T.J. Sullivan

Names matter

kittensI am a member of a fraternity that very consciously chose decades ago to stop using the word “pledge” and instead call its newest brothers “associate members.”  It better represented the investment the young men were making in our organization and gave them a less diminutive status.  I’m sure part of the motivation was to also distance the fraternity from the hazing seems inseparable from the “pledging” experience.

When I hear a Pi Kapp call a new member a pledge, I always ask him what fraternity he’s in?  Clearly he can’t be in mine.  Then, I get the eye roll, because most students don’t think it matters what you call a new member.

I strongly disagree. I think names are very powerful. There have been numerous studies about how a child’s name impacts his or her cultural identity, job prospects and, possibly, his or her behavior.

I love the Freakonomics story about a young girl named “Temptress” by her parents.  They loved the actress Tempestt Bledsoe from The Cosby Show, and thought they were naming her after the actress.  At the time, they didn’t know that temptress was a word, much less what it meant.  Later, the teenage girl found herself in court for entertaining male callers in her parents’ home.

Was she acting out her name, or were a wide variety of factors to blame?

What you call someone matters.  If you heard me in the grocery store calling my 11-year-old son an “asshole,” you’d assume I was an abusive parent.  What if I rolled my eyes at you and told you that it didn’t matter what I called him?

Now imagine the message your faculty advisor gets when you call your new members “babies.”  I doubt it sends the message that you’re a respectable, significant organization.

Eye roll…

The names we use signify so much. Look at the evolution of culturally-preferred names for African Americans in the last 40 years.  Look at the newly minted Ph.D. who likes to be called “Doctor.” We use names to signify significance, and we use them to implement power dynamics – sometimes with benign intent and a smile on our face.  We call the new employee “the new guy” so that others don’t expect much from him.  We call the player a “rookie” to make sure he knows his place in the team’s pecking order.

Everyone knows why your fraternity brother’s nickname is “Beer Can.”  Message received.

Cuteness doesn’t mitigate the message.  Calling your new sorority sister a “baby” might appear endearing, but it sends a message: “You are a helpless little thing, and I’m going to take care of you.”  If you want your new members to impact your campus, get good grades, and become leaders, then call them champions, or amazons, or ass-kickers, or achievers.  Call your new fraternity members titans, gladiators, scholars or investors.

Let’s try that for a semester.  ”I’d like to introduce you to one of our ass-kickers, Natalie.”  Are the Amazons attending chapter this evening?  Who is doing the training session for the investors tomorrow night?  If that sounds dumb to you, then you’re beginning to understand how dumb it sounds when you call them “kittens.”

Names matter.  They express values. Parents spend months debating names that will be most appreciated by their social circle and that best reflect their identity.  That’s why a Subaru-driving white urban liberal names his daughter Annabeth or Una, while a pick-up driving farmer calls his son Shane or Jack.  That’s why less educated non-white mothers valuing status are more likely to create a name no one can spell, while conservative suburban parents who value norm compliance are surrounded by children named Madison and Conner.

Give some thought to the names you use for new members.  Whether demeaning or cutesy, what message do using these names send? What message about your expectations do they send to your new members, themselves?  What messages do they send to campus faculty, Student Affairs professionals an others standing just outside your group?

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 10.09.23 AM

Oatmeal raisin cookies

squirrelI go to a lot of college leadership conferences, and when they serve lunch, I know what’s coming.  Campus dining serves the same thing everywhere – basic American picnic food.  Burgers, hot dogs, starchy salads.  Sometimes a variety of sandwiches: ham, turkey, and vegetarian. Lemonade, sodas.

But, I want to talk about the cookies.  Specifically, I want to talk about the oatmeal raisin cookies.

I am not a fan, and apparently, most of society agrees.  Inevitably, they bring out these enormous trays of cookies with an equal number of three varieties: chocolate chip, peanut butter, and oatmeal raisin.  Everyone gobbles up the chocolate chip cookies instantly.  Usually about two-thirds of the peanut butter ones disappear.  And virtually no one eats the disgusting oatmeal raisin cookies.

Find me the one college in the nation where the oatmeal raisin cookies disappear before the chocolate chip. It doesn’t exist.  No one has ever said, “Oh, forget about chocolate chip. Let’s just have a huge tray of those delicious oatmeal raisin cookies!”

Can you imagine the sheer number of oatmeal raisin cookies that end up in college dumpsters each year across the nation? Millions. I’m convinced that this is why squirrels on campus are so huge. They gorge on oatmeal raisin cookies.

The Girl Scouts don’t even sell them.  They did once.  They were called “Snaps” and they sold so badly, they discontinued them.

Somewhere, in the bureaucracy of campus dining services, there is a very powerful person who insists that all campus event cookie trays have that one-third oatmeal raisin cookies. There have been innovators – mavericks – who suggested that perhaps we make these cookie trays with more intelligent ratios that match the tastes of consumers.  “Perhaps three-fourths of the tray could be chocolate chip with just a few oatmeal raisins?”  Those individuals were dealt with harshly.

Who is the powerful oatmeal raisin cookie lobby?

I’m all for giving people a variety.  Surely this blog will get dozens of comments from those outliers (weirdos!) who love oatmeal raisin.  I’m sure there are a few strange children who get excited about candy corn in their Halloween bags, also.  But, in the interest of spending our money wisely and not creating waste, can we chill with the one-third oatmeal raisin cookies?  When you plan that leadership conference lunch, can you take a moment and ask for cookie tray that makes more sense?

This is the part of the blog where I’m supposed to make some great leadership metaphor about oatmeal raisin cookies.  A thinly-veiled diversity message about honoring all tastes.  Or perhaps a lesson about questioning long-held practices that create waste and fail to respond to the actual needs and wants of your constituents?

Nah. I just hate oatmeal raisin cookies.




The start of the year hangover

482346663The beginning of the new school year is an intoxicating time.  The campus is full of new, beautiful people. Everyone seems happy to be back.  Friendships and ties are renewed. Everything seems fresh, and potential is everywhere.

It’s dream time for top-third student leaders.  The first meetings are full, and there’s a ton to do.  Everyone is engaged socially, and very little drama has erupted.  Organization officers are doing their jobs, members are showing up, and everything feels wonderful.  We fill pages of flipchart paper on retreats. The residence halls look perfect. We are busy recruiting new members, and the weather is wonderful.

If you’re lucky enough to have a football program, well that’s just icing on the cake.

If you’re a junior or senior, you know how this goes.  The first month back at school is amazing.  Maybe the good energy will continue into early October with anticipation for Homecoming.  But about four or five weeks in, things start becoming routine.  The initial excitement wears off.  That first round of big papers and tests bring many students crashing back to reality.  New students start getting homesick. The weather gets chilly.

I apologize, sophomore leaders.  You probably haven’t seen this happen yet.  The euphoria of the first four or five weeks is a honeymoon.  About a month in, the marriage begins.

People start choosing a more intentional level of engagement.  That new member who was all smiles and enthusiasm in the first weeks disengages when he finds a group on campus that he finds more fun.  The middle third members start freaking out about money and grades, and come around less often.  Officers figure out that their responsibilities don’t leave much time for studying. People who started new relationships a few weeks ago start prioritizing those relationships over involvement in your group.

It just happens.  People who said YES to everything in those first few weeks begin to realize that reality is a bit more demanding, and choices need to be made.  Where you had 20 excited new members, it suddenly feels like there are only seven who still give a damn.

If you’re a smart student leader, you’re making the most of these early weeks.  Everything you do during this time is critical – especially the recruitment of new members.  Make the most of all the excitement.  It’s wonderful. But keep in mind that there are things you can do during that honeymoon period to better prepare your organization for when the excitement wears off.

Your bottom third members don’t seem very “bottom third” in the first few weeks back. Don’t be fooled.  It won’t take long before they are skipping out, causing drama, and pushing boundaries. Before this happens, work overtime to connect with them on a personal level as an ally, not as an adversary.  Make sure there are some things they are looking forward to in the later weeks of the semester.  Ask if there are things they are interested in doing this semester. Don’t overwhelm them with demands and rules.

Spend time with your bottom third when everyone is feeling great.  Even if they disengage or start being less than cooperative later, that time you took at the start of the semester to connect with them will pay dividends.  Set an expectation that they share concerns with you directly, and make sure you’re making meaningful contact with them at least once a week.  Sometimes feeling connected to a leader will make disconnecting from the organization a little less attractive.

For those middle third members… watch that they don’t overcommit themselves.  Remember that when the stresses of balancing all the demands of college life set in, they’ll be stressed out.  Keep expectations reasonable. Don’t let your over-eager top third leaders fill every single night of the week with multiple events.  Make sure your academic program (if you have one) is in solid shape and operating effectively right from the beginning.

Middle third members care the most about relationships, so be sure there’s a social element built into all your meetings and activities.  When they start deciding which things to drop in October, make sure they don’t want to drop your organization.  It needs to be one of the best things they do all week.  If they feel like they matter and belong, and if they feel like their best friends are in your organization, they’ll commit to it with more intensity.

Encourage those middle third members to bring their new friends around.  If she has a new boyfriend, make sure there are things the boyfriend can come along to. Look for those smaller, specific ways that middle third members can help out.  Middle third members want to contribute to the success of the group, but they respond better to specific tasks.

As for your top third, have conversations about how the enthusiasm in your organization will settle down.  Make sure you have a full year of cool, interesting, engaging plans.  Make sure your meetings will be interesting and meaningful.  Check-in with those top third officers and committee chairs constantly, making sure they feel valued and capable of achieving their responsibilities.

The first weeks of a new year are intoxicating.  Just don’t get leveled by the inevitable hangover that catches many student leaders by surprise.  Think long-term, focus on the personal connections, and keep a sense of humor.

« Older Entries