Recently, I came across this open letter to creative professionals. In it, Pixar animator Austin Madison advises readers to work through the times when they are feeling uninspired—because it happens to everyone. As I read it, I thought to myself how applicable much of this letter is to those of us who work in assessment and institutional research. We are not artists or animators, but I do think it’s true that many of us shift between two similar states of productivity. The first is when someone on campus comes to us with a problem or issue, and they sit down and talk with us, and really dig deep into the information. They ask good questions, they work with us to understand the results, they ask us to talk about it, and the information gets used in ways that make a difference on campus. For me, this is heaven.
The rest of the time, there is the “I gotta get this report done so I can move on to the IPEDS reporting, the response to the US News Rankings, the assessment reports…” phase. I’m not going to say that the IPEDS reporting or responding to the US News Rankings are not important aspects of what we do; I know all too well how critical they are. What I am going to argue is that understanding the student experience should not get lost in the rush to get the report done and move on to the next thing. As Madison so parsimoniously puts it: Persist.
Persist in telling the story. Graph that set of data 25 different ways, asking yourself each and every time, “Is this the story I want to tell about these facts?”; “Will this make it easier to engage faculty, staff, and students around the issue?”; “Who else needs to see and talk about these results?” and “What changes can the campus make, if any, based on what we know right now?”
Persist in talking on campus with anyone who shows a legitimate interest in the results, and if they raise relevant follow up questions, do follow up and get back to them with the answers. The more you engage people on campus in the work that you do, the more they in turn will see you as a resource for valuable information on the student experience.
Persist in integrating additional information. What other information does the institution have that we can bring to bear on this topic? What other information do we need that we don’t yet have? Persist in putting data from the registrar, admissions, or direct evidence of student learning from portfolio projects together with results from surveys to provide a richer, more nuanced, but more complete picture of the issue.
Persist if what you’re doing helps faculty and staff get involved with the issue; if it makes clear what the next steps are; if it leads to changes in programs or policies or the campus climate and helps to enrich the experience of students. After all, isn’t understanding and improving the student experience what our jobs are really all about?
So the next time someone on campus criticizes the methodology, or you realize that to really make the point you want to, it will be necessary to conduct focus groups with students (and always talk with students), or that the report is still sitting lonely and isolated on someone’s desk, work though it! I can honestly say that for me it’s well worth the work, and I haven’t gotten tired of it yet.