Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Lessons from a Rollercoaster

It's been more than a year since my family and I have been to a rollercoaster park. Recently however, we made it to Cedar Point on the way home from visiting family in Michigan. Our youngest daughter was tall enough to ride all but two rides (of which I wasn't interested in anyway), so we looked forward to a great day together. As we planned our approach - which rides would come first - my wife and I realized that they have added a number of new rides since we were last there in 1991.  We warmed up on a new one that could be ranked as a medium, so-so coaster, but one new ride was called a "giga-coaster".  I thought it was nothing more than a catchy gimmick, until we saw it from the base of the first hill with my daughter and me in the second row of the first car. Named "Millenium Force", the coaster started with a swift 308 feet drop at 80 degrees on the first hill that sent us at a speed of 93 miles an hour through a three minute wormhole of twists and turns that left us all asking, "why did we choose that as our second ride of the day?" It was a necessary part of an overarching geographic plan to make the most efficient use of our time around the very large park knowing that we would be spending much of our day standing in long lines.

In the past, my wife and I would ride every ride with our girls. That led to both of us eating snow cones and cotton candy by noon trying to get some kind of color to return to our faces and suppress the raging headaches and uneasiness in our bodies. So our new strategy seemed to work with both of us riding some of the new rides and then alternating on rides that didn't appeal to one of us (for example, I'm not a strong spinner, so she takes the swirly rides with the girls). As the day went on, we stuck to our strategy, for the most part, and had a successful day thanks to good planning. The day also required patience as we stood in lines that at times lasted more than an hour. In 90+ degree heat and 90% humidity, I found myself thinking periodically, "is this really worth it?" For example, waiting 75 minutes on the top-thrill dragster - a ride that only lasted 19 seconds (we knew this from counting the seconds as we watched the ride a few hundred times while standing in line) - seemed a little excessive. At the end of the ride however, after going 125 mph in 3.8 seconds following a 90 degree ascent of 406 feet, over a small arch (as close to an out-of-body experience as I'll ever have, thinking I might have been better off taking one of the swirly rides at that point), and back down at 90 degrees, the exhilaration from the acceleration left us all feeling that the wait was more than worthwhile. Drawing upon various levels of courage to conquer our fears throughout the day was a tremendous experience that provided us with some memorable experiences we'll cherish for some time.

The extended times standing in line gave my mind a chance to wander and wonder about how this day might apply to an organization like MVCC.  The notion of strategy and having good planning seems more important and relevant than ever in these complex times. The New York State budget will continue to be of great concern to us and holds the great possibility for fundamental changes in the next few years if they actually reduce the budget to the level that's structurally required. The number of high school graduates in Oneida County will decline 25% in the next decade making for an increasingly competitive recruiting environment and the ability to reach underserved populations will remain difficult and require creativity. All of these factors will require continued change on our part to continue responding to the needs and shifts in our community.  A critical tool in working through change is patience - just like standing in long lines at an amusement park. Knowing that no change is perfect or free from possible adjustments, patience is often key to success.

And finally, the theme of courage and fear certainly came to mind before, during, and after a number of coasters at Cedar Point. Courage and fear aren't often discussed in conversations about assessment, but they're very important. Assessment involves having the courage to ask the important questions - whether they be of ourselves, colleagues, students, or community members. And good assessment involves overcoming the fear of the answers those questions produce - what if we're not as good as we think we are? A different question to ask is "how can we get better at what we do?" That question reframes the issue and the experience from one of fear to one of challenge and excitement - just like a rollercoaster.

If you have any comments on this post, please contact me at presblog@mvcc.edu.