So a guy on facebook was asking about being an RC. I wrote him back saying he could ask me any questions. He sent me a few questions, and then I rambled on some answers.
I'm tossing between an RD job at a university and a RC job at IMSA.
What is the institution like as a workplace? Are they truly receptive to change or my voice?
What sort of a leadership role did you have? Was it necessary to be an enforcer, checking beds, etc.?
It strikes me that there might be a vibe of arrogance amongst the faculty and students, is this the case?
What is the best/worst part of you job?

A few answers:

As a disclaimer, I have been gone from IMSA for four years, and there has been a bit of a change at IMSA during that time (new president, slight change in the Res. Life staff), so my experiences should be taken with that in mind. That said, I do not foresee IMSA having changed some of the things I will comment on.

In addition, my experience prior to IMSA was not in Res. Life, it was with gifted/talented student. This put me in the minority in the Res. Life staff, as most came from higher ed. Res. Life.

1) The institution, in my opinion, has one big problem: It has been too successful for its own good. It has completed its mission of improving math/science education in Illinois. As a result, it is suddenly not the only place for a student to go to get a good education in Illinois. As a result, IMSA is facing applicant shortages and therefore has to face difficult questions like "Do we take less qualified applicants in order to keep our enrollment up?", "If we take fewer students, how do we justify our budget to the state?" and so on.

This directly effects any employee who works "front-line" with students. A student who probably deserves to be kicked out (and sent home to his/her home school) might not be - IMSA cannot afford to lose too many students. Power dynamics, which I will go into a little more detail later, shifts dramatically, as suddenly parents and students have a lot more power and say in the school.

As an RC you have very little say in the overall issues facing the school. The Res. Life staff has quite a bit of latitude when it comes to "small picture" changes, but some of the larger "This is an issue that is effecting all IMSA students, and needs to be changed at high levels" will be largely ignored. To some degree the Res. Life department is treated as a compartmentalized box within the institution, and not really integrated into the institution. Again, this was under the older President, and things may have changed with the new one.

2) As I said, my background was working with gifted/creative teens in a variety of settings, including residential settings. As a result I was used to what my day-to-day job requirements were. I did see some people with higher ed. Res. Life backgrounds come in and have a pretty serious shock.

As an RC, you are in charge of a wing of 20-24 students. These students will generally be broken up into equal parts sophomores, juniors, and seniors. Most of the students in your wing will be fairly self-sufficient. They will be able to get themselves up and showered every morning, and will get to class. They will generally do their homework, and get reasonable grades. You will still be a lot more involved with their lives, however, than you were in a higher ed. position. If you are working, you will be checking each night to make sure they are in the building. You will be talking to them about bad exams, and you will be used as a resource a lot more often when they are having issues with their girlfriends and so on.

The sophomores (first year IMSA students) will require some "training" to get themselves to be self-sufficient enough to be able to do that routine without someone over their shoulder. Your involvement in their lives will be more significant as a result, at least for the first few months of the school year.

In all it is a much more hands-on position than in a college residence hall. That said, you are really not tucking them in at night, and you are generally only there to correct things they are getting behind on. They do not report good grades to you, but each week you will get a list of all your students who have done poorly that week (be it not turning in homework, failing an exam, or falling asleep repeatedly in class). It is then your job to follow up with the student, talk to him, and either come up with a plan of change between you two, or direct him to the numerous resources IMSA offers students (be it academic or otherwise).

3) There is definitely a vibe of arrogance. Students all think they are going to go off to MIT and be a leading scientist. Each year a couple will do that. The other 150+ will go off to the University of Illinois and lead fairly routine lives. A good number will fail out of the U of I, having been burned out on academics at IMSA. Students will think they are smarter than you are. At times they might be academically more intelligent, but the students will assume this means they are also more common-sense intelligent, and more real-world intelligent. Obviously this is not the case.

Faculty think of themselves as more college professors than high school teachers. There are some exceptions, but by and large they leave academic assistance up to "someone else". In general they are supportive, but aloof.

When it comes down to it, there are several blocs all vying for power at IMSA. There is the "main building faculty and staff" (employees not in Res. Life), there are students, there are parents, and there is Res. Life. Each is trying to exert power over the others. Res. Life is definitely at the bottom of the totem pole in this struggle. Anytime any two of these groups gang up on another group, they win. For example, anytime parents and students agree on something, in general the administration will cave, at least a little bit. It seems strange to say it, but there is definitely a bit of faculty vs. Res. Life struggle, as well, and more often than not Res. Life walks away the loser in that one.

4) I realize thus far I have painted a fairly negative picture of IMSA. I actually generally enjoyed my time working there. My favorite parts were the students, and my coworkers. I worked with some amazing Res. Life staff members, and I worked with some amazing students. I am still in touch with a number of students. Some of them are going off to graduate schools now. It is amazing to look back and realize "wow, for three years I basically raised these kids."

They come to you when their girlfriend dumped them, and they come to you when they are giving a presentation and want you to be there. To large degree you are their older brother / parent for three important years.

I suppose, looking back now, that it was too easy to get caught up in the "larger picture" issues at IMSA. When I simply concentrated on the students, things were going pretty well. Of course part of the position is being an advocate for your students, and that requires sticking your head up and trying to get things done.

Anyway, that is my little ramble. Let me know if you have any other questions.
Grades for my students are due tomorrow at noon, and I just got done with mine (putting myself firmly in the faster half of all RCs, I believe).

Each quarter (that is four times a school year for those of you without a degree in math. Actually, come to think of it, that comment is probably better reserved for people that *do* have a degree in mathematics) I have to write several paragraphs about each of my twenty-four outstanding students.

This quarter's grades went even better than they usually do. It is sometimes a little difficult to write grades for students who are more on the quiet side, though. The quieter the student, the less I interact with them. The less I interact with them, the harder it is to write several paragraphs about their development.

But I am done with them. I did about two thirds of the work yesterday at an informational meeting in Evanston, IL put on by the NYU Department of Admissions. Being able to sit in the audience and accurately describe a student's aversion to doing housekeeping was well worth the price paid for the PowerBook.

I have already upgraded the PowerBook to Panther using the copy Apple kindly shipped to me via FedEx in exchange for $70 (.edu discount). It is a little different, but in general I am finding it well worth it. Expose is a wonderful feature, and almost worth the upgrade price alone. I am waiting to install Panther on the PowerMac until I (and developers) upgrade all of their software to make sure it will work with Panther.

Some problems I have noticed: iRC sends URLs with a space added at the end to Safari. Adium loses the screenname notification on the dock icon (The 2.0alpha release fixes this, but is late-alpha/early-beta quality software with an alpha feature set. It is stable for what it does, but not everything is there just yet). PithHelmet (ad blocking in Safari) is broken as well.

I was glad to see that Fink has finally gotten out a Panther-capable version. Tomorrow I shall install xCode on the PowerBook and get Fink installed on that finally.

Yesterday was an eventful day, with me spending about 6.5 hours in cars, all within the Chicago-land area. Traffic was crazy yesterday, and I went into the city twice, and into another 'burb once. Going into the city again tonight, as well.



September 2011

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