(Article originally published in the May-June issue of Assessment Update, available electronically to subscribers at publication.)
Ahhh, the work of an assessment coordinator. It is so rewarding, so inspiring, so self-fulfilling—that is, it can be when things go well. When you see people fully engaged in evidence-based decision making, the work can be truly inspiring. However, when things are not going well, it is hard to remain positive: Your colleagues are very unhappy that your role exists in the university, you are the target of anger at having to add this new loathsome responsibility to their workload, and daily work life is an exercise in aikido with resistance. In order to remain positive, you need strategies to help you cope with the demands of the job.
First, the position description needs to be revised to include the following capacities. The assessment coordinator must:
Respond Respectfully to Familiar Statements. For example, you are working with a departmental representative and you hear, “Well, that may work for [insert name of another department or university] but that won’t work for us. Our program is unique.” The appropriate answer is not, “If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this, I could actually afford to live in San Diego.” Rather, consider the response, “Yes, you are unique. I have never seen a department/program quite like yours.” It is important to honor the uniqueness of every program and every person; that is what makes our postsecondary system so rich. It is imperative for the success and sustainability of evidence-based decision-making that we implement a systematic yet flexible outcomes-based assessment process. So, when you hear the same statement for the thousandth time, listen carefully and mindfully and respond in a manner that honors the uniqueness of everyone and everything.
Eat More Garlic. Let’s face it, assessment coordinators are not a welcome sight. People tend to run when they see you or avoid making eye contact with you. Furthermore, doors slam shut as you walk by, and people don’t like to sit near you when you are present. This can harm your self-esteem unless you adopt a positive coping strategy.
My strategy is to consume large quantities of garlic. Try it. When someone gets close to you and wants to tell you why assessment is a terrible idea, just exhale naturally as you respond. Then, when they run away from you, you can look on them with compassion and say, “I know it is not me you run away from, nor is it what I have to say. You simply don’t like to be overwhelmed by clouds of garlic. That is okay with me, I will continue to work with you anyway.”
Remind yourself that it is not you that your colleagues want to avoid or attack, it is what you represent—a challenge to their current way of doing. It is important to honor the fear that others hold about the transparence of clarifying what they do and how well they do it. Fewer things can make you feel more vulnerable than to articulate your passion into identifiable end results and then “measure” how well you are actually doing that about which you care so deeply.
Sign a Declaration That You Have No Values. Another challenge that assessment coordinators sometimes face is that those with whom they work think the assessment coordinator is trying to force feed them a set of values. Others may think you are trying to judge or change the values on which they base the inspiration for their work.
This can easily be avoided by simply signing a declaration that you have no values. If you think that those with whom you work may not find you value free, there are some behaviors in which you could engage to demonstrate that you are. However, this could result in your being fired, which defeats the purpose of the signed declaration and the work you are trying to accomplish. Therefore, I recommend that you simply produce a card that states you are value free prior to working with any faculty or administrators.
The moral of this story is that it is not our privilege as assessment coordinators to judge the passions of others. I remember having to eat chocolate-covered bugs to engage a department chair in assessment. He was truly excited about having me taste the bugs. I listened as he described what he wants his students to know and be able to do and how eating the bugs often leads them to realize the value of creatures the rest of us just want to step on.
It was while I was eating the bugs and trying desperately to keep them down that I realized none of this is mine to judge. It is only mine to facilitate the discovery, and aid in the articulation and documentation, of the learning. We must ensure that we suspend our own judgment when working with others, acknowledge that we don’t know what may be valuable to a given discipline or cocurricular specialist, and be open to learning something new, something amazing.
Enjoy Adopting Curmudgeons. You know who these individuals are. They love to take you to task on everything you say and do. These are the people who have a well-prepared and thought-provoking retort to your simple greeting of “Good morning.” Every time I encounter one of my beloved curmudgeons, I am reminded of the son of Dr. Evil in the movie Austin Powers. In one scene, each time the son tries to speak, Dr. Evil pinches his thumb and forefinger together and waves them across the front of his mouth. The motion silences the son and all you hear from him are inaudible consonants. This is what I want to do when I encounter a curmudgeon.
To combat this impulse, I “adopt a curmudgeon” and take him or her to lunch at least once a month. You get to talk while they chew. Although there was that one time when I was amazed to find that my curmudgeon could speak while simultaneously chewing and swallowing. I was so fascinated by this feat, I sat dumbfounded through the entire lunch. I did find a remedy for this, however— moon pies. No one can eat a moon pie, swallow, and talk at the same time—at least no one I have met yet.
I have learned more from curmudgeons than I could ever teach them. Their stories and perspectives have helped me reframe conversations and professional development materials. They have given me more meaningful strategies to present findings and post recommendations. My adopt-a-curmudgeon ploy may not always produce a positive conversion of the curmudgeon, but it always provides a lesson for me. This is time and money well spent.
Being an assessment coordinator is not a job for the faint of heart. If you can’t change the position description to list the characteristics that are really required, then consider adopting a few strategies to make your life and those with whom you work more enjoyable.
Marilee Bresciani is a professor in the Department of Administration, Rehabilitation, and Postsecondary Education at San Diego State University.
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