The Space Between Scholar and Practitioner

Today, I added the phrases “researcher” and “scholar-practitioner” to my social media profiles. I didn’t do this because I actually believe that anyone actually reads the little blurb below my picture on Twitter, but, on the off-chance that they do…I should really be putting my best foot forward. In all honesty, the foot that I’m putting forward is on constantly moving ground as I cover the spaces betwixt and between scholar and practitioner. The anthropological concept of liminality comes to mind–a state of ambiguity in which one has abandoned a previous state or identity as part of a ritual, but has yet to move fully into a new one. This liminality, this betweenness, is a constant in my life as a practitioner and PhD student.

During my doctoral orientation last fall, on a warm late-August day, I began my journey of betweenness. On this occasion, a well-meaning faculty member from another department presented a session on developing one’s identity as a researcher when transitioning to a PhD program. I was keenly interested in this, as I realized that this task was squarely ahead of me, and would likely be complicated by my role as a full-time practitioner. At the end of the session, I posed a question: “How might you advise that students like me, who are also full-time practitioners, negotiate being both a researcher and a practitioner?” The answer, in short was “Don’t.” I was advised that I would never be able to fully assume the identity of researcher while going to school part-time. That if I wanted to be a researcher, I would eventually need to quit practice. The two could not coexist.

This was obviously in front of a room full of people I barely knew. Thankfully, kind fellow students and faculty members made efforts in the moment, and afterwards, to ameliorate the impact of this exchange. But still, on Day 1, I was told, in no uncertain terms, that I was an impossibility. Of course, I rejected this fully and continue to reject it. I refuse to believe that I have to smother my old self to become something new.  However, it brought into stark relief the boundary-crossing nature of being a scholar-practitioner. It showed me that for many academics and administrators, the preferred, more palatable route is to be an “either-or,” not a “both-and.” People like putting others in boxes and categories to be easily defined. Scholar-practitioners don’t fit neatly into a box. Part-time PhD students span definitions. I exist in a liminal space in my university and within the field of higher education.

This space between is usually not an easy one to occupy. I have two different email signatures. I sometimes struggle to introduce myself in a coherent manner. Registering for conferences is a whole debacle in which I change my answer to “Please indicate your level in the field” multiple times. What is my level? My level is somewhere between mid-level and novice. My level is somewhere between supervisor and advisee. My level is somewhere between teacher and student. I sit at conference tables with my backpack at my feet. I wish my students good luck on finals and graciously accept their good luck wishes in return. My ID card has “Professional” printed on it, but it gets me student tickets to athletic events. I move, usually quickly, through multiple spaces at my university, casting the crumbs of scholar-practitionerness in my path. I sprinkle the abstract into the practical, and season the theoretical with the experiential.

Betweenness is simultaneously thrilling and exhausting, because it means having no comfort zone. I’m learning and growing constantly. Too often, I worry about being “not enough” of something and “too much” of something else. I know that I cannot entertain those worries, and that the time for politely fitting myself into others’ narrowly-defined definitions is long gone. I assert my scholar-practitionerness. I embrace my betweenness. I seek out others who are also somewhere between, because when you don’t know where you are, you can find a sense of place with company. Better than that is finding a sense of place within myself. I am exactly who I am supposed to be: constantly changing, constantly moving, and constantly between.


Moving Forward.

America is a broken and divided nation. Trump is a symptom of these conditions.

Today I feel a great deal of fear and anger. I recognize that this is a result of the fear and anger of a great many Americans who feel dissatisfied because our economy and government have caused much anxiety over the past several years. How do we, as humans, often discharge our feelings of discomfort, uncertainty, and anxiety? By blaming others. By latching onto an oppressive system that lets you believe that there’s an easy solution to the deep complexities of contemporary life: “return” to simplicity; wall out the uncertain; retreat to the comfort of privilege; assign blame and relieve yourself of your fears.

So today, I will not blame. I will do my best to understand this environment and conditions, commit to my values, commit to a vision of an America where all people are full and equal participants in society, and commit to moving forward.

The current state of our society highlights the oppressive systems that are, and have been, thriving. It is all connected; all forms of oppression are connected. I believe that the political climate of this country will bring us dark times in the next few years. I am deeply, painfully concerned for the people I love, care about, and respect. It seems almost impossible to wake up, realize that everything you stand for, your values, your relationships, or your very existence, is under attack, and then to have to figure out a plan to fight back. But the political, social, and economic climate of our nation is not solely determined by one elected individual or elected body. We are not alone. We will not accept this as our fate, the fate of our nation, and the future for our children. We will not accept hatred and divisiveness as American values.

To my friends, family, students, and colleagues who feel lost, afraid, attacked, and dehumanized: I love, honor, and respect you. I encourage you to seek spaces of healing. And when you are ready, I invite you into dialogue and action. I am doing everything I can do to fan my own flame of hope and perseverance, and to not falter in the face of this environment. I am an active participant in shaping the future of this nation. We are all active participants in shaping each other’s lives and futures.

We must move forward in solidarity. We must discover new ways of being and connecting as communities to find paths of healing, resistance, and progress. The struggle continues.

Risk Without Reward

This morning, as I was walking across campus, my mind was racing with the events of the past few days. The murders of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, now counted among the continued, senseless murders of black and brown people; the swirling anger and vitriol that encompasses our national landscape–the blaming and finger pointing; the senseless killing in the line of action of Dallas police officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Smith, Michael Krol, Patrick Zamarripa, and DART officer Brent Thompson; the violence that has occurred in Tennessee, south Georgia, and St. Louis. There is so much. There is too much. It is so clear that in a system of privilege and oppression, eventually, everyone starts to lose. 

But the thing is, at the same time that I can and should feel legitimate anger, fear, and sadness, the reality is, I still feel pretty damn safe. Because I am a highly educated, middle class white woman who lives in a predominantly white town, around a predominantly white university. My partner is white. My family members are white. So although there are plenty of things that I feel pretty awful about, the reality is that I still feel very secure for myself and the ones I love most.

The big issue that I’m dealing with this week is along the lines of “What do I say?” and “What should I do?” and, frankly “What about when I say/do the wrong thing and hurt/offend/piss off/oppress someone?” Never once in my life has it ever crossed my mind that I am going to be shot and killed by police while living my every day life. I don’t wake up in the morning or go to bed worried about what might happen if I get pulled over for speeding, or what might happen if my partner neglects to change a taillight and gets pulled over on the way to work at 4:30am, or if my sister might be walking down the street in Boston and might look a little “suspicious,” or if my Dad decides to have a bonfire in the backyard and the neighbors think it’s a problem. I never think about the result of my loved ones interacting with law enforcement being their sudden and tragic death. But people of color in America? They do have to worry about this. And the reason for this incredibly jarring disparity is white privilege.

And yet, against this stark reality check, I still struggle with questions about what to do and how to react to racism, oppression, and racial violence.  A lifetime of white privilege has made me feel that I’m almost always right, and if not, I gave it a darn good try and I should probably get a gold star for my efforts anyway, so it’s hard to admit that the root of the aforementioned struggle is the fear that I am going to potentially be utterly and completely wrong, shitty, and possibly racist in my thoughts and reactions. My friends, colleagues, and students of color are worried about getting killed and I’m worried about getting called out. The unjust absurdity of this is not lost on me, but that doesn’t change the fact that I need to deal with this to be part of the solution instead of part of the problem. This week is hardly the first time that I’ve reckoned with this, and if I know anything about the pervasiveness of white privilege and white supremacy, I doubt it will be the last.

Fears of being “wrong,” of being rebuked, of being accidentally racist, of not recognizing white supremacist attitudes and behaviors, of not having something good to contribute to the conversation…these can often deter white folks from entering into conversation and action as we start to understand and realize the impact of racism. Privilege tends to protect us from those fears, instilling in us that we have a “right”to be in charge, to be expert, and to be given a high-five for our contributions. (Side note: white privilege also often intersects with various forms of identity oppression, so I have plenty of fears of being heard and respected as a woman, but that’s a different blog for a different day).

It’s uncomfortable to start to realize things, to start to wake up to the fact that you thought you had life figured out but oh my goodness, you had no idea. To think that you’ve got the rationale and the logic and the explanation, but there are people looking back at you like you are just absolutely not even in the ballpark of objective reality. To be called out for any number of things. It feels like shit. But I’m a firm believer that sometimes we need to get up close and personal with shit because our world is so horribly messed up. The systems in place are so unjust, violent, and pervasive. And if you’re privileged, most of the time you get to float around and above it all, relatively unscathed. In some ways, experiencing that horrible feeling is an invitation into understanding, and if you are starting to experience that, I invite you to lean into it. Lean into it with some degree of self-care, forgiveness, and support and connection with other anti-racist white folks. I invite you to consider asking yourself how you can show up and take risks, be uncomfortable, be wrong, make mistakes, apologize authentically, seek understanding, and don’t expect any reward to come your way. Consider how you can do that in the pursuit of an equal and just society in which all individuals and groups are able to freely and equally participate without fear of being shot in broad daylight at a traffic stop.




#SASpeaks: Breaking Up With Busyness

During the NASPA 2016 Annual Conference, I had the wonderful opportunity to give a talk on “Breaking Up With Busyness,” inspired by a post originally published here, as well as my ongoing personal journey and the great work of many writers and researchers. 

Busyness, which can be described as the constant need in our lives to be occupied by tasks and responsibilities, is not unique to Student Affairs, but, I would argue, it’s an insidious part of the culture of our field. It’s fueled by perfectionism, workaholism, and environments of shame. 
Before I came to these realizations about “busyness,” I would embark on each semester with an increasing sense of anxiety and urgency, with the belief that to she who works the most hours go the spoils. For years I kept this up, and I did it more or less successfully. It’s unsurprising that I found success by making myself continually busy in environments that tend to glorify the overworked, overtired, and overscheduled. I was the smartest, most accomplished, and damnit, the busiest. If I didn’t work the most hours, sit on the most committees, and volunteer the most, I wouldn’t get ahead. I wouldn’t be successful—or so I thought. 
I wasn’t the only person around me who felt that way or was behaving that way; most peers and colleagues were. I saw role models and supervisors glorifying exhaustion, so I, too, laid myself down for sacrifice at the altar of Student Affairs. It was a vicious cycle of loose boundaries, overwork, and complaining. And then, after a gradual wearing down over the course of years, I decided that it was time to show Busyness the door. One weekend, I came back to campus (I was a live-on professional at the time) after being away, and the very thought of being there caused me to burst into tears, sitting in my car in the parking lot– I knew then that I was burned out, only a few years out of grad school, and that if I wanted to enjoy my life and my passion for education, I was going to have to find the courage to change how I was working and living. 
I started seeing a therapist (which I recommend for anyone), and I intentionally started to name some behaviors that weren’t working for me. I started saying “no,” and quitting things that I no longer cared about. I’ve read a handful of books that have been really helpful in supporting my desired life changes, some of which I’ll reference today. The most important thing is that I truly started to believe that exhaustion is not a status symbol or a measure of success, and I started to measure my success by metrics other than the amount of hours that were filled on my schedule. And I’m here to say that when I did this, my life and career did not come crashing down. Contrary to my fears, I strongly believe that I am now more successful, more productive, a better colleague and supervisor, and…happier.


Although much of this journey has been personal and individual, I also see immense organizational value when we break up with busyness, especially those who are supervisors and leaders. So I would ask you to consider 5 tips for breaking up with busyness, both for yourself and for your organizations: 

The first is to stop always working. The idea that many of us have that our value is greatest when we spend the most time working is a total fallacy. Brene Brown has researched, among many things, boundaries, and says that “Daring to set boundaries is about having the courage to love ourselves, even when we risk disappointing others.” 


I was awful at this; Not only would I stay late, volunteer for extra responsibilities,and religiously attend any and all “fundtatory” work activities, I would wake up in the middle of the night and check my email at 2am, which was very unhealthy. I felt like because I had my email in my hand all the time, I should be available to everyone all the time. So I stopped checking email at night and on weekends–I actually turn off the email on my phone unless I’m scheduled to be working. I started putting my phone on “Do Not Disturb” when I was sleeping. I scheduled my days for 8 hours and hardly ever stayed late. I didn’t eat lunch at my desk. I flexed time when I spent extra hours at night or on the weekends. I hold these boundaries and others respect them.
It’s important for us to stop believing that the world is going to come to a screeching halt if we don’t send emails at 11pm. And we absolutely need to stop expecting that people who aren’t on duty or on call are going to respond to work related matters outside of work hours. 

Research shows that workers experience negative physiological and psychological impacts as a result of working overtime. (slide) A 2004 CDC meta-analysis found that “Overtime was associated with poorer perceived general health, increased injury rates, more illnesses, increased mortality…unhealthy weight gain…increased alcohol use…increased smoking…and poorer neuropsychological test performance.” Another meta-analysis of long work hours suggested a possible weak relationship with preterm birth. When we expect constant response from employees, we are being totally negligent with the health and well-being of staff; I don’t care how life-changing your job is: you can’t do it all the time, that is how you get burned out, and then you’ll be awful at the job that you used to love. 

My second tip is that free time creates innovation. One of my favorite books is Dan Pink’s Drive, which is about unleashing intrinsic motivation. In it, he discusses the concept of a “FedEx” Day, which many of you may have heard of. This is a concept that many technology companies use, in which they give employees an occasional day to work on whatever they want, whatever is interesting to them. It can’t be something that they are currently working on, and they have to have a deliverable at the end of the the day; hence the name “FedEx”, because they are delivering an idea. 

The concept here is that if we are constantly working on the same routine things, there’s no space for new ideas or creative improvements to our work. If all you’re ever doing is crossing off the to-do list and chasing deadlines, you’re not going to be unleashing the creative part of your mind. 

I don’t know how possible it would be for me to regularly take a day off from my normal responsibilities, but the way that I have created space for innovation is by setting aside a few hours a week in my calendar for ambiguous tasks that I’m working alone on. I also add big-picture items to my actual to-do list, like “Think about Supervisory Philosophy” or “How to better engage learning community faculty?” I think that we have to communicate that this type of work is not only legitimate, but necessary to the progress of our organizations. If you imagine a supervisor or colleague asking you “Hey, what are you working on?” would you be comfortable saying “I’m thinking about my supervisory philosophy today!” ? How about if you are the supervisor in this situation? We have to be okay with giving our smart, talented, creative employees (and ourselves) the time and space to be smart, talented, and creative! 

The third tip is that wellness is a strategic priority.

As I mentioned, there are a many studies that show the connection between overwork and serious health concerns. Ultimately, if staff are physically and mentally struggling, that is going to negatively impact productivity, success, and the workplace environment. Sick days exist for a reason: sometimes our bodies and/or minds are not operating at the level we need to be able to be productive at work, and we should give ourselves the time and space to heal and recuperate. That includes being able to care for a sick parent, spouse, or child; I know that when someone I love is unwell, I’m not going to be a great employee that day.
I used to feel guilty about spending time taking care of myself, because in the culture of Busyness, we quantify every minute of our lives to achieve maximum productivity, and I thought that taking a walk, going to bed early, or taking a sick day was wasting time. All of these things, though, are essential steps for my care and upkeep as a human. The way to be most productive and successful is not just to put the most hours toward your tasks, but to make yourself best equipped as a whole person to address the challenges and opportunities of life. For me, that means leaving the office at a reasonable time in the evening to go to the gym regularly, getting up and walking around every hour, spending time cooking nutritious meals for the week, getting between 7-8 hours of sleep every night, and making time for my favorite activities like hiking. When you and your staff are physically well, mentally calm, alert, and happy, every minute that you spend on your work is going to yield more success. 

Tip number four: If Everything is a Priority, Nothing is a Priority.

I have been influenced quite a bit lately by the book Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown. McKeown espouses the practice of Essentialism, which is the idea that to lead a very successful life, we need to identify the things that are absolutely most important for us to spend our time on (the essential), and get rid of the rest.  

 We need to intentionally and strategically say no to opportunities to remain focused on what is most important, and we need to deliberately and continuously re-assess what our highest point of contribution is. The highest point of contribution is the intersection of “What do I feel deeply inspired by?” , “What am I particularly talented at?” and “What meets a significant need in the world?” You focus on that and get rid of the rest.
This is difficult to do, because someone is always looking for a volunteer, and often, we know that we are skilled and would be a valuable asset to a task or new idea. But we have to ask ourselves, at what cost? Just because you have the opportunity to do something or are asked to do something doesn’t mean that you should do it. I think of leading an essential life as a way of avoiding “mission creep” in my work life. There are things that I’m here to do for my department and university; I could do many other things as well, but if I don’t identify and protect my most important priorities, then I’ll never achieve success in my area of responsibility. 

This can seem harsh and anti-collaborative, but it’s important for us to learn how to say “no” so we can say “yes” to the right things. If you don’t decide what your priorities are, someone else will. 

The last tip is that we can’t help others unless we help ourselves first

Burnout is very real when you work in a helping profession like student affairs. Burnout includes three aspects: 

  • Increased feelings of emotional exhaustion, 
  • development of negative, cynical attitudes about those you are helping, and
  • unhappiness with yourself and dissatisfaction with your work accomplishments. (Maslach & Jackson, 1981) 

Because burnout is caused by organizational, interpersonal, and intrapersonal factors, (Huebner, 1993) there are opportunities to prevent and treat burnout as a supervisor, colleague, and for yourself. We should expect that the type of stressors that we deal with related to difficult human emotions and experiences may lead to burnout, especially when combined with overwork, conflicting workplace demands, or insufficient organizational or supervisory support. Avoiding burnout is like when you are on an airplane and they tell you to always put your own oxygen on first We cannot bear every burden and solve every problem, and if we don’t develop and sustain healthy coping mechanisms to address work stressors, we won’t be able to bear any burdens or solve any problems. So make sure you have your oxygen on.
We, as the field of student affairs, need to look Busyness in the face and name it for what it is: a toxic personal and organizational attitude that devalues our holistic selves and replaces good management and efficiency with anxiety and wasted time.
It’s time to break up with Busyness for good.


  • Essentialism, Greg McKeown
  • Rising Strong and Daring Greatly, Brene Brown
  • Drive, Daniel Pink


How to deliver innovation overnight 

Journal Articles: 

The Measurement of Experienced Burnout Author(s): Christina Maslach and Susan E. Jackson Source: Journal of Occupational Behaviour, Vol. 2, No. 2 (Apr., 1981), pp. 99-113


In Defense of My Defense of Hillary

I’ve been thinking so much about how over the past few weeks, it feels icky, contentious, and uncomfortable to be a liberal democrat. We need a little bit of both/and attitude with regard to this primary. The undercurrent of sexist critiques of Hillary has worn me down, casting doubt in my own mind about my ability to critically examine the candidates for my party. Because it’s tiring to be surrounded by air that is full of sexism and to not breathe it in. Not all critiques of Hillary are sexist, many are completely legitimate, but it’s important to name the role that sexism is playing here. I think this article does that very well: A Feminist’s Guide to Critiquing Hillary Clinton.
I do support Hillary, with the full knowledge that she is a candidate who is best qualified to work within the existing political and economic system, and because she has been a role model to me for many years. I very much respect and appreciate Bernie Sanders; his ideas and passion are much needed. Hillary is not perfect by any means; she is a human who has grown, changed, and learned over her political career. Any president will make missteps, because being president is not about perfection, it’s about managing a system and leading that system.
Bernie as president perhaps leads to a political and economic revolution. Will it be sustainable? Will his ideas take hold? I don’t know; the country at large is very different than the population of Bernie supporters.
Hillary as president, though she may be one who inarguably does work within the current system (getting things done, by the way), is also a revolution. Because a woman president says something to women and girls that we rarely get messages of: you can be the greatest leader; you can aspire to anything. Hillary is not the epitome of intersectional feminism, but her mere presence pushes us all forward. And I care about more than just her mere presence. She has a wealth of experience, she is trustworthy, she is action-oriented, she has made it through years of incredible scrutiny and haters and still wants to serve the American people. She has not given up, not on herself or on this country.

“And so we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past”

I haven’t written in a few months. And the truth is, it’s because I’ve been afraid of what might come out. As a process of personal consciousness-raising, writing allows me to get in deep with my own thoughts and feelings about the personal, political, and vocational. And lately, in all three of those arenas, I’ve gotten close enough to the edge of the pool to see that it’s getting awfully deep and it is looking like I haven’t cleaned it in quite a while. So I’ve been sitting on my lounge chair, biding my time until I convinced myself that if I dive in, I’m a good enough swimmer to make it back to the surface. 
One struggle over the past few months has been with my level of “busyness.” Much-reviled busyness, which I frequently take to task here and elsewhere, was starting to enthusiastically creep back into my life. It turns out, once you figure out some important truth about the best way to live your life, you can still retreat to old habits. Furthermore, when the context of your experience changes, so too must the way you make meaning of your values in practice.  Behold, having recently proclaimed myself as unburdened with busyness, I launched into a schedule that can only objectively be described as absurdly busy.  I have allowed tasks and responsibilities that are non-essential and driven by obligation and perfectionism to consume my time. The distinction between those types of activities and those that are essential, important, and aligned with my values and goals is very important, because spending time on the essential is not busyness, but rather an investment. For example, taking two weeks to be with my family when my grandmother was dying: essential. Worrying about trying to put together alumni class activities for college homecoming: busy. 
As a recovering perfectionist, it’s still a pretty ugly process for me to own up to vulnerability in public arenas. However, I share my writing because I am deeply invested in human connection and value the process of exchanging thoughts and ideas with others. Still, it’s a lot easier to share something that you anticipate people are going to find positive and inspiring than to share your struggle. So once I realized that I was bumping up against my own values in a rather uncomfortable way, starting to bullshit my way through life because things were getting kind of ugly and painful, and I was getting dangerously close to reneging on my own self promises of wellness and authenticity, I started putting my protective walls back up. One of those walls was avoiding writing. 
I’m a master of building emotional walls. I’m impossibly good at shutting other people out when it allows me to evade owning that I am scared, in pain, confused, or sad. My partner is very proficient at noticing this, most likely because he has some good practice at carefully dismantling said walls. I am a persistent builder, though. And although I’ve done better lately at not hiding my vulnerabilities quite so much, every once in a while, when I feel like I’m losing control, I will drag out the bricks and mortar and get to work. Brick 1: anger; Brick 2: defensiveness; Brick 3: blame. So on and so forth, glued together with the cement of self-righteousness. Although I haven’t managed to rid myself of this tendency yet, I’ve started to be able to name it, and as previously mentioned, my partner will name it too. Being called out on being insufferable and emotionally distant kind of sucks, but not nearly as much as continuing to be insufferable and emotionally distant would suck. 
One recent example of a calling out happened when I was in a rare mood. I was swimming in my own feelings of hypocrisy, shame, and not being good enough as a partner. I had recently (with the supportive listening help of my partner, sister, and father) identified that my priorities were messed up and hadn’t been able to fix it yet. I was still reeling from grief and worn down from an unforgiving schedule of work and travel. I described myself to my sister as being stuck on a swing, but I couldn’t figure out when or how to jump off without getting hurt. So obviously, I decided to transfer the blame. I was mad at myself for not making enough time for my relationship and for my personal well being, which I spent a five hour car drive thinking about, so I started to transfer my anger by picking a fight. I called my partner and said “Can we please DO something when I get home, because I really CANNOT just sit on the couch all afternoon?” It’s remarkable that I have the inflection and attitude of my twelve year old self when I’m steeped in feelings of inadequacy and exhaustion (this may merit further exploration). He amiably agreed and asked if I wanted to go on a hike (of course I wanted to go on a hike! It was a beautiful day and I love hiking). Because I won that fight too easily (mostly because it was not a fight at all), I lingered and clung to the idea that he was only going on this hike because I had somehow tricked him into it and that he totally resented me and didn’t want to go, instead of accepting that although hiking is not his all time favorite activity, he suggested it and was obviously okay with it because of his love for and devotion to me. I appended this new nugget of inadequacy and failure to the mental novel of Inadequacy and Failure that I had written during my long drive.
And so I kept swirling in this little shame storm. When I got home, I picked another argument when my partner casually joked about our hiking plans. I got into a full blown “conversation” with him about how I feel that “we” don’t do enough “fun things” together (read: I’m being a shitty girlfriend because I’m constantly traveling, I’m totally stressed out, and pissed at myself for not making time for the things that I say matter). I will add here that I’m fortunate to have a partner who fights fair, with love, and an immense amount of care. We actually had a sort of productive conversation, but I was still trying to build a wall around myself to avoid my vulnerabilities. Finally, we got into the woods (literally, we were in the woods). The path we were hiking was slippery with late fall leaves; he went ahead of me, offering his hand as I commented that I thought the path was a little dangerous that day, and reassuring that he would protect me. I  snapped: “I don’t need you to protect me,” and as the words left my mouth I immediately felt the weight of my own hurt. He casually responded “Oop, there’s those walls…” I felt guilty but was grateful that he called me out. Denying that I need help or protection is how I justify the wall building behavior. If I don’t need anyone other than myself, I can justify crappy behavior because it will only impact me. 
I’ve since resumed the hard work of reexamining and committing to my priorities. I thought it was enough to name and understand these things for myself, but the truth is, I can’t live an authentic and whole life without the help and investment of others. I needed help as I navigated major transitions in my life. A new job, a new relationship, a new living and financial situation, and the death of a loved one are all kind of a big deal. 
I’ve been coming to terms with the idea that my development is neither linear nor sequential. Fellow educators will get this: I’m finally figuring out that I’m not following a stage model. This perhaps should have been easier to figure out, since I don’t necessarily believe in linear development as an accurate description of the human experience, but alas, knowledge is easier to understand written on a page than seen in a mirror. So I need to give myself permission to sometimes fall down and sometimes stagger backwards when faced with challenging situations. I need to remember that thinking that I can perfect anything in life is  dangerous and destructive. I need to accept that the beauty is in the struggle and that learning is a direct result of challenge. And I need to be open to the fact that an authentic and whole life is one in which I am open to others and forgiving of myself. 

Breaking Up with Busyness

About a year ago, I started breaking up with Busyness. Busyness and I were pretty deep in a toxic relationship that had started sometime in my sophomore year of college, just around the time that I was introduced to a budding career in Student Affairs.

Busyness, which can be described as the constant need in our lives to be occupied by tasks, responsibilities, and to-do lists (usually work-related, but for me, also related to volunteering that is suspiciously like work) is not unique to Student Affairs, but, I would argue, is an insidious part of the culture of our field. It’s fueled by perfectionism, workaholism, and environments of shame. With a calendar that looked like a game of Tetris, I embarked on each semester with an increasing sense of urgency and anxiety, with the belief that to she who works the most hours go the spoils.

For about 7 years I kept up this deleterious dance, and I did it more or less successfully. It’s unsurprising that I found success by making myself continually busy in environments that tend to glorify the overworked, overtired, and overscheduled. Every time I started to get weary, I reminded myself that I had a reputation for excellence to uphold. I was Ashley F**king Robinson (an actual nickname that others used for me). I was the smartest, most accomplished, and goddamnit, the busiest. If I didn’t work the most hours, sit on the most committees, and volunteer the most, I wouldn’t get ahead. I wouldn’t be successful.

What a load of bullshit that was. I wasn’t the only person around me who felt that way or was behaving that way; most people were. I saw role models and supervisors glorifying busyness, so I, too, laid myself down for sacrifice at the altar of Student Affairs. It was a vicious cycle of loose boundaries, overwork, and complaining. And then, after a gradual wearing down over the course of years, I decided that it was time to show Busyness the damn door. I was getting burned out, only a few years out of grad school, and I knew that if I wanted to have a long, rewarding career of educating college students, I needed to do it differently.

I stopped checking email at night and on weekends, unless I was actually working. I put my phone on “Do Not Disturb” when I was sleeping. I scheduled my days for 8 hours and hardly ever stayed late. I didn’t eat lunch at my desk. I flexed time when I spent extra hours at night or on the weekends.  I started going to the gym regularly for the first time ever. I started getting up and walking around every 45 minutes. I paid attention to my mental and physical health and nutrition. I kept track of my sleep and always aimed for 8 hours in bed. I stepped away from any extra work obligations that were not clearly benefitting me and the mission of my department as it related to my scope of influence (committees, I’m looking at you). I refused to let myself feel guilty when I left the office when other people were still there or didn’t volunteer for something extra after hours. I let things slide a little bit here and there in favor of more important priorities.

When I did this, bad things did not start happening. In fact, good things started happening. I am less stressed and more organized than I used to be. I spend more time on things that I am passionate about. I lost weight and got healthier. I advanced my career with a new job. I fell in love. I’m not saying that if you stop answering your email at night, you’re automatically going to lose 20lbs, get a new job, and find love…but what I am saying is that when I carved out and fiercely protected my free time, I allowed myself to expend energy on previously neglected areas like reflection and personal fulfillment outside of work.

Although much of this journey has been personal and individual, I also see immense organizational value when individuals break up with busyness, especially those who are supervisors and leaders. Over the past year, I communicated openly and widely about my quest for balance and wellness. I told supervisors, peers, and students that this was a core value of mine and encouraged and supported the same type of behavior in others. I reflected on the ways I had felt guilty or not enough in the past and tried to break down those forces for others as I combatted them for myself. And this, I think is the path to fix our busyness problem.

We, as the field of student affairs, need to look Busyness in the face and name it for what it is: a toxic work culture that devalues our holistic selves and replaces good management and efficiency with anxiety and wasted time. Stop scheduling things for after hours that don’t have to be after hours. Encourage your staff to be productive without spending extra time in the office. Be clear and consistent in your expectations for how supervisees spend their time, and when extra time is spent, ensure that they are able to balance that out. Challenge if extra time needs to be spent or if there are ways to work smarter, further ahead, and more creatively. Stop acting like the world is going to come to a screeching halt if you don’t send emails at 11pm. Challenge how we schedule student staff and how we structure our schedules during both the busy times and low times. Eat lunch. Ask for help. Go home. Don’t be a martyr.

It’s time to break up with Busyness for good.