In 250 Words: In What Areas Should SA Take a Critical Look Inwards?
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Student Affairs is full of passionate, caring people. It’s not a prerequisite, but it is the kind of work that calls out to people that live in the venn diagram space between those two circles. I wouldn’t ever want to see that change because there is a lot of good that comes from passion and care. But there is, however, a blind spot that can develop when you spend so much time scaffolding, putting out fires, and educating student leaders: critical analysis. Of what we do, how we do it, and (most importantly, I think) why.
Proper, effective critical analysis takes time, and when we roll from one crisis to the next, throwing a second, third, or even fourth hat on top of the one we were hired for, the time and space available for critical analysis is often the first to hit the cutting room floor. There’s no time to ask, “Why this way?” when we just must get it done.
I want to make sure we stay relevant and effective by opening the space to be critical; especially of those things that we are so confident about. The word “critical” too often gets a bad rap, but there’s one particular piece of its definition I’m interested in: “having a decisive or crucial importance in the success, failure, or existence of something.” There’s no better way to feel confident about our creations than if we have the deep thought, numbers, discussion, and proof to back up our gut decisions.
So let’s make critical a safe space for difficult thoughts. We only stand to get better from it.
A Not So Singular Vehicle to Success
by Rebecca Dirnfeld and Fenella Amarasinghe, Career Education Specialists
Success, in theory, can be constructed and defined by an individual’s own view of the world. In practice however, the notion of success, as both vehicle and outcome, is subject to our parents, education, peers, media, government, and society. While we may eventually come to embody our own meaning of success, we have been and continue to be heavily shaped by how it has been defined for us through these, and other, mediums.
What does this mean for our students in higher education? If predetermined meanings of success have shaped their educational setting, how do we ask them to measure success according to their own meaning and standards? In other words, do our students have agency to define what success is, and not just what it means to them, within the confines of established definitions? To what extent are the elements of structure that shape our universities—class sizes, academic calendars, access to resources, and tuition costs—conducive to pre-constructed ideas of success for the thousands of students we serve? What role does Student Affairs play in deconstructing and reshaping the existing landscape of the university? How do we go beyond being a department of support and enrichment, while essential for our students now, to becoming a department that critically assesses how universities can transform from within so that the vehicle to success is not singular?
Waiting in Line is Still Self-Care
by Katrina Persad, Off-Campus Housing Facilitator
Let’s take a minute to think about your past week. You showed up at work and put out fires (which, even of the figurative sort, still took mental energy and a lot of emails). After work, you probably cooked meals, tackled a pile of laundry or two, and attended a social event you could have happily skipped. Maybe you studied, or chased after kids, or listened to your aunt’s newest ailments (or all three). I would guess that most nights, you fell into bed totally exhausted.
In between all of those activities, let’s not forget that you were supposed to fit self-care into your schedule, some daily sacred time respected by everyone else: no one texting or knocking for cups of sugar (or more likely, unsolicited marketing). Occasionally, this “me-time” is possible. Oftentimes, it’s not. Taking care of yourself is undeniably important, but is the “positivity path” often touted in Student Affairs the only way to achieve that inner nurturing?
I’d like to propose an extended (if unpopular) definition of self-care as activities that care for your whole and future self—even if they’re no fun in the moment. Indulge in restorative bubble baths when you can, certainly. But let’s consider that acts of self-care can be simultaneously unpleasant and supportive: waiting an hour to get your tires changed keeps you and others safer on the road; getting out of bed to floss supports your future health and bank account. Sometimes treat yo’self means budgeting and eating salad—who knew?
From Snowstorm to Rainbow
by Wincy Li, Career Education Specialist (Faculty of Community Services)
Some years ago, I attended a roundtable discussion about supporting Chinese international students at a major U.S. student affairs conference. The topic was so timely and popular that 50+ participants showed up for the discussion at 7:30am. I looked around, listened to what other colleagues had to say, and it dawned on me: I was the only Chinese person there. In fact, I was one of a handful of East Asians among thousands of conference attendees.
When I shared this observation with some mentors and friends, they told me the lack of diversity in the field of student affairs was even starker in Canada. One said to me, “Sometimes, it feels like a ‘snowstorm’.”
I have plenty more stories like this, where I am reminded of how slow-going and fragile progress towards diversity and inclusion could be, whether we are talking about race, ethnicity, socio-economic class, immigration status, sexuality, gender, abilities, and the intersections of these different identities.
Diversity of people can increase diversity of ideas and thoughts, but true inclusion involves thinking about diversity intentionally. Does the field of student affairs fairly reflect the diversity of our student body? When students look to us for support, or when the younger generation of student affairs practitioners look for mentorship amongst the field’s leaders, are they able to identify role models and advisors who get it because they have lived it? These are the questions that I look forward to thinking about and researching further in the new year.
“…the Vicious Separation of Life and Learning”
by John Hannah, Director Special Projects
I have acquired, in my many years as an educator, an aversion to the structures of formal education as currently manifest in the western world of the twenty-first century. I feel a kinship with the likes of Neil Postman, Ivan Illich, Henry Giroux, and John Dewey who implore us, in their various ways, to see the greater possibilities of education, writ large, that lie beyond the current formal structures. I admire their laments about formal education—learners, as so much human capital, moving through primary to secondary to post-secondary educational stages so that they may be thus prepared for a good (wealthy) life. Of course, these structures have served (some of) us well over the centuries, expressing ideals of the Enlightenment era—modernism, progress, civic engagement, freedom, and economic prosperity. But, I am increasingly influenced by the work of these other thinkers who draw back the curtain of this façade to reveal some of the ugliness lurking behind—the not-so-hidden agendas of formal education. In all of that formal structure I see what Eduard Lindeman describes as the “…vicious separation of life and learning”, the rise of institutions as the arbiters of learning, and the erosion of trust in individual experience as a way to make meaning in the world. So, I ask myself , and you dear reader, the following: how do I reconcile my preference for the humanist ideas of Lindeman and that ilk, with my own direct involvement and complicity in the structures of formal education?
Success; education; equity, diversity, and inclusion; well-being. Four areas we’re always thinking about in SA, four areas we feel confident in our ability to lead… And four areas we should ask if we’re engaging in enough critical thought. These aren’t just projects we often work on, these are base elements of our work. They’re not just lenses through which we see, they are—should be—our very eyes themselves. It will be difficult—perhaps even political, frustrating, or challenging—but the results of critical analysis will be transformative. Stay tuned for 2017, all.