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. 

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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!