09 February 2008
The Fifth Estate
I have recently befriended a rising member of the academy’s Fifth Estate: a Student Life professional employed at the bloated and domineering local R1. Prim and proper, he reminds me a lot of myself at his age, a bit of the young foggie about him. I don’t think I have ever seen him outside of a pair of slacks and a meticulous sweater paired with a button-down shirt, his early pattern baldness only adding to his curmudgeonly demeanour, although in point of fact he is, under the preppie-professional dreck, a twenty-something gay man making his way, Mary Tyler Moore-style, in the big city.
I had never really thought too much about the rise of a Student Life professional class in the university before some of our extended conversations. They seemed a vague presence on the edge of more important things: the machinations of evil administrators, the follies of faculty, the striving of clerical staff. But increasingly, the Student Life professional represents a new cadre in the academy, one imbued with considerable power and influence over the structuring of students’ social lives and, consequently, some of their relationship to the dynamics of the classroom.
When I was in college, of course, we were at were in the twilight of the laissez faire period that had been engendered by the social upheavals of the sixties. Colleges and universities, after many years previous to the late sixties of dominating and structuring the lives of their students, especially at co-educational or single-sex institutions (parietals), shifted their methodologies and started to treat students as the legal adults they had always been. Laissez les bon temps roulez! Experimentation and sometimes overindulgence in sex, drugs, and drinking became the distinguishing stereotype of the college undergraduate in North America, one not terribly dissuaded by the rise in legal drinking age in the early and mid-eighties.
When I was a freshman, an unlucky WASP heir in the dormitory across the street died of asphyxiation after vomiting in his sleep after an all-night drinking binge. I remember a notice about it in the student paper, a sort of “drinking that much is bad, um-kay” sort of banality, and the establishment of a scholarship in his name by his parents. Then, nothing. No lawsuit, no mandatory training sessions, no hand-slapping or temporary suspensions or feeling circles or interventions from “trained staff.” It was expected, perhaps somewhat morbidly, that teenagers sometimes do stupid things, and that sometimes they die because of their stupidity. The Latin fatalism of the post-sixties era of student affairs was remarkably suited to the feeling we had about ourselves, as independent young adults (who wanted to drink, drug, and sex to abandon, although not all of us were lucky enough to have all three simultaneously).
What a difference twenty years makes. Nowadays, of course, the Student Life professional and his or her ubiquitous staff are cheerfully on hand to make an appropriate intervention into such crudely self-destructive habits. Obligatory counseling, group sessions, Resident Assistants with the power to “write up” straying undergraduates in the panopticon of the contemporary dorm, and staffs of people (and the money) to plan a slew of compulsory welcoming and continuing programming and heartfelt retreats that seem to serve at once as both jocular socialisation and rigid regulation are what seems to distinguish the residential and social lives of today’s undergraduates.
My buddy says my dissonance with this new Fifth Estate is because I am a member of Generation X, typified by anomie, independence, and misanthropic skepticism. The current generation in college now, in the nomenclature of the Student Life professional “The Millennials,” is characterised by a greater desire for structure, companionship, and socialisation. I’m not sure if this is quite true, although it would go far in explaining some of the interesting differences between some contemporary undergraduates and my own generation, even if all I could think about when this distinction was made was the difference between Morlocks and the Eloi.
The larger drama of why we would have the emergence of a new estate on an already top-heavy and listing institutional ship indeed speaks to millennial concerns, although not perhaps in the way that my buddy imagines. The most obvious one that stands out, in my Skepticon, no doubt overly Gen X imagination, is the need to prevent or circumvent litigation. In loco parentis has rushed back into vogue on the back of legal action on the part of parents and families that increasingly hold universities to parental obligations of care, concern, and safe guarding. Whether or not this is a socially beneficial understanding of the role of universities is a conversation that for all intents and purposes was never held, as universities, like all cowardly and conservative institutions, ran for cover in the face of wrongful death lawsuits and zealous juries.
This, of course, is part of the greater crisis in torts that exists in the United States, and as such is symptomatic of many different things that may or may not concern us as academic professionals. Rather, in talking with my new colleague and thinking about some experiences in the profession, I have increasing wondered about the role of Student Life services on what we do in the classroom and how we function as professors and teachers in the university. I offer two relevant examples:
Diversity Training— Most student life services offer mandatory diversity training for incoming students. “Diversity” here typically means the usual suspects: race, gender, sexuality (sometimes), faith communities (sometimes). In my experience, most diversity training is poorly focused intellectually and often tends to center on a simplistic descriptive of feelings. This is not true all the time and in all cases, however, suffice it to say there is a lot of money to be made in diversity training (it is quite lucrative), and usually contracted to outside consultants. Heaven forbid I would be against Diversity Training (although I loathe the word diversity). But I have found, as faculty who teaches these things in the intellectual context of the classroom, that half my time is spent unraveling the messages, axioms, and truisms of the diversity trainer when students must confront, again intellectually, difference, power, and oppression. Some conundrums cannot be ended with a group hug, unfortunately.
Parallel Programming— At a former institution there was quite a strong student centre for LGBT students, run by an efficient and well-organised Student Life professional who was also gay. However, any connection or co-programming between faculty who taught in these areas and the student centre were practically non-existent. In fact, there seemed to be a mild antipathy between faculty and Student Life around any co-programming. Once, I met with the Student Life professional who ran the student centre to offer my help in whatever events my presence could be relevant. The Student Life professional was courteous but guarded, declaring at one point that attempts to connect faculty to programming had been met in the past with disinterest, and hence dropped. So, this incredible social resource for students was effectively divorced from whatever might be going on in their classrooms. This same Student Life professional later directed a disgruntled student in my class to the Dean, bypassing both either a conversation with me or with my chair (and therefore university policy as well), underlining an open antagonism towards faculty that I found bothersome at the time, but had I been more vulnerable would have been much more dangerous.
These anecdotes illustrate a troubling aspect of the rise of Student Life Services in the university, and that is their disdain and effacement of faculty, whether intentional or not, in their programming efforts. For instance, why aren’t relevant faculty being asked to teach (and remunerated for) “diversity” seminars, thereby amalgamating the social needs for tolerance into an intellectual framework? Why aren’t faculty and curricular offerings being better integrated into the structure of student life programming? There’s a lot going on here, not the least of which is the noblesse oblige of faculty, who tend to be overworked already as it is and rather touchy about the specifics of their presentations. There is also, in some quarters of the professoriate, a decidedly dismissive attitude to Student Life services as being somehow beneath learned scholarship.
This is a dangerously missed opportunity, for two reasons: firstly, Student Life services are here to stay. They are a competing power centre in the institution, and they tend to be allied directly or indirectly with the concerns of administration, which are mostly about maintaining control, period. Secondly, in their disinterest, faculty have unintentionally abandoned aspects of their traditional precincts of teaching to an administrative arm of the institution that arguably is not as concerned with intellectual enlightenment as it is in enforcing the rules. Did you know there are now degree programs in Student Life services and academic administration? Student Life is a growth industry, even as tenure-line faculty positions go the way of the loon.
This is not necessarily to deny the newest component of the Pax Administrana its piece of the pie, for it is much too late for that gesture, nor is it to deny the competency of many, if not most Student Life professionals. But as Sun-Tzu once said, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” As faculty, we ignore this new estate in our midst at our peril.