Graduate school taught me many things. One thoroughly addressed lesson was the value of reflection and its importance in the field of student affairs and in the pursuit of social justice. I reflected on everything: class discussions, events I attended, speakers I heard, papers I had written, I even reflected on reflections I had written before. Needless to say, I got in the habit of reflecting regularly.
When I began as a hall director a year and a half ago, I got lost on my calendar. Each day held multitudes of judicial, committee, and staff meetings; health and safety checks with my residents; one-on-ones with supervisors and supervisees; conference trips; and a lot of things I considered more necessary of my time than cognizant reflection.
At first glance, it would appear that social justice was not a part of my regular day. All of the meetings and appointments made it seem as though I was not fulfilling my commitment to creating an equitable campus environment. It made it look as though I had just too many appointments.
This is where my end-of-the-semester reflection has been so critical to my own value as a professional in the field. When I really examined my calendar, I was able to see what I had really done:
- When I met with students judicially to discuss some harassing note they left for a classmate, I was using a feminist model to educate them and help them see the impact of sexism on our personal lives and societies as a whole.
- I reworked the diversity training for our resident assistants, moving it from one hour a year to an entire day and a half bringing a commitment to having learned student staff.
- When I saw the hours spent in staff meetings, I know the agenda included gender-neutral housing and has been implemented since my arrival.
- I joined the Inclusion and Equity Committee through GLACUHO (Great Lakes Association of College and University Housing Officers) and felt good about participating at the regional level in conversations around diversity training, activism, and feminism and masculinities on campus.
Looking back allows me to feel a sense of accomplishment: a feeling that is often hard to find in social justice work as we encounter oppressive situations, discrimination in our policies, and harmfully reduced budgets that create barriers to our students’ success and what our departments can truly offer. Because this work is hard and the battles are often fought individually, it is imperative that we spend a little time considering our achievements.
In the same vein, it is absolutely critical for us to examine our failings or areas where we need to devote more attention to improving our approach, technique, or knowledge. For example, I have been very purposeful in asking the resident assistants to gain a better understanding of their identities while challenging them to understand the students they serve and realize stereotyping and generalizations about groups of students create a harmful and negative environment. I’ve recently heard murmurings about the RAs needing to be careful of what they say in front of me, because I may make them attend sensitivity training.
My defensive reaction is this: What is sensitivity training?! I think every dialogue on diversity, cultural competence, and social justice we have allows people to gain insights into new sensitivities. I struggle with the notion that some of my student staff don’t “get it” the way I want. However, when I pause and consider why the students would joke about that, I realize I need to re-shape how I approach microaggressions that I overhear and address the RAs differently when educational opportunities arise.
Without spending time reflecting, I cannot plan for the future. The time between semesters is so preciously valuable (and brief); it’s really important to assess my goals from the beginning of the semester, how I achieved or didn’t achieve them, and if there were any I set aside that I could pick up and try again.
The need to set tangible goals after reflecting on the days gone by is an evolving activity.
- When speaking with students on topics that are very important to me, I need to understand the privilege my education has been and find ways to articulate social justice at a variety of levels.
- I need to be purposeful about preparing to present at conferences and share what I know.
- When I attend conference sessions, instead of trotting off to the bar right after, I need to make three bullet points about how I could incorporate what I learned – and then follow through on this when I get back to campus.
- I need to set time aside to read journal articles and The Chronicle and this blog. If I stay connected through the literature, I can engage with our academic communities and build relationships (thanks, social media).
These aren’t like New Year’s resolutions, because if I’m honest with myself, I’ll be trying to lose the same 40 pounds I gained in undergrad for the next 10 years because I’m always waiting to start on January 1st. These are actions that can be put on a calendar and revisited regularly. A fantastic residence life person in Oregon often tweets on Mondays “what goals have you set for yourself this week?” and follows up on Friday with “what did you accomplish this week?” It’s as simple as setting aside 15 minutes at the beginning and end of each week to make sure I’m always moving forward.
Despite the speed at which our breaks go by, spend some time examining what you have done well this semester. Consider what you can improve upon. And set some tangible, achievable goals that you revisit on a regular basis. Even if you begin brief weekly reflections, it can positively impact the outcomes of your work.
Liz Steinborn is a second-year Resident Director at the University of Illinois at Springfield where she holds a lateral quarter-time position within the UIS Women’s Center. She has a Master’s Degree from Iowa State University’s Educational Leadership and Policy Studies program with a certificate in Social Justice. You can follow Liz on Twitter @lizsteinborn.