Category Archives: General Discussion

Some of your best students are introverts. What have you done for them lately?

Book coverI’m going to stray a bit from the mandate of this blog with this one and talk about a book that really isn’t directly about student affairs or higher education. I just finished Susan Cain’s bestseller Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World The Can’t Stop Talking. It’s a relatively deep exploration of temperament,  the dominance of “The Extrovert Ideal” in western culture, and the loss to society when those who appreciate solitude simply cannot escape, or rise above, the noise.

I didn’t choose to read this book out of professional interest. But there are some definite takeaways for student affairs practitioners, especially those working in student leadership or career development, and particularly for those who have fallen prey to the leadership = TEDTalk phenomenon. Cain is always quick to point out that many of her best friends are extroverts. Extroverts need not feel threatened by her call to recognize the needs of, and tap into the best of, the introverts in your life. But she is saying that forcing introverts to play in an environment designed for extroverts is a missed opportunity.

She uses many examples in the book — including an amusing peak inside Harvard Business School where students “practically go to the bathroom in teams” and  the relentless focus on group work causes them to constantly overlook the best ideas — to make her point that the balance has tipped, in both classrooms and workplaces, too far toward the characteristics of the extrovert.  Quick reflexes, self-promotion and public speaking are are valued above contemplation, analysis and listening.

Business is starting to catch on. A recent article in Forbes featured a study that warned employers to “be wary of the extrovert” because they talk too much, listen too little and “don’t contribute as much as people think they will.” Those of you working in career development will want to be on top of this wave, helping your students, whether extroverted or introverted, recognize and articulate the value they bring to a team. The good news is, we can all learn to adopt the traits of extroversion or introversion in a given situation. Introverts can learn to speak in public. Extroverts can learn to listen.

Case in point: ironically, Cain herself has an immensely popular TEDTalk. She taught herself, out of necessity to promote her book, how to hold a crowd’s attention and make her point, which she does very well. She ends it (spoiler alert!) with three calls to action: 1. Stop the madness for constant group work. Teach kids to work together, yes, but also teach them to work alone.  2. Go to the wilderness, unplug, and find solitude; and  3. Introverts: make your contribution to the world.

I wish I had read Cain’s book earlier. Recently, my team at OCAD University was planning a leadership development retreat for our peer mentors. We only had a day to work with. We planned some outdoor activities: low ropes, a climbing wall, etc. to build trust and teamwork skills, and some indoor activities: a role-playing leadership group simulation to teach collaboration skills. We also came up with the idea of including a reflective walk in the woods. But we couldn’t fit everything into the schedule and something had to go. Can you guess what got sacrificed?

Deanne Fisher, @deannefisher

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It’s not us, it’s them. And it’s not our fault either.

Cover imageReview of Generation on a Tightrope: A Portrait of Today’s College Student
By Arthur Levine and Diane R. Dean
Jossey-Bass, 2012

Student affairs practitioners are quite naturally drawn to books of this nature: descriptions of the very generation we are charged with reaching, supporting, educating and policing. We search for explanation — why, oh why, does this job seem harder today than it did yesterday? — cling to insights, and are comforted by the commonality of frustrations faced by anyone who has to deal with these irrational beings.

Insofar as those explanations, insights and comforts are delivered, the book is useful as a form of reassurance. If that’s what you’re looking for, buy it and read it. But please do not accept its findings without question.

You will recognize Arthur Levine as the author of When Dreams and Heroes Died (1980) and, with Jeanette Cureton, of When Hope and Fear Collide (1998) and this book builds on the research of the first two in what is now referred to as a trilogy. Levine is a scholar of might, as is co-author Diane R. Dean. I’m sure either of them would blow me out of the water in any debate but I can’t help but challenge some of the assumptions and implications of this piece of work.

First, a little background: exactly what generation are we talking about here?

Generation on a Tightrope is a portrait of a subset of a subset of a generation. The generation in question is what we most commonly refer to as the Millennials — those born between the 1980s and early 2000s — also known as Generation Y, the Echo Boom, the Net Generation, the Digital Natives, etc. But since this book is based  on research done on current undergraduates — defined as those attending college between 2005 and 2014 — this is a subset in two important ways: first, it is only about the latter end of the Millennial generation and, second, it is only about those who went to college (two-year and four-year institutions) in the US. Notwithstanding the US part, this makes it a particularly up-to-date and relevant description of the students we serve today.  And until someone writes a portrait of Canadian post-secondary students, the US portrait is the best proxy we have. Use your brain and apply a critical lens and you’ll be able extract some meaning.

A lot has already been written about the Millennials — some of it positive, some it negative, almost always polarizing. And as I’ve pointed out before, I have serious reservations about most of this type of literature. I’ve been working with the Millennials for my entire student affairs career and, frankly, I’m getting a bit bored of them — not the students themselves, of course, but of the words used to generalize them and, most often, mock and patronize them.  But I was drawn to Generation on a Tightrope because of the credibility of the authors and the methodology (it’s based on longitudinal survey data.) Unfortunately, once again I feel compelled to raise some serious questions about this “portrait”.

Is age really the defining characteristic?

The book is based on two sets of longitudinal data — a survey of undergraduates conducted in 1969, 1976, 1993 and 2009, and a survey of senior student affairs officers conducted five times between 1978 and 2011. Naturally, some differences emerge in terms of the attitudes, values and behaviours of young people in each decade, and in the observations of people like us. But there is very little comparative data for the general “grown-up” population in the same year. So how do we know whether we are looking at generational differences, or just general differences experienced by most Americans living in 2013?

Let me give you an example.  In a section devoted to the effects of digital technology on life outside the classroom, descriptions of undergraduates include: fear of being without a digital device, no time for contemplation, expectations of immediacy, and stories of roommates in dispute texting each other rather than communicating face-to-face. We’re supposed to shake our heads in disbelief.

But that pretty much describes my life too and I’m not 21 years old.  If I forget my Blackberry at home, I will spend an hour going home to get it rather than try to survive the workday without it. My colleagues and I constantly refer to the loss of “thinking time” (though I’m really not sure if it ever existed.) We are expected to respond to email — from each other — at pretty much any hour.  I have had to resolve disputes between employees in neighbouring offices engaged in a war via email. And I have checked Facebook and Twitter three times in the course of writing this paragraph, while I am sitting in Starbucks, along with about 25 other lonely people of all ages on mobile devices.

Maybe that just means I’m immature (wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of that.) But I remain unconvinced that what we are looking at is a generational difference rather than a mere sign of the times.  Generational theory would tell us that what defines a generation are events and trends that shape a cohort during childhood and young adulthood and thus, the Millennials are defined by the advent of the Internet, the Web, digital or smartphone technology in ways that we grown-ups are not. Ok, maybe I can accept that.  But I find these kinds of generalizations about technology based on age to be annoying and deceptive. How many times have you been told that these so-called “digital natives” are whizzes in front of a keyboard, only to find they don’t know how to use paragraph styles in Word or enter a formula into an Excel spreadsheet? They are experts in the technology that has meaning and relevance to their lives which is mostly, as far as I can tell, in gaming and entertainment, as are we. As their lives change, so too will their command of technology. Just as ours did.

This brings me to my second big question.

What role do other demographic factors – gender, ability, race and, especially, socio-economic status – play?

The authors dedicate an entire chapter to “multiculturalism” (a very deliberate choice of terminology.) This is the most diverse generation of college students in history, they tell us. Among the key findings: students of all backgrounds are more satisfied with their undergraduate experience, interaction among diverse peers is up, and women perceive fewer barriers. The authors even indicate briefly that class is poised to be the next big campus issue.

Despite the acknowledgement of this diversity, the book lacks a level of critical analysis in other chapters. The picture that is painted throughout is of a generation of politically myopic career-oriented rule followers (as long as the rules are spelled out), tethered to their parents, who engage with the institution with a consumer mentality. But rarely do the authors even hypothesize that these trends in attitude and behaviour may be based in factors like culture, ability or class. Living with your parents into your 30s is perfectly acceptable in many cultures; why do we assume it’s a weakness? Changes in policy and practice have made it possible for people with pretty serious learning disabilities to attend higher education; might we be okay with the fact that they need a little more support navigating the bureaucracy? And if your parents didn’t attend higher education and/or your family has sacrificed a lot to send you to university, might you be forgiven for being “career-oriented” and having expectations of service given the amount of money you’re paying?

Although Levine and Dean are often sympathetic in this book, they are too cutting and judgmental for my tastes. Here’s a gem of a paragraph to give you a taste of that tone:

“Their deficits are significant. This is a timid generation of rule followers in an era that demands bold, new rule makers. They are self-centered and have little experience with failure in what is likely to be [a] period requiring flexibility, adaptation, and resilience. They are immature, needy, and tethered to the adults in their lives in a time that requires vision and leadership. They are tribal, self-centered, and low in interpersonal skills in an era that will be characterized by growing interconnectedness and mutual dependence. They are weak in basic skills in a developing information economy that will demand the highest level of skills and knowledge in history. They confuse effort with excellence and quantity with quality in an age in which the economy elevates outcomes over process. They talk internationally but their focus is local and their knowledge of the world is poor in an age of globalization.”

That was not a typo. They actually used the term “self-centered” twice.

The following paragraph retreats a bit, but I think the damage is done.

“This should not be taken as a slap or dismissal of current undergraduates, harkening back to the old saw about students being so much better in my day. They were not. This generation of college students is no better or no worse than other generations but, like every generation before, they are different and will live in a world demanding a different set of skills and knowledge to thrive.”

Which brings me to my final question: so what?

Even if we accept that there are attributes of this generation of university students that are substantially different than past generations, what do we do with this information? Levine and Dean provide quite a comprehensive concluding chapter that attempts to answer that question for a variety of audiences. For the higher ed folks, there are some interesting ideas, each of which requires much more exploration than the limits of the print medium provide. In a page on Career Services, for example, the authors acknowledge that too many students wait until it’s too late to access these services. “Comprehensive career programs need to be offered to students and their parents from the first days of college.” To their parents? Didn’t we just read an entire chapter about how parents are way too involved with their students’ lives and are coddling their children too much? If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em I guess. But it seems to me we bear some responsibility for this extended adolescence we’re all observing.

I read with great interest the short “so what” section for parents since I have three digital natives in my own home. One more reminder, in case we haven’t got the message by page 190: “Parents have raised and by all reports are continuing to raise a generation of children who have the characteristics that have been described. They are entitled, overprotected, timid, dependent, self-absorbed, rule followers, tied to their parents, and have not been allowed to fail.” And again, a caveat, lest we feel blamed here. “This has not happened because they have bad parents.” Oh, phew. “Rather parents have attempted to compensate for past and present circumstances.”  Wait, what are we compensating for? Well, the boomers are apparently compensating for their own strained relationships with their parents. And many of us, we’re making up for lost time caused by, wait for it, single and double-income parenting. What follows are several paragraphs of patronizing advice about “having the child sell cookies for the class trip door to door rather than selling them at the office” (really? not sure about the States, but here in Canada, the school usually explicitly tells us we are not to send out kids door-to-door, for safety reasons. But okay..if you say so…),  setting “clear rules” about drugs, sex, and alcohol (what a concept – why didn’t we think of that before?! Just tell them not to drink and they won’t do it!!!), limiting internet access (in practicality, very difficult to do, since most high school homework now requires it) and a bunch of other pat garbage that you can get from most of the magazines at the grocery store check-out.

You might be getting the impression I didn’t appreciate this book. For the most part, you’d be right. I don’t appreciate generalizations that judge. blame and preach rather than bridge differences in perspective, cultivate respect and share responsibility. But I do appreciate one fundamental premise of Generation on a Tightrope: they are who they are. They are the products of a concoction of good and bad parenting, world events, the economy, policy, popular culture, their own experiences and all sorts of social phenomena, including, of course, technology. And as institutions of higher learning, we don’t necessarily need to meet them “where they are” (or else we’ll be running courses like reality television shows) but we do need to meet them at least half-way.

– Deanne Fisher @deannefisher

The book every change agent in higher education should read

Shoot me if I ever begin a presentation with a slide that says: “The world is changing”, followed by some brilliant insights on the impacts of globalization and social media, and concluding with a call for dramatic change in higher education. Fact is, the world has always been changing. And universities, sluggish and monolithic,  have always struggled to respond and stay relevant – relevant enough, that is, to continue to attract the support of trusting taxpayers and hopeful parents.

But what interests me more these days is the role that higher education plays, intentional or not, in preservation, in holding onto things that seem to matter – not just texts and

John King Books in Detroit

John King Books, Detroit, MI. Do visit if you get the chance.

artifacts, but customs and culture, ways of being and doing – in the face of so much pressure to change.  In this current era of rapid transformation around us, I find myself thinking more and more of the comfort of campus, its predictability, and how we decide what we’ll preserve, for better or worse.

And so it was serendipitous that I would discover, on a recent vacation to Detroit, in amongst the one million volumes contained in the four vast floors of  John K King Used & Rare Books on West Lafeyette Blvd., an inspiring collection of essays on the future of American higher education. Continue reading

Highlights from Open Book IX: recent literature in student affairs

This year marked the ninth edition of the Open Book panel at the annual conference of the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) and, IMHO, it was one of our best. Three ingredients seem to make for a good learning experience for both panelists and audience alike: 1. A diverse range of books that stretches our perspectives, rather than merely reinforces what we already believe we know; 2. Serendipitous connections between the books and ideas they represent and 3. Audience participation. We had a little of each at Open Book IX. Continue reading

Sexy bedside reading for the Canadian higher ed professional

When I was an over-confident youngster destined for greatness, never in my wildest dreams did I imagine my bedside reading would include a title like SEM in Canada: Promoting student and institutional success in Canadian colleges and universities.  And yet, here I am, transfixed by chapters on “Evidence-based Decision Making” and “Branding: The Promise, The Process and The Pay Off”. I know many of you think I’m joking – and my image would be best preserved if I let you continue thinking I’m more interesting than I really am – but the truth is I’m being quite honest. This 350-page book on the nuts and bolts of getting students in the door and successfully out the other end – otherwise known as Strategic Enrolment Management – is actually pretty engaging. It might not be the next Girl With the Dragon Tatoo but it’s accessible, cogent and instructive. If your job – or your next job – has anything to do with helping students get to the right program, in the right school for them, with the right supports to help them be successful, and understanding how all of the pieces fit together, you will learn something in these pages. Continue reading


Book Cover: Academic ReformOut here in Ontario, there’s a fair amount of buzz generating over the release of Academic Reform: Policy Options for Improving the Quality and Cost-effectiveness of Undergraduate Education in Ontario, published by McGill-Queen’s University Press. The book is a follow up to Academic Transformation (reviewed on CACUSS Reads last February), which provided a detailed account of why the research university as the singular model for the delivery of undergraduate education, is unsustainable. Academic Reform is written by three heavyweights in higher education: former Carleton President Richard Van Loon,  Professor at U of T’s School of Public Policy Ian Clark and consultant and former Assistant Deputy Minister for post-secondary education in Ontario David Trick. Before the book has even been published, it’s clear their ideas are being listened to: Ontario’s recently re-elected Liberal government has promised to open three new undergraduate campuses, a model proposed by the authors of this book.

I haven’t yet read the book but just wanted to note its existence as it appears to be influencing policy. If anyone would like to provide a review to CACUSS Reads, let me know.

Re-emphasizing undergraduate education: New book sets out solutions

Enter the “BA Lite”: a review of Lowering Higher Education

Lowering Lowering Higher Education book jacketHigher Education: The rise of corporate universities and the fall of liberal education

By James E. Coté and Anton Allahar

Among the books reviewed at this year’s Open Book Session as part of the annual conference of the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services were several that painted a rather grim picture of North American higher education. Academically Adrift – making waves in both the U.S. and Canada – has been described as a “damning indictment.”  DIY U argues that the crisis in American higher ed will lead young people to use the ample resources of the web to fill in the gaps left by institutions that simply can’t deliver the experience students expect.

Lowering Higher Education provides the Canadian variation on this ubiquitous theme of declining quality. Authors Coté and Allahar, professors at the University of Western Ontario, gained some notoriety a few years back with their critique of the university system: Ivory Tower Blues. (See CACUSS Reads review.)  Though they had a strong thesis based on both data and teaching experience with their original work, it stank of cynicism.  In Lowering Higher Education, they have not only strengthened their arguments, but they come across as far more concerned than caustic, constructive than cranky. Continue reading

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The Big Reveal: my reading list for Open Book IIX

For the eighth year, my colleagues and I will present the Open Book: Recent Literature in Student Affairs panel at the annual conference of the Canadian Association of College and University Student Services (CACUSS) in June. So, in hopes of getting some CACUSS members to read along and contribute to the discussion, I’m sharing my reading list here. Continue reading

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Why leadership in higher education is like driving a nail through blancmange

A review of:
Turnaround Leadership for Higher Education
by Michael Fullan & Geoff Scott, Jossey-Bass, 2009

I have spent the better part of the last decade trying to understand, from the inside, what makes institutions of higher education change. We all purport to be in the midst of it – change, that is – with strategic visions and plans that call for us to “build on our strengths”  or “define our dreams.”  Let me guess, your institution’s plan says something about…increasing enrolment/graduate enrolment/international enrolment, improving your profile/reputation regionally/nationally/internationally, probably talks about some “pillars” and sets a lofty goal around “improving the overall student experience”, the part that gets us student affairs types all giddy.

And yet, despite all the effort – townhall meetings and consultation sessions, green papers and white papers, beautifully designed strategic plan websites and glossy brochures ­– the returns on investment are often ambiguous, marginal or incremental, and rarely transformative. Continue reading

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Bring on the growing pains

The book, as the representation of a significant body of thought, of research or of practice, still holds a place of honour in our society and in the field of student services. And so it was with great glee that many of us heralded the arrival of what is arguably the first ever book on the practice of student services in Canada. Achieving Student Success: Effective student services in Canadian higher education, edited by Donna Hardy-Cox and Carney Strange, was years in the making and an easy choice for my selection for the 2010 Open Book session at CACUSS 2010.

Continue reading

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Gearing up for the “best of” Open Book session at CACUSS 2010

For colleagues attending the 2010 CACUSS Conference in Edmonton June 19-23, please consider attending the Open Book session (Tuesday, June 22, 9 am) where you’re sure to be engaged by our stellar panel of reviewers talking about the books that have most influenced their careers.

Join David Newman (president of SASA), Bruce Belbin (president-elect of CACUSS), Dave Hannah (a past president of CACUSS), Tim Rahilly (CACUSS board member) and me for our “best of” edition of Open Book. While books are the focus, the value is really in the discussion of ideas that have shaped our field, that inform our everyday practice (whether we know it or not) and will present challenges for us in the future.

See you there!

Deanne Fisher.

Nerds unite: how the forces of anti-intellectualism are ruining the university

More Money than Brains: Why schools suck, college is crap & idiots think they’re right
By Laura Penny

Chances are, if you’re reading this blog, you’re a nerd. Or at least have nerd-like tendencies. You work in higher education and you like reading books. Or at least reading other people’s pithy summaries of books so you can sound well-read.

And chances are you’ve experienced moments of doubt – subtle self-deprecating voices that ask you whether what you do really has any value? If you advise, teach or coach students in a university setting, you work in the service of intellectual advancement, which, these days, is pitted against the powerful force of pragmatism, and losing. Continue reading


Post-secondary in peril: why higher ed in Ontario is stuck in the past

Book Jacket: Academic TransformationAcademic Transformation: The forces reshaping higher education in Ontario

Ian D. Clark, Greg Moran, Michael L. Skolnik, David Trick

For the past six years, my beloved institution has been working toward enhancing the undergraduate student experience as its primary objective under the academic planning framework. A couple of weeks ago, I asked a room of about 40 relatively engaged students (residence dons) what they thought the top priority for the University has been. “Increasing graduate enrolment?” Nope. Though that is a newly established objective. “International student recruitment?” A priority, yes. But not the top one. “Research excellence?”  It took about ten tries. Continue reading

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This just in: new Canadian(!) book on student services

I have just learned that the long-awaited book on student services in Canada, by Donna Hardy Cox and Carney Strange, is due out February 15, 2010 from McGill-Queen’s University Press.  Achieving Student Success: Effective Student Services in Canadian Higher Education is book-ended by chapters from Hardy Cox and Strange but also includes chapters on everything from enrolment management, to residence life, judicial affairs and student service management, written by CACUSS colleagues from across the country.

You can pre-order it now online at McGill-Queen’s University Press (paper or cloth). Hoping many of you will do so and read in time for CACUSS 2010 in Edmonton.

— D.F.

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Write new blog post. Check!

Getting Things Done coverI am reading Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, by management consultant David Allen. I have only read one-third of the book. I want to finish the book. I want to finish the book because I want to write a review on my blog about it. Applying Allen’s method, here’s how I proceed:

1. Collect things that command my attention. Writing a blog post is one of many things — including getting new glasses, developing a student survey and preparing the 2010-11 budget for my department –commanding my attention right now. I collect them all in a little application called NoteBook. But you could use any “bucket” to collect all your stuff — as long as it’s all in one place. Continue reading


Welcome (again) to CACUSS Reads

The sixth installment of Open Book – a annual panel discussion on recent literature in student affairs – has just come to a close. Thanks to Tim Rahilly, Margot Bell and Bruce Belbin for sharing their thoughts on such a wide range of topics. If you didn’t get a copy of it at the session (or you didn’t attend the session!) you can download our 2009booklist.

For those of you new to the blog, please contribute. Any visitor can comment on one of the reviews. Just hit the “Leave a comment” link at the bottom of any article.

If you’d like to contribute a full review, you have two options: 1. send it to me and I’ll post it for you or 2. send me an email requesting a “contributor” account and I’ll set you up so you can post. (If you are new to WordPress, you will find it quite easy to use – fun really.)

I’ll keep posting reviews throughout the year – and look forward to seeing you all in Edmonton for Open Book VII!

– Deanne.

Sneak peak at Open Book VI

CACUSS reads panelist

The annual CACUSS conference is only a week away and my fellow panelists and I are frantically reading away in preparation for sixth annual installment of the Open Book session. Our complete list of recommended (or not!) recent student affairs titles will be available at the session (Wednesday, June 17, 11 am) but in case you need a bit more enticing to come see us — or you want to read ahead and contribute your own thoughts — here are a few of the books we’re reading: Continue reading

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Apparently, the kids are more than alright

grown-up-digitalA few months ago, I posted a short review of Mark Bauerlein’s The Dumbest Generation, a provocatively titled tirade about his profound disappointment with the so-called digital natives – those born with the advantage of information at their fingertips – and their seemingly narcissistic, celebrity-obsessed, self-indulgent ways.

Now comes the antidote: Grown Up Digital: How the net generation is changing your world by Don Tapscott, author of Wikinomics, and adjunct professor at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto. Where Bauerlein sees unhealthy addiction to gaming, Tapscott sees new forms of global collaboration. While Bauerlein laments the loss of literature as a popular pastime, Tapscott revels in the development of new reading skills – non-linear reading that requires sorting and synthesis. In other words, where one sees the end of civilization as we know it, the other sees salvation. Continue reading


Learning to “dance through complexity”

Opposable MindAdmittedly, I’m finding it a bit of a stretch to include The Opposable Mind: How Successful Leaders Win Through Integrative Thinking (2007, Harvard Business School Press) in a blog dedicated to recent literature in student affairs. But author Roger Martin is one of the keynote speakers at this year’s CACUSS Conference so I thought it fitting that I give his book a read in anticipation of the wisdom he might share with us in Waterloo in June. Continue reading


Is technology fostering a “generational cocoon”?

Last March, I was involved in the planning of a musical event on our campus to mark the UN Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. We had lined up some students to do the introductions to the day’s performances. A few minutes before showtime, I handed one of the volunteers the text on the background for the day he was to incorporate into his intro. He quickly reviewed it aloud and stopped at the word “apartheid”, stared at it for a moment, and asked, “How do I pronounce this word?” I told him and he dutifully practiced it a couple of times, as if it were his first encounter with the term.

I had a “How can this be?” moment but quickly wrote it off to a range of possible reasonable explanations: a learning disability, nerves, familiarity with the concept but just not the word in written form. He executed his duties smoothly and I applauded his commitment to the issues. Continue reading