“He still hasn’t enrolled in the online homework, and our first test is Monday. I know him; I had him last semester, he’s a good guy!”
The above quote is from a lecturer in the department I work in. It is just one of many references to a character that seems strangely juxtapositioned with action (or inaction). Over the past month, they seem to appear at every turn, from online articles to in-person encounters like the one noted above. (See here, here, and here.)
If I’m being honest, what set this whole notion in motion was my binge on Serial, the podcast by Sarah Koenig that explores the facts, assumptions, and outcomes of a 1999 murder case in Baltimore, Md. Koenig’s exploration of whether or not she believed the convicted individual committed the crime (an action, if you will) is always pitted against this idea that he was a ‘good guy’ (a reference to his character).
I’m not going to ramble on about Serial — take a listen if you’re interested. The conversation I wish to start is how to address the concept and definition of the ‘good guy’ and how character influences how we view a person’s actions — whether it’s our coworkers, our students, our supervisors. While there are several factors that contribute (gender as one of the most obvious), we will keep it general for now. When it comes down to character versus action, is one more powerful than the other?
More specifically, what is a ‘good guy’? How do we define it? Who does it apply to? How does it impact our work with students? And is it always a disclaimer to something negative?
Character could be defined in its simplest form as the moral and ethical qualities of an individual. We usually consider this as something that manifests over a long period of time. Its power lies in the length of time that one knows an individual. It is complemented with trust and respect. In the long-run, your character is more powerful (consider above student). People who know you well will not hesitate to speak of your greatest qualities without prompting!
In contrast, an action can take place in the blink of an eye or the snap of a finger. It could be small and unnoticeable or have a devastating impact on the individual and their circle of connections. The ripple impact of one action, though, can be felt across a community. Take for example some of the negative posts associated with the infamous Yik Yak application. One post can mark your entire institution or organization as unwelcoming, racist, and unsupportive. What impact will that have over the next year? The next five? Your anonymity may be guaranteed, but you have also impacted civility on your campus. With regard to the short-term, your action is more powerful. So how do we find a fluid balance of one’s actions and one’s character in this environment?
1. We have to recognize no one is perfect. I’m not perfect, I don’t expect my colleagues to be perfect, and I can’t expect students to be perfect. That’s why we are here! We are all learning! Instead, it’s about an overall understanding of yourself and what values you want to represent as best as possible.
2. Emphasize the importance of contributing to the larger idea of civility. While a person’s character may or may not be tarnished by one error or incident, the reaction to it is very telling of what is ethical and acceptable. A consideration of the overall climate of your environment — your institution, your organization, your friend group, your family — can have a huge impact on whether our action or inaction could have a ripple effect.
3. Think of the way it can reflect on you as a professional in the future. For #SAgrads and #SAPros, this is usually obvious. For the students we work with, sometimes a full-time job and the idea of networking seem years away. It’s easy to forget that those college connections could one day be references for a future position. Again, a one-time action isn’t the end of the world. Without a continuous inventory of who you want to be and what you want to represent, however, it is easy to get caught up in the moment and ignore the big picture temporarily.
Your character is measured in the long-run. The short-term impact of your actions is equally important as you play an integral role as a member of the community at your institution.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Stacy Oliver-Sikorski on Professional Development