Friday, December 11, 2015

#SA_art: Celebrating Creativity in and from the Profession

The world of work in student affairs often draws some pretty talented people. These talents are not just in the realm of organizational management, student mentoring, or budget balancing. The talents of student affairs professionals, aspiring professionals, and higher education students also appear in their artistic creations. Some manifest themselves in amazing door decorations, others do photography to calm their souls, and some bake treats to share (if we are lucky)!

With this in mind, I am proposing a new hashtag where student affairs artists can share their work with one another; #SA_art. #SA_art will showcase the random works of art by our student affairs family and help us connect with others who share our passions.


Art | Music | Culinary | Poetry | Writing | Design | Songs | Dance

So please, if you do creative works, please share them with one another using #SA_art.

My Friends

These people are far more talented than I. These are some of my colleagues who are artists that I want to recognize:
  • John Sauter has been known to carry a notebook with little sketches he does throughout the day. Often many of these have a Star Wars focus! 
  • Kimberly White has been called the queen of sorority girl crafts! I am not sure what this means, but I hear she is really creative!
  • Sara Ackerson creates some wonderful imagery with her photography. Some are comical, others are serene, and some are just plain beautiful!
  • Craig Bidiman does amazing paintings, voice acting, and spoken word art. You can even commission him to work on projects for you or your office!
  • Sarah Maddox knits, does photography, and a bunch of other crafts!

My Stuff

My own hobby is taking photos. I am not trained, nor do I even bother to read the book. I just figure things out and make some guesses about what I hope will work. In the end I often find some perspectives I enjoy. Filter-free, edit-free, auto-free photography. Enjoy!

Photos hanging on my wall in the office. 

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

The Cynics Guide to Appreciative Advising

Like many advisors, I often start off meetings asking the student something along the lines of 'so how can I help you today'. This often led into predictable conversations reviewing what the student needs (courses/admission), what is missing (prerequisite, graduation requirement, grades), or a barrier in their lives causing impact to their academic work. The conversation circles back around into greater discussions about their life and career goals, how their major choice and courses match up to those goals, and then a review of their schedule and level of involvement/engagement. It is all very routine. This model seems to be how many advisors work, it was how I was trained (O'Banion, 1972), and it has worked well for some time. But I began to notice that something important was missing. Something did not feel exactly right. My first observation was that only the rarest of sessions delved beyond the superficial life and career goals. Students were not frequently returning for appointments to discuss their goals - most were regular peak enrollment advisement appointments. I had my regulars, but I was hoping for a greater impact to more students. I knew I had the skills in counseling to delve deeper, but students were just not open to discussing more. The counselor in me was screaming that there was more I could do. I should be able to foster a more welcoming environment and encourage the student to come back for more return sessions and more meaningful sessions for both of us. I felt like the advising sessions were perhaps too negative, focused on deficits, and there was more I could do to support the student. I needed and wanted to change. 

Turning Away From the Negative

By definition a cynic is someone who focuses on the negatives and thinks others are always in it for themselves. My natural inclination is to be cynical of any policy, program, event, office operation, or my own personal behavior with the goal of stripping away the inefficiencies and identifying better models for effectiveness and student support. So there is a built in conflict between always being critical and having a focus on effectiveness and student care. So why was I so cynical? To be honest, it is just simply easier to have a conversation about what is not working or what I don't like. If you think back on your own life, how often have you been engaged in a conversation about workplace frustrations? Are those conversations more frequent than discussions where you are thankful and expressed appreciation for others? Probably. Maureen Sullivan once said that "the negative is seductive." It is far easier to point out the flaws in a situation than it is to identify the more challenging and complex ways of improving and recognizing the positives in the situation. In voicing frustrations, we release some stress and create a community of similar others with whom to share our ideals. I still think of myself as a positive person and people have always described me as friendly, however I know my default to critique can restrict the quality of an advising session. So this became my focus for improvement - becoming more positive.

The most significant area for improvement, other than my own personality and habitual behavior, was in changing language away from the negative and focusing on accomplishments rather than deficits. Nowhere was this more present than in my work with Academic Advising. Advisement is full of negatively themed phrases and word choices including: checklist, degree audit, grievance, dispute, petition, change (of major), fee, hold, report, course permission, restricted enrollment, probation, requisite and prerequisite, off-track, declaration (of graduation), disqualification, application, withdrawal, and enrollment limit. With word choice like these, is it any wonder students are apprehensive about seeing Academic Advisors? There is already natural hesitation from any mandatory meetings and even more when the topic will be what you are missing from your degree, what you will not be able to take next semester, which classes are full, and what GPA you have not reached in order to progress. Advisors already have to battle the transferred feelings from High School of 'having to' go see a counselor to resolve an issue - likely because you did something wrong. So how can Academic Advisors change our language?  How do you turn a 'B-deficit' or 'probation' meeting into a positive conversation? My solution has been in attempting to embrace and implement Appreciative Advising.

A series of advising language used at my institution. Heavily negative in language.
Learning to Appreciate The Process
To combat negativity and cynicism, I sought out the resources and philosophy of Appreciative Advising (see J. Bloom and the Appreciative Advising Institute in the resources section below) to help me change a very ingrained mindset and to focus on the positives and express appreciation. It wasn't easy and I still struggle. The negative is really seductive!

The first step was to be more welcoming. Shake a student's hand, thank them for coming in to see you, and use their name. Tell them your name as an example of how they should address you. It is okay to be called Dr. Dickson if you prefer it, but if you just like others to call you Tom, then tell your students "Hi, I am Tom". This part was really easy and I was already doing this. The biggest challenge in disarming a student and making them feel welcome was to avoid use of negative language. As a cynic I often focus on what needs improvement - however this rarely yields a great response from anyone. How much rapport can you build with someone who points out only your deficits? I still have the thoughts, they are just framed to the student differently. I still point out the challenges, but in the greater context of designing a plan for success.

The next step was to be more authentic. Give students your own personal narrative about your experiences, when relevant, and show them you understand where they are coming from. Remember to keep this balanced, and share stories that are engaging. Sometimes the most difficult things to tell others have the greatest impact - your worst struggles are likely the best stories for the student. We all love talking about ourselves, especially when it can help others. Even a cynic can find something easy and relevant to share with a student about their experiences and build connections. It helped to decorate the office in my own personal style (lots of my photography) and leave a few items that were indicative of my own struggles and accomplishments as sort of props for facilitating discussions. You can still be an authentic cynic, you just have to spend more time focusing on the improvement phase and less time on the barriers.

Moving forward make sure to point out the successes and accomplishments of your student and don't linger on the deficits. Focus on what they have accomplished so you can stay focused on how to build from there. Set a series of realistic plans, how to track and measure their success, and then build from there. This step is often the hardest for many as advisors are so focused on what is missing. This was the hardest one for me to balance in my own work. I work with nursing students right now and a student with a 3.6 GPA might not be competitive for our programs, however in any other definition, in any other lens this student is doing a phenomenal job. I had to remind myself to let the student know just how well they were doing. They were already focused so much on why they cannot do something, they forgot how much they have accomplished thus far. It became part of my role to remind them of all their successes and design a plan to build upon that success.

With my nursing students, parallel planning was critical. We stopped using negative language of a 'plan B', which implies failure of some sort. Everything became 'parallel planning'. You are on a train track and there are two rails. One rail is nursing and the other is something else similar, say Public Health. Both tracks still continue in the same direction as the primary goal - helping others through healthcare. So changing rails is never a failure. This method kept the focus on positive planning for alternatives leading to the same primary goal. Yes, this means they might not get into the program, however everyone is better off in the situation where other options have been explored and the logistics of changing over to the other rail are already established - should it be needed.

Thank students for coming in and then follow up. This sounds relatively easy, but so many of us never follow up. We get caught up in yet the next issue or the next email and forget to circle back. Reaching out to a student again was a difficult part to integrate - just to force myself to change routines. I put a series of reminders on my calendar a few days out and prompted what I should ask. It makes such a huge difference. I reminds a student they matter and that you care about the outcome. It helps them feel like they belong!

Don't stop once goals are reached. Never settle. Build upon what was accomplished and set even higher goals. The process of advisement is never finished. This stage was actually something of a natural fit for me. The natural cynic is constantly finding areas for improvement, so this stage was easy to support and implement - the harder part was framing everything positively and re-framing necessary deficit discussions.

I have left out so much about appreciative advising and will likely update this post over time, so really your best resource is to check it out for yourself. There are entire textbooks written on this topic for a reason. If you need some free resources, there are plenty of slideshare presentations out there, an appreciative advising Facebook group, and lots of articles on the NACADA Clearinghouse. Or just ask Jenny Bloom. If you ever get the chance, try to attend a training through the Appreciative Advising Institute. 

The process is a mindset change, which is never easy and I still struggle with every day. I am still a cynic, but if I can be a nicer once, if perhaps I can focus more on the positives, then maybe the difference I was seeking will happen for more of my students and for myself. And in the end, the impact to my students is what matters most.


Thank you. Thank you to Jenny Bloom, Bryant Hutson, Ye He, Maureen Sullivan and others for their research, scholarly contributions, and advocacy of appreciative inquiry and appreciative advising. Thank you to Dr. Tom Avants for encouraging a young advisor to look into this model. Thank you to Deidre Frazier, Irma Arboleda, Scott Correll, Aaron Gariss, Casey Self, Julie Voller, and Dr. Deb Hull for training me on advisement and helping me to improve. Thank you to Dr. Christine Wilkinson, Dr. Alfredo de los Santos, Dr. Terry O'Banion, and Dr. Linda Sullivan for your advice and guidance. Thanks again to Dr. Jenny Bloom for a great presentation to the University of Arizona advisors last year (2014).

Maybe I am not really a true cynic, but someone who just needs to always find something to improve upon?

References and Resources

  • Appreciative Advising -
  • Bloom, J. L., Hutson, B. L., & He, Y. (2008). The appreciative advising revolution. Champaign, IL: Stipes Publishing. 
  • Bloom, J. and Martin, N.A. (2002, August 29). Incorporating appreciative inquiry into academic advising. The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, 4 (3).
  • Sullivan, M. (2004). The promise of appreciative inquiry in library organizations. Library Trends 53 (1), 218-229.
  • Cooperrider, D. L., & Whitney, D. (2000). A Positive Revolution in Change: Appreciative Inquiry. In D. L. Cooperrider, P.F. Sorensen, Jr., D. Whitney, and T.F. Yaeger (Eds.), Appreciative inquiry: Rethinking human organization toward a positive theory of change (pp. 3–27). Champaign, IL: Stipes Publishing.

If you find that you are always being told no, then stop asking questions and take some action. Do something to change your circumstances or how you relate to others.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Post-Conference: Now What?

So you just attended a large conference in your field. If things went well, you are now engaged, energized, and full of new ideas you want to implement. And, unfortunately, you are also at a complete loss on what to do now. Here are some tips that can help you avoid jumping back into your routine and maximize your experience:

Get Organized and Document Your Experience
Getting organized is often the most painful part of the experience for many people, however this will help you turn your experience into something that can be referenced. Download the presentation handouts, put them in folders, rank the sessions, and create a method for revisiting the material.

Maintain Your Network
At the conference you met a wide variety of amazing people and generated a lot of great discussions. Hopefully, you also got names, business cards, twitter handles, or some other contact information. Now is the time to maintain those relationships and build your professional network.

Thank Others
Reach out to all your contacts and thank them for their role and for any information they contributed to your learning, ideas generated, or resources provided.

Thank those funding you. Let your supervisor know why it was valuable and articulate the benefits they and you received from attending. This helps secure you a better position when asking for future funding, when they know there is a return on investment.

Expand the Knowledge and Give Back
Attending just for your own benefit does not maximize the impact. It is far more likely your supervisor will approve future attendance if you create an impact across the campus and across your unit. One great method is to schedule one topic a week to review and discuss in staff meetings  - or break it out into one session per person who then articulates the takeaways. Provide executive summaries of each session on key points.

Don't Try to Change the World in One Go
As with writing a dissertation, it is not about changing the world or creating a least not right away. Rather, the focus is upon adding a small contribution to your area and then building from there. You first make something happen. Anything. Then you build on the success and turn your project/dissertation into journal articles or a manuscript (another event, process adjustment, service, or program). Start small by talking about one important session. Then share your notes from all your sessions in executive summary formats. Do a campus-wide presentation. Turn that into a state or regional conference. Then try for national. Start writing a blog. Work your way up to a journal article.

In the end, no matter what you do, just make sure that you contribute and pass on the knowledge.

Places to publish

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Viva NACADA 2015: My Hopes

Reflecting on Last Year
Last year when I attended the NACADA annual conference, I had an excellent time in Minneapolis. The trip did start out rough when I found out our business office had not fully processed my hotel and I had to book a new one upon landing. This meant I was about a mile away from the conference and really didn't get a chance to see many people after the sessions. However, the situation worked out well as the room was amazing, for a reasonable price, and extremely quiet. It also gave me the opportunity to explore more of downtown, which wasn't bad at all. The second major hurdle to that trip was when I started to unpack and I realized my one year old had relocated every single pair of pants out of my suitcase and back into the closet at home. On the positive side, I was impressed he could carry them since walking was pretty new and even more so that he hung them back up in the right place. So, I had to run out and get some emergency duds.

The rest of the trip was fantastic. I met some amazing individuals such as Ryan Scheckle, Dr. John Sauter, Sara Ackerson, Dr. Janet Schulenberg, Kim Wennerberg, Julie Larsen, Dr. Laura Pasquini and many others. I also geeked out over meeting researchers Dr. Mark Taylor, Dr. Eric White, Dr. Tom Grites, and Dr. Marc Lowenstein. I attended a phenomenal pre-conference workshop by Matthew Rust on Advising Legal Audits. I had great conversations about publishing Marsha Miller - to whom I still owe several submissions. This shouldn't be my conclusion here, but I also learned a great deal about many different aspects of the profession from some fantastic presenters.

This Year
For NACADA 2015 my hopes are relatively simple: connect with some great people I met last year, learn more about publishing in the Journal, network and build new relationships, and learn more about how to improve my own advising, and find items to bring back to my campus.

This year I plan to reconnect with some amazing individuals I met last year.

  • Ryan Scheckle: don't miss his #C308 session on Star Wars Advising
  • John Sauter: if you haven't met him yet, please do. He is an amazing resource.
  • Sara Ackerson: don't miss her at the SA Collective TweetUp on Monday night at 7:30pm.

  • Follow Along
    I will be tweeting throughout the conference using the official hashtag #VivaNACADA15 from my account @DrThomasDickson.

    Thank you to everyone for all their hard work planning and preparing for the NACADA conference. It is going to be a wonderful experience and I am looking forward to every minute. And on that note, I am going to close with a quote that is resonating from one of my son's favorite shows, Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood:

    "It's such a good feeling to play with family and friends
    It's such a good feeling when they lend you a hand
    You wake up ready to say 
    'I think I'll make a snappy new day'
    Its such a good feeling, 
    a very good feeling, 
    a feeling you know...
    That I'll be back when the day is new
    and I'll have more ideas for you
    and you'll have things you want to talk about
    I will too...
    Because it's you I like"

    Tuesday, March 17, 2015

    Working for Your Rival

    Rivalries between institutions are often things of legend in higher education. Our alma maters teach students, employees, and the community to despise the rival and to assume no good can come from the other. We are fed histories of grievances and real or imagined slights to bias one against the other. My own alma mater taught students about the rival protesting against my alma mater gaining university status in the 1950s. The rival institution teaches, not about the protest, but about the campus vandalism they suffered in retaliation. These stories fuel school spirit and enhance bias against the rival. Personally, most of the rivalry never went beyond sports but with all rivalries it eventually turned into something more and in one incident my vehicle was keyed with a slanderous statement by the rival.

    It should be noted I was heavily involved and spirited in my undergraduate education and later became an employee and doctoral student at my alma mater. Leaving to work for my rival, a place where I was vandalized, was not an easy decision.

    What would I tell someone looking to work for their rival?
    In any other industry it would be considered commonplace or savvy to go work for your rival, however in higher education we so strongly instill a sense of institutional pride through rivalries it becomes prohibitive. To choose to work for a rival invites stigma and tangible discrimination based on one of the very things work for daily - choosing an institution that is the right fit for its merits and the outcomes it will provide. Do not pass up an opportunity to help yourself transition on the basis of rivalries. We strive in Student Affairs to avoid prejudice when possible and rivalries are based in in-group/out-group prejudice. Think of your own path and the opportunities a change might bring.

    Advice for Transitioning:
      1. Learn about your new institution. Take the time to talk with others who have more institutional knowledge at your new home. Not only is this a great way to build connections, friends, and knowledge, but it shows you are genuine about building something positive.
      2. Embrace opportunities to show new school spirit. You might be uncomfortable, however you will need to learn about your new institution's points of pride to do your work well and model responsible spirited behavior to your students.  
      3. Be conscious of your pronoun use. Us, we, our, they, them, their, theirs, and other pronouns are not always thought of during use but can quickly signal your perceptions of membership to a community to those around you. 
      4. Don't be too quick to criticize your alma mater. Show commitment and consistency by being proud, but not loud, about your alma mater and past experiences. Quickness to criticize your old home only signals your loyalties change quickly and you may be insincere. 
      5. Avoid assigning more value to policies and procedures of your alma mater. Until you know the system and history well enough, do not make value judgments. Ask questions. Ask why it is done this way, but do not assume your previous way is better. 
      6. Minimize discussion of the other institution. Positive contributions need to be tempered, as the mention of the other institution instills a loss of credibility and signals you are part of an out-group. Your feedback is best received without naming institutional context.
      7. Avoid rivalry discussions or pranks. If your team wins, you cannot gloat without repercussions and will be the recipient of rationale why the outcome was inappropriate. Any attempts to argue only serve to highlight your lack of membership to the group. If your team loses, you are the recipient of ridicule for the foreseeable future.
    Do not pass up an opportunity to work at your rival institution. The opportunities for learning and personal grow are immense. After four years of working for my rival, I am very happy where I work and gladly speak of exceptional merits of my new home. My pride in my alma mater has not changed at the core, however the foundations upon which it was built are now rooted in the facts and feelings of my personal experiences and no longer based in some external rivalry bias.

    Photo by Mamta Popat / Arizona Daily Star