Theorizing Synergy [ACPA Theorist HEd Talk]

On Tuesday, 1 April 2014, I had the honor and the privilege of delivering a TED-style talk (very loosely interpreted by me!) during the annual convention of ACPA.  I went last in a series of three talks, preceded by my colleagues and friends Dr. Stephen John Quaye, Assistant Professor at Miami University (OH) and Dr. Vasti Torres, Professor and Dean of the College of Education at the University of South Florida. 

I was asked by several folks in attendance if I would be willing to share my comments.  This is me complying with that request. 🙂 Please cite appropriately when sharing with others.  Thank you. 

*****

Dr. Dafina-Lazarus Stewart
Bowling Green State University
Twitter: @DocDafina
Email: dafinas@bgsu.edu

ACPA Theorist HEd Talk
Delivered at the 2014 ACPA Annual Convention in Indianapolis, IN on April 1, 2014.

Theorizing Synergy

[I can’t recapture the extemporaneous 3 minutes that I opened with in Indy, so it just begins with my main point and the 3 ways I think we can make this happen.]

My one sentence main point: The most significant contribution student affairs can make to higher education and society is to remedy the disintegration of knowledge that I see as accelerated by the Industrial Revolution.

I believe we can serve this function in three ways:

Point A: We need to reinvent the way we do our scholarship and its relationship to our practice.

Point B: Connected knowing and integrated practice emerge from the skillful interplay of breadth and depth.

Point C: The power of specialized knowledge and complex abstraction is wasted when it is not put into the service of seeing the whole.

Let’s begin with Point A – We need to reinvent the way we do our scholarship and its relationship to our practice.

Drawing on my undergraduate work in sociology and economics, I understand that work in Europe and much of the world before the Industrial Revolution was conducted in “cottage industries,” named so for the fact that people worked out of their homes, had limited numbers of workers, typically members of the same family, and were often female-headed. The cottage was the center of activity that was interconnected and mutually dependent. Those involved had a shared understanding of the “business” as a whole – all had a panoramic view.

Then came the Industrial Revolution and along with it a focus on production, efficiency, and scale bolstered by economic theorists like Adam Smith, foreshadowed by Plato and later followed by Frederick Taylor, who said that efficiency in production required division of labor.

This division of labor produced specialists who were responsible for only knowing their job and eventually the worker on the assembly line was absent a panoramic view – as was the managing supervisor – as was the owner — Each further removed from the other and without complete understanding of the whole.

Kuh, Shedd, and Whitt have explained that as the Germanic model exerted greater influence on U.S. higher education in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, division of labor also came to the academy and specialization followed. This was evidenced both in increasing specialization of disciplines and fields (political economy separated into sociology, economics, and political science) and the work of running colleges and universities. We can’t be too mad about this; after all, as a result the field of student affairs was born.

And so, within student affairs, while small colleges have retained the cottage model of generalist professionals, larger universities increasingly have fractured into smaller and smaller units – more and more specialized labor – each further and further removed from the other and without complete understanding of the whole.

However, this division of labor did not just splinter fields of study and administrative structures, but also separated thinking from doing, knowledge from practice. We became researchers and practitioners, scholars and professionals – forgetting, as Knefelkamp, Widdick, and Parker would come to assert over three decades ago, that practice and theory are and must be connected.

This brings us back to Point B – Connected knowing and integrated practice emerge from the skillful interplay of breadth and depth, as also attested to by Jeffrey Cufaude on Monday.

Throughout ancient civilization and pre-modern societies, there were philosophers, medicine men, witches, and elders, like Ptah-Hotep, Confucius, Lao-Tzu, Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rumi, and scores of women whose names were not recorded and whose ideas were not written down. These were scholars of the whole world, writing on everything from law and government, to education, to economics and religion. They had a panoramic view.

Instead, today we ask ourselves and our graduate students to discuss what they know and what they can do as though those are discernibly different tasks. We tsk-tsk the many hats worn by professionals at colleges with small student affairs divisions and urge future faculty to narrow, narrow, and further narrow down their research agendas until they have identified their “niche.”

Like the medical field, we glorify our specialists and undermine the value of our generalists and we burrow deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole, not accounting for the fact that the deeper we go the harder it is to see.

The reality, however, is that although the specialist may deeply understand the inner-workings of the brain, or the heart, or the bones, it is the generalist who sees the whole, who understands how a malady showing up in one system may be rooted in another.

And now we return to Point C – The power of specialized knowledge and complex abstraction is wasted when it is not put into the service of seeing the whole and equipping us to form functional generalizations that lead to sustainable, equitable, and diverse communities. Cathy Bao Bean powerfully demonstrated the need for this to us on Sunday evening.

Confronted by the transformative realities brought by the massification of higher education, we have rightly critiqued the presumptive universalism of our canon and sought to expand the range of populations and institutions studied, epistemic paradigms applied, and scholars conducting the research.

However, I fear that in some ways, we have retained maladaptive postures, failing to heed Audre Lorde’s caution that we cannot use the master’s tools to tear down the master’s house.

Specialization, division of labor, and the differential valuing of labor specialties has contributed to racism, the entrenchment of patriarchy, the creation of economic exploitation, and the marginalization of whole segments of our society. These same outcomes also mar our work as academic laborers as we produce theoretical models which center and privilege dominant groups experiences, outcomes, and development as optimal and normal while ghettoizing and exceptionalizing minoritized group scholarship, the researchers who produce it, and the professionals who apply it.

Some may be quick to point to the explosion of identity-based work studying the convergence of multiple identity facets with each other or the application of intersectionality as a theoretical framework as the cause of this disintegration. After all, do we really need a developmental model for Black, sexually fluid, gender queer, Christian, introverts with ADHD? Isn’t THAT the problem that’s keeping us from developing integrated models of identity?

I dare say it is not.

The purpose of doing deep investigation of the convergence of identities and the intersection of identity with different forms of college engagement is to have a more complete understanding of the whole. Complexity expands the volume of information we have to process, yes. However, simplicity does not bring us closer to synergy and specialty is not enough.

We must reintegrate the various segments of our scholarship and cross the dividing walls we have erected to specialize in student development versus student persistence, faculty and staff versus students, community colleges versus research universities, and on and on.

We must connect the rabbit holes and create networks of interconnection for educating the whole student, developing the whole community, transforming the whole profession, reinventing the whole university, and serving the whole society.

To answer big questions about historical patterns and repeating cycles, the relationship between different sectors of the university and different sectors of society, TO SEE THE WHOLE AS MORE THAN A SUM OF ITS PARTS – this is what is required of student affairs.

As the Hindu spiritual master Ramana Maharshi once observed: “This perception of division between the seer and the object that is seen, is situated in the mind. For those remaining in the heart, the seer becomes one with the sight.”

Learning to and teaching others to become one with what we see is the work of scholar-generalists. It is good work, necessary work and work which is critically important for putting our values into action and communicating our worth in an increasingly disintegrated society.

And so, I close with repeating my first sentence, my main point:

The most significant contribution student affairs can make to higher education and to society generally is to remedy the disintegration of knowledge. We must return to our core values. We must return to our heart.

Thank you.

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#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.