What's Dennis Reading?
By Craig Brandhorst, CRAIGB1@mailbox.sc.edu, 803-777-3681
Dennis Pruitt likes his staff and his graduate students to be on the same page, literally. He also likes them to read—a lot.
Thanks to a program coordinated by the Division of Student Affairs and Academic Support’s professional development committee, Pruitt’s staff and students don’t just know what professional literature has caught the vice president for student affairs' attention lately; they also have access to a selection of the articles, editorials and white papers Pruitt has been reading, as well as an opportunity to come together every month or so for an informal discussion over breakfast.
The fittingly titled "What’s Dennis Reading?" forum grew out of Pruitt’s graduate course on trends in higher education, and also out of the monthly division meetings during which he frequently references germane articles he’s read on a range of subjects. However, making his personal reading list public wasn’t entirely Pruitt’s idea — though he was certainly excited by the suggestion.
“I was doing these monthly updates and I’d say, ‘I was just reading this,’ or ‘I was just reading that’,” Pruitt says. “And people started to ask, ‘Where can we read that, too?’ It got to be kind of a hassle, because after I’d speak and make a reference to something, I’d have to go back and look it up. And then I’m sending all of these emails out. Finally the professional development committee for the division said, ‘Why don’t you just post this stuff online?’”
Last September, with assistance from people like the division's communications Director Maegan Gudridge and program coordinator for faculty development and assessment Kevin Clarke, Pruitt did just that. Starting with a large stack of articles and essays chosen by Pruitt, the professional development committee would select a few thought-provoking pieces and post them online each week. These selections could come from Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Fortune or any number of niche professional and trade publications. Articles might also come from major think tanks or from general interest magazines, such as People.
“I’m also trying to get our staff to triangulate information,” Pruitt says. “I’d hate it if our staff was just looking at a single source — if they were only watching FOX and not watching MSNBC, if they were only reading the New York Times and not reading the Wall Street Journal. I’m trying to get them to diversify and look at the different opinions, because part of our business, part of being successful in student affairs and in working with students, is our ability to see things from the perspective of others — and that can actually be very difficult to do.”
As more people in Pruitt’s division checked out the “What’s Dennis Reading?” webpage — and began to discuss amongst themselves what they had read — a breakfast was the logical next step. After that, guest readers like Clarke and University 101 Director Dan Friedman were added to the roster as a way to round out the ongoing discussion.
“We already have more formal division meetings once a month,” says Clarke, who also helps coordinate the breakfasts. “This is an opportunity for a more informal event, just a chance to get together and have coffee and bagel. We do a little introduction and then somebody — if not Dennis, somebody else — starts the conversation.”
While intentionally small and informal — the breakfasts typically draw 10 to 12 participants, roughly half of them graduate students — the program has been considered very successful and not only by Pruitt.
“The program allows professionals to remove themselves from the day-to-day concerns of their respective positions and candidly discuss major trends and challenges found within the field,” says Jaime Shook, coordinator of academic coaching and engagement at the Student Success Center. “The conversations we’ve shared have inspired me in my work and remind me why I love this field and my work with my students.”
Graduate assistant for student conduct and academic integrity Erika Lowe agrees. Lowe has attended most of the breakfasts thus far and appreciates the chance to engage in conversations that touch on multiple aspects of higher education, including those beyond her particular niche.
“I think that in today’s information-heavy environment, especially in the higher education world, it’s very important to stay on top of the current trends,” says Lowe. “The thing that’s unique about this is the level of discussion and debate. Anybody can read an article, but it’s nice to be with a group of professionals who have all read the same article and who can bring different viewpoints.”
All of which is music to Pruitt’s ear.
“Everybody’s looking for the next big thing in their own siloed area, but they also need to be looking at what they’re doing in relation to what everybody else is doing and how what everybody else is doing relates to what they’re doing,” Pruitt says. “People are starting to realize that everybody at the university, all of us — we’re all connected.”
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