Monday, February 27, 2012

The difference between student affairs and adult education

One of the primary texts that I think is crucial for an understanding of the intersections of critical theory and student affairs work is Stephen Brookfield's The Power of Critical Theory. It's a beautifully accessible introduction to postmodernism, critical theory, and much of what is basic assumptions about theory and the way we approach the world. Numerous academic departments have engaged with postmodernism to some degree or another; student affairs is one of the areas where we've done little with it. And, best (or perhaps worst) of all, it's published by Jossey-Bass, so no one will ever suspect you have potentially subversive literature in your office.

Brookfield's chapter on hegemony, which is not only a far better introduction to the concept than my blogpost before, also referenced the work of Michael Newman, an Australian "adult educator", in particular about how adult educators can challenge and subvert hegemonic norms that would seek for us to continue to oppress the students we work with. Hence why I started reading Maeler's Regard, and have his other book Naming the Enemy on my shelf lined up and ready to go as well. Both of the books are series of reflective, critical vignettes on what it is to be an educator.

But one of the crucial distinctions that I see in the tone of Maeler's Regard (and Brookfield's book as well) is a certain attitude towards the learner. And when I talk about the learner, I'm talking about the subject of our attention as educators, as student affairs professionals, as administrators. This is a thesis that will continue to be developed on this blog, but even though we've dismissed in loco parentis as a sort of foundational grounding of our field, the concept of students as subjects, as objects to be acted upon, has never really gone away. The term "adult education" itself is interesting, when you juxtapose it next to student development. Development takes something that is less than and pushes it towards something; there is an actor and a director, and the director shapes the experience and motions of the actor. Adult education, alternately, presumes a mature being who is enriching their life through continuing education - perhaps they are learning to read for the first time, or are health educators, maybe are professionals of some kind.

Adult educators regard their students as autonomous learners. You have to; they're adults. They have the maturity and capability to be self-directed, to determine their own course. Yet we don't look at our students the same way, generally. What student group is autonomous? Where do we let them live in a residence hall unescorted or unsupervised? What trust do we embody in them? A soft paternalism runs through our work, undergirding nearly every intervention.

Newman, in Maeler's Regard, is intent on offering images of adult learning. They are liberatory, autonomous, inspired, and humanizing. I can't help but hope that some day we, too, can come to look at our students the same way.

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