Author Interview


Flying Through Clouds:
Navigating Uncertainty and Change in the Student Affairs Profession

by Randy L. Mitchell


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Randy Mitchell is the author of three books with Atwood Publishing: Fables, Labels, and Folding Tables; Listen Very Loud; and Flying through Clouds. He was interviewed about this book and his work by Kristin Wieben of Atwood Publishing.

Question: What inspired you to write the new book? 
Response: The September 11 tragedy, followed by the loss of two family members in a short period of time, brought the concept of "turbulence" into focus for me. I'll let the introduction to the book speak for itself; suffice it to say that I was impressed by how a flight crew on an airliner dealt with turbulence, and it made we wonder if the same couldn't be accomplished in our profession.

Question: How does Flying through Clouds build on your earlier books? What sets it apart as unique? 
Response: The book uses some of the same tools as the first two—metaphors, essays, and guided reflection questions—to frame discussion and reflection on topics faced by contemporary student-affairs practitioners. Short, memorable stories and anecdotes are used throughout all three volumes to make the profession more human, more personal, and more accessible.

The primary difference with Flying through Clouds is the context in which we now find ourselves as a profession and a civilization. After September 11, 2001, much of what we assumed was "given" or commonly understood came into question. Of the three books, Flying through Clouds is the most integrated; each essay, in some fashion, draws on the three themes of the book: instruments (resources), instincts (capacity), and institutions (relationships). While it's my hope that each essay can stand alone, it was my intention to weave the themes throughout. We may be flying through clouds, but we've got more tools and talents than we may realize.

Question: Reading the book, it's impossible not to notice that you are genuinely excited about your work, even after over 20 years in the field. How can other student-affairs professionals find this same bottomless sense of energy and inspiration? 
Response: I can't imagine a profession that has more "perks" than student affairs. We get to work with incredible colleagues; each year we encounter a fresh, excited group of students, even as we bid farewell to those with whom we engaged for several months or years; we work in settings where something new is always coming to life; we get to go home at night knowing that we contributed something valuable to the present and the future. The people with whom I work and interact aren't in it for the money; they have a genuine passion for making the world a better place through education and enlightenment. No two days in student affairs are alike. Despite the challenges and setbacks, our work is filled with new beginnings—every day, every week, every term, every year. In one of the earlier books, I wrote about inspiration as in-spiriting or "breathing life into" people, places, and priorities. To me, the energy comes from the relationships we create and sustain in our work.

Question: You write a lot about your family, specifically your daughter. How has your family and your experiences shaped the way you look at student affairs? 
I don't think I truly understood the impact of student-affairs work until my own daughters became college students. In other words, there's always someone—some important human being—with whom we're interacting. Every student is someone's son or daughter, sister or brother, partner, mother or father—and so much more. As I wrote each of the three books, one of my daughters was preparing for making the transition to college. Reflecting on their maturation and transition gave me "pause" to think about what they would encounter and how student affairs is—or should be—there to offer challenge and support. I've tried in my work to truly explore what it means to support student success—not to take responsibility for the student but to have them learn to take responsibility for themselves.

Question: How can readers get the most out of the book? Would you recommend working through it as a group? What about the reflection questions? 
Response: This is a question that can only be answered by the reader. Those who prefer reflection and contemplation might prefer to read the book at their own pace, either from start to finish, or with particular subjects of interest. That's why I included a "table of context" at the end; readers can identify a relevant topic by reviewing the reflection questions prior to reading the essays. Other readers have used the books for group discussion, either in staff development or as supplementary materials for graduate or undergraduate coursework. I see this book, like the earlier volumes, as a hybrid between a reference/resource book with independent yet related subjects, and a guidebook that, taken as a whole, provides readers with a new level of awareness about their capacity as a professional. Whether used individually or in groups, as a resource book or a guidebook, the reflection questions are intended to take the subjects one step farther and make the readers participants, not spectators, in addressing issues and opportunities.

Question: In the book you write that student affairs are experiencing a period of "turbulence." Can you give a specific example of this "turbulence" and some advice for handling it? 
Response: I've written before that the wind is neither good nor bad, it's just the wind. A person learning to adapt to the wind, like an experienced sailor, takes the conditions and employs them to achieve desired outcomes. Turbulence is a condition that appears to be a permanent part of our complex world. As individuals or groups, we can't control or prevent all forms of turbulence, but we can learn to make better adaptations. In higher education, turbulence can be economic (changing levels and forms of support), political (public perceptions about the value of higher education), social (who can afford to attend and who is left behind), cultural (the "face" of the faculty, students, and staff, and how well the system accommodates these changing faces), technological (an appropriate balance between tech and touch), global (the growing educational divide between industrial and emerging nations), and any combination of these and other factors. How do you handle it? Start by reading this book and determining the nature of your own instruments, instincts, and institutions.

Question: You include many personal letters and notes as part of the book, which give it a very intimate feel. What inspired you to include these correspondences? 
Response: To paraphrase the old TV police-show introduction, these letters were real; only the names have been changed to protect the innocent. I could have written about the subjects in other formats, but I thought the letters did two things; they add variety and a change of pace to the text, and they represent one of the manners in which we in the student-affairs profession interact with constituents, particularly parents. The point to be made is that many of the issues we face in higher education are much larger than higher education; they are societal problems and reflect some of the baggage that students bring with them to college.

Question: In the book, you write that student-affairs professionals have three tools—instruments, instinct, and institution. Which do you think is your personal strength? 
Response: I think they're all important, and in many cases they overlap. If I had to choose one, it would be institution; everything we do requires effective relationships with others. The student affairs profession is counter to the "rugged individual" myth of American history; a rugged individual would be out of place in the building of community and the pursuit of the common good.

Question: What is the most important thing for readers to take away from this book? 
Response: We don't always have control over what happens in our lives, our work, and our world, but we do have some control over how we respond. These are challenging times—politically, financially, globally, socially, and culturally; the best way to deal with uncertainty and change is to assess and inventory our instruments (resources), instincts (capacity), and institutions (relationships) so that we can better respond to our circumstances. These three themes are carried throughout the book.

Question: Anything else you would like to add about the book or the writing process. 
Response: I wish we could de-mystify the writing process. Scholarly writing, as it is currently taught, is lifeless. We ask students at all levels to follow a prescribed set of writing rules that teach them to follow rules, not to express themselves. I expect my students to write well, but I ask first that they think well; I explain that if they don't care about what they're writing, I probably won't either. I suggest that writing is an on-going process, not a one-shot attempt at putting words on paper. There is a place for scholarly writing—graduate programs and professional journals—but there is a greater need for effective written communication in our work. Even e-mails can be conduits of prose, poetry, and personality (although they should never be used to solve problems or take the place of face-to-face communication). We should never allow writing or speaking to lose their eloquence. I've enjoyed writing these books, because they've allowed the many aspects of my personality to come together in print: the English major, the musician, the student affairs professional, the college student parent, the colleague, and much more. Writing, for me, is an instrument of expression, an instinctive way to think about my world, and a way in which I can contribute to the institution of higher education.

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