74. Things I Can Backstop: On-the-Job Training

I think breakthroughs come from putting an inordinate amount of pressure on yourself and seeing what you can take, and hoping that you grow some new muscles. It’s not really that mystical.

Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic Monthly
 
 
When my two star students poked their heads in my door four years ago, I bit back the “no.” Their half-apology for just a few minutes had a red flag flapping over it. They wanted something big. Bigger than anything in my job description.

“A graduate student research conference,” they said. “Students run it. Students present. Faculty moderate the panels.”

Students? Faculty? I wouldn’t trust them with a bake sale. Please. Leave the administering to the administrators.

But I turned from my other work. “Come on in,” I said. “Tell me more.”

So they did. They talked about networking and research collaborations, about presentation practice and scholarly community.

I pictured catering orders and room setup, abstract review and program tracks.

The students wanted practical experience in more than just presenting research. This was the toughest part. I could get us from zero to showtime in a snap. Add the task to my list and make it happen. Anyone who manages programs and people knows that an event is an event is an event. Steering committee, marketing, budgets, presenters, tech and space. Hire a wage assistant to make calls and print name badges.

Whatever the substance of the work — in this case, graduate student advising, but it could be affordable housing advocacy or the international association of clown car manufacturers — a thousand details large and small keep the machine chugging (sometimes hacking) along. People like me pull those levers.

People like my students? They get to do cool research and write about it.

In truth, my students’ brains intimidate me a little. These folks are digging into some of the most pressing topics facing our world. Poverty, climate change, security, infrastructure, health care. They conduct research that shapes policies and legislation. As for me? Inside the university, my role is to clear paths. If I can help students through the briar patch of public higher ed bureaucracy with their skin intact, they can get on with their research.

But those two students knew better. Doctoral grads today are stepping off the stage into a 2015 world, and it’s far from Kansas or 1975. The protected academic research-and-teach career has died on the vine. Folks with PhDs today are expected to know how to do things. Like lead people and projects, like find and manage money.

Like organize conferences.

Those two students wanted to do more than show up and present ideas. They wanted to make the thing happen.

We began.

Like parenting, mentoring is agony. Every stage, every step, takes twice as long and breeds three times as many mistakes. A mentor has to will herself to sit back and let meetings unfold through hours of jumbled conversation that could easily find resolution with a few simple facilitation tricks. A mentor must step with care through one-on-one conversations to offer opportunities for reflection. Mentoring requires pointing people in the direction of resources and contacts, and letting them seek out the tools they need. Like a parent, a mentor must stand at attention behind the curtain, poised to pull the nose up if the machine takes a dive.

I did my part so they could do theirs. The students ran that first conference, and they were giddy with pride. Emerging scholars traveled from around the region and country, and the event exceeded every one of its aspirations.

Then next year, two new students showed up at my office.

And the next.

Every year for four years, I bit back the “no.” I fought through weariness and overcame painful resistance to the colossal undertaking that has yet to appear on my job description. Every year for four years, I faced a fresh opportunity to hone my mentoring skills.

Every year for four years, I sat in on panel discussion and listened as new scholars shared research and ideas on everything from labor policy to gender violence. I watched my students shine as they handed out awards and tallied the number of attendees.

The conference grew. A major TV news personality gave a keynote. A student joined us from Japan. The organizers got hold of funding from other parts of the university. They joined forces with a larger student organization to pool talent and resources. Last year, they reached out to a major international policy association to find out about partnering on the conference. The association sent a representative to spend the day shaking hands and taking measure.

Then the big national association decides they want in.

And the world bucks under my students’ feet.

Four weeks ago.

They show up at my door.

“Help,” they say. “What does this letter mean?”

A fait accompli. The national association lays out a plan for a regional graduate student conference. It will be a consortium event with nine participating schools.

I read and re-read the letter. The phrase hostile takeover hisses through my brain. I look at their baffled faces. I look at the 472 other items in my inbox that are far more pressing than this.

I bite back the “no.”

I turn from my other work. “Come on in,” I say. “Let’s sit down.”

We do. I take a breath, rub my face, then begin.

“Okay,” I say. “What matters most?” I apply facilitation and advising techniques. I guide them through their complex and understandably histrionic responses. I help them hatch a plan of action. I sift around in myself for some kind of map, knowing that from my perch behind the curtain, what matters most is reflective practice. These students have before them a chance to manage conflict and lead change with strategic and effective dexterity.

I have before me a chance to help my students learn how to pull the levers. And how hard. And which way.

In the four weeks between that letter and the association’s big conference call, the students come by. They poke their heads in. Individually. Pairs and trios. They hover around the door. They want more.

I don’t have time for this crap. We’ve talked, we only know what we know, we’ll deal with it on the day of the call. I bite so hard against the “no” that I nearly split my tongue.

“Come on in,” I say. “What do you need?”

An ear, a sounding board, an easy out?

A firm grip? A soft word?

A hand?

“Enter that call like you’re sitting at the head of the table,” I say.

“Do your research,” I say. “How can you find the budget and planning models for the other two regional conferences?”

“What matters most to you?” I say.

“Write it down,” I say.

The day of the call, four of them come. We take over a room. They take over the call. The nine other people on it — faculty and administrators from both the national association and seven regional universities — wake right up when these students chime in. With force I’ve never heard in those emerging voices, the students lean in and articulate a clear vision. They name their questions as opportunities.

I sit back and watch it unfold.

The students have swagger and expertise. Halfway in, the faculty and administrators are directing all inquiries to them.

Somehow, the students claim every part of the shiny new regional conference they’d chosen to keep, and delegate every part of it they’d chosen to surrender.

At the end of the hour, folks on the call begin talking RFPs and laying out a timeline. One of the students interrupts. “I want to say how important it is to have students involved in the planning.”

Isn’t this a given? Apparently not. The nine other people on the call marvel and fumble.

“You mean on the steering committee?” someone asks.

“Sure,” I say.

“So, you mean students will be the ones voting on things? Actually planning everything?”

“Yes,” I say. I glance around the table. Four students are rolling their eyes and suppressing giggles.

“You feel comfortable leaving budget decisions in the hands of students?

To my left, one shoves an invisible gun in his mouth and pulls the trigger. Everyone else chokes back laughter.

“Look,” I say, leaning into speaker. “Students have built this thing and led this thing for four years on their own. All I’ve done is sign the forms. They are responsible and capable. I trust them completely.”

Silence on the phone. Beaming faces around the table. I take the advantage. “The thing is, our students need this experience. Academics, professionals, whatever they do after they leave school. This conference is supposed to be a learning experience. I figure, let them learn all of it.”

What I really want to say is Dude. People rise to the expectations you hold out for them. How high are you willing to go?

The grudging decision is to let each school figure out for itself who will represent it on the conference planning committee. We all know who will sit at the head of the table here.

And because no one is going to ask me, I can give my “no” a rest.

But only for a minute.

Because it’s clear that word is missing from my job description.
 

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