Advice from Dean Karla

Coping with Ambiguity

April 6, 2020


As our world responds to the COVID-19 pandemic, I find myself swimming in ambiguity. As an extreme planner, it’s driving me crazy. Will we be able to have our traditional summer programs at IWU -- SEP, summer conferences? When will we know? Will students get to do their planned internships with the workplace disruption that we’re experiencing? When will my son go back to 4th grade and his favorite teacher ever? Will we still go on our planned summer vacation to Yellowstone or when do we cancel? Will we get sick and what happens if we do? Ughhhh. It all makes my head spin.

I have to admit that living with ambiguity is hard. It’s emotionally draining because it’s difficult to plan for a constantly changing situation. Ambiguity inspires inertia because it just doesn’t feel productive to plan, change plans, re-plan, and then start again. It’s also overwhelming to consider all the possibilities for the future, given ambiguity and the lack of control … the “what ifs” are just too crazy to imagine. And sometimes, when I’m at my best, uncertainty inspires creativity and learning -- embracing change and advancing some amazing solution that is actually better than the status quo. 

I suspect that you are going through this same wave of emotions:  tired, stagnant, overwhelmed, and occasionally inspired. When I was a grad student, my major professor suggested that becoming comfortable with ambiguity is a critical skill for scholars. Frankly, my doctoral program did not allow nearly enough mastery of this skill to get me through a pandemic. But, here I am, advising you to consider “comfort with ambiguity” as a critical problem-solving skill that will someday be resume-worthy, and for today, may just save your sanity.

In thinking about the life skills necessary to master ambiguity, I have a few thoughts:

  1. Be self-aware:  Self-awareness is absolutely a critical leadership skill. Reflect on how you’re reacting to ambiguity - is it already a strength or a work-in-progress?  In what ways are you already resilient and able to persevere through uncertainty? What past experiences inform your ability to work with uncertainty? You have skills in this area and can commit to developing more.
  2. Focus on what you know:  It is rarely the case that “everything is unknown.”  Make a list of what you know, what actions are necessary today with the information you have. Be clear on what’s clear. Use CDC resources for factual information about COVID-19. Academically, what’s clear is that classes are continuing online for this semester, May Term, and summer; some activities are continuing online (shout out to CAB for many great events!); many services are still offered virtually. New classes (14 in May and 5 in summer) were added so new possibilities for summer exist!  Move-out is back “on”. These things are consistent and clear. They are a welcomed “certain” in the face of uncertainty.  
  3. Review scenarios:  In uncertain times, we often throw up our hands and say, “Anything can happen.”  While perhaps true, it’s unlikely that unlimited reasonable possibilities exist. Brainstorming likely scenarios and selecting 2-4 options to plan toward helps bring some certainty to the forefront. Creating “plan A”, “plan B” and “plan C” can provide comfort and direction while acknowledging the fluidity of our circumstances. 
  4. Buy time (and be OK “in limbo”):  Determine when a decision must be made. In the face of uncertainty, allow time for information to become clear or for you to gather critical information. Keep all options available until there’s a penalty or consequence. Limbo is uncomfortable, but not impossible for a period of time. For many students right now, summer plans feel like a pressing issue. Will there be job opportunities or should you plan for May Term/summer school?  Explore scenarios, gather information, make plans (register for classes and apply for jobs/internships) and then wait. Wait to see what happens next with this pandemic. Options will become clearer as time passes, but at least you’ve made tentative plans. 
  5. Understand risk-taking:  You will make decisions with imperfect information and you may make mistakes. This is always true, but especially now during this pandemic. For those of us who are perfectionists, this adds to our frustrations during already overwhelming times. As we grow from this, we have to recognize that mistakes are OK (and probably not life-altering). It’s also understandable that evolving information requires evolving decisions. We must extend grace both to ourselves and to others during this time.
  6. Consult others:  You are not alone. One of the “certainties” is that you have friends, mentors, counselors and others who can help you think strategically about scenarios and creative problem-solving. They will not be able to give you concrete answers, but they can help you explore realistic possibilities. In fact, they can share their own decision-making process which may then help inform yours. Not everyone in your circle is good at this -- some catastrophize and add to your anxiety, where others are logical, encouraging and thought-provoking. When you want to vent, seek out your dramatic friend. When you want to wrestle with ambiguity productively, seek out people who provide stability and support. 

OK - yes, at the end of the day, we are trying to do a couple of things:

  • Control the uncontrollable. Not likely.
  • Make plans in the face of uncertainty … by seeking clarity and contingency planning. 
  • Embrace that we are not in control and be at peace with ambiguity. It’s both a leap of faith and relying on essential skills.

I hope you will add these skills to your skill set, and I will keep working on mine … as soon as my head stops spinning.


Take care,

Dean Karla



Managing Email 101

April 17, 2020


You’ve probably noticed that I’ve fallen into an unintentional habit of sending a weekly advice column – the Dear Dean Karla of COVID-19. These come from a place of caring about you, worrying about your success, and frankly just missing you and the opportunity to mentor directly. Topics are selected based on reported student struggles, so I hope you find these helpful. This week’s topic:  being overwhelmed by too much email. (Yes – the irony that I’m adding to the abundance of email is not lost on me.)

 I know you don’t love email and that you don’t love to read all the emails we send. Unfortunately, email is still the best way to provide information. Much of what comes via email cannot be boiled down to a tweet or an Instagram post; so, for now, you’re stuck with email. Frankly, learning to manage and organize your email now will be another life skill that will prove very beneficial in the “real world.”  The truth is, email management is a part of being productive.

To be honest, I’m not great at email management myself, but I still consider myself a fairly organized person. Confession – I have over 35,000 emails in my inbox – all read, most responded to, but certainly not filed, deleted, organized. In a quick survey of my staff, I learned that Kyle Griffith, Director of Residence Life, is a Gmail master – he gets below 25 inbox emails every day!  I aspire to such organizational skills! So in my quest to be helpful to you, I started some gmail research and listened to Kyle’s outstanding advice. Here are a few helpful links: 

There are tons of advice columns about how to manage your email and it turns out that Gmail is a very powerful tool that can be easily manipulated to meet your style. There are many options for how to make it work for you, instead of feeling like you are constantly nagged by your inbox. 

A few helpful hints based on the frustrations that I’ve heard from students:

  • Plan email time in your schedule:  Schedule time to “do” your email. One article I read suggested that employees spend at least 30% of their time reading and responding to email. I recommend that you schedule some focused time just for email. And, treat it like “work” …. meaning, don’t do it from your phone, on your bed or while you’re watching a movie.
  • Respond:  For most senders, they simply want to know that you’ve received the email. So, start there with a simple, “Yes, I see this and am working on it.”  Then mark it for “Action required.”
  • Mark “important” things:  Mark the emails from me as “important” (OK - just kidding), but you can filter important things so they always appear at the top.
  • Use Gmail labels to create a “to do” list:  Labels allow you to tag emails for action, information, delegation or even later review (although “snooze” lets you defer too). This makes Gmail more functional and you more productive. (See video above about creating simple labels.)  I’ve been trying this for a week now. I really like the “Action Required” label as it drives my end-of-the-day task list. You’ll want to create a system, but keep it simple. Too many labels are difficult to manage.
  • Create folders:  Create folders for each class so you can literally file emails the same way you would put papers in a notebook or folder. You can also set up filters so that email from your professors automatically go to that folder. This allows you to look at it when you’re ready (hint: daily). Same thing goes for RSOs, team communication, work and even family. You can send all those memes from your favorite Aunt to a folder and look at them … ok, maybe never …. But at least they get out of your inbox!   Most of my Gmail guru staff have person-specific folders so they file away communication based on who sent it.
  • Determine what “reading pane” works best for you:  The Gmail default view shows only one line of each email. However, you can set your view to split screen so you see your list of emails in one window and the full email text in another on the side or at the bottom of the screen. You’ll find this under settings.

When I asked Kyle for his advice, he shared that it has taken him years to determine what works best for him. This is a tinkering process and now’s a great time to explore the tools in Gmail. Good luck mastering your email! (And now you can move this to your “Dean Karla” folder.)

Dean Karla