One of the central tenets of working in higher education and our work is the concept of lifelong learning. As educators we believe that learning only really stops when you do. From the moment we are born we find ourselves absorbing and consuming the world around us and making sense of it. We also continuously seek knowledge. No matter the topic one of the higher education defaults is to go out and see who it writing, thinking, and publishing on the idea or problem to be addressed. It is actually one of the most fun parts of my job. Taking the time to apply the kind of research and critical thinking skills I was taught in college as a student are a hallmark of my work and passion for students.
I would harbor a guess that I read about six to seven books on higher education every year and then supplement with a few non-higher ed books. I believe that it is important to keep yourself up to date and I really enjoy learning about how our profession is being processed. More recently I have really enjoyed Paul Tough’s The Years that Matter Most and Isabelle Wilkerson’s Caste: The Origins of our Discontents. Both are really narratives of how differences, starting points, and pathways create our social contract with our students and with other humans. While it is east to try to build a one size fits all approach to society we all know that is not the way the world works. Life is both unfair and purposely designed to benefit the few. But these books remind me that it does not need to be that way. Our lives are more complicated than that and if we build a system where our students or our citizens can better navigate the slings and arrows of life then more of them will find their goals are not that far off.
And this brings me to the book I often and constantly come back to and reference when I am teaching and when I begin a project. It was the last book published by Peter Magolda, a titan in the higher education field and it is called “The Lives of Campus Custodians.” This book follows a number of support staff and the lives they lead on a higher education campus. The book is full of amazing characters and an alternative perspective about college life that many of us who work desk jobs and are in mainly from 8-5 fail to notice. And that is there is a lot that goes into running a university and it does not conform to a workday schedule. But, more importantly, for students their lives often bring them in line with these folks than the ones like you and I who work behind a desk.
The book was really instrumental in helping me examine the campus professionals in my career I worked with and never really acknowledged their impact on the students I worked with. The first was the janitor at SFA who worked nights. His life was filled with not just cleaning up after all of us as darkness falls but he was just about the only person many of the nightowls who studied on campus had access to. Many of these students, who needed space to study and complete papers did not have an adequate space at home for this work and this created a cohort of students who worked in the shadows. He also mentioned he was there to notice which students might be stressed, suffering from food or housing insecurities, and other issues. These students learned that he was a kind and reassuring face for them to trust and confide in. I often saw him as I was wrapping up my work in campus activities. He was always quick with a laugh or a smile. We often would chat while events were happening and I called him uncle Ken because his name was Kenneth.
Then there was the cafeteria worker who knew every student’s test schedule and would ask each student to report back to how they were doing and how they were performing in class. She would offer words of support and encouragement and even slide an extra chicken nugget to a student who did well. She was an example of how coaching works for many students. When we take interest in our students they don’t want to disappoint but this woman reported back that for many students she was the only person who ever asked about their grades or offered support.
Finally, there was my administrative assistant at UCF who became a sort of underground editor for many students. Come to find out our administrative staff have skill in this area and to utilize them to help students can be a great way to maximize contact and support student success. He offered up both editing and APA review and keeps up to date with what students are writing about. Often students may not have the time or understanding to hit up the writing center, so he stands in to help. We also find out that administrative assistants are important sources of campus communications of policies, processes, and sometimes serve as a mom or dad when needed.
What I loved about this book is how it humanizes our support staff but also shines a light on how students often make alliances for their success that we never suspect. While it is easy to assume many of these hourly workers are there to do their job and collect a paycheck, we learn how much they care about student success and offer a resource for students. We should be encouraging this and offering bonuses for staff who do this well. Imagine if we provided small stipends for admin staff who helped the writing center? This could create the kind of safety net that many of us have envisioned for some time. I return to this book often because I really respect our support staff and believe they are not seen like they should be. I hope you find that book and it serves a similar purpose.