

This year, the department had a 60% turnover in it’s Resident Director staff: 12 out of 20 RDs (including myself) have joined the department or moved up through a graduate assistant position since July. Such a massive turnover means generally good things for the department: 1) the RD position is doing an excellent job of preparing Student Affairs professionals to move on to higher-level positions after only a few years, and 2) 12 new professionals at foundation of the department can bring a wealth of new ideas from other institutions and graduate programs. So, it’s no surprise that my 11 new colleagues are itching to make their jobs their own and put their stamp on the department.

Since I am sort of just emerging from my period of adjustment to the department, I’ve started to be able to notice what I feel works and what doesn’t. But you won’t get too far coming in after 5 months and saying “everything needs to change.” it begs the question, “why come here in the first place if you just want to change everything?” I learned that lesson when I first got to Marquette a few years ago, so I like to think that I’m a little ahead of the curve. Creating change is all about picking your battles. If you have a laundry list of causes you want to champion, how much effort can you really devote to each one? My advice is to pick one thing that’s the most important to you and fight for it. People will notice  your drive, see that you’re willing to put in the work, and probably give you a chance to show why this specific endeavor is important. If you do that for every little thing that doesn’t work for you, your colleagues are less likely to have that kind of buy-in. One thing I’ve learned is that change has to come after understanding what you want to change. It’s tough to create change when you don’t fully know the background of what it is you’re working on changing. Take some time to adjust, learn the culture of your department and why things are the way they are. This doesn’t mean just giving up and going with the system, but it will allow you to put your ideas in the context of your new environment, and present them in a way that takes other professionals and programs into consideration. Gather as much information as possible about what specifically you want to change, how this will create success, and what scaffolding (my new favorite word) will be in place in case things don’t run as smoothly as possible.

In 9th grade, I was once of the Historians for my high school’s Classics Club, which essentially meant that I was responsible for documenting the club’s activities throughout the year and presenting them in a “scrap book” format, which typically had a classical theme with a Greek/Latin motto. We chose to use Πάντα ῥε (panta rei), which translates to “everything flows,” the basic tenet of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus. Essentially, a man cannot set foot in the same river twice, the water is always changing. Change is inevitable, especially in a field where your students are drastically different from the year before. So, while it is important to always try and stay cutting edge in your work, don’t do so at the expense of what makes your product uniquely yours.

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