Twas the night before Thanksgiving and all through the house, the Evangelist Family was toiling, even the mouse! We were preparing to have family over for a Thanksgiving Feast and the house needed to be spruced up, floors needed vacuuming, and most importantly – food was being prepared for the next day. About 5 minutes into laying out the necessary ingredients for the stuffing, I discovered that we were a half-pound short of mushrooms. So off to the store I went and this latest stream of consciousness was born. I have Sirius Radio and was listening the 80s on 8. Now, perhaps showing my age here, I attended high school in the 1980s and my formative driving years were during that time. In the region I grew up in, winter can be marked by heavy fog – a fog very similar to the one I was currently experiencing as I listened to the music of my youth. For a brief time, driving from my house to the grocery store, I experienced a vivid sense of déjà vu (ok, it really wasn’t déjà vu, but you get the idea) mixed with happy memories. On the way back from the grocery store, still in that same fog, I found myself reflecting on my journey to where I now live and the profession I now call my own. Children of the 80’s might have already caught the title of today’s Blog – a reference to a Talking Head’s song – Once in a Lifetime. If you had talked to that 16-year-old kid tooling around the neighborhood in the fog in the 1968 Buick Skylark (yes, I knew how to roll back then), he would have scoffed at the idea that over 25 years later he would be Director of Evaluation for a Health Foundation and that he would be so passionate about evaluation that his own CEO would brand him the Evaluation Evangelist. Back then I wanted to fly airplanes. Dreams of tooling around above the fog and clouds filled that kid’s head back then versus today’s dreams of tooling around various clusters of data and information to pull organizations out of the fog of programmatic and organizational complexity.
So, to borrow another line from the Talking Heads – Well… How did I get here?
I think my story is not all that unique in the world of evaluation. While there is a current generation now waking up in college and deciding that they want to pursue masters and doctoral degrees in evaluation, back then my generation was waking up and choosing to study social sciences and education. For me, it was “worse”, I still wanted to fly when I went to college. It was a series of events in my life, all tied to the desire to eat and pay for my education that eventually led me to evaluation. My junior year of college or as my family refers to it as the 3rd year of my undergraduate career, I found myself with out funding for school and a recognition that flying wasn’t in my future. For the next 3 years, I experimented with different majors and held different jobs. My first flirtation with psychology, the social science that would eventually claim the dubious honor of being my bachelor’s degree came as a result of watching two kids interact with each other when I was a childcare director. I felt this need to solve the puzzle of their behavior. So, I was drawn to a class, which led to many more classes and the degree. Flying had been replaced by puzzle solving (with people’s behavior in mind) – something that I enjoyed most of my life. But it all clicked months after my advisor, perhaps seeing how gaunt I had become living off raman noodles and whatever was on sale at the supermarket asked me to work with someone on an evaluation for the state of Missouri. I apprenticed those two years, bringing my knowledge of research methods and statistics to the table and learned about politics, working in the world versus a lab, dissemination of information, and that my work could make a positive difference in people’s lives. That project and the one following it hooked me. Here was an opportunity to solve really complex puzzles and make the world a better place. It was much more fun than flying or just trying to resolve human behavior.
With my return to graduate school this year – oh, did I forget to tell you, I’m back in school again? I’m working towards a doctorate in evaluation and research methods at Claremont Graduate University – it is a great program – look it up if you are interested or email me, I’ll happily tell you about my experience. Anyway… These past few months have had me thinking about what describes a good evaluator and whether I’m really a good evaluator or not. What I have learned is that it is a good thing I’m back in school. There are holes in my education. There have been advances in technique and statistics since I took those courses in the early 1990s. I’m being challenged to think beyond the ruts I formed as a practitioner. But most importantly, I’ve the opportunity to talk to others about my ideas and hear their own thoughts. I’ve started to surround myself with individuals that share some common values.
• They are interested not only in not harming people with their work, but actually improving their lives.
• The seem to be puzzle solvers like myself – although some have “interesting” and different approaches to the solutions of their puzzles.
• They are honest with each other and while sometimes brutal in their observations, intentional with their desire to help one another.
• They are in a program to improve their competence as evaluators.
In other words, they embody many of the values imbedded in the American Evaluation Association’s Guiding Principles. It is not the adherence to these principles that make for a good evaluator. Rather, they describe the outward signs of the internalization of good evaluation values.
Letting the days go by
Back to my journey into the world of evaluation, much like others, I found it be accident. It wasn’t something that I grew up wanting to do, but I would argue that it was something I was born to do. [Woah! Did I really say that?] I’ve been a member of AEA since the late 90’s, perhaps not as long as others, but I can tell you that each conference I’ve attended has felt like a home coming. I knew that evaluation was something I wanted to do as I worked on my first evaluation. The few opportunities I had to meet and talk with other professional evaluators were always more comfortable than with any other group of people. There has always been that sense of a good fit. Returning to graduate school to study and explore my own thoughts about evaluation has been a certain homecoming.
This is my beautiful house!
Now that you’ve read my little affirmation as to why I’m happy to be where I am, I’ll tell you that I still haven’t landed on the notion that I’m a good evaluator. I think I embody the values. I think I do good work. But I also know that there is more to learn.
Why have I shared all this with you? Well… Have you thought about becoming an evaluator? Clearly you are reading this for some reason. What draws you towards evaluation? Are you one of us puzzle solvers? Do you want to help others?
If you are an evaluator, perhaps my tour down memory lane will remind you how you got into the profession and why you stayed.
For both groups, I would be interested in hearing your story. What interests you and draws you to evaluation. And – well… How did you get here?
As always, I’m open to your comments, suggestions, and questions. Please feel free to post comments.
The Evaluation Evangelist