GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

Author Archive

Building Momentum: An Introvert’s Story

In Information Minoration on 2012/03/14 at 08:00

Heather Alderfer, writing from New Haven, Connecticut in the US. 

My word of the year was going to be “joy” but after a month of reflection, what I really want to focus on is building momentum. How do I build momentum while not changing my job, my location, or returning to school?

I’ve been very fortunate to have several mentors over the years who have provided me with much-needed advice, support, and experienced thoughtfulness. What I’ve been lacking, however, is peer coworkers: colleagues around my age and position. Working in a large, decentralized university, it can be hard to find those coworkers without making an effort. The UVenus networking challenge was a great way to focus on making an effort to connect with colleagues and begin building a peer group. It gave me momentum to make connections I had thought about, but never acted upon.

I began by emailing everyone I’d ever had a casual conversation with. At a retirement party, a former colleague mentioned a coworker of hers who had similar academic interests. A student affairs colleague I worked with invited someone she worked with…and soon the email list was growing.

Each time we met, a different group of people came. Some weeks it was only three or four of us, sometimes double that. Each woman had a different story of how she came to be working at Yale, and each knew something about the university that I had not known before our gathering.

We had few ground rules: what we spoke about would remain confidential within the group, and that the conversation be a safe space. I know it will take time to develop relationships further, and to begin to unravel some of the challenges facing us in the workplace. But the networking challenge made me put forth the effort at reaching out to my colleagues, in a way my somewhat shy personality may not have.

Career advice often starts with networking. It is a simple concept, but more difficult to put into practice. Most of my coworkers live in different towns, some have children while others do not, and outside of work we have many varied interests. But networking gives me the feeling of momentum, of moving forward and creating new relationships which may serve me at some point in the future, but which will have a positive impact.

Research culled from work diaries shows the greatest frustration comes from feeling stalled. I know I’ve felt stalled at times in the bureaucracy of the institution, and it is for that (albeit selfish) reason I felt compelled to network. Having someone you have shared a meal with, or shared an anecdote from your personal life on the other end of the phone when you are feeling stalled hopefully means there is a greater chance you can move forward.

How do you build momentum in your job?

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed. 


The Nature of Research

In Information Minoration on 2011/12/14 at 00:57

Heather Alderfer, writing from New Haven, Connecticut.

When I first started working in academia as full-time staff, I was 24 years old, and had graduated only 18 months earlier. I envisioned myself still a student, and technically, since I was enrolled in a part-time graduate program, I was. My friends were still students, some undergraduate, some had moved on to graduate programs. I thought I was able to offer the “older” staff relevant opinions on what students would or would not like, which I hope was partly true.

Now my younger sister is in college, and while we attended different schools and have different life goals (as well as personalities), I can’t help but think I’m no longer as close to being a student as I thought I was.

During a recent visit, my sister asked for help with short assignment. It was an assignment very similar in principle to one I was assigned for a graduate statistics course: find a piece of original academic research, and find popular media articles which refer to the research. Compare/contrast. I understand why faculty choose this assignment: numbers are suspect and students (really, anyone) need to understand how statistics and scientific studies can be manipulated and how research can be portrayed in a simplified, headline-grabbing way. Evaluation of sources is a life skill.

My sister found an article from a newspaper that was on a topic of interest to her, and needed help finding the original research. I thought, Great! I used to be an information science student, I love to research, let me pull up a few databases.

Then a few things happened. First, I realized my sister is not me, and flipping through search results was not as exciting for her as it was for me. Second, I realized her popular news source was a local paper, and the original research was a quote from a graduate student.

(I should note my next move was to find said graduate student’s web site, and find any journal articles she had written. I found her web site, but her area of focus was unrelated to my sister’s chosen topic).

A few days later I read Steve Kolowich’s article on IHE  “What Student’s Don’t Know”: about the study several Illinois universities conducted. The conclusion: “when it comes to finding and evaluating sources in the Internet age, students are downright lousy.”

Writing over at Library Babel Fish Barbara Fister hits the nail on the head: “Writing that involves students in research and argument has triumphed, yet what first year students do to cope with these assignments seems to defeat the purpose, which we assume is to learn to do independent research, make critical choices among sources, and use them effectively in constructing a written argument. What students actually do, though, is go shopping for bits of stuff that they assemble according to instructions.”

It has been over 10 years since I was a first year student, but I still remember plucking quotes out of a book to hand in my first paper of the semester. I was terrified – and rightfully so, I couldn’t seem to grasp what the point of the book was. So I cobbled together quotes and some transitional sentences. Luckily, my professor met with me and explained the main arguments. Sitting in his office, embarrassed that I totally missed the point of the book, is not an experience I want to have again.

I don’t know whether I helped my sister with her assignment, or frustrated her by pointing out the difficulties. I also don’t know at what point academic research began to make sense, and I was able to make my writing sound academic.

I do know that the nature of research has changed even since I was a student.

For another salient argument about the demands of research on ill-prepared students, check out “I need three peer reviewed articles” by Meredith Frakas

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

Hello, My Name is Heather, and I’m a Piler

In Information Minoration on 2011/09/30 at 12:14

Heather Alderfer, writing from New Haven, Connecticut in the US.

Monday afternoon, after a particularly brutal, yet uneventful day, a large stack of papers fell from my desk to the floor. My organizational system of piles was faltering.

Hello, my name is Heather, and I am a piler. I have piles at work, and piles at home. I know exactly what is in each pile, (ahem, almost) and approximately how old each pile is. For the most part, this organization (or lack thereof) works for me. It doesn’t always work for those around me.

I can pull out a half finished report when my boss requests it, and I can usually find a bank statement or sweater I wore last week when I’m at home. I rely on my memory to trigger a mental to do list of unfinished tasks, which usually works. As long as my memory stays sharp, I’ll be fine, right?

I wish I could be a member of the inbox zero crowd. I’ve tried Google tasks, and Workflowy, and evencorkboard, but when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I pull out a clean sheet of paper, clip it to an old fashioned clipboard, and start writing a list. I often create piles because I don’t know what to keep and what to destroy or recycle. When in doubt, I keep it.

So how does this apply to academic records? As record keeper, the registrar’s job is to make sure the institution can recreate a student record. Forever. In my current position, our records go back to the late 1800s, and we do get requests for very old records. We recently received a request for a record of a student who graduated in 1908. Beyond the transcript, what to keep and what to shred gets a little more complicated. AACRAO has extensive guidelines in AACRAO’s Retention of Records: Guide for Retention and Disposal of Student Records 2010 Update.

As much as I love the advantages of digital records, there is an enduring quality of paper and ink which is invaluable. Just as books written on vellum last much longer than those published in the first half of the 20th century, I think some types of paper records will outlast the digital ones (remember the 5” floppy disk?). But I don’t want to print out endless reports and emails just to have a hard copy.

This is not a new topic, and there are many innovations being made in digital records. From organization to preservation to archiving, how we keep and store records is only complicated by technology. The question then becomes the basic question of archiving: how do we know what will be valuable in the future in order to preserve it? And can we find it amongst the piles of data accumulating each day?

What are your strategies for personal organization and archiving? Are there any online organization products you can’t live without?

This post was also published at Inside Higher Ed.

Imaginative Transcripts

In Information Minoration on 2011/08/10 at 00:39

Heather Alderfer, writing from New Haven, Connecticut in the US.

It’s not often the words imagination and innovation are used in the context of transcripts, or anything related to most registrar offices. I was lucky this past month to attend the Registrar Forum at the AACRAO Technology Conference, and in the closing session, Tom Black, Associate Vice Provost for Student Affairs and University Registrar at Stanford made me remember how powerful thinking outside the box can be, especially for something I take for granted: a student’s transcript.

Like many Registrars, I came to this profession through a work-study gig. I worked simultaneously in my college IT Help Desk and Registrar’s Office, two offices with different orientations to student computing, but also a lot of overlap. When I was a freshman in the late 1990s, online services under one administrative umbrella were rare, and Wesleyan pioneered electronic portfolios as a wrap-around to most student computing services on campus. While I still think of the e-portfolio as a portal with another name, Tom Black’s presentation made me realize the synergy between the two concepts, and how portfolios can enhance the academic transcript.

What is a transcript? If transcripts are generated from a database, why are registrar offices printing them out and putting them in an envelope, only to be scanned by a prospective employer or student applying for graduate school? How can employers compare transcripts from different institutions with different levels of grade inflation, different ways of counting course units or credits, and one chemistry section taught by a famous researcher, and one taught by a graduate student (note, I’m not saying which section is “better” or taught the student more, just that they might be very different classes) Does anyone read the transcript key? For all the time and effort that goes into curricular renewal, revised distribution requirements, and other educational outcomes for students, how much are those benchmarks or outcomes reflected on the transcript?

Black presented one possible future – a dynamic, hyperlinked PDF transcript that promises a more full depiction of the student academic experience, with course numbers linked to course descriptions already available online in the course bulletin, (the better to articulate transfer credit), faculty names linked to faculty bios, and course titled linked to actual syllabi.

But why stop at linking disparate administrative web pages? If a faculty member returns an exceptionally good paper to the student with comments, why not link that paper, with comments? Suddenly the transcript is starting to look a lot like a portfolio. A portfolio with a full picture of the students’ abilities, complete with digital artifacts and the context to interpret them may be more meaningful to some prospective employers and graduate admissions than a single page of courses and grades with no context. As storage costs decrease, and institutions try to stay connected to alumni, hosting a complete digital portfolio may benefit multiple departments, as well as the students.

Like most ideas thought up by administrators, the true test to moving forward with a dynamic portfolio built around a student’s academic career will be buy-in from students. At Wesleyan, the electronic portfolio became a portal because students did not use it to reflect on their learning, only to register for classes and pay their bills. Integration between the transcript and academic will hinge on the participation of the library, the faculty, and a forward-thinking IT and registrar’s office. However far off the reality of such a richly developed transcript is, it gives me hope that registrars will start thinking imaginatively not just about transcripts, but about all other aspects of our job.

This post was also published at Inside Higher Ed.

Starting Strong: Your First Days on Campus

In Information Minoration on 2011/06/22 at 03:19

Heather Alderfer, writing from New Haven, Connecticut in the USA

In the span of approximately three years, I started three new jobs at new institutions. So when my fellow UVenus writer Meg Palladino told me she would be taking a new position and switching insitutions, I started compiling a list of advice for administrators who are starting new ventures on new campuses. Although my experience is with administrative jobs, I imagine full-time faculty and adjuncts may have similar experiences.

1. Learn the culture.

Everyone knows that administrator who constantly refers to their previous intuitions: “well at X we did it this way….” while everyone else in the meeting is thinking, “yes, but we are not at X, we’re at our institution.” Learning the culture does not mean accepting the current way of doing things; it does mean finding a balance between the current situation with all its constraints (and strengths) while bringing in fresh ideas and a new perspective. Very often new administrators are hired because of similar, but different experience. Learning the culture will help new employees determine where and when similar experiences will be important and where knowledge of a different perspective will be crucial.

Learn the culture by walking across campus, attending events, talking to students and faculty and other administrators. Learn the culture by asking how things came to be the way they are. Notice who makes the decisions and who does the talking and who actually gets the job done at the end of the day. Very often those roles don’t align to actual job titles.

Make time to listen to students. The older I get, and the further away from my own college experience, the more I have to remind myself that college is an incredibly immersive and complex experience. Students are very astute at recognizing someone who doesn’t “get” what their school is about.

2. Learn the ground rules.

Many ground rules may be obvious, but for someone starting a new job, walking in with curiosity and openness will make it much easier to build bridges and start forming new connections with faculty, staff, and students.

Does your new supervisor emphasize a certain style of communication? At every college where I’ve worked, some faculty members respond more quickly to email, while others will always pick up their phone but never respond to email. Ask questions about the tone of communications you send out in your new role. Subtle shifts in language can convey the same meaning but make your message heard and accepted.

3. Keep ties to previous institutions

Maybe some things were better at a previous institution; maybe you have great colleagues who can still be mentors in your current position. Just as interdisciplinary study is valued among academics, inter-institutional relationships among administrators at different institutions is extremely rewarding.

What are some other tips for starting a new academic job?

This post was also published at Inside Higher Ed.

Data Ambassadors

In Information Minoration on 2011/05/31 at 04:10

Heather Alderfer, writing from New Haven, Connecticut in the USA.

Regular readers of my contributions to this blog know I’m fiercely proud of the institution and role of the registrar in academia. I know the job has connotations of cranky women behind glass windows, churning out transcripts and denying students who try creative math with their degree requirements, but I see signs the role is changing.

Chuck Hurley, an Associate Registrar from Notre Dame sums it up nicely when he writes“The path [to becoming a successful Registrar] is to become an ambassador of data. One who collaboratively brings forward the fruit of student-faculty data thanks to a combined knowledge of records and information technology. These are people of strength who possess a comprehensive view of what it means to be a registrar.”

Like the evolving role of CIOs, registrars need to become more “Intelligence Officers” than merely concerned with the integrity of the academic record: “this CIO persona must improve business-user access to information. A key theme includes placing the right data to the right person at the right time on the right interface.” Replace “business-user” with faculty and/or dean, and that’s an accurate description of many registrars who welcome technology into their role.

The Registrar’s Office is often a nexus of information flowing from office to office, from student applications and admissions data to development and alumni relations. We interface with accrediting agencies, third parties such as the Clearinghouse, and are accountable to both student and academic reporting lines. I envision the Data Ambassador communicating the wealth of institutional data outwards into the parts of the university that could use clearer and more useful information to improve their portion of the strategic mission. I envision the Data Steward ensuring data are as accurate as possible. Recording grades becomes an analysis of grading patterns, which could evolve into a discussion about whether to record the average grade on the transcript (as the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill is exploring).

The above description could also describe the offices of Institutional Research, Information Technology, or even enrollment management – or in the case of the University of Nevada, a Provost-level position of a course concierge. Registrars can no longer hide between the tenets of FERPA and the narrow confines of the academic transcript. I know there are innovative individuals currently working cloud and mobile applications, which is a step towards meeting student expectations. But I want an attitude shift. I want Registrars to be the new uber-geek, like the new breed of information-savvy librarians with tattoos.

Hurley is right – the role of the Registrar has a “strong and influential history.” Like many other professions being transformed by the information age, registrars need to adapt and innovate, while staying true to the profession.

How would you like to see the registrar’s role change on your campus?

Emotional Gate-Keeping

In Information Minoration on 2011/04/28 at 12:03

Heather Alderfer, writing from New Haven, Connecticut in the USA

This week is admitted student weekend across many campuses and I’ve been thinking about the relationship between Admissions and the Registrar’s Office. Our professional association, the American College of Registrars and Admissions Officers, is combined, yet the two offices have very different relationships with students. While the Admissions Office recruits and simply admits the students; the Registrar’s Office shepherds them through the degree, from matriculation to graduation. Often there is a “wall” between admissions information and matriculated student information, and in some cases “enrollment management” blurs the lines between admitting students and enrolling them in classes. But as a Registrar, I don’t often think about what attracts students to a particular institution – it isn’t part of my daily job to worry about whether or not a student will attend. My focus stays on current students until they graduate and then I turn my attention once more to the incoming students.

Reading The Gatekeepers, an exposé of the admissions process as a small selective liberal arts school, made me think back to why and how students choose a school. The Gatekeepers focuses on Wesleyan University – my alma mater and first post-undergraduate employer. The first chapter describes the campus of my sophomore year, two years after I went through the Admissions process. I was hooked – here was a book which described places and people I knew, but also clued me in on how confused high school students weed through the piles of promotional materials (which were still piles of paper, circa 1998) and decide where to spend an exorbitant amount of time and money. Steinberg does a wonderful job of showing the interplay of rankings, parent expectations, pure chance, and emotion in narrowing down college choices.

The Gatekeepers reminded me of the emotional pull a college can have. I was lucky – when I stepped on Wesleyans campus, I intuitively knew I was meant to be there. Graduating from Wesleyan has had a profound impact on who I am as a person, my beliefs, and my chosen profession, all realizations I’ve come to after several years away from campus.

The students I see wandering the halls this week are trying to make a decision about a professional school, and for many, that choice is much more practical than emotional (for example, Yale Law School has a generous loan forgiveness program). Some students don’t feel an emotional pull toward the college of their choice, but that doesn’t mean it is the “wrong” choice.

As a Registrar, my interactions with the students are hopefully value-free. Diversity, money and other hot-button factors play a role in committing to an institution. There are other emotional factors involved in our interactions with students, but we are more often reporting on and interacting with students who have already chosen to be at the school. So while the Registrar and Admissions Offices are both working on behalf of the institution to provide students with excellent service, I am happy to remain on the more even-keeled side of the admissions/matriculation wall.

Conference 101

In Information Minoration on 2011/03/31 at 05:48

Heather Alderfer, writing from New Haven, Connecticut in the USA

I love conferences; they allow me to be a registrar geek, among over 2,000 people, vendors, university representatives, and governmental policy makers. I was lucky to be in Seattle last week, amongst many other registrars, attending conference sessions on curriculum work flow and classroom scheduling at the annual meeting of the American Association of College Registrars and Admissions Officers. I have been working in the registrar field (if I can call it that) for about seven years now, a few years longer than entry level jobs require. But this was the first conference where I felt I was beyond entry level in the Registrar’s field. I co-presented, not for the first time, but this time I felt confident in my presentation and my speaking voice.

I am learning to be a relentless networker. I enjoy meeting people and talking registrar-speak, so attending the Registrar’s Conference is a once-a-year opportunity to geek out Registrar-style. The first few conferences I attended, I hardly spoke to anyone, and I was amazed at what other schools were showcasing. In a few sessions, I was interested enough in the topic to speak to the presenter afterwards, but in my mid-twenties I hadn’t yet learned how to ask concise questions and hand over my business card while gracefully moving on to the next presentation. But gradually I got up the courage to talk to more and more people, and have now made several mentors, friends, and peers who I reconnect with each year. They are the ones I can go to when I am confronted with a new problem I’ve never seen before, or a new policy I’m not sure how to implement.

Unfortunately, there are few opportunities for mid-career development in small offices. Even in large universities, there are only a few people who do what I do. Thus, it is even more crucial to maintain relationships with peers at other institutions. Each university culture is unique, and each problem faced by Enrollment Managers will have as many solutions as there are institutions. But how to move things forward? How do I translate the momentum from all the new ideas and approaches I’ve seen from other schools into actual/realized changed at my own institution?

I return from the AACRAO conference full of ideas for new processes and new software. Only a fraction of what I’ve seen will actually cross my desk in the years to come, but it is so important to rekindle the passion for what I do, for realizing I do have a place in this profession, and that new ideas can win out over cynicism.


Messy Lives

In Information Minoration on 2011/02/24 at 11:16

Heather Alderfer, writing from New Haven, Connecticut in the USA

A big part of what I like about being a Registrar is bringing order to chaos. Whether it is tackling room scheduling for dozens of classes for an entire semester or de-mystifying degree audits, I can usually bring my experience and framework of advice from trusted colleagues to offer solutions. I’ve written about battling the culture of “no” in my profession, but increasingly, I’m finding it more and more difficult to see my interactions in black and white.

Perhaps it is because I am working more with students and less with the abstract, easily containable curriculum that leads me to feel there are fewer right answers and more nuanced interpretations. Perhaps it is because my current school is a small world within a larger university, and it is likely the student I am facing across the counter will be in the coffee-shop I frequent, or (more likely) back in my office sooner rather than later.

I’ve stayed away from Student Affairs issues and positions, remembering what a Dean told me when I was still a student: “I deal with 10% of the students 90% of the time.” As a Registrar, I get to see the whole careers of students laid out on transcripts at graduation. I get to sort and pivot the whole curriculum, seeing patterns and finding errors. It’s the human side of things that gets messy. From plagiarism to failures (yes, despite grade inflation, there are still “F”s) to complex family financial situations, students often willingly tell us more information than is necessary for the question they are seeking to resolve – in loco parentis. We are also the ones who help faculty deal with “ghost students” once grades are due.

Read the rest at Inside Higher Ed (link here)

Do Less

In Information Minoration on 2011/01/27 at 00:26

Heather Alderfer, writing from New Haven, Connecticut in the USA

My motto for 2011 is simple: do less. By doing less, I’m hoping to accomplish more. No, it’s not an oxymoron. I try to do too much, so by cutting back on what I’m doing, both at work and at home, my goal is to do whatever task I’m working on more thoroughly, more mindfully, and more completely.

I’m a piler. I leave piles of stuff all over my house, much to the annoyance of my partner. I have piles at work, and each pile represents some project that I started, but haven’t quite finished. I have every intention of finishing each task, but then the phone rings, or an email with one of those lovely red exclamation points comes into my inbox, or a Dean needs a report. So I turn to the next task. And the next task.

Read the rest at Inside Higher Ed (link here)