Just because you’re magic: A love letter to minoritized faculty in your first year

This fall begins my 16th academic year as a faculty member in the field of higher education and student affairs. I do so having attained promotion to the rank of full professor and serving in significant leadership roles in both my department and my profession. I have “made it.” Yet, as I have become known to say, I am #fullbutnotsatisfied. Attaining status and professional accolades is meaningless to me unless I can help to bring others alongside and after me. I am intent on doing what I can to help other minoritized faculty not only persist but thrive in this profession.

Toward that end, I am mindful of making evident the hidden rules of the academy, helping early career faculty to avoid fault lines, and using gatekeeper roles to both multiply the voices at the table but also expand the table’s capacity. So, I was provoked to consider what words of encouragement and caution I could offer to new racially minoritized faculty, as well as those with minoritized identities of sexuality and gender (both in addition to and apart from racial marginality), when I was contacted about a week ago by a mentee, who is a cisman with marginalized identities of both race and sexuality in his first year in a faculty role. My mentee had texted me after his first week in the classroom to share that one of his students, a cishet White man, had reached out after the first class session with a request to schedule a time to talk further so that this student might expand his awareness and knowledge, believing my mentee to possess special insights given his social identities. Immediately, alarm bells went off in my mind, but I have learned to be slow to offer unsolicited advice that can come across as paternalistic and undermining of others’ capacities to recognize dangers and their agency to make their own decisions about whether to move ahead. I probed what my younger colleague was thinking about this request and how he planned to respond. He shared that he was fine with meeting with the student, realizing that given the regional context of the institution, the student would not likely encounter anyone else like him. After reading his text, I simply replied, “Okay, just remember you have the right to set boundaries.”

My mentee shared that no one had ever said that to him before. He had never considered that was an option. I realized that no one told me that in my first year either. In fact, I was nearly tenured before I learned that lesson through the combination of hard experiences and wisdom from racially minoritized senior colleagues. Why did it take so long? Partly, lack of proximity to senior minoritized faculty. Partly, not knowing what questions to even ask until I had already had several years of experiences that confirmed that yes, there is a pattern here, and no, the problem was not me. This post then is a “love letter” to other minoritized faculty (across multiple dimensions of marginality) in an attempt to harness some of what I have learned over the last 15 years and what I hope to reflect and perfect in year 16 and beyond.

*****

Dear Colleague,

First, congratulations and welcome to the faculty ranks! You have already accomplished a significant feat by earning your doctorate and attaining a faculty position. You are now a member of a very privileged group and the opportunities and burdens of that privilege should not be taken lightly. Nevertheless, that privilege may yet be undermined by the relative visibility of the minoritized identities you hold. If sometimes you feel as though you are living two different lives – perhaps received with awe and respect in one space but greeted with disdain and rebuke in another – it is true, you are. Some days it may seem as though there must be some veil that falls from your face when you leave campus to carry on the mundane business of your daily life. In one life you are smiled at and called Dr. So-and-So. In this other life, you are cut down by disgusted double-takes and driving-while-Black, catcalled “hey girl” walking down the street, or “fucking sissy” coming out of a local bar, or simply some foul slur any given moment. These are your two lives and sometimes that second life doesn’t respect you enough to get out of the way of your first life and remain hidden. Some days, that second life will show up in the midst of an academic triumph. It is a singular achievement, living two lives at once while not succumbing to the incoherence of it all.

Living this dual-life requires some cautions, some encouragement, and some blessings. I offer these humbly, knowing that they may miss the mark, come too late, or be too early to be understood. Use what you can, throw away what misses the mark, save for later that which doesn’t make sense now. Let me know what you do with this and what lessons you have learned, so that I can learn from you.

I hope that you will set boundaries around your dual lives. No, I urge you to set boundaries. Although your life may inform your teaching, you do not have to teach your life. Your body is not a textbook. Your heart is not a 16-week curriculum for others’ to attain their learning outcomes through the toil of your devastations.

There are likely other minoritized faculty on your campus, senior faculty, who share your particular marginalities. However, they don’t necessarily understand you or see the world the same as you. The world was different (and yet the same) when they became faculty. The academy was different (and the same). They were different (and the same). The survival strategies they adopted may not be meant for you. Their worldview may not mesh with yours. Their persistence may have required compromises you are unwilling to make. They may not know what to do with you. They may be toxic. Be patient with them recognizing that their toxicity is the inevitable result of learning to swim in a toxic pool. Learn what lessons you can about the institution you have joined. But, please, keep your distance from the toxic ones.

Yes, you will have to be better than and do more than the others. You may have heard this already as you were growing up. It’s a common mantra of parents to children in racially minoritized households. If you have minoritized identities of sexuality and/or gender and are White, this may be a new and unwelcome expectation. Yes, it is unfair. It is still truth. The best anecdote to ambiguous standards and biased systems is excellence. Be excellent. This is not a call to assimilation, but rather to doing the work, consistently, thoroughly, and at such a high level of quality that your haters must be silenced. This is also not a call to loudly proclaim how hard you’re working to everyone in your department. They don’t deserve to know that. They don’t deserve to see you sweat. This leads to the next point:

Everybody has not earned authenticity from you. Ancient wisdom cautions casting your pearls before pigs. Pigs eat everything and process it all as waste. Don’t allow others to make waste of your transparency, your authenticity, or your vulnerability. Wear Dunbar’s mask, but don’t forget that it is a mask. I implore you to find spaces and people with whom you can take off the mask so that it neither suffocates nor adheres to you.

Yes, you belong here. You. Belong. Here. Even in 2016, you may be “the first” or “the only” one of your kind of “diversity” in your department. You will survive. You can thrive. Do professional and civic service that has clearly defined tasks, a specified term of service, and which can keep you grounded in the communities that birthed you. You are needed to be a “possibility model” (L. Cox) for someone else. All the while, I hope that you will grow, learn, and expand the borders of your mind. You are as limitless as you will allow yourself to be. You cannot be contained by the boxes others will attempt to put you in due to their small imaginations. And, having found just the right sized box, it can be tempting to snuggle down and stay there. I hope that you will instead continue to take risks, to scare yourself, to throw yourself off new cliffs in your research, teaching, and service trusting that your wings will grow on the way down.

Finally, be clear about your values and where you come from. Find people and spaces outside the academy whom you can trust to check you in love. And yes, as Jesse Williams has asserted, you are magic. Find the people who will remind you of your gifts and encourage you to walk in them even when you are afraid. Yet, as Brother Jesse also said, you are real. Honor your body and your heart. Take care of it. Love on it. Allow it to be loved on. You will not last if you do not. We need you to stick around for a long time. We are better with you than without you, but you must value your health and wellness over all else. Don’t let this work define you. Live a full, expansive life. Live the life your ancestors could not have dreamed of. The fact is that neither side of that dual-life I referenced earlier is real. They are both constructions of oppression, the flip sides of fetish and repulsion. Don’t buy into either. Create a life that can transport you beyond.

In love; in hope; in solidarity,

D-L

What’s this have to do with higher ed?

Howdy. Hey. Hi. Wassup.

I know it’s been ages and a half since my last blog post. Several folks have been nudging me – okay, it’s been a bit more urgent than a nudge – to start writing for my blog again. Frankly, my absence from this blog site has not been because there haven’t been issues I wanted to write in long form about. There have indeed been lots of them. I do have to confess that I have fallen in like with Twitter. I have come to enjoy the necessity of boiling down my ideas to 140 characters and when I have more to say than that, I have learned how to “thread” my tweets so that I can go on a “tweet storm” that satisfies that in-the-moment urge to get something out of my head and into the world for feedback and commentary. This is in large part the reason why I have posted nearly 16,000 tweets in the last year or so (I know small potatoes by comparison with others, but I think that’s a lot for someone who is not a nationally known personality).

The blog, by contrast, has felt more distant. In other words, I feel like there is less direct engagement with me through my blog posts than there has been via Twitter through a rant or even a single tweet. Perhaps some of that has something to do with the “celebrity” culture that Dr. Z Nicolazzo posted about on hir blog earlier today (8/11/2016). Perhaps the blog feeds some (definitely not all) folks’ desire to “consume” or “experience” me than to actually engage with me person to person. And that’s more than a little off-putting to me. Despite my strong introvert preferences, I really enjoy talking about ideas with people and I have found that more possible through Twitter than through my blog. Again, neither space is totally either singular thing, but the patterns do diverge between those two platforms.

Another issue that’s kept me off my blog – and this is fully my own internalized constraint – has been the question that I used to title this blog post: What’s this have to do with higher ed? This is actually a question I get fairly often from anonymous reviewers and one that’s currently besetting a manuscript that I’ve been asked to submit a revision of for a journal. I have an uncanny – some might call it annoying – ability to connect the dots across widely varying content, issues, people, topics. It’s an artifact of my ADHD, a gift as I like to think of it. However, also due to my ADHD, I have a really difficult time explaining those connections that are so apparent to me to other people. Hence why my reviewers are often puzzled and have to ask me to more clearly address how my argument/findings/recommendations/the topic itself is related to the field of higher education. On the blog, I feel a greater responsibility to make those connections visible to readers, to think through my arguments, to show the picture. Mind you, these are all rightfully expected responsibilities of any author. It’s like the instruction from my math teachers in school: “Show your work.”

Nevertheless, that work is work and I haven’t had that kind of time on my hands lately, especially not over the last year or so. However, as I am choosing to take the advice of a dear and treasured friend and just “rest” this coming year, I think I am ready to tackle that challenge. I’d like to begin in this post by sharing generally how I see things connecting, the patterns I am most interested in drawing, and those patterns which already exist that I would like to point out.

The arc of my scholarship over the last 15 years has certainly focused most specifically on (Black) student identity (development), experiences, and outcomes concerning race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, faith, religion, and spirituality. However, my interest in those topics has always been connected to and meant to inform institutional transformation and what I see as the role of higher education in a (espoused) democratic society. In other words, I fervently believe that the issues on which I have focused [1)how (racially minoritized) students experience their higher education environments and 2) how those environments press upon their meaning making of who they are, their relationships to others, and what that means for how they should show up in the world] affect the broader society those students will shape and the society they experience with others. I believe that higher education best fulfills its role as a public good (not just a private gain) when it prepares people to be actively engaged, critically thinking, critically conscious (and there “critically” serves two different but related purposes) citizens in a democratic society.

U.S. Census data show that 56% of the population “25 years and older” as of 2011 had at least an associate’s degree or some college experience; this includes the 30% who have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher.  Consequently, higher education environments – across sectors – have a significant (potential) influence on shaping knowledge competency, maturation, and values in the country. How people in those environments – including students, faculty, and staff – dis/engage each other around issues of identity, relationship, community, and systems of oppression and privilege shows up in how those same people dis/engage each other around those topics beyond the campus commons. Here are just three examples:

  1. How we in higher education do (not) talk about gender in colleges and universities – not just the elite, private ones – shows up in public discussions and debates about HB2 in North Carolina.
  2. How higher education does (not) talk about privilege and power as systemic realities that create and reproduce what Stainback et al. (2010) call “founding effects” and “organizational inertia” shows up in debates about policing and the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC; h/t Michelle Alexander).
  3. How higher education does (not) address its historical connections to colonization and slavery and the continuing present material effects of that relationship shows up in the need for students to petition, strike, and protest by any means necessary the celebration of the vestiges of those relationships on their campuses and in the cities and states in which they live and study.

As a result, prison abolition, gender and toxic masculinity as lived and experienced “out in the world”, and the display of the Confederate flag on the statehouse grounds all become fodder for higher education analysis and discussion.  How we discuss terrorism, mass shootings, gun violence, mental health, and political candidates invocation of such rhetoric are all higher education issues because they all speak back/forward to how colleges and universities are (not) preparing people to be actively engaged, critically thinking, critically conscious citizens in a democratic society. In partnership with K12 education, which is the extent of formal education for 44% of the country (as captured by the Census so that proportion is likely higher), we must consider what we are meant to do as educators and educational communities, what is our role, how can we positively affect change in the issues I noted above and many, many others.

So, over this next academic year, you’ll see more of that kind of discussion in my blog. I hope you’ll take this as an invitation to actively join me whether you’re working in student affairs or not.

Listening to Otis: The Necessity of Tenderness

[Written April 15, 2015]

A few days (or maybe several days) ago, my Twitter timeline included a post (deep apologies for no longer remembering who it was by) that referenced a quote from Dr. Cornel West: “…tenderness is what love feels like in private…” It moved me that day and must have inched its way down into my soul because it rose back up into my consciousness earlier this afternoon.

I meditated on that word, tenderness, until snatches of a song rose up in my soul as well…

It was the right time for me to listen to Otis Redding today. I played the song twice, let the chorus loop on repeat in my mind for quite some time. “Try a little tenderness…!”  The urgency of his voice makes it clear that this is a command, a demand even, not a wistful suggestion. I had been thinking about community and kinship when West’s quote rose up in my spirit today. In fact, community and kinship have been recurring themes that Z Nicolazzo and I have been exploring together of late. I wanted to dig deeper into this notion of how tenderness and kinship might be related, so I found the context for Cornel West’s quote in this essay, “A Love Supreme.” In talking about how we might fully engage the promise and possibilities of the Occupy Movement in 2011, Dr. West wrote the following:

We must recast old notions of empire, class, race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and nature into new ways of thinking and being. Our movement is a precious, sublime, messy and funky form of incubation. Again like jazz, we must embody and enact a loving embrace of the art of our collaborative creations. We must embody a universal embrace of all those in the human family, and sentient beings, and consolidate an unstoppable fortitude in the face of systems of oppression and structures of domination. We will suffer, shudder and struggle together with smiles on our faces and a love supreme in our souls. Just as justice is what love looks like in public and tenderness is what love feels like in private, deep democratic revolution is what justice looks like in practice. (para. 3, emphasis added)

I have seen the first third of that last sentence a great deal, the second third only a couple of times, and I have never seen that last phrase quoted by others at all. I think it’s easy for those of us invested in social justice to focus on that first phrase. We are eager, thirsty, for justice. We want self-identified allies to show their love in tangible ways. Justice makes love tangible. Justice enacts human dignity. Justice brings transformation.

However, it’s that second phrase that has been rooting itself deep in my loins (as in the seat of physical strength and generative power) since I saw that tweet several days ago. Tenderness is what love feels like in private.

As a member of multiple marginalized communities, I notice that I expend a lot of energy external to those communities. Energy that is swallowed up in protesting, in education, in ranting, in recovery and healing. It is far easier I have noticed to use our community gathering time to vent and strategize and waste away in our exhaustion with struggle. After all, it is often other marginalized people who actually understand why we are so worn out and exhausted, angry and hurt. We can share without undue explanation, receive validation and support.

That validation and support is critical. However, moving beyond validation and support to building each other up through love’s tender embrace is also fundamental to healing and wholeness.  I appreciate that West’s essay here is inward-facing. He is addressing those within the movement, not those who are the objects of the movement’s resistance. We must carefully consider how we will be with and for each other in order to truly realize the radical vision of a “deep democratic revolution in practice.”

Tenderness is what love feels like in private.

Within communities of marginalized and oppressed people, we are well-acquainted with all the ways in which we are unlovable, ugly, and generally considered to be less than. Our mis-education, as Carter G. Woodson opined in 1935, has been thorough. As Reina Gossett shared in her interview with Rheem Brooks for Bluestockings Magazine, living out an abolitionist movement is not necessarily an action, but rather the persistent engagement in a “deep process of unlearning or learning again.” I strongly believe that this is why we need to consciously and doggedly practice tenderness among ourselves, in our private affinity spaces and community gatherings. Within the spaces we create with and for each other as marginalized and oppressed peoples, tenderness should be, must be the primary agenda.

When I think of tenderness, I am reminded of the careful, gentle touch of lovers, of a parent toward a child, of a child toward their aging parent. Tenderness is the soft touch, the sweet kiss that stirs the soul before it is felt upon the skin. Tenderness is the tone of voice that calls the name of its beloved and instantly brings calm. Tenderness is the hand held without a word needing to be spoken. Tenderness is holding close in the dark with just breath between bodies warm from shared energy. Tenderness. The gentle panting of a heaving chest that finally feels at home, loved, at peace. Tenderness has emotive power and is fierce in its quietness. It is no mistake that West chose the verb “feels” instead of “looks” when he talked about tenderness. Tenderness provokes an emotional response.

Tenderness is not for public consumption.

Contrary to what you might be envisioning now, I am not talking about sexual romance. I am talking about love as action, as imparted. How do we act out such a tenderness for and among ourselves within the private spaces of our marginalized communities?

I just said I wasn’t talking about sexual romance, but maybe I am talking about a different type of sexuality. Maybe it’s a sexuality that is not restricted to and which subsumes sexual romance. Perhaps, this is a communal sexuality focused on deep emotional intimacy and mutual valuing and investment. And despite our society’s religiously-informed body- and sex-shaming (condemnations of the flesh as inherently sinful), touch is also a part of showing tenderness to other people. I think touch is one of the first things that is withdrawn from bodies deemed undesirable. They are marked as untouchables. The experience of tenderness ought to be multisensory: seen, heard, felt – visual, aural, and tactile – and even smelled and tasted (I am remembering now the tenderness given and received in a loaf of home-baked bread). For crying out loud, touch each other with tenderness – because ours may be the only arms left to hold our socially unmentionable, publicly undesirable bodies.

Tenderness is what love feels like in private.

In as much as sexuality is multifaceted (emotional, romantic, and sexual), the communal sexuality that I am proposing is also multifaceted — it is epistemic, affective, and behavioral.

[My sexually conservative religious upbringing is screaming in my head, but I am going to press on.]

Thinking, feeling, and acting toward each other with tenderness within and across our multiple marginalities is fundamental to the unlearning and new learning that Gossett recommends. As Nicolazzo has written in an earlier blog post, we must practice a collective love (citing Lani Guinier). We cannot always simply love ourselves without being shown that love within and from our communities. In fact, I would argue that an intersectional ethic requires a commitment to a political (as opposed to a romantic/relational) polyamory*, in which marginalized people are able to practice this communal sexuality within and across multiple marginalities for the purposes of deep democratic revolution beginning from within.

So, listen to Otis. Let’s try a little tenderness.

*I am grateful to my doctoral student, Liane Ortis, whose dissertation study of polyamory in college environments is teaching me a great deal about polyamory and has reshaped my thinking.

Student Development and Manti Te’o

If you didn’t know the name Manti Te’o, defensive back for Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish football squad, you probably do now. If you still don’t know, then you’re very adept at escaping what has become one of the most talked-about yet inconsequential stories in the news today (next to Beyoncé’s lip sync of the National Anthem at the Presidential Inauguration). To sum it up, someone (or a group of people) concocted an online personality who later acquired a voice. This fictional persona became the love interest of Manti Te’o for several months and once he was quite thoroughly in love with her, the young woman was “killed” and Te’o was left to mourn her death (and move on to a new girlfriend in the interim) until he got a phone call 3 months later saying that she was still alive. After the BCS National Championship Game was played against Alabama, it came out (thanks to DeadSpin) publicly that the woman never existed. Since then, speculation has swirled about whether Te’o was in on the fraud – because surely no one could be that naive, even a 20-year-old. Te’o has done an audio interview with ESPN and apparently has recorded a video interview with his father in front of Katie Couric (my, how far you’ve fallen, sister). It’s one of the most talked about stories in sports, nearly eclipsing even Lance Armstrong’s admission to Oprah Winfrey that he used PEDs. [Lance was in ESPN news headlines for about 4 days; Manti has been on ESPN every day for about 2 weeks now.]

Notre Dame’s athletic director immediately came out in defense of Manti Te’o as soon as DeadSpin’s allegations became public. Indeed, Te’o has been defended as the victim of a cruel hoax. Meanwhile, sportscasters seem divided on the issue of whether Te’o was complicit in the hoax, especially since he knowingly continued to answer questions about this fictional girlfriend’s death even after receiving a call that she was alive and consequently doubting himself what the heck was going on.  Of great interest to me was the Sunday conversation this past weekend among ESPN’s crew that does the network’s pre-game coverage. These 5 men, all former players and coaches, who agree about little were all in agreement that they would rather that Te’o – who is currently in Florida preparing for the NFL Draft – be a party to the hoax than be the victim of it. Their reasoning? Basically, that the ethical failing of perpetrating this kind of hoax for so long could be effectively addressed and dealt with by the NFL (because they have such a great track record of helping players overcome ethical and moral failings). However, the naiveté reflected in being the victim of such an elaborate and longstanding hoax was incurable; no one would know how to help with that.

Wow.

Before I go further, let me put some things out there first: 1. I am a diehard football fan. I love the game and have been an avid fan since I was 13 years old and the Giants took their first trip to the Superbowl. I sat in front of my 13″ color tv in my bedroom dutifully recording game stats and generally being quite a nuisance to my mother in the other room with all my shouts of joy and frustration. Football is my favorite sport and defensive linemen are my favorite players, starting with LT (Lawrence Taylor). 2. I do not know if Te’o was complicit in the hoax, but I’m addressing this matter as though he were NOT, mostly because of how those sportscasters on ESPN presented the trouble it would be for the NFL if Te’o was just an innocent victim here.

If Te’o was the victim of a cruel hoax, as he claims, then this situation highlights what happens when student development takes a backseat to athletics. To put it more bluntly, when the student is forgotten and the athlete becomes the ultimate investment. And really, it’s not so far of a stretch to believe that Te’o became emotionally invested and fell deeply in love with a person he never met, who only interacted with him online, by text, and by phone. I must admit that one of my earliest long-term romantic relationships began through the Internet (way back in the dark ages when there was this thing called “IRC”) and I was in love – hard – before I met the guy who lived in another part of the country. I was about the same age as Te’o. And I am not the only person I know, across age groups, who has fallen in love online, long-distance. So, before we get uppity about how ridiculous it is to fall in love with someone you’ve never met in person, consider that the substance of love is far less about what the eye sees than what the ear hears and the heart feels.

Having said that, there are some student development issues/tasks/needs that are evident in the long-term success of the hoax on Te’o. Attending to these however, would have required that Te’o be seen as a student first – a student who needed further learning, growth, and development to become a mature adult capable of handling not just this hoax but a career in the NFL. As his father told Katie Couric, “He’s not a liar. He’s a kid.” Kids need guidance and support and someone who can ask hard questions. However, I doubt that Te’o, like too many student-athletes, was given the time and encouragement to engage with anything that wasn’t about football (practice, academic eligibility, etc.). As blown away as I was to hear seasoned former players and coaches confess that the NFL was not equipped to handle the naiveté displayed by Te’o, I honestly can’t fault them either. Despite the increasingly younger and younger players who are leaving college to enter the draft, the NFL is not structured for young adult development; it is a business with employees (players) who are expected to be able to comport themselves as mature adults. Unless the NFL is going to add a student development division to every one of its 32 teams, that learning, growth, and development needs to be handled in college. And sequestering players within the halls of the athletics complex isn’t going to achieve that.

I see the following student development issues at play:

1. Interpersonal competence, managing emotions, and developing mature, interpersonal relationships. Those familiar with Chickering & Reisser’s (1993) Seven Vectors Model recognize these as elements of that model. Interpersonal competence is one of the tines of the first vector about developing competence and the other two are vectors themselves in the theory. These 3 pieces, interconnected and mutually reinforcing, when successfully resolved, may have prompted Te’o to ask probing questions about this new woman who seemed to be his perfect match, question her failure to show up at agreed-upon meeting times in-person, and enlist trusted friends or relatives who would ask hard questions about this woman, her motives, and perhaps her very existence.

2. Perhaps some moral development ala Gilligan’s ethics of care, moving from love as self-sacrifice to seeing oneself as morally equivalent to the other, would have perhaps helped Te’o to realize that something was really unequal about all the time and effort he was investing into this woman and wasn’t getting it back in return.

3. Development along one of Chickering & Reisser’s other vectors, developing integrity, would have assisted Te’o with how to handle the continued questions from reporters just days before one of the biggest games of his life about this woman who he was now beginning to realize may not be real.

Neither maturity nor development (increasing complexity and ability to handle increasingly complex issues and situations) is not inevitable, nor is it necessarily natural. Environments can be designed in such a way as to provide the support and challenge necessary for both maturity and development to occur. Many valid arguments can be made for why the NFL (or any other post-college employer) should not be expected to fulfill those needs. Many valid arguments and empirically tested models exist supporting the success of colleges with doing exactly that. However, sequestering one group of students, like student-athletes in revenue-generating sports (typically DI men’s football and basketball and in some places women’s basketball too), away from the environmental elements of colleges and the staff with the training to be most effective at promoting that maturity and development, is bound to produce young men (mostly) and women who are ill-suited to meet the challenges of a world where everyone doesn’t have their best interest at heart and their naiveté can be used against them. Examples like Manti Te’o and countless others continue to demonstrate the necessity of reintegrating college athletics into a holistic student development program that prioritizes the student and the “kid” before the athlete.

#higheredWed (on Friday): Starting Grad School

From the looks of my Facebook notification feed this Monday, apparently a lot of universities resumed classes for fall semester this week or are in the throes of beginning in the next week or so. This means that all over the country (and increasingly across the globe), bright-eyed and eager folks are beginning graduate preparation programs in student affairs as master’s students or returning for doctoral study in the field. Usually I’m caught up with everyone else, faculty and new students, in the controlled chaos that is the first week of classes. Since I’m not this year, I’ve been thinking about what I would say if I had a class of first-year master’s or doctoral students in front of me. It’s pretty simple, just 3 things:

  1. When you start panicking and wondering if you are cut out for grad school, remember that you were admitted for a reason. And that reason has everything to do with both your demonstrated abilities and potential for continued growth. It’s not an accident, nor is it a mistake. You will likely experience some pangs of doubt, get your first B (or C) ever in life from that faculty member who seems to be out to get you (not likely), and wonder how you’re ever going to get enough sleep and stay sane. Regardless, you’ll get through this transition with strong support, positive self-concept, a realistic view of the situation, and adaptive strategies for success (you’ll smile when you learn Schlossberg’s Transition theory). It’ll be tough at times and that’s when you have to be real clear about why you’re here at this time in your life and what you intend to do with this degree when you finish. Write it out on a piece of paper and post it some place – several places – to remind you of why you’re here and keep you motivated to persist when you want to give up.
  2. Everybody else in your program is there for a reason also, so “use [them] as resources not benchmarks,” as my former student Caitlin Keelor once advised a group of her peers at Bowling Green State University. I’ll add to that sage advice that you should also make yourself available to be used as a resource by your peers. Share what you know, the success strategies that you’ve figured out, and the best place to study in town or the choicest spot in the library. This isn’t a competition and it’s not undergrad anymore so your class rank doesn’t matter. Nobody is doling out jobs when you finish based on where you fall in the GPA distribution of your cohort, nor is being granted interviews at placement a factor of whether you beat the grading curve. Whether you got a better grade than somebody else in your class should not be your focus. Rather, I would hope you would be more concerned with whether you did better on this paper than you did on the last one (because you actually took the time to carefully review the feedback and apply it) and what you’re learning about how to be an effective student affairs professional.
  3. Stop looking for someone else to give you the answers. Student affairs is an applied field. Although theories about how students learn, develop, and grow; college environments and their uses; and student outcomes will constitute a part of your coursework, they are of little use if you do not learn to recognize and apply them in actual practice. Learning how to do this does not come in a FAQ that you’ll get from your faculty member in class. So don’t ask them, “Well, how do I actually apply this in practice?” The answer for that is for YOU to figure out because using theory isn’t a math problem with a clear, logical right answer. Using theory is messy and complex and idiosyncratic (and absolutely necessary). You can’t be lazy about it and expect somebody else to tell you what to do. You must take the time to learn the theory, what it’s good for, how to recognize when a situation may call for its application and work it out in practice.

Bonus: This is for those of you who are starting a master’s degree after already working in student affairs (that was my path) or who are returning to school to earn your doctorate after several years of professional practice. It is hard, very hard, to be put in the seat of the student again; to lose the autonomy and authority that you earned in your full-time position. It can be especially hard to be placed in a graduate assistantship where you feel you know as much, if not more, than the people supervising you. However, I encourage you to allow yourself to be a learner again, fully. Embrace this opportunity to not have all the answers, to ask more questions than you answer, and to learn new ways of doing things. I’m not suggesting that you hide your expertise or that you allow someone to treat you like you’re a complete novice when you’re not. I am suggesting that you give yourself permission to be a student. There are some benefits to not having the buck stop with you.

It will be tough, especially this first semester, but you can do this. Use your resources at your institution (faculty, peers, supervisors, academic support centers) and get connected (or stay connected) to professional networks. Student affairs is the best profession in the world and higher education is the most compelling field to study (okay, so I’m a little biased), because what we do matters and can affect people’s lives in meaningful ways every single day we show up to do what we do. Dig in deep and hold on for the ride!

#higheredWed: Advice for New Student Affairs Professionals

I’m devoting this week’s #higheredWed post to those folks who are starting their first full-time positions in student affairs. As a qualifier, I’m directing this primarily to new student affairs professionals who are coming directly from full-time graduate preparation programs and began those programs straight out of undergrad. This is, admittedly, a declining proportion of new student affairs professionals, but they still account for a significant number of new professionals in the field. These tips come from my 11 years of teaching master’s students in student affairs graduate programs and listening to the insights of dozens of those students over the years.

1. You will make new friends. For many of you, you’ve had a friendship group handed to you via your classmate peers since you went to kindergarten. This may be the first time in your life that you’re starting a new experience without anybody else being in the same boat. You may be the only new hire in your unit or in your division (less likely for those of you in residence life) and making friends will take initiative and assertiveness on your part that you’ve not had to exert before. All this notwithstanding, you will make new friends. You might just need to push yourself out of your comfort zone and strike up a conversation. I know, I know, that’s hard, but it’s worth it. Use professional networks to connect to other new professionals in the field (e.g., ACPA’s Standing Committee for Graduate Students and New Professionals), as well.

2. Make friends and socialize both on campus and off. Please don’t allow your work comrades to be the sum total of your socializing. Get to know a wide variety of people beyond your office and people who don’t work on your campus. You’ll appreciate this for a number of reasons down the line, not the least of which will be for the opportunity to NOT talk about your work all the time. Related to #1, if you take this time to explore new hobbies (or hobbies that were lost to your graduate studies!), you’ll make new friends and practice some life balance. Get off campus!

3. Don’t give up on your supervisor or your job. It really takes a least 3 years to really get settled in a new place and position. The first year you don’t know what the heck is going on. The second year, you’re starting to feel competent and get your bearings. In year three, you’ve got a rhythm and you have learned how things work a little better. If you throw in the towel after the first six months (unless things are really severe), you cheat yourself of the opportunity to rise to the challenge and grow in some unexpected and uncomfortable ways and you cheat the institution as well. Your supervisor may not be ideal and the job may not live up to your dreams, but you can benefit substantively from experiences that are less than ideal. Actually you might learn more. You might also want to check your assumptions and expectations that you had before you came in the door. Were they fair and realistic? Were they appropriate to the institutional environment? Did you take into account a full and complete understanding of your supervisor’s work load, personality, supervisory style?

4. Ask questions first, give ideas later. This is not the time for you to say, “Well at my grad/undergrad institution did it this way….” That’s the quickest way for your ideas to get dismissed and for you to be written off as the typically arrogant, know-it-all master’s graduate. Take the time to learn how things are done at your new position and WHY they are done in that way. What may have worked successfully at Institution A may not work as successfully at Institution B because of differences in culture, organization, resources, students, and staff dynamics. Ask questions that reflect a desire to learn and a humility about what you need to learn, not questions that passively imply rebuke.

5. Be confident about your skills and knowledge. Although you still have a lot to learn, you have already learned quite a bit and have some skills and knowledge to share and to work from. After all, that’s why they hired you in the first place. Know what you know and work with a spirit of excellence and improvement. This will confirm your supervisor’s decision to bring you on board. As you continue to gain competence, also plan to share your expertise with others through presentations at regional and national conferences and publication of effective practices.

6. Be a team player, not a competitor. A recent CSP grad, Caitlin Keelor, gave some advice to some first-year peers at the end of last fall that I think applies excellently beyond graduate school. She exhorted them to “use each other as resources, not as benchmarks.” In your new position, even though you may be the sole staff member responsible for X, you are likely working as a member of a larger unit, whether that me your department, or at smaller institutions, the student affairs division. Each individual is contributing to the success of the larger unit. Competing with others for recognition, resources, or prestige does not contribute to the whole. If you are doing good work, it will be recognized over time. More importantly, if you are doing good work, you are likely helping others do good work as well and benefitting the experiences and learning of the students at your institution. That’s what really matters.

7. Take seriously and invest in your own professional development. Although you’re happy to be done with classes and papers and grades, your learning isn’t finished. Keep up your professional organization memberships, both umbrella associations like ACPA & NASPA and functional-area specific associations if they exist in your area. Take some of that “extra” time you used to have to spend reading for classes and writing papers and read newly published research in the field (those association memberships typically come with a journal subscription included remember) , attend a webinar or workshop, and intentionally use national and regional conferences as opportunities to attend workshops and sessions that will help build knowledge and skills in areas that need to be developed. Find ways to join with others at your institution to do professional development in more cost-effective ways. For example, register for a webinar as a group and share the registration fee instead of doing it as an individual.

Your first year will be an amazing period of growth and learning for you and some times challenges will come along the way. However, you’re in this field for a reason; use those reasons to motivate you when the going gets tough. Finally, if you haven’t read Whitt’s 1997 article “Don’t  Drink the Water,” I highly recommend that you dig it out of your grad school readings or download it again from online. Her suggestions remain timely and helpful for both graduate students and new professionals. You are a welcome addition to our profession. We’re glad to have you and hope you’ll stick around for a couple of decades. 🙂

Happy New (Academic) Year!

Sorry for not posting on Monday (I did post to my research blog though); I’ll be taking this Friday off to decompress and enjoy some down time but I’ll be back on Monday, August 20!

#higheredWed: This is Our Business

On Sunday, August 5, Wade Michael Page entered a Sikh Gurdwara (temple) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin during worship services and opened fire. After the shooting ended and the suspect was among the dead, it was discovered that he had killed 6 and wounded many others. It’s another in a long history of hate-motivated crimes against Sikhs in the US that has spiked since 9/11. I’m grieved and disgusted by this latest act of violence and domestic terrorism, committed by yet another white male. I am equally grieved and disgusted by the response of some to this hate crime: Some have been distressed that Sikhs were “unfairly targeted” and mistaken to be Muslims (RT I saw the day of the shootings) and Pat Robertson has gone on record wondering if perhaps this massacre happened because “atheists hate God.” Besides the reality that no one is fairly targeted by hate-motivated violence and the fact that disbelief doesn’t equate to hatred, both Page’s actions and these examples of responses to it have reminded me of how vitally important it is that higher education get right in the middle of the work of promoting religious and secular pluralism and interfaith cooperation in this country and around the world.

I’ve been interested this week by the absence of discussion of this incident in higher education news outlets outside of reader forums on the Chronicle of Higher Education’s website (I double-checked as I was writing this post just to be sure). I firmly believe that this incident is as much about higher education’s responsibilities to use education to promote understanding, cooperation, and equity as it is about the need to discuss our nation’s gun laws.

I have been engaged with advocating for higher education and student affairs to take a more central role in promoting religious and secular pluralism, supporting faith development, and creating inclusive campus climates that can sustain interfaith cooperation. Through my involvement with ACPA’s Commission for Spirituality, Faith, Religion, and Meaning (CSFRM), membership on the Interfaith Youth Core’s higher education advisory council, and my own publications, I have consistently argued that higher education, particularly student affairs, has an opportunity and a responsibility for improving people’s literacy in their own and others’ convictional beliefs, enhancing their competence with interfaith dialogue, and creating campus environments that reflect the inclusion of convictional beliefs as part of its social justice mandate.

There are three reasons why I believe that higher education and student affairs need to be right in the middle of conversations about why tragedies like this past weekend’s massacre happen and how we can move on from there. First, college environments are the crucibles for development and growth around issues of difference and diversity. A student’s time in college, regardless of age, provides opportunities for rich, substantive engagement with others across lines of difference and the space to practice how to build and sustain real relationships. Second, higher education institutions have been and need to ensure that they are taking active interest in the local communities in which they sit. Whether the institution is a community college, liberal arts college, or research university, all institutions ought to provide opportunities for community members to engage in dialogue about critical issues with the benefit of the knowledge wrought by active research, teaching, and service about these topics. This leads to the third reason higher education needs to have a seat at the table about interfaith cooperation and equity: faculty and student affairs professionals working together can equip people, both enrolled students and engaged community members, with the tools necessary to lead and support interfaith dialogue and cooperation, religious and secular equity, and promoting religious and secular pluralism. When faculty and student affairs professionals collaborate on these issues disciplinary knowledge is combined with deep knowledge and understanding of how people learn, develop, and grow. This is necessary for successful and effective collaboration in applying principles of equity and justice to real-world practice.

To my higher education colleagues, faculty and administrators, let’s not be silent at this time of all times. Let us speak urgently and clearly about what we have to offer and how we can help stem the rising tide of violence in this country targeting those who are different. This is our business. It’s time for us to get involved.