Written By Jaclyn Kulls of Florida Atlantic University
Improvisation (referred to as simply, “improv”) is a learned art form, much like the realm of student affairs within higher education. Improv is a process through which individuals cultivate creativity and actively practice collaborative strategies to produce effective outcomes and solve complex problems (Rossing & Hoffmann-Longtin, 2016). Professionals within higher education must also actively practice creative problem-solving and collaborative strategies when it comes to the myriad of issues, projects, deadlines and crises within higher education. Comedian and actress Tina Fey (2011) wrote about her rules of improvisation in her book, Bossypants, which can easily be applied to fields outside of stage comedy. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate how Tina Fey’s rules of improv can assist new graduate students to be successful in their graduate assistantships.
The Power of Agreeing
“The first rule of improvisation is AGREE… Start with a YES, and see where that takes you” (Fey, 2011, p. 76). By saying “YES” to opportunities, graduate assistants demonstrate their commitment to the overall mission of the office. Not all opportunities will be presented in a neatly wrapped package with a fancy bow and an envelope full of instructions. In many cases, graduate students must use creative-thinking and problem-solving strategies to create new processes and demonstrate efficiency. Saying “YES” to ideas and projects aligns new professionals with the office leader’s vision, placing them in a unique and rewarding position for professional development. Although it is easy to say “No” as young professionals who are trying to balance life, work, school, and professional activities, this reply may make others think that you are unwilling to work hard or participate in department initiatives. Although it can be challenging for new professionals, embracing the unknown and saying “YES” to new things can transform ordinary graduate assistants into the go-to collaborators. These go-to individuals are the ones who are often promoted first or develop networking connections that can lead to future opportunities in the profession.
The Art of Contribution
“The second rule of improvisation is not only to say yes, but YES, AND… It’s your responsibility to contribute… your initiations are worthwhile” (Fey, 2011, pp. 76-77). As graduate assistants, it can be difficult to overcome insecurities or stigmas in which we feel like we are “less than” seasoned professionals. We may remain silent in boardrooms and meetings, thinking that our ideas are unworthy. Other times, we may speak up only to be shut down or criticized for challenging authority. It is important to remember that while your thoughts, ambitions and ideas are indeed important and worthwhile, there is a proper way to communicate these ideas and contribute to the overarching goals of the office.
Balancing the ability to contribute can be difficult, but there is a middle ground between speaking out of place and remaining silent: learn how your department communication channels work, and then, use this information to your advantage. Bringing up a new idea or disagreeing with an existing one in a meeting full of executives may not be the most advantageous way to contribute. The best way to say “YES, AND” is to present to your supervisor an innovative idea AND outline a plan for achieving it. Then, your supervisor can pass the message through the appropriate for consideration and possible implementation by the office director. By making it a habit to say “YES, AND”, you will be seen as a willing and engaged office participant a person who both understands and can navigate office politics.
The Role of Confidence
Making statements, the third rule, “is a positive way of saying, ‘Don’t ask questions all the time.’… Whatever the problem, be part of the solution” (Fey, 2011, p. 77). While it may feel like a natural reaction to question processes and the “why’s” behind programming, it does nothing to contribute your talents to your department or institution. No one wants to be around the person who constantly points out mistakes or questions authority, yet contributes nothing new to the field. To be a “YES, AND” person, you must find confidence within yourself and your abilities. Start with small contributions and then work your way up to larger ones.
Tina Fey (2011) writes, “MAKE STATEMENTS also applies to us women: Speak in statements instead of apologetic questions” (p. 77). Some women tend to increase the pitch of their voice at the end of a statement, transforming it into a question: “I’m here to give a presentation on resume writing…? I work closely with employers so I know what they look for…?” This will cause your audience to question your experience and credibility. This transformation in tone is called “upspeak” and it can damage your reputation and perception as a future leader (Baldoni, 2015). Leaders are expected to be confident and make statements. Confidence not only comes from one’s presence, but also one’s tone of voice (Baldoni, 2015). The next time you approach your supervisor with a solution to a problem, try saying, “I have an idea,” instead of “I think I have an idea?”
Lessons From The Field
The final rule of improv is, “THERE ARE NO MISTAKES, only opportunities” (Fey, 2011, p. 77). Professional development generally occurs in two ways: by learning something new and applying it, or doing something wrong and learning from it. Within higher education, professionals view themselves as lifelong learners, and therefore, are prone to making mistakes. Your graduate assistantship provides a safe space for you to make these mistakes and an opportunity to grow both personally and professionally. Your supervisors are there to guide you and can assist in your transformation. Take advantage of this and seek mentors who are not afraid to challenge you and push you to try new things. The important takeaway here is not to steer away from making mistakes, but to meet them head on and remain open-minded enough to change your actions in the future.
Improvisation may have comedic roots, but when applied proficiently, it can become a powerful tool for working in higher education. Graduate assistants and new professionals within student affairs should remember to be strategic with their initiatives. Say “YES!” to things even when you cannot see how it will benefit you. Say “YES, AND” to demonstrate your professional commitment and collaborative mindset. Make statements with your actions and words to show confidence and to be seen as a rising leader in the field of student affairs. Do not be afraid of change or trying new things because they will help you grow and learn from mistakes in the future. These rules of improv can help graduate assistants and new professionals succeed in their careers through the basic tenets of collaborative strategies, creative problem-solving, and open-mindedness.
Baldoni, J. (2015, July). “Will ‘upspeak’ hurt your career?” Forbes. Retrieved from http://www.forbes.com/sites/johnbaldoni/2015/07/30/will-upspeak-hurt-your-career/#67f391f47a47
Fey, T. (2011). Bossypants. New York, NY: Little Stranger, Inc.
Rossing, J. P. and Hoffmann-Longtin, K. (2016). Improv(ing) the academy: Applied improvisation as a strategy for educational development. To Improve the Academy, 35(2), 303–325. doi:10.1002/tia2.20044