Thursday, November 01, 2007

Making Mummies

The front line workers in American University’s Office of Housing and Dining are the Resident Assistants. Resident Assistants are third and fourth year students who live on each floor. They receive a free room and a modest stipend. They mission is a dual one: serve as a (slightly) older mentor for students on their floor, sometimes more than 40 assigned to two RA’s, and enforce discipline. It is a challenging assignment and most carry it off well. Along with regular guests at my sunday night dinners, Resident Assistants are among the AU students I know best. Surprisingly, RAs are rarely dinner guests themselves.

In addition to working with students, seeking to create community in a physical structure and with such a large number of residents that it is difficult, resident assistants become a community of their own. They go through “RA Orientation” together in fall and spring. They occasionally socialize together and, in particular, they attend weekly staff meetings. These are chaired by the Resident Director, typically a young woman or man in their mid twenties, just a few years older than the RAs.themselves. Resident Directors live on campus in apartments similar to my own and often intend to be campus life professionals. Executive Director of Housing and Dining Services or Vice President for Campus Life would be a typical career goal.

I have attended RA staff meetings in Anderson Hall for all of the five years I have lived here. Participating, provides a unique window on the joys, tribulations and mechanics of residence hall living. A typical agenda might include discussions of a particular “noisy” room whose residents are disturbing others on the floor. The might be problems encountered by “desk receptionists” attempting to monitor traffic in and out of the dorm. There might be a discussion of policies to deal with “transports” of students who have drunk too much and need to be taken to local hospitals. Unruly students might have threatened an RA who was attempting to enforce discipline and there would be a discussion of how to deal with this.

But staff meetings are not all serious. We also have “ice breakers” which are intended to build community and help us get to know each other better. A quick one is “up and down.” We go around the conference table and each staff member recounts something good and bad that happened to them in the previous week. “Shout outs” provide an opportunity to complement a colleague who did something great the previous week. One week we were asked to describe something unusual about ourselves that others would not be likely to know. My contribution was that three close acquaintances of mine in Sri Lanka had been political assassination victims, two by gunfire and one by a suicide bomber.

“Making mummies” was this week’s “icebreaker”. We divided up into teams of about four. Each team was given a large industrial role of toilet paper. The task was to wrap one of our members, like a mummy, so that nothing but the paper would show in about seven minutes. This was a fairly typical “team building” exercise in which members seek to work with one another, performing a complex task and then reflect on what they learned from the experience. My team won ! and we learned three useful lessons. First the oldest and putatively the “wisest:” member of the team may not have the best advice. My plan for completing the task, produced disastrous results. The second message was that a failing strategy should quickly be abandoned and replaced by something that is working. Happily, the two other team members (apart from the prospective mummy) quickly abandoned my plan and worked out a far more effective strategy between them. The third message was that encouragement is important. I quickly switched my role to that of cheerleader, reporting that they were catching up with and then surpassing the other teams, while I helped with minor patches on the project. The two team members who did most of the work said that my enthusiastic encouragement did make a difference. I don’t think they were just being kind.

A good time was had by all.

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