I wrote this column soon after returning from the annual Society for the Teaching of Psychology’s Best Practices conference. The focus of this year’s conference was “Beginnings and Endings,” so there were sessions on courses introducing psychology to new majors and on capstone courses. For me, one particularly noteworthy session was “10 Things I Hate About My Capstone Course – And a Few Ways to Fix Them” presented by Tracy Zinn, Monica Reis-Bergan, and Suzanne Baker (2007) from James Madison University (VA). Indeed, I originally thought of titling this column “I Hate My Chapter,” but I simply didn’t have the courage. I simultaneously imagined: (a) readers thinking, “What an awful idea for a column. I’m not reading that”; (b) future users of the Psi Chi archives thinking, “Why would anyone, especially a Psi Chi President, write something so horrible?”; and (c) my own students thinking, “He hates our chapter.” But just as Zinn et al. did not really hate their capstones, none of us (including me) hate our chapters. However, as they did in their session, I did want to address those times when we all might feel less than thrilled to be a Psi Chi chapter advisor.
One of those times is when we feel that our chapter officers are not working hard enough. They are simply not devoting the time and effort we know are needed to keep the chapter functioning successfully. This can be especially irksome after the chapter has enjoyed a period of highly active, “wonderful” officers. At such times, we should remind ourselves that “stuff happens.” As we well know, every one of our officers’ instructors is telling them: “My class is your number one responsibility this semester.” Their employers are probably telling them the same thing, not to mention (if your students are anything like mine) that their spouses and children know what priority number one really is (them!). It is very unlikely that your officers accepted these positions planning to do very little. But planning now meets reality. Instead of getting frustrated, talk with them about their schedules and responsibilities. Help them to find better time management skills. Or find ways to help get more people involved and get more tasks delegated. Your officers might be worried that if they suggest giving some of their responsibilities to others, you’ll think less of them.
An even worse time might be when your chapter does not seem to be functioning at all. Your officers are MIA—not stopping by your office and not responding to phone or email messages. No events are planned and nothing is happening. You are getting worried that your faculty colleagues are starting to notice and wonder why you cannot run a better chapter (and if you are untenured, replace worried with terrified). Take a deep breath. Now begin to chant (silently is okay): “It’s not my chapter, it’s theirs. It’s not my chapter, it’s theirs.” Continue chanting until it sinks in. Resist the urge to start running the chapter yourself (e.g., planning and carrying out activities, scheduling a movie night, inviting a speaker). You will just get angrier, and they will feel even less responsible for the chapter. If your officers are not available, work with as many members as you can to accomplish something—even if it is just the induction or one small service project—but make sure they do it. This is hard to do, but worth it. My own chapter is just starting to come out of a period of relatively low activity compared to what it has been used to. I knew we were starting to get back on track when members began stopping by my office and asking why the chapter wasn’t doing more. This question provided the perfect opening to a discussion about what that particular student wanted to do and how he/she could get it done. It took me a long time to learn this and to get comfortable with it. One of my proudest moments as chapter advisor was when our officers were presenting at a conference session, and an audience member asked our then-president, Monique Guishard, to comment on the role she felt her faculty advisor played in the chapter’s success. She immediately responded, “The great thing about our advisor, Dr. Prohaska, is that he doesn’t do much.” As the audience began to laugh and look for my reaction, she stammered a bit and then explained that what she meant was that I had created an environment in which the students felt fully responsible for running the chapter. They felt that I was there when they needed me, but I was not telling them what to do or how to do it. I felt proud because she was calling me an advisor. I was reminded of this when Suzie Baker (Zinn et al., 2007) talked about learning that the best way to ensure successful discussions in her capstone class was to leave the table and sit in the corner. When she was at the table during discussion, all the students directed their remarks to her rather than to one another. But with her in the corner, the students were forced to carry the discussion among themselves. Sometimes students do learn best when faculty provide the tools and supports, but then back away (but never too far, after all, Suzie doesn’t leave the room).
But when students do run the chapter, that can create another “hating” moment. Sometimes you and your officers just don’t seem to work well together. Perhaps this year’s chapter president is anxious and detail-obsessed, and you are laid back and big-picture oriented. Or perhaps you tend toward perfectionism and your officers are happy just to get an event done. Here I think we have to remind ourselves that there is more than one way to be a successful leader. Certainly we should help if the leadership style is causing, or is likely to cause, problems for the chapter. But we are the professionals, and we know about individual differences. It is not their fault for not being Mini Me. Besides, the students are all going to graduate; we can always look towards better matches next year.
The final moment I want to raise is when the chapter is at war with itself. Perhaps cliques have formed and students are finding it difficult, if not impossible, to cooperate with one another. Here you most likely will have to intervene, and who doesn’t hate stepping into the middle of one of these situations? Yet, we should remember that this is an excellent “teaching moment.” In fact, aren’t leadership, teamwork, problem solving, and interpersonal skills some of the most important skills that students actively involved in a Psi Chi chapter should be learning? Aren’t we supposed to be helping them learn those skills? In many ways, times of conflict can teach more about those skills than times when everyone is on the same page and working harmoniously. But I still wouldn’t wish this situation on any advisor.
Having moments of “hating” our chapters may be normal, but should not be unavoidable. Thinking about our goals, anticipating problems, planning for both good and not-so-good times, and giving our students the tools they need to prosper and succeed can go a long way to eliminating those “hating” moments. We really do love our chapters—that’s why we serve as advisors.References
Zinn, T. E., Reis-Bergan, M., & Baker, S. (2007, October). Ten things I hate about my capstone course – and a few ways to fix them. Presentation presented at the conference Beginnings & Endings: Best Practices for Introducing and Bringing Closure to the Undergraduate Psychology Major, Atlanta, GA.
Winter 2007 issue of Eye on Psi Chi (Vol. 12, No. 2, p. 4), published by Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology (Chattanooga, TN). Copyright, 2007, Psi Chi, The National Honor Society in Psychology. All rights reserved.