Using the Past to Situate the Present: Your Department’s History
By Alan Acosta
Have you ever had a new staff member ask, “Why do we do this in this way?” and think, “Well, there was this one situation …” Whether onboarding new staff or helping a new supervisor learn about your operation, student conduct professionals can use their departmental history to give context and meaning to their current work. This blog will focus on the necessity for writing the known history of the department for posterity and how to use this history in teaching others about the work the student conduct does.
One day in the office, a staff member working on an assessment project and I were discussing some of the information contained in our database in reference to non-conduct alcohol-related meetings that I had been facilitating for the last several years. He asked me, “how did these meetings get started?” I shared with him the story of the decision-making process behind identifying the need for these meetings, what the goals of the meetings were, and how I ended up in charge of scheduling and facilitating these meetings with students over the previous five years. After I shared with him the backstory, he shared with me that none of the information I had provided had been given to him. It quickly became apparent to me the reason no one shared that context with him is because other than me, most of the individuals who were around when that process was introduced were no longer at the institution, and none of them had the knowledge that I held. I further realized if I was not there to relay the information, the history about a fairly significant process for our office and institution would have been lost. Without that history being passed on, it is likely those meetings would have succumbed to becoming the classic “that's the way we've always done it” punchline or been stopped altogether.
After that conversation, I realized the importance and wisdom of student conduct professionals ensuring the history of their office or department is somehow. Too often, the nature of the student conduct profession is to go from one significant issue (usually a crisis) to the next, with little room left for taking the time to pause, reflect, and direct energy and focus into other important student conduct projects. While the nature of student conduct as a response to student issues and crises will likely be unaltered in the future, professionals should work with their supervisors to find and set aside time to devote to important other projects.
While on the surface recording the history of an office or department may not sound like a worthwhile endeavor, doing so can provide numerous benefits to the professionals in student conduct and to the institution as a whole. First, a “living history” of student conduct can be a very effective onboarding tool for new staff. Anyone new to the office or department can gain a better understanding of how the processes and protocols the office uses got developed and implemented. It also can help new staff understand why student conduct procedures specific to that institution are structured in the manner they are. This can help clarify questions, resolve ambiguity, and provide a deeper sense of purpose to the office or department's mission. For seasoned staff, they have a narrative of both the history prior to their arrival and during their time in the office or department from which they are able to reflect and learn. All staff can use the living history as a means to celebrate office or departmental achievements and learn from challenges. Finally, the institution also benefits, as it has a story that can be used to share the significant successes of the office or department in any given timeframe. The living history also could provide ideas for the institution to innovate or improve student conduct practices.
When creating a living history, there are numerous places that offices or departments can gather information. First, interviews or written statements from previous staff, whether still at the institution or not, can provide a sense of the backstory for the department, highlighting significant moments or events that shaped the office or department as it functions currently. Previous annual reports might also have relevant information to include in a living history. Once some of the history is written, current staff can have a shared document they work on progressively throughout the year to add to the history already gathered. Having current staff have opportunities to add information in close proximity to when events happen allows the history to have accurate, updated stories.
Periodically, staff may choose to share all or portions of the history with important student conduct stakeholders or institutional archivists/historians who may wish to add pieces of the narrative to their records. Sharing this information affords the student conduct office or department to an opportunity to promote its hard work and build or strengthen campus partnerships.
Student conduct offices or departments are constantly looking for opportunities to grow. By recording its history, student conduct professionals might be able to map their path toward the future.