Let’s put the premise up front: When it comes to awards, NODA needs to do better.
Awards are an inherent part of society today. From the Oscars and Tonys, to your institution’s annual end-of-year banquets, to the wrap-up events in your small departmental leadership programs, awards are everywhere- and for what I could argue is a good reason. Awards recognize and reward people and who are excelling, who are pushing boundaries, asking critical questions, taking risks, and doing things that others couldn’t or wouldn’t. They recognize and reward work that is exceptional, innovative, groundbreaking and important. They provide us with something to strive for. They demonstrate what the field in question values and prioritizes.
Except when they don’t.
NODA, the professional association for orientation, transition and retention in higher education gives out awards every year at their national conference. And every year, when I review the awards that are available, I can’t help but wonder: Are these really the things we value and prioritize?
Let’s look at the available awards
NODA has many awards that I can support. They recognize the practitioners who are doing outstanding work and making valuable contributions to their institution and the field through the Outstanding NODA Intern, Graduate Student, New Professional and Professional awards. They recognize folks who are supporting new members of our field through the Mentor Award. They recognize innovative programs and new research through their Innovative Program and Research awards.
But then they also have their media showcase awards, and this is where I begin to have a lot of questions.
Brochure, handbook, and publication awards
NODA has three different awards for outstanding brochure, handbook, and publication. In a world that is increasingly going digital, that’s a LOT of emphasis on print materials. Are we giving out awards for something we probably shouldn’t be doing in the first place? Maybe.
My institution, and many others that I know, stopped printing student handbooks several years ago. Students weren’t reading them, they were expensive, they were environmentally unfriendly, and we were able to create a web version instead. For a publication to even be considered for the handbook category, it needs to be 50 pages or longer. Seriously. Which student is reading a 50-page handbook?
My institution has also, for the most part, stopped creating brochures and other print promotional material. We don’t mail material to students homes. As far as I’m aware, many Canadian institutions have stopped this practice. Again, cost and environmental friendliness play into this. But we have turned our focus to digital methods of outreach, creating engaging social media campaigns, crafting targeted emails, trying to reach students where they are- online.
Another thing that bothers me about these categories is that they don’t seem particularly focused on impact. The award submission largely just consists of the handbook. Institutions aren’t required to prove that the publications are having an impact, meeting outcomes, or being used at all. So what are we really rewarding?
Outstanding use of theme award
We work in a field where we are sometimes simply seen as event planners, and not the educators that we see ourselves as. We struggle to gain the respect, and sometimes the buy-in, of faculty members. And then we give out awards for themes. If you can come up with a clever theme and create cohesive branding and marketing collateral around it, you can win an award.
Is that really what we value?
I’m not going to say that a well-done theme can’t add to a program, because I’m sure it can. But when you look at all the factors that create a successful orientation program- strong learning outcomes, a well-crafted scheduled, engaging activities, strong facilitators and presenters, clear and timely information- a theme would be at the bottom of my list.
And yet, it seems to be at the top of the awards list.
Have we forgotten that digital technology exists?
Overall, the media showcase awards seem to focus a lot on classical, paper-based media. This category has not evolved with the times. While there is a category for outstanding non-print media or emerging technologies, it’s just one category. OTR professionals should be making heavy use of digital media in their work. Not only are our students living online, but in a pre-arrival period where they haven’t even arrived on campus yet, digital methods are often the only way to reach them. From online orientation programs, to social media campaigns, e-newsletters, video series and apps, digital can have a huge impact on the OTR experience of a student. Maybe it’s time to begin valuing and rewarding that?
It’s not just the awards. It’s also the process.
Deciding what awards to give out is one thing, but deciding who should receive the awards is another process altogether. NODA does this by soliciting award reviewers from its general membership. Anyone can sign up to be a reviewer. So I did.
The first time I logged into the NODA award review platform and began reviewing awards, back in 2018, I was blown away- and not in a good way. When I opened up an award for review, I was immediately presented with the candidate’s name, institution, contact information and a headshot, along with their nominator’s name and contact info.
NODA does a blind review process to select educational sessions, but not to select award winners?!
We know how biased interviews and selection processes can be. Research has been very clear on this. You’re more likely to be granted a job interview if your name is Western/white. Women struggled to get hired to perform in symphonies until the auditions were made blind. The list goes on. At the bottom of the awards page on NODA’s website is a statement that starts with “NODA declares a policy of equal opportunity and nondiscrimination in the provisions of services to the membership and the public.” And yet, NODA has seemingly made no effort to remove bias and inherent discrimination from the awards process.
A few other grievances
This year, I/my institution have been nominated for several different awards. (Is it hypocritical for me to criticize and awards process that I’m participating in, and also stand to benefit from? Maybe. But I’m going to do it anyway, because I think we deserve better). And yet, when I received my list of awards to review, I was asked to review several nominations in categories I was also nominated in. This cannot happen, and policies and procedures need to be in place to ensure that it doesn’t in the future. Even when I let the NODA head office know that this had happened, I was simply told not to review them- but they were never removed from the online platform. I easily still could have. And if that’s not a conflict of interest, I don’t know what is.
When reviewing award nominations, you’re asked to rate the nomination on a number of different factors. On the graduate student reviews, one of the questions asks “Did the nominee go above and beyond in terms of time and effort during the program?” This stopped me in my tracks. We work in a field where it is well known that we are underpaid and overworked. This is something we should all be working to fight against. But instead, we’re giving people awards for buying into that culture, for going ‘above and beyond in terms of time?’ No thanks. Change it, please.
We need to do better
Awards matter. They indicate values and priorities. They set standards for good and exceptional work. They create a platform to share exemplars. They can impact career trajectories. They can impact self-confidence. They matter.
So it matters that we do it right.