Wednesday, March 16, 2016

How We Sell Brotherhood and Sisterhood Has Never Been More Important

When I have a chance to speak with students about brotherhood and sisterhood, I always ask them whether or not, when they were going through the recruitment process, they chose the chapter that they eventually joined, at least in part, because of their perception of its brother/sisterhood. Inevitably, almost every hand in the room goes up when this question is asked. I then ask what it was they saw in that group – what was it about the brotherhood or sisterhood that attracted them to the organization. The answers to that question are usually the same:

I saw a group of people who love each other and always have fun together.”

I saw a group of people who are there for one another.”

I saw a group of people who you could tell just really enjoyed being around one another.”

My research partner, Dr. Josh Schutts, coined the phrase “currency of fraternity” to describe this phenomenon. Brotherhood and sisterhood are the currency of fraternities and sororities. Chapters are selling it, and new members are buying it. If you think of a fraternity or sorority as a business, then I would argue that brother/sisterhood is our product. Potential members are consumers of brotherhood and sisterhood.

And today’s consumers of brotherhood and sisterhood are the most informed consumers we have ever seen.

When I joined Alpha Gamma Rho in the Fall of 1997 at the University of Tennessee, I knew very little about Greek life. My older sister had joined a sorority at East Tennessee State University, but didn’t really enjoy it and dropped out after the first year. My parents did not attend college, and none of my extended family who were college graduates had joined fraternities or sororities. At that point, I may or may not had seen the movie Animal House – I’m honestly not sure. But beyond that, I knew very little about about fraternity life when my old 4-H buddy Lake Elliott invited me to go with him down to the AGR house during our first weekend in Knoxville. I was an uninformed consumer. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

I suspect many people in my generation share a similar story. We came to college with only a passing understanding of what fraternities or sororities were about. We may have had a parent or older sibling in a fraternity or sorority, but outside of that, we didn’t really know much about Greek life. We met someone or had some experience that led us to join, and we signed up, not really knowing what it was we were getting ourselves into, unsure of the product we were about to be consuming for the next four years.

But fast forward from 1997 to 2016. Times have changed. Students coming to college today are much more informed about fraternities and sororities than those at any other time in history. TFM. TSM. Greek. Old School. Media coverage of fraternity and sorority misdeeds. Stories that 10 years ago may not have even made it into the school newspaper are now national headlines. Hazing. Sexual assault. Drug and alcohol abuse. Racism. All right there staring at them on any social media venue they happen to be using. The negative aspects of fraternity and sorority life on full display, 24/7.

And they are still choosing to join, in spite of all that.

Or, perhaps, a more troubling scenario - they are choosing to join because of all that.

The way we sell brotherhood and sisterhood to prospective members today has never been more important. The stereotype is out there, and our prospective members are fully aware of what those stereotypes are, and are choosing to join in spite of – or maybe even because of - those stereotypes. And if our chapters don’t sell brotherhood and sisterhood in a way that dispels those stereotypes – in a way that shows prospective members that the stereotype isn’t necessarily true – then the problems associated with those stereotypes will grow exponentially. In other words, more and more students will be joining fraternities and sororities not blissfully ignorant of the stereotypes (like I was), but in spite of or because of the stereotypes. They know what the stereotype is, and that stereotype represents the experience the are seeking.

Fraternities and sororities, now more than ever, have to begin selling brotherhood and sisterhood in a way that moves beyond just the fun/social side of the experience. Guys recruiting with beer pong and selling the party scene are just reinforcing the stereotype. Women recruiting with videos that sell sisterhood as bubbles, glitter and pillow fights are just reinforcing the stereotype. And prospective members, who already have that stereotype indelibly imprinted into their minds, are provided with nothing to challenge or confront those stereotypes, and they join a brotherhood or sisterhood under the impression that the stereotype is what the experience is supposed to be.

We have to begin selling a different product.

We have to make sure our chapters are selling ALL aspects of brotherhood and sisterhood. Not just the fun side, but also the sense of belonging, the self-betterment that comes with accountability, and the self-actualization that can come from working with a group of people towards a common purpose. Only when we sell brotherhood and sisterhood in this way can we really begin to have members come into our organizations understanding that there is more to the experience than just the stereotype. And imagine how much easier our jobs would be if we knew that every member who joined a fraternity or sorority on our campuses walked in the door from Day 1 understanding that the fraternity/sorority experience was about more than just a good time.

We have tried to do this for the last 15 years by talking about “values-based recruitment.” It hasn’t worked. It is time to try something else.

Values-based recruitment hasn’t worked because 18 year-old college students are not interested in joining values. Rather, they are interested in joining a group of people who they feel can provide them with a certain experience – an experience called brotherhood and sisterhood.

So, today, I want to declare the end of the “values-based recruitment” movement and the beginning of the “brother/sisterhood-based recruitment” movement. Stop trying to convince your students to sell their values, and start convincing them to sell the more altruistic forms of brotherhood and sisterhood. Convince them to sell how membership in their organization will provide prospective members with a sense of belonging and connection, with a group of people who will support them and have their back. Convince them to sell how membership in their organization will make prospective members better people by holding them to high standards and expectations. And convince them to sell how membership in their organization will allow prospective members to work with a collective of like-minded individuals to pursue the noble objectives of self-improvement.

Values-based recruitment is not the answer to our problems. We have been beating that drum for well over a decade, and our problems are only getting worse. We need to help students better understand the product they are selling (brotherhood and sisterhood), and then help them develop strategies to sell ALL forms of their brother/sisterhood to prospective members, not just the type that reinforces the stereotypes that today’s well-informed consumers are buying.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Can We Please Stop Misusing Challenge and Support???

Student affairs interview season is almost upon us! Thousands of eager second-year graduate students and disgruntled-with-their-first-job-young-professionals will scurry about participating in the annual placement exchange circus. This highly ritualized, often maligned, and largely ineffective process of hiring staff is more akin to sorority recruitment than to an actual job interview, but every year we prep our grads and young professionals for this routine like a nervous mother preparing her 5 year-old for his first day of kindergarten.

“Don’t forget to write thank you notes.”

“Make good eye contact and have a firm handshake.”

“Be sure to dress appropriately.”

“Make sure to prepare follow up questions for each interview.”

Well, today I’d like to add another admonition to the list of reminders we share with our little mentees as they prepare to engage in this annual student affairs rite of passage:

“Stop misusing Sanford’s Theory of Challenge and Support.”

It’s inevitable. Some smarty pants graduate student, eager to show how much they paid attention in their student development theory class, will find a way to talk about their favorite theorist during their interview when asked about their advising style, and they’ll make some banal comment like this:

“Sometimes I push my students to figure things out on their own, and sometimes I help them out with whatever project they’re working on. You know, challenge and support.”

This attitude is akin to some young mother in the middle of potty-training her toddler saying “Well, sometimes I make him wipe his own ass, and sometimes I wipe it for him. You know, challenge and support.”

This isn’t what Sanford was talking about. Not even close.

When Sanford told us that student growth required adequate amounts of both challenge and support, he was not intending for his theory to be used in a vacuum to describe how hands-on or hands-off we treat the students we advise or supervise. But more often than not, this is how I hear young (and old) professionals in our field (mis)use his theory.

When Sanford offered us his theory of challenge and support, he meant for his theory to be used in combination with other theories, to help us understand how students grow along a certain developmental trajectory.

Take moral development, for example. Sanford would argue that in order for a student to move from pre-conventional (obedience to authority) to conventional (social norms) levels of moral development, students need an adequate amount of challenge (i.e. forcing them to question their own beliefs and where they come from) and support (giving them safe spaces with like-minded others, free from constant challenge). Too much challenge, and the student may regress or rebel, yielding no growth. Too much support, and the student is never pushed to think differently, yielding no growth. The key is finding the right balance, giving the student enough challenge, but not too much challenge, to safely push them down their developmental path.

Sanford only works, and should only be applied, in conjunction with other theories (be they cognitive development, psycho-social development or identify development). It was never intended as a stand-alone theory to use in describing your advising style.

So, if you’re prepping for job interviews and want a pocket theory to drop in, only use Sanford if you plan on talking about another theory. Don’t make this common mistake that too many in this field often make.

And if you’re on the other side of the table conducting interviews, and some eager-beaver graduate student flagrantly misuses Sanford in this way, stop the interview, give them a puzzled look, and ask them.

“So, do you wipe your students’ behinds, or do you make them wipe their behinds for themselves?”