I am not an American, but having lived here now for just over half of my life, there are some US holidays that, to some degree, my family and I have adopted into our lives. One thing that I appreciate is holidays that go beyond partying and fun (as enjoyable as those can be), such as Thanksgiving.
Before continuing, I’d like to acknowledge the controversial nature of Thanksgiving, especially when celebrations are focused around its traditional historical origins given the pain this can and has brought to Native Americans .
What I’ve taken away from the Thanksgiving holiday is the idea of gathering with family, biological or created, taking the time to reflect on many facets of life, and expressing gratitude for them. McCullough (2002) hypothesized that gratitude is one of a set of positive emotions “undergirded…by mindful attentiveness” . He believed that “grateful people…possess the cognitive habit of savoring their life circumstances.” Indeed, gratefulness has been linked positively with outcomes including increased feelings of happiness, higher overall wellbeing , and even better sleep .
Reflecting on life and finding embers of appreciation to fan into the deeper warmth of gratitude, I would be remiss to exclude my work life. A huge part of my life is my career as a higher ed assessment professional, and I’ve been thinking recently about the unpredictable nature of life and the paths that lead us to our current place. Sometimes we are so caught up in the daily rush, moving from resolving one task to another, finding solutions, finishing projects, and putting out fires, that it becomes difficult to zoom out and focus on the bigger picture of why we do what we do. I cast my mind back to the deliberate steps which brought me to my current career, and the myriad of reasons why I continue along this path. The holiday season altogether has inspired me, and presents a timely opportunity to deliberate on what makes me most joyful and grateful about the work we do!
Photo by Alex Alvarez on Unsplash; https://unsplash.com/photos/63YVMrL2d6g
At the top of the list would be my colleagues and the connections I’m able to make across campus. The full-time role of an assessment professional in Student Affairs resembles a unicorn of sorts, being unique (and valuable…), in that the role I have connects mainly with other staff rather than interacting directly with students. The people I work with are committed to facilitating student development and serving student needs, caring, mentally agile, resourceful, and simply fun! Sometimes, I am surprised when I encounter two colleagues who I both know and admire, yet who have never met one another. It strikes me, as a privilege, that in my role, I have been called upon to reach out and link to such a wide swath of positions, levels, responsibilities, and yes, personalities as I carry out my day-to-day activities. Much of why I do what I do comes down to the connections made and relationships formed. Although I miss teaching undergraduates sometimes, I have found other ways to interact with students on campus, like college advising and other volunteer opportunities. As a result, I’ve realized that there’s a wonderful trade-off in how I can indirectly impact students’ positive outcomes. My role allows me to help colleagues, who work in other units, better support the students they engage in meetings or through programs, aiding in the creation of a more comprehensive profile of our students’ needs, perceptions, and achievement of learning outcomes by seeing them through multiple lens.
Photo by Robert Collins on Unsplash; https://unsplash.com/photos/tvc5imO5pXk
Coupled with being fortunate enough to be welcome in many different types of spaces on campus, I appreciate the many bits of knowledge and insight I’ve picked up along the way from colleagues. Each Student Affairs colleague is an expert in their field, with much training and experience around their student populations of interest. The theory behind trends on campus, student behavior and developmental stages are fascinating for me. Being able to have informed discussions around why students do what they do is compelling. Absorbing illuminating information kernels helps me to be better at my work as I help coworkers navigate the nuances of articulating goals, outcomes, and hypotheses. I am encouraged to attend professional development workshops through centers I support that not only inform my assessment work, but also inform my personal practices. Picking up these nuggets of information and digging further into the literature is not only inherently satisfying for me, but also allows me to be a better advocate for colleagues and ultimately students themselves.
Photo by Food Photographer | Jennifer Pallian on Unsplash; https://unsplash.com/photos/dZKiXR9FYcM
Often we talk about assessment as storytelling with data. We are called upon to help further the assessment cycle, encouraging and assisting colleagues with stating outcomes, collecting data, and crafting reports and communications around the data. Each component of this cycle has a specific function, but the shape of the components themselves allow for much creativity. A previous blog post by the awesome Nan Smith  likened the work we do to art. Similarly, our work includes subjective choices in the way the data connected to our questions about students is captured, displayed, and communicated. I am encouraged to and garner both internal delight and external approval for suggesting alternative methods of data collection, incorporating unexpected activities in workshops, or using a less traditional format for a report. This role allows for (and even at times promotes) creating, as opposed to always having to color in the lines of what already exists.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash; https://unsplash.com/photos/QtFAXP6z0Wk
I cannot forget about the data! I’m definitely more of a big-picture person, loving to speculate on theories, but I do absolutely love data in its many varied forms. Data, collected and interpreted with best practices, can be leveraged to reduce bias and subjectivity of perceptions or for decision-making; offering quantifiable evidence to combat or support hunches or theories. I love that about data. We can sit and discuss, hypothesize, and state anecdotal examples, but in order to really start to gain an understanding of what is occurring, data’s role is unparalleled. Of course, this doesn’t mean data cannot be skewed or its value mitigated by ineffectively articulated questions. The value of data rests heavily on the reasoned intent behind it, and, typically, answers may lead to more questions. Ending with more questions than when you began is not necessarily a bad outcome, as many areas of investigation are complicated. When done well, I can get lost in data, looking at the descriptive and inferential statistics, and thinking how best and most accurately I can present it for optimal impact and utility. As part of my role, I get to sometimes bask in data, immersing myself in its cool, sparkling depths, with guiding questions to ensure I return to land!
Photo by Mohamed Nashah on Unsplash; https://unsplash.com/photos/GIsFHopvbPA
Why do I include a word with usually a negative connotation as a reason why I am grateful to be a higher ed assessment professional? It most accurately encompasses my thoughts around the abstract idea, but can be likened to a state of wonder. What do I mean? No day in my role as a higher ed assessment professional is the same. Even with my schedule set in advance, I cannot predict what each day will look like. I can spend part of the day in my office, drafting a template in preparation for annual reports; creating a resource around qualitative data analysis; or even putting a report together. Or, I might go meet one-on-one with a colleague at their center to talk about outcomes, data, or even around strategic planning; present for a team of colleagues on relevant data for them or on best ways to report out data they have collected. While not a director of a center, attending director meetings provides me with a broader picture of the issues affecting centers, teams, and students. In my role, I may also attend campus-wide committee meetings or visit with academic assessment or institutional research colleagues. Over time, I’ve realized that I need the stimulation of multi-faceted engagement and I relish that constant unpredictability is built into my position. Even the structure of my role itself is subject to change occasionally! I’ve found that being a higher ed assessment professional allows me to actually shape my role, too, enhancing the aspects and tasks that I most enjoy. Is there associated anxiety from time to time? Yes, but I recognize that disquiet is an occasional - and to me acceptable - side-effect of the larger, thrilling adventure that an assessment career in higher ed, and specifically Student Affairs assessment, can sometimes be.
Photo by Jeremy Thomas on Unsplash; https://unsplash.com/photos/1K5FKIyKVxQ
There are additional aspects of my role as a Student Affairs assessment professional that I am grateful for. The above list highlights those facets that come most readily to mind, and indeed, that I see reflected in my personal life as well. I am grateful for the people connections I make in choir, my neighborhood, and through my kids’ school and out-of-school activities. I am even grateful for those I meet briefly: in line at the grocery store, the receptionist at the optometrist, and the PetCo sales associate, whose small kindnesses can light a whole day. I am grateful for Wikipedia (used cautiously) and the rabbit hole of information that is Google. I am grateful for Tableau dashboards that are being included in articles everywhere, and the ability to go almost anywhere in the US or the world even, within reason, for a quick weekend trip. Being able to intentionally reflect on what we are grateful for in both our personal and professional higher ed assessment lives is so valuable, and helps us to focus eagerly, and hopefully, on what the future will bring!
...And coffee, I am extremely grateful for coffee!
Photo by Mario Ibrahimi on Unsplash; https://unsplash.com/photos/2RrAct0Rf8E
What are you most grateful about when it comes to your career as a higher ed assessment professional?
- Zotigh, D. (2019, November 26). Do American Indians celebrate Thanksgiving? Retrieved from: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/blogs/national-museum-american-indian/2019/11/27/do-american-indians-celebrate-thanksgiving/
- McCullough, M. E. (2002). Savoring life, past and present: Explaining what hope and gratitude share in common. Psychological Inquiry, 13, 202-204.
- Harvard Mental Health Letter. (2019, June 5). Retrieved from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/in-praise-of-gratitude
- Wood, Alex & Joseph, Stephen & Lloyd, Joanna & Atkins, Samuel. (2009). Gratitude influences sleep through the mechanism of pre-sleep cognitions. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 66, 43-8.
- Smith, N. (2019, May 29). The Educational Art of Assessment. Retrieved from: http://studentaffairsassessment.org/entries/blog/the-educational-art-of-assessment
Eulena Jonsson, Duke University