A Chance to Improvise

A Chance to Improvise

The Registrar’s Office is not typically considered a significant source of creativity on a university campus. As an office that interprets and even (ahem) enforces federal regulations, accreditation requirements and university policies, this is typically a good thing. Just as you wouldn’t want to get a call from your accountant telling you excitedly that she was able to get “really creative” with your taxes this year, you don’t want your Registrar’s Office announcing that they have come up with a novel and unique interpretation of FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act), one which no other university in the country, or even the federal government, has thought of.

 Yet, even in a Registrar’s Office, where we have some very clear lines laid out for us in terms of what we can and cannot do, there is room for creativity and innovation. Collaborating with others, determining effective ways to communicate, establishing efficient yet student-oriented ways to complete required processes are all areas where our office tries to foster innovation. This is not a solo project, and in fact, many of our best ideas come from the campus community with their questions and suggestions: “Have you considered …?” “Could we do …?” “What are the implications of …?”

This past year in particular has provided a number of opportunities for innovation, and for another related “I” word: improvisation. The shift to an entirely remote modality in 2020 required creativity. The shift back to on-campus instruction has required its own set of improvisational skills as we try to figure out how to provide the best learning environment for our students. Just as a skilled musician or actor builds on and creatively extends what has come before when improvising, many of us are taking stock of our circumstances, of what’s happened over the past year and trying to figure out what to do next. Some of us are finding what worked in the “before times” needs to be adjusted as we return to in-person teaching and community.

I am not an actor, nor am I a skilled musician (our music and theatre professors can write in with their critiques of what follows in the comments), but there are some foundational skills that seem to apply across multiple fields when trying to improvise effectively. The first is simply to pay attention. Far from being an internally focused expression of individuality, effective improvisation depends on taking account of what has come before and creatively extending it. A musician who is not paying attention to what the rest of the ensemble is doing will create dissonant noise rather than beautiful music when she launches her solo.

A second key skill is to stay flexible. An actor who has a fixed idea of a particular plot point he wants to enact and who ignores the contributions of other actors, or the developing plot of an improvisational sketch, will produce a chaotic non-sequitur on the stage. Allegiance to one’s own personal vision at the expense of coherence is not likely to be engaging for the audience (or the other actors). This means that at times, “saying yes” to what is offered by others means letting go of preconceived plans and being pushed out of our comfort zones.

The Registrar’s Office will not be offering any improvisational comedy at our front desk window in McDonald Hall (although anyone who observed my recent ink-stained attempt to set the correct date on a “Date Received” stamp may beg to differ). However, we are, along with everyone else on campus, doing our best to pay attention and stay flexible amid the challenges of our current moment. In an office like ours, this means completing our tasks with fewer (and newer) staff than we had a year ago. It means exploring ways we can leverage existing technology to complete some tasks more efficiently. We are also trying to communicate more effectively with instructors and students who are facing their own new circumstances, with their own improvisational demands. Achieving perfection is not, unfortunately, an option: there will be some discordant notes, some flubbed lines. But, if we are willing to pay attention and to try stay flexible, we will build our improvisational skills for whatever new opportunities and challenges the coming weeks and months will provide.


Thomas Cairns

Associate Registrar