by Samantha Calabrese
University at Buffalo
It may not be a secret amongst those who know me well, but I LOVE Tina Fey and I LOVE Improv. (I mean come on, me center of attention? Obvi.) I even went as far as taking Level 1 and Level 2 Improv classes at ComedySportz (shout to CSZ Buffalo! http://www.cszbuffalo.com/) as well as performed on their minor league for a brief stint (SAM-Tastic was my stage name..). Not only did it teach me to step out of my comfort zone in a new and completely thrilling way and meet the most authentic and genuine people I’ve ever met, but I also learned some basic rules of Improv. These rules were further conveyed to me while readying Tina Fey’s book Bossypants. That’s when all of it hit me. The rules for Improv are pretty much the rules for Academic Advising.
Let’s be real here folks, when it comes to academic advising, there is NEVER a basic script to follow. Every day (if we’re really being real every 20-30 minutes) we’re thrown in another situation that we haven’t been prepared for. Leave of Absences, Medical withdrawals, Holds, Study Abroad, as advisors we’re never fully prepared for what is going to walk through our door.
I was surprised to keep nodding my head when reading through Tina Fey’s rules for Improv and instantly thinking of ways to apply these rules to my everyday work life.
Rule #1. Agree.
Taken from Bossypants:
“The first rule of Improvisation is AGREE. Always agree and SAY YES. When you’re improvising, this means you are required to agree with whatever your partner has created. So if we’re improvising and I say, “Freeze, I have a gun,” and you say, “That’s not a gun. It’s your finger. You’re pointing your finger at me,” our improvised scene has ground to a halt.
But if I say, “Freeze, I have a gun!” and you say, “The gun I gave you for Christmas! You bastard!” then we have started a scene because we have AGREED that my finger is in fact a Christmas gun.”
When a student comes to your office with a 1.8 GPA and tells you their main goal is to get into Dental School, saying “No you’re not getting in” may not be the best approach. When a student says “I want to study abroad next semester and still graduate in Spring,” just saying no, will not only crush the students dreams (You dream crusher you!), but come off as harsh or unapproachable. It jars students when the first thing they hear is a no. They immediately shut down and you become someone they hope to never run into again in the future. Who wants to be the mean advisor?
A better approach is to agree. Now I’m not saying to set unrealistic expectations, or agree with everything they say, but to approach it from an agreeable stance. For the Med. student example, instead of starting off with no, it may be better to say “Medical School is a great aspiration to have! It is known that medical school is very competitive with the average applicant being in the high 3.0 range of GPA’s, have you thought about alternative plans if this doesn’t work out?” This can then spark a conversation with the student that may open their eyes to other avenues to pursue, or even ways academically to begin the process of improving their GPA.
With the study abroad student, start with agreeing: “Study Abroad is an amazing opportunity for students! Not only can you gain cultural experience but you are allowing yourself to gain independence in a whole new way. Depending on the program you wish to study at, this may or may not provide academic courses for your major so this may mean moving graduation to summer or a fall semester.” Now the student feels validated in their idea of going abroad, but gives them realistic expectations for graduation.
2nd Rule of Improv: Not Only Say Yes…Say Yes And
Again from Bossypants:
The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND. You are supposed to agree and then add something of your own. If I start a scene with “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you just say, “Yeah…” we’re kind of at a standstill.
But if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “What did you expect? We’re in hell.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “Yes, this can’t be good for the wax figures.” Or if I say, “I can’t believe it’s so hot in here,” and you say, “I told you we shouldn’t have crawled into this dog’s mouth,” now we’re getting somewhere.
This means to contribute to the conversation that the students are having with you. Not only agree with them, but add on to this conversation with things that students may have not even thought about. I had a conversation with a student just today that I applied this philosophy to. This student wanted to change his major in business administration to a minor as he is also a psychology major and felt overwhelmed with both. However, he felt like he was failing himself if he had to go to a minor and he couldn’t handle both meant he wasn’t academically succeeding. This student has a 3.6. So the first thing I did was agree with the student. I said dropping to a minor was a great idea, especially if he felt it was better for him academically and mentally less stressful for himself. I also went on to say not only was it a great idea but I also had a minor in undergrad and when job interviewing it was what employers asked me about most, it provided me with outside knowledge to my major that I was lacking but still wasn’t too overwhelming that I was able to keep my high GPA. By the time he left my office he told me he felt much better about the decision he was making and knows that it’s the right move to make.
This also applies even within your colleagues. If someone comes up with a great new idea or initiative, agree with what they are doing and then add something to it. All great ideas come from collaboration between colleagues and offices on campuses’, be part of the greatness!
Rule #3: Make Statements
This is a positive way of saying “Don’t ask questions all the time.” If we’re in a scene and I say, “Who are you? Where are we? What are we doing here? What’s in that box?” I’m putting pressure on you to come up with all the answers
We’ve all worked with that person. That person is a drag. It’s usually the same person around the office who says things like “There’s no calories in it if you eat it standing up!” and “I felt menaced when Terry raised her voice.
Questions. Stress. Students. Out. When a student on probation comes in for their academic advisement appointment and the first thing that happens is we bombard them with questions such as ‘What happened last semester?”, “Why didn’t you go to class?”, “Did you go to office hours?”, “How do you intend to improve?”, “Do you have alternative plans?” Students begin to shut down. At 18 years old, most students have no idea what they want to do with their lives and questioning them on this only creates unnecessary stress. Have conversations with students. Give them statements. “It seems you didn’t do well last semester, here are some resources to get you back on track.” “Management doesn’t seem to be working out for you, there is an office on campus that can work with students on alternative majors, it may be a great place to find a major that is a better fit for your interests and passions in life.”
Questions with advising is always going to be inevitable with working with students, but trying to cut down on these questions and letting the students talk themselves through it will always create a better conversation.
Rule #4. There are No Mistakes…Only Opportunities
If I start a scene as what I think is very clearly a cop riding a bicycle, but you think I am a hamster in a hamster wheel, guess what?
Now I’m a hamster in a hamster wheel. I’m not going to stop everything to explain that it was really supposed to be a bike. Who knows? Maybe I’ll end up being a police hamster who’s been put on “hamster wheel” duty because I’m “too much of a loose cannon” in the field.
In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful happy accidents. And many of the world’s greatest discoveries have been by accident. I mean, look at the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, or Botox.
With the amount of students that we advise on a daily basis for most people, mistakes are going to happen. However, if we change our outlook on mistakes as opportunities, it can create such a positive work environment. Students make mistakes, they drop courses they never intended to, and they don’t go to class and fail everything. Just like improve, their life may not have gone as planned.
Working with them to show them the opportunities they now have will make you a go to person for that student, a comforter. Helping them realize that maybe not going to class was a sign that they’re not ready for college and they need to take a leave and work for a year and in that year it may mean they realize their true passion in life. Turning their unexpected into positive opportunities is the basis of what we do daily. Now it may not always work that way… but hey..we can all dream...right?
With Academic Advising we are playing improv every single day. We learn to agree with students, we make mistakes…and we learn to roll with them, we accept things that come our way. By applying these rules even further, it can enhance our interactions with students and begin more meaningful conversations.
I, in no way, can attest that using these rules in academic advising will make you as funny as Tina Fey. Sorry ‘bout it.