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.


Maggie said...

omg, I have so much to say about this post. There's so much in here to talk about. [OK, breathe, breathe, Maggie.]

First: I *do* believe there is a marked difference between our Gen X generation and "the kids today." I notice it most acutely when my students talk about their parents. They often describe their parents as "their best friends". They have very little reservation about going home to live with their parents after graduation "to save money" or "to save on rent" if they're in graduate school or starting their first job.

Most everyone I know in my generation would have gnawed off their leg to avoid moving back home. I don't know anyone my age who says their parents are their best friends, even those of us with pretty good relationships with our parents.

These milennials are a different breed. However, I think the new university reinforces their "difference" in ways that are perhaps unhealthy, and perhaps infantilizing.


Second: Oh, you are so right about ignoring the "5th estate" at our peril, especially in regards to diversity issues. What is astonishing to me is that the student life professionals at my college do so much *programming* -- every night, some speaker, or group meeting, or training, or entertainment option-- and the faculty know NOTHING about it. And the Student Life people have NO IDEA what we're doing in our classrooms, or if what they're doing in any way supports the faculty's own goals. And there is no effort from either the faculty or from Student Life to find out about the other's plans/desires/needs. It makes me crazy in the head, because I have been involved with the faculty side of diversity stuff since I got to the school.

I'm running on at the mouth, er, fingers at this point, but wow, you really hit the nail on the head here as far as I am concerned.

Hilaire said...

Yes, hit the nail on the head here as far as I'm concerned, too. I so wholeheartedly agree with you about the problems with the diversity talk...what comes out of that is really horrifying, sometimes. This year I am working with the *Acting* Human Rights and Equity Services person at Scary Uni to put together a week of "diversity"-related events, and she is an awesome woman with an incredible analysis that does bridge to what I and others are doing in the classroom...and she's desperately unhappy. I think she can't wait to give up this job, important as she thinks it is, because there is NO framework that is acknowledged or promoted by the university in which to make those connections. She's completely burnt out, 5 months into her term, because it's an impossible struggle to make a space for discussion that is actually *meaningful*.

(But hey, what do we think of this? - my uni is raising the Pride Flag for Outweek, complete with a flag-raising ceremony on Monday. As suspicious as I am of this - as much as I think it papers over real issues, to focus on things like flags - I'm impressed. I've never known a uni to do this, and indeed this one is bragging about being one of only two in the country. Visibility is important, sometimes - especially on a campus like this one, on which LGBT groups have in the past faced threats and violence. I'm pleased with this, and the fact that when I announced it to my classes and encouraged them to go, I had tons of them taking out their agendas and writing it in. Maybe it's the free pizza.)

Sorry for hijacking - you obviously hit a nerve with me!

Maggie said...

Oh, and oso? Would you please just get a gig writing for the CHE already? Your posts deserve a a wide audience.

Rent Party said...

This is key:

"Student Life is a growth industry, even as tenure-line faculty positions go the way of the loon."

Anonymous said...

There are plenty of schools where student life/student affairs and faculty and academic affairs work extremely closely. On many campuses, orientation, service-learning, international programs, LGBT programs, women's centers, and academic integrity initiatives benefit because student life/student affairs professionals work WITH faculty and with academic affairs.

Student life and student affairs professionals lack a tenure system, often find their units and services cut and downsized, and have long been ostracized from the classroom, and from teaching and learning, even when they enthusiastically seek to support student learning and the academic mission of the institution.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate your concern and interests, and in large part agree with you. I am a student affairs professional, with one of those professional pedigrees that my SA colleagues respect more than I myself deserve. My appointment is in a student affairs and my job is to (gasp!) integrate faculty and academic units into the co-curriculum. We have had both great successes and dismal failures, but all in all we are considered by many to be a model program.

Your post prompted many thoughts, but I’ll limit my response as follows:

First, the field of student affairs has by and large forgotten that our role is to support the institutional mission and not to 'serve' students. Of course there are some roles we cannot escape, and a historical service role is difficult to abandon given the expectations of many constituencies. Nonetheless, connecting to the mission of the institution in a meaningful way is something that we need to do more intentionally.

Second, most of the time student affairs professionals describe “collaboration with faculty” in reference to getting faculty members to help *us* with our ideas. That clearly has merit, and the programs I work with benefit greatly from faculty involvement, advisement, and support. But in my decade in the field, I have only once heard a student affairs professional ask an academic dean "what are your priorities and are there any ways that we can help you address them?" (The resulting program has garnered a lot of attention in both academic and student affairs circles…)

Lastly, I cannot claim that collaboration with faculty members or academic units is easy. Nor will I claim that the feedback I get from faculty members and academic administrators is always useful or informed. But those are no different from assertions I make of my student affairs colleagues.

We have good folks in student affairs trying to do things the right way, and we have many colleagues on the faculty who share our desire, but it’s an uphill battle when so many folks have no interest in making a change…

Carol Guess said...

Such smart observations.

I've experienced similar things at my university. One odd side effect (related to "parallel programming") is that students sometimes seem to see my Queer Studies classes (which emphasize an intellectual approach to sex/gender/sexuality in contemporary culture) as divorced almost entirely from their cultural expressions of GLBT (plus of course A; mostly A, around here) identities. It took me several years to discover that students here put on a drag show; no one ever thought to mention it to me, to share this information with the Queer Studies class, other queer faculty, etc.

Your post helps me begin to make sense of this; it's all about social control. The drag show is, after all, sanctioned by the university; under university control, it remains entertainment more than social critique.

I experience this on a related level in the disjunction I witness day in, day out between what my colleagues teach (theory) and what they do in, say, faculty meetings and hallway discussions (practice).
I continue to be baffled by the ways this university (and others I've inhabited) not only permits, but encourages, faculty behavior that contrasts starkly with accepted intellectual inquiries made by the very same faculty.

This isn't quite the same issue, but it speaks to an overarching strangeness about being on a college campus here and now.

Anonymous said...

Having worked in a student support organization, I can tell you that a lot of the reason they don't get involved with faculty is that faculty are *always* too busy. Different calendars (9 v 12 month), schedules (no meetings during finals or midterms), and attitudes about needing a PhD to interact with students all serve to make it difficult for the "5th column" to work with professors. There is a major push to connect activities outside of the class with those inside, and progress is being made. However, acting like they're the enemy doesn't help anything. Student affairs staff are typically paid less, respected less, and work just as hard (if not harder) than faculty (but w/o summers off).

Furthermore, they do many activities because they've been shown to improve retention and student success. Things like welcome week, first year freshmen experiences, and so on, have demonstrably been proved to improve first year retention. Just because you don't know what and why they do things, haven't worked in that organization, doesn't mean that you should write upset posts without taking the time to understand them.

Tom Krieglstein said...

Wow these comments are fantastic. They should be a blog post alone.

O.R., thank you for the post, I came to your site via a Chronicle post.

I posted a longer response on our Student Affairs blog I would love to hear your response when you have a chance. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

First, student affairs professionals (and I belong to the profession) do not need to critique faculty members or academic culture in order to claim our own value.

Second, we must be careful to not exhibit an ignorance of faculty roles and culture by making uninformed assertions.

Third, the responsibilities of faculty members are in no way less significant than our own, and the average faculty member’s workload, similarly, best not be described as less than that of the average student affairs professional.

Fourth, talking about who cares more about students, who understands them better, or who is more knowledgeable about so-called best practices, etc. serves no purpose other than to alienate and construct barriers.

Fifth, I’ll accept my role in the academy so long as my feedback comes from a supervisor with whom I regularly work, and not from an editorial board of colleagues, or a class of students who thought the course was too difficult, or a department chair with academic interests that conflict with my own, or from the budget-balancing Dean who looks favorably on those who secure external research funding, etc.

Lastly, I love when faculty critique my work because it means they're paying attention. That is a good thing, although admittedly annoying at times. Most of the time I can take them up on their offer of feedback and turn them into an ally. That very feedback almost always helps me do a better job for the students and the institution. (So, thank you for your critical eye.)

momo said...

I have had some great experiences in the last few years working on committees that are a mix of students, faculty, and student affairs/ programs staff. It's true that often there is a learning curve about roles, or different priorities, but I've come to enjoy being a go-between.

Anonymous said...

I must say as a Student Life professional, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this post and reading the responses and perspectives of others. Right now I'm looking into how to effectively approach faculty/staff on how to integrate their programs into student life programming. If anybody's constructed models on how to effectively generate educational programming on their campuses with assistance from programs, etc. I would love to hear more and idea share! My e-mail is rconnell at conestogac.on.ca . Thanks! :)