We Need to Cultivate Student Affairs Practitioner Scholarship

Colleges should recognize that research grounded in the daily experiences of those most knowledgeable about students’ lives is crucial for meeting students’ needs, argues Chelsea Gilbert.

June 16, 2021
 
 
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I’ve been a "pracademic" since I entered the field of student affairs. Inculcated since graduate school with the desire to contribute to knowledge production as well as engage in theory-informed practice (along with some old-fashioned nerdiness), I have eagerly sought out opportunities to publish and present while working in a field notorious for its demanding schedules and limited work-life boundaries.

As I progressed in my career and eventually managed my own team in student affairs, those values continued to be evident. In my office, we spent 5 percent of our time during peak periods and 10 percent of our time during slower periods on our scholarship. My supervisees and I read and discussed articles, submitted abstracts to present at conferences, and even wrote book chapters. I’m proud of what we produced -- and even more proud of what we learned. But I often found myself explaining why we spent our time in this way.

Peers, supervisors and alumni donors alike saw our “real” work as engaging with students in programming and supporting them through one-on-one interactions. What they didn’t often recognize is that, in order to do that work well, we had an obligation to be engaged with best practices in the literature. We also had an obligation to share our work with the world so that other people could learn from it.

Fellow pracademics have advocated for a greater focus on student affairs practitioner scholarship for decades. But even the most well-known calls have placed the onus of responsibility squarely on practitioners themselves. Many people attribute the barriers to such scholarship to a lack of practitioner motivation or the so-called second-class citizen syndrome, an internalized sense of inferiority and deference.

Those arguments, well intentioned as they might be, collude with neoliberal rhetoric of personal responsibility and alleviate institutional leaders from any obligation to create conditions in which student affairs professionals can engage in scholarship. Even the most motivated, confident practitioner cannot possibly meaningfully conduct their research without a supportive supervisor, a department that encourages them to prioritize their time in this way and an institution that validates their expertise as being worthy of knowledge creation.

Staff members are experiencing new heights of exhaustion in light of the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and white supremacy. Thus, it’s increasingly vital that institutions not only support but actively cultivate student affairs practitioners’ scholarly pursuits. Student affairs practitioners are quite literally on the ground, engaging with the fast pace of institutional change while focusing on student well-being. As a result, we know what’s working and what’s not, and we have ideas that are worth sharing about how to improve practices.

Unfortunately, rather than capitalizing on the current moment and listening to staff expertise, campuses are engaging in largely performative actions rather than honoring the efforts that practitioners have undertaken for many years to improve their campuses and the lives of their students. Reputation management, denouncing external sources of racism rather than reckoning with racism endemic to the academy and hiring initiatives focused on increasing numbers of faculty and staff of color rather than addressing the systemic barriers to their retention have frequently taken precedence over operationalized commitments to change. Even worse, many campuses are actively betraying their staff members through furloughs, layoffs and a lack of consideration for their safety.

One institution, for example, recently announced a campuswide contest for “innovative” proposals for antiracist initiatives on campus -- including a monetary prize in the thousands of dollars for the winner (who would have no obligation to actually carry out said proposal). Rather than building on the work of practitioners, most of whom are BIPOC, who have been proposing and implementing innovative initiatives at this institution for many years, this action instead communicated that their work was unimportant, their knowledge invalid and their expertise unfounded.

The impact that such actions have on practitioner scholarship is vast, and their consequences for higher education are far-reaching. After all, higher education is at a seminal moment and must find ways to adapt in order to survive. Colleges should recognize that practitioner scholarship, grounded in the day-to-day experiences of those most knowledgeable about students’ lives, is crucial for ensuring that such change centers students’ needs and advances equity.

Again, placing the burden of practitioner scholarship on staff members alone is highly problematic, especially in light of increasing demands that student affairs practitioners do more with less. Instead, college and university leaders have a responsibility to actively cultivate environments where this scholarship can take place. They should:

  • Provide time. Rather than adding an expectation for scholarship as an add-on to student affairs practitioners’ responsibilities, higher education leaders should instead provide intentional time when their staff members can focus on uninterrupted scholarship. The logistical specifics may differ based on functional area, but the core remains the same: practitioners should have at least an hour per week when they are expected to consume and/or contribute to knowledge about their field. The success of this protected time is highly dependent on institutional culture. Thus, it’s crucial that, from the top on down, scholarship is framed as valid, valuable and tied to the institutional mission.
  • Provide funding. This past year, I was lucky enough to be at an institution where I could conduct Institutional Review Board-approved research as a staff member. (This is uncommon, and removing policies that preclude qualified staff members from serving as primary investigators on studies should also be a priority for institutional leaders.) But finding funding to actually implement my planned study was an enormous barrier. Student affairs professional associations generally do not offer grants for practitioners seeking to do research, and most internal institutional grants are earmarked for faculty alone. Money demonstrates what people value, so student affairs departments should be setting aside a small portion of their budget to support the research and professional development efforts of their staff.
  • Provide a spotlight. Finally, institutional leaders have an imperative to elevate the scholarship of student affairs professionals in the same ways they recognize and support the scholarly accomplishments of faculty members. Libraries should purchase the books written by student affairs staff members; institutional press releases should highlight their presentations at national conferences; intra-institutional research symposia should be open for them to submit abstracts.

Certainly, much work needs to be done to foster a higher education culture wherein student affairs practitioners’ knowledge is at the very least acknowledged, much less celebrated. That work is the responsibility of institutional leaders, whose spending patterns and calendars reflect their priorities much more than those they often espouse. Without an honest commitment from top institutional administrators, it is irresponsible to demand that staff members fit scholarship into their packed schedules amid “other duties as assigned.”

If we are truly committed to the success of not just our teams, but also our students, we must capitalize on the oft-untapped expertise of student affairs professionals. The future of higher education depends on it.

Bio

Chelsea Gilbert is a Ph.D. student in the department of educational studies at Ohio State University and was a student affairs scholar practitioner for the last eight years.

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