Higher Ed in a Can

At some point last week I was speaking with my boss about the number of last minute requests he must get and the short time frame to get them done. I had a similar request and it threw me a bit because we are still working on our data management processes. He said that I was used to higher education and this is the way in which everyone else operates.

I like time to prepare. There are a couple theories I have about this. One is that I’m an introvert. I like to write down talking points and data to back up what I say. I’m actually very comfortable speaking in front of small groups and large groups alike, and even though I’ll likely never refer to my notes, preparing them helps. Another reason is that I’m a perfectionist and I don’t like when people do not have the information to back up what they say.

But I think another reason is that I work in higher ed, and I’m used to things taking a long time. Higher ed is not an agile sector, at least in the ways that others are. Sure, we are trained to respond to student crises but when it comes to policy changes, setting priorities, or hiring, it takes forever.

My organizational theory course introduced me to “garbage can decision making.” It’s a leadership model that is characterized by organized anarchies in which preferences are not clear, technology is not clear, or participation is fluid. This results in problems, solutions, and those involved in the decision-making process going into a proverbial garbage can and the solution to a particular problem is largely up to chance.

This is an irrational way to solve problems and therefore it takes a great deal of time to get anything done. While this isn’t true for all of higher ed, this approach has impacted how others approach working with the sector. Sometimes I’m still surprised at the length of lead time required. But, we persevere and come prepared. We must resist the urge to rummage around in the garbage can. We must make decisions in a timely and rational manner. We need to be more agile, especially as our work increasingly comes under attack.







The Importance of Showing Up

This has been a busy week work-wise and I wanted to briefly recap.

On Tuesday, February 14th I spoke on student centered learning at The Corps Network’s annual meeting. This conference brings together national, state, and local leaders in the fields of youth development, community service, and the environment. Typically my audience are those in higher education, so I used this time to discuss experiential learning, the broader umbrella that includes opportunities for students to put into practice what they are learning in the classroom. I included background information on John Dewey and shared Kolb’s model of experiential education. I encouraged attendees to help corps members not only connect the dots of their current service experience but how it might translate into situations beyond their service (Integrative Learning).


TCN has been a key partner as we think about awarding academic credit for prior learning and micro credentials (badges). They do an incredible amount of work to guide corps from across the country (even as far as Alaska and Hawaii) whose work is focused on strengthening the country through service and conservation. I was happy to support them during the conference. 

That evening I joined several of my colleagues at the Friends of National Service event hosted by Voices for National Service. The event recognizes leaders from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors who have contributed in building a culture of citizenship, service and responsibility across the country. Voices co-chairs Service Year Alliance’s committee on policy and advocacy.

On Wednesday, February 15th, I presented a webinar with the National Association of Colleges and Employers with Elon University. Our presentation, Beyond Community Service: Cultivating the Next Generation of Service Year Members, discussed different ways that colleges and universities can integrate service year programming on their campus or develop their own service year program like Elon has. For a niche topic, it was well attended and participants asked thoughtful questions. Attendees also included several former colleagues and I appreciated their feedback and participation. I’ve mentioned before that higher ed is a small world.

Last night we also hosted our friends in national service, higher education, policy, and others for an open house at our new offices. This was a great opportunity to share the growth of our organization and build new relationships. I was particularly grateful for colleagues who joined us from the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities (APLU), The Washington Center, Voices, The Corps Network, and so many more.

It’s been a busy week, but it’s important to show up and support community partners and colleagues. Successful community engagement depends on the relationships we build.

“Good writers borrow from other writers. Great writers steal from them outright.” -Sam Seaborn

Next month will mark four years since I submitted my first comp question. I had no idea it was four years ago until I just recently reopened the document for some background and language on a book chapter I’m proposing. Working on my comps were definitely some of the dark days in my doctoral journey. I had ten days to put together coherent thoughts on the history of the social contract in higher education and how civic engagement is in service to that contact. Then I had a few days off and then ten more days to discuss quantitative vs. qualitative methods and once and for all articulate the difference between epistemology, theoretical perspective, methodology, and methods.

Writing is difficult for me. I get caught up in the words, and not in some sort of romantic way like in the movies. I get caught up because I’m a perfectionist and I want to have everything ready to say before it gets down on paper. I like to think that in some way, this connects me with Aaron Sorkin.

In reviewing my comp response, I’m struck by many things. The first is that it’s awkward to read your own work. I’ve never enjoyed it- I always find mistakes and things I would have done differently. It also often comes with the realization of how little I knew at the time. Most surprisingly though, is that several of the people I reference in my comps are people I now call my friends. Four years ago these people were just names in a book and the organizations were just addresses on a street in DC or Boston I’d never been to.

I don’t know whether I’ll have time to actually finish this chapter and submit it for consideration. It is something I am prioritizing so I am hopeful, but more importantly, I’m grateful. I’m grateful that I somehow finished my degree despite letting go of my committee and moving 400 miles away. I’m grateful that I have mentors and colleagues who share their time and knowledge (that will always be vastly greater than my own), and that my field supports, and indeed depends on collaboration.