Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Hegemony in student affairs: a primer

We begin with a post from InsideHigherEd by Eric Stoller, asking, "Where are the Radical Practitioners?"

The answer, reading the comments, is: nowhere in student affairs. Which isn't surprising, but what is surprising is how quickly people move to claim the title of radical, which is rather unusual, but I think speaks to something else in student affairs.

One of the earliest critiques I've articulated in a now-defunct essay that I submitted during the ACPA 2011 Baltimore convention was that student affairs is embedded in an administrative structure of higher education, and though it claims to focus on student learning, it is ultimately serving other masters. A great source of angst is embedded in the language we have: we are continually striving to enhance student learning, to develop students, to help them become more than what they are. We assign to faculty and "academic partners" the mission of specific content; we take up the mantle of the environment and strategies for learning. As such, as have very clearly defined areas for our focus. We have developed a sort of unique expertise that, as some have noted, was not asked for. (And is regarded, sometimes, as specious).

Stoller asked us for the most dangerous student affairs practioners in America - but the fact of the matter is, they're probably not working in the field because they don't see any purpose to being in a field that marginalizes their voices through rhetoric. And not to call out the commenters on the article, because I am sure that they genuinely care about their students and their work; that's not the point of this. But a consistent theme (and, one sometimes echoed in my graduate preparation) was that: if you don't fit with the "unique" institutional culture that you are currently inhabiting, then you should move on and try to find a better fit.

This provides us a powerful example of hegemony - which is a theme I will continue to explore in this blog because (not unintentionally, I believe) it is a topic rarely, if ever covered in student affairs work. Hegemony, as defined through the work of the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, is about the way dominant ideas are legitimated through the buy-in and support of the lower classes, that often experience oppression in the way they are subject to those dominant ideas.

Case in point: the dominant idea that there is something wrong, or out-of-place, with the student affairs practitioner, and not the culture itself, as represented through a particular institution. (This applies as well to professional organizations - if you've ever been at a conference and thought, "This really isn't me," guess what? It's not you, and it's not you.) The dominant student affairs hegemony is simply this: we have a mission to serve the institution. It's inscribed in all the major founding documents of the field. Hence, student affairs is one of the most oppressive fields, because it is so incredibly heirarchical. We don't even have the advantage of styles of faculty governance, because we derive our authority directly from contemporary corporate models (again, another influence that we admit readily). Hence, institutions tend to be controlled and steered by the individuals at the top (who are predominantly white straight men, because this is America, y'all), and we follow the marching orders all the way down. And even if they don't directly hold the reins of some of our professional organizations, they have had such a powerful shaping force that the hegemony of student affairs is one that is always about the institution, and serving the institution is the key value.

Now, any Marxist, feminist, anarchist, or reasonably left-leaning liberal will tell you that wherever there is hegemony there is also resistance. Resistance can take a variety of forms, but I would categorize it as the ineffable desire for individuals to resist alienation and dehumanization, wherever they rear their ugly head. The issue with the term "radical" though is that it actively proposes that individuals are resisting the hegemony of student affairs. And I take the comments section as a brilliantly illustrated example of that: throughout the conversation, Stoller and others (myself included, I feel) were advised that the best way to find that outlet for radical thought was to find a better institutional fit. I take this point as the answer to the question that Stoller posed: the radical practitioners left the field, because they were told to.

1 comment:

  1. Well stated! Often times when I work with educators they claim that they "love and support" students, which is all well and good, but LOVE does not dismantle systemic oppression. Action, confrontation and resistance do. @stephaniemz (I can't log in with my twitter handle)