Last week, during my department’s staff retreat, I sat on the stage of our college theater for a reflective activity. I relished in all of its familiarity: traces of marking tape on the ground and the mixed smells of wood, fabric, and paint. Before I came to student affairs, I pursued the creative and performing arts, concentrated in Theater. Starting in Theater taught me invaluable lessons about work, life, the world we live in, and the field of student affairs. Here are just a few (and I am indebted to my director, Ms. Elsa Johnson Bass, for teaching me these lessons):
I. Appreciate the process
Theater and student affairs have quite a few things in common, though they may not seem apparent. Both disciplines require your total commitment, passion, and energy. They involve setting time to task, in order to obtain a final outcome, whether that comes in the form of a play, an educational program, or effective advising / training sessions for student leaders, etc. It can be very easy to get caught up in anticipation of the “final product”. Yet it is the process that helps us to create a worthwhile outcome.
I decided to study Theater quite some time ago and enrolled into a performing arts high school (yes…. like Fame sans all of the perfectly choreographed musical outbursts). I was ready to immediately take the stage, until our director informed us that all first year students would be contributing by serving as ensemble members and stage assistants. It was our duty to make add to the overall atmosphere of the production… and then, to sweep the stage and put away the costumes at the end of each production opening. In year two, we received small supporting roles and lines (i.e. “Would you like to buy a flower”). So, by the time we reached our last year, we had done everything from minor stage design, to costuming, to prop set-up, dancing as ensemble members, singing in choral pieces, thorough character development, and leading in starring roles. I could never forget the overall process that we went through to get to those final productions.
As student affairs professionals, so much of our work, happens “off stage”. It takes time to learn theories, create outcomes, and implement well developed plans. Paying attention to the process is something that I try to incorporate into my daily work and is also a lesson that I have tried to teach my students. Completing the proposals, thinking programs through to completion, considering the set-up and the break down of an event, and understanding the goals of an initiative are things that happen as a part of the overall process. Our students can learn a lot from the process of an initiative and these skills can help them, even in their post-graduate endeavors.
II. Commit to the moment & don’t anticipate lines
One of the most valuable skills I’ve learned onstage was how to commit myself and my energies “to the moment”.
In Theater, you spend a lot of time with people, but you spend a lot of time with the play itself: the scripts, the lines, the memorization. You go through the script countless times in rehearsals. You take it home and work on your memorization, inflection, and tone. You memorize your lines, the lines of your scene partner, and after the 20th rehearsal, you’ve picked up lines from the entire production.
Knowing these things is crucial. However, productions lose their power when you can tell the actor is not in the moment. Have you ever sat through a play or a movie even where you could tell that the actor was just “not there”? You saw in their brow that they were anticipating the next line, trying to get from point A to point B. Those interactions lose their realism.
Have you ever worked with a student so frequently that you can almost anticipate what they will say? You know what is important to them and you know what is not important to them. (Try sitting on a few student conduct cases… you can almost anticipate some of what may happen). And yet… not committing to the actual moment of advising or assisting students really makes the interactions less transformative. If there’s one thing I have learned, it is that our students are incredibly perceptive. They can tell when our eyebrows are raised and when we are waiting for them to say “that one thing that they always complain about” (especially if it’s a peak time in your functional field like housing assignments, career fairs, etc). They can tell when we are anticipating their usual pattern of behavior. But this hinders their overall learning experience and reinforces the pattern.
Now, I am not saying that you should not use your prior knowledge to inform your work. However, it is important to be open to the subtle shifts of growth that your students display! You never want to miss those because you were “anticipating their lines”.
Committing to the moment is definitely a practice. As a previous intern in academic advising, I noticed that there were definite scripts already available: Communications Majors take COMM101, general education credits must be completed by the junior year, student athletes in biology needed to do lab internships to work around their season and schedules. Yet, for each of our students, this is a new experience; this is a chance that we have to help them make the most of their academic process. So, committing to the moment and being present in the meeting with them is still good practice, even if you’ve answered “How many credits do I need to graduate” 20 times. Trying to schedule a few moments between meetings to take notes or briefly reflect allows me to commit to the moment in my subsequent meetings. Remembering that each student learns through different processes and at different key points helps me to resist anticipating what they will say or how they might respond to a certain policy, protocol, or piece of information.
III. All characters need to have breakfast and a backstory
Stay with me on this one… I’m going somewhere. In my days in the theater, I appreciated being able to play characters with a wide variety of motives, backgrounds, desires, and goals. This made me dig deep, stretch my mind to consider the vastness of the human experience, and to develop understanding for the different ways people respond to their circumstances and experiences.
No matter what character or role we were in, our director would ask, “What happened before the curtain opened? What did your character have for breakfast? All characters need to have breakfast. Have they only had a cup of coffee today? Have they had a full pancake breakfast? What happened to them before we got to this scene?” The more we reflected on these things, the more I realized that there really weren’t very many distinct “heroes” or “villains”; there were simply people who came to the story in a myriad of ways, responding in a myriad of ways. They could do something to hinder the overall plot development in one moment, and then help the plot to move forward in the next moment.
We interact with our students, peers, and colleagues on the “stage” of our institutional experiences. So many times, it is easy for us to forget that each of the people we interact with are coming to us with a particular backstory, a lens, a “breakfast” or a lack thereof. This is an absolutely crucial fact for me to remember, especially in my work within multicultural / diversity affairs. Our students have come to our institution in a myriad of ways. They will understand and interpret their experiences in a myriad of ways. Sometimes, they will participate in the process and help us to move institutional initiatives forward. Sometimes, they will inspire us with their poignant thoughts on power, privilege, leadership, and more. Other times, it will seem that they just do not “get it”. This is all a part of the experience. So, it is helpful to always remember that there are external factors, background stories (and that they may or may not have had breakfast yet)!
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