Monday, March 19, 2012

An old polemic

What follows is the entire essay I submitted last year for the ACPA's Robert Christie award, as the culmination of a semester-long research project/independent study. I'm posting it prior to the ACPA convention in 2012 because, even though this did not win the competition, nor was it acknowledged by judges in terms of response, it is entirely relevant to the Convention Institute on critical theory that I will be attending, and I hope to see you at as well. This is the first of many salvoes I have intended to fire at the field. 

Some of this I no longer ascribe to, as I've grown even more "radical" in the field. But I think it's still a good read.

Outlines of a Critique of Student Affairs 

In the preface to The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek (2008) drew the distinction between the Ptolemaic and Copernican conceptions of the universe as a history lesson of how, when confronted by challenges to the dominant discourse, a discipline internalizes outside oppositions into its framework.  According to Zizek, the Ptolemaic view of the universe dominated the scientific perspective of European history for hundreds of years, integrating various criticisms into itself or changing tiny details until the Copernican revolution. This revolution changed the entire framework of astronomy and re-oriented the role of human experience and relation to the natural world.  

The moral of this story presents an important lesson to us in student affairs.  Although student affairs has responded over the years to challenges to its practices, such as the feminist, anti-war, or civil rights movements, or diminished state funding and increased demands for accountability, very little has actually changed in the dominant perspective about what student affairs is and should be.  Furthermore, there exists little space for radical critiques of the field, for reasons that I will explain.

The theme of this year’s ACPA conference is “Be more in Baltimore”. To become more requires us to take stock of where we’re lacking. I believe that this requires changes analogous to the Copernican revolution, with a radical re-evaluation of our role as student affairs professionals through the lens of critical theory, heretofore marginalized by the corpus of student affairs. For the purposes of this essay, I will draw on some of the integral guiding documents as defined by ACPA, such as the Student Personnel Point of View 1 and 2, the Student Learning Imperative, and other documents hosted on the ACPA website for Student Services and Development at for analysis and critique.

From Where We’ve Come
Critique of the student affairs field is not new.  Several scholars have attempted to wrestle with the philosophical and practical implications, as well as the direction that student affairs should take in coming years. 

Evans and Reason (2001) explored this topic, noting how the first Student Personnel Point of View had a particular emphasis on the context of the individual in society, and how the second Student Personnel Point of View focused more on organization.  This emphasis on structure, organization, and practical emphasis of student affairs has had a pervasive impact on the field – throughout most if not all documents used as guiding principles or for similar purposes have the applicability of student affairs scholarship as one of the prime values of the field.  Intellectual pursuit for the sake of intellectual pursuit (or, intellectual development through the pursuit of knowledge), which one could argue is a part of the college framework since its inception, is curiously absent from this perspective.

One could read the entire development of the student affairs and developmental theory viewpoint as one of assimilation and control, in response to the student movements of the 1960s (Bloland, Stamatakos, and Rogers, 1994).  This is the Ptolemaic crisis of student affairs, and in response to the role of the student affairs professional being challenged, the field collectively turned towards student development theory as a way to bridge the gap between the express function of student affairs professionals as experts on students and the new relationship between students and the university.

Student affairs continued to develop its guiding principles as it grew, fixating itself on the holistic development of students, and the idea of the “whole student”, which has remained a focus throughout all the years of student affairs (Evans and Reason, 2001, Bloland, et. al., 1994).  But there remains a hole in the conception of the whole student:  Evans and Reason call to our attention that there is little integration in student affairs from other disciplines that could illuminate more deeply the terrain of student affairs, student development theory, and our current efforts towards social justice. They also give us a direct us to move beyond “Deweyian principles” of education and development to critical theory as our next great stage of professional focus.  I now turn to critical theory as a guiding philosophy for professional practice.

Critical Theory and Student Affair
Critical theory has a long and storied history, birthed in the complex social upheavals and continental theory in the decade preceding World War II and thereafter.  Henry Giroux (2001) points to the Frankfurt School as the earliest model of critical theory.  Stephen Brookfield (2005) calls upon other critical traditions beyond the Marxist Frankfurt School of academics, such as Michel Foucault, the psychoanalytic work such as Lacan or Fromm, or feminist theory, but emphasizing the role of Karl Marx in developing the first “critical” perspective, and how little can be analyzed without an acknowledgement of Marx’s contribution to the field.  These diverse and sometimes disparate traditions point to five distinct characteristics of critical theory, as identified by Brookfield through the work of Max Horkheimer: the recognition of the influence of capitalism and commodification of the human experience; the emphasis on liberatory practice and emancipation from oppression; a break between the positivist notion of separation between observer and observed prevalent in traditional theories; an approach that seeks to better the world, not just recognize it as it is; the lack of concrete objectives and goals until the world that critical theory imagines is realized and can be evaluated henceforth on its own merit.

Literary critic Lois Tyson (2006) notes that critical theory is based on recognizing the assumptions we carry around with us. “We may not be aware of the theoretical assumptions that guide our thinking, but those assumptions are there nevertheless” (p. 4). As an example of critical theory’s applicability, literary theory work and critique such as Tyson’s might prove invaluable to the practice-oriented student affairs professional; the understanding of practices, behaviors, and institutions as “texts” can give us insight into different forms of analysis than we have conceptually used before.

Henry Giroux cites the scholarship of Louis Althusser, Antonio Gramsci, and Michel Foucault as being particularly applicable to pedagogical and educational inquiry.  This space does not adequately allow us to explore their work in-depth; I will therefore rely heavily on the work done by Henry Giroux and Stephen Brookfield in their application of these and other critical theorists.

Critical theory, taken as a whole, and using its language, problematizes our student affairs practice, by drawing attention beneath the surface of practice to the underlying ideologies transmitted through practice.  This is the concept of “ideology critique” suggested by Giroux and the critical theorist Louis Althusser (Giroux, 2001). “[I]deology critique in this perspective suggests the importance of educating people to recognize the interest structure that limits human freedom, while simultaneously calling for the abolition of those social practices that are its material embodiment” (p. 149).

Such ideology critique can happen in student affairs, though.  Bloland, et. al. (1994) note that the focus of much of the New Directions monographs focus revolves around the practical concerns that drive the “day-to-day” of practictioners, not the evaluation and exploration of the end.  I suggest that this is one of the underlying ideologies of student affairs practice: theoretical work must be eminently practical and relatively easily translated into daily practice.  

Another underlying ideology is that we must be focused on students and specifically student learning, in a way that overlooks relations between knowledge, power, ideology, and dominant societal notions of education (Giroux, 2001, Brookfield, 2005).  Throughout the document of Learning Reconsidered 2, the concept of learning is invoked. However, I would argue that learning as described in Learning Reconsidered 2, as referenced by process, strategic goals, and various other forms of attention to the superficial sundry of the campus environment has little to do with the development of learning or an environment for learning. An examination of the underlying ideologies exposes the lack of critical learning focus in favor of what some might call pragmatic development that critical theorists would point to as reproducing oppressive social and cultural hegemony.  Giroux (2001) offers an alternative: “[S]tudents should learn not only how to weigh the existing society against its own claims, they should also be taught to think and act in ways that speak to different societal possibilities and ways of living” (p. 202).

Social Justice
Social justice is one of the prime examples of a terrain that can be impacted positively by the judicious use and application of critical theory.

For example, a careful interrogation of the terms “social justice,” “diversity,” and “multiculturalism” would be essential to evaluating our attempts to import social change – and we have to be consistent that the social justice we espouse translates into social change, not merely personal development and understanding of non-European cultures.  Previous diversity and multicultural efforts do not form truly liberatory practices; they leave different cultures separate and segmented, and do not fundamentally challenge oppressive social structures.  An emphasis on tolerance and respect as the basis for social justice is advocacy de-fanged.  The work of Wendy Brown (2006) is insightful here.  Brown points out that the contemporary practice of tolerance is one of depoliticization – a curious echo of the first “act” of student development theory was to ban a political table (Bloland et. al, 1994). Thus, oppression and inequality become not social issues to respond to with political action, but internal moral, ethical, and interpersonal development.

This sort of culturalism, where conflict occurs over meaning and not necessarily power, tends to be the dominant notion in education paradigms about social justice, diversity, and multiculturalism.  We focus on experiences as the path for learning, often regarding them at the expense of highlighting the power relations that not only influence our experiences, but also, if ignored, reinforce the status quo.  “By elevating the notion of experience to almost ethereal heights, we are left with an inadequate sense of how to judge such experiences, since it is assumed that they speak for themselves” (Giroux, p. 134).  Is this not the emphasis taken on sharing our experiences in diversity trainings, in ethnic food festivals, in reflecting on privileged or oppressive encounters, otherwise coded as “offensive”?

Student affairs professionals must also confront the Eurocentrism in their work, and recognize that Eurocentrism is not only a perspective that focuses on European history and tradition as universalized values, but a perspective that essentializes difference within individual actors.  Eurocentrism is a philosophical and cultural worldview that privileges and supports contemporary liberal hegemony (Amin, 2009).  Culture then is no longer viewed as dynamic but as transhistorical essentialism that freezes culture at current or stereotypical, commodified notions of culture that can be packaged and sold.  We can see this approach in an example of a food and culture program wherein students (most likely at a predominantly white institution) are invited to participate in diversity celebration revolving around food.  The ideological message of this is that by consuming food, these students are partaking in their culture and are broadening their level of understanding.  While we do not want to discard the benefit of stretching the participant’s cultural comfort levels, at the end of education interventions in the name of social justice or increasing “tolerance”, one must be made aware of students’ inner histories and experiences, and most crucially, experience a “radicalization of consciousness” (Giroux, 2001, p. 151).  In other words, it is not that food festivals in and of themselves are problematic, unless we fail to illuminate the relations of difference and oppression that are influencing and dictating the terms for our engagement with other cultures.

Even student affairs’ attempts at advocacy fall into Eurocentric traps, such as when, in Learning Reconsidered 2,  student affairs professionals are asked to be visionaries, perhaps when they should be asking themselves to be organizers of movements. This echoes a “great man” theory of history, one that is re-told when we focus on particular educators or activists as being movers or effectors of great change, and which minimizes the impact of movements made up of individuals in favor of the myth-telling about great individuals endemic to Western society.

Student Development Theory
Student development theory thus becomes a place for fragmentation of understanding, and a site for reproduction of inequalities through the recreation or reinforcement of repressive ideologies.

Recognizing and analyzing ideology is the major subject that we seemingly refuse to take up.  Assessment, promoting holistic learning, and intervening with appropriate developmental and educational experiences are all a part of the student affairs practitioner and their craft, but not a critical approach that would move beyond social and cultural reproduction and towards a more equitable society.

One could posit then that the ideological state apparatus thus conveys the important message that efficiency is the primary behavior of services on campus should be efficient.  What defines an efficient program or office then? Serving quantifiable results, hence we establish learning outcomes; we establish large-scale programs that produce more.

The Role of the Student Affairs Professional
Here, we must begin with a concrete analysis of the power exerted by a student affairs professional, and draw from the work of Michel Foucault (as cited in Brookfield, 2005).

Far too often, the role of the student affairs professional is to respect the mission statement or goals of the institution.  Student affairs professionals occupy a “new” space between administrators, students, and faculty, but as the dominant hegemony, student affairs tends to be lumped under administrators, both in allegiance and towards the political breakdown during tensions on campuses. The question that follows then is what relations of power do we support and enact through our practice? Learning Reconsidered 2 points to the importance of the student affairs professional’s awareness of work under the mission statement and institutional goals of the university.  Where is the space for us to question the institutional goals and mission statements of universities?  Could we begin to form sites of resistance against dominant ideologies that pervade institutions, such as the selling of knowledge or the industrial-style production of education (Cleaver, 2006)?

Harry Cleaver finds parallels between the production of goods and services, or tangible commodities, and the training of individuals in education to be docile workers within conventional economic systems.  We find this language paralleled in the Student Learning Imperative, where we take on the task of directing students away from “non-productive pursuits.”

We can already see the impact of this particular ideology of learning-as-commodity through the proliferation of for-profit online schools, as well as the expansion of traditional nonprofits and state institutions into online courses as cheaper alternatives to in-person courses.  These courses serve as useful draws for additional capital for institutions.  If our primary goal is to work on student learning, should we not then seek to challenge the notion that online education, which favors what Freire would call a “banking mode of education” (Freire, 2009)?

Yet the example of learning as a commodity is only one of the ways we could seek to challenge conventional notions about learning and education.  A thorough analysis and dialogue about hegemony needs to be present in student affairs. Gramsci’s (as cited in Brookfield, 2005) point that hegemony is educational in nature highlights the importance and charge of analyzing ideological structures when we embark on this critical theory journey.

We can also see power relations as described by Foucault enacted in the role of advisers to student groups, a common job undertaken by student affairs professionals. Advisers do not overtly hold power within the group; power is laden throughout the advisers’ discourse and presence in the room reminding the group that the university is watching their every move. 

These power relations do not simply stop at interpersonal interactions, though. Outcomes, assessment, goals… under a Foucauldian analysis of power (Brookfield, 2005), all of these serve as surveillance mechanisms ensuring a student affairs professionals’ productivity remains high, that programs meet adequate goals and reach a certain number of students.  

All these examples point to ways that we could participate in the critique of ideology and ask what are the messages that underlie and structure our practice.

Directions for the Future
Critical theory offers us the new direction for student services, in the way of allowing us to develop a sort of teacher’s consciousness.  As opposed to starting at students, Giroux (2001) suggest we point to teachers and educators such as ourselves for the liberatory work that we must undertake.  As Giroux notes,
“[m]ost students exercise very little power over defining the education experience in which they find themselves.… [it is] this concern that demands that we construe a theoretical framework giving teachers and others involved in the educational process the possibility to think critically about the nature of their beliefs and how these beliefs both influence and offset the day-to-day experiences they have with students” (p. 194).
No longer can we look at institutions and practices without examining embedded ideologies and hegemony.  Student development theory must adapt to a new conceptualization of the student, not as an object to be acted upon, but a dynamic actor.  We owe it to our students to work with them on their development not in a student development theory-driven way, but in a way that recognizes ideological influences, hegemonic forces, and their own growth as a site of resistance from oppression.

We must throw aside the idea of nonpartisanship and advocate for our students in a way unlike our previous seeking of a balance between institutional forces, student needs, and ourselves.  As this essay has attempted to illustrate, playing at not taking sides is not genuinely being nonpartisan.  And as the late Howard Zinn (2003) noted, history is comprised of conflicts.  History is happening all around us.  And today’s students face incomprehensible challenges beyond any that have faced humankind before, from global war, terrorism, global warming, alienation, poor job markets, to name a few.  As educators, we need to take sides in the interests of promoting student development.

To “be more”, as is asked of us, is to take a side against oppression.  To “be more” is to think critically about our role in that oppression.  To “be more” is to work against the hegemony that we support, and recognize the ideology that guides our actions.  And then, perhaps, we can “be more” through critically evaluating ourselves to a depth that we have yet to have done.

And finally, at the end of this critique, we cannot accept an overly deterministic perspective on our role as student affairs practitioners and scholars.  Critical theory is not the cipher to understanding our schools, our students, or ourselves. It will not “solve” problems in the field.  And it poses a significant intellectual challenge to our current conceptions of student affairs, as it proposes seemingly contradictory yet dialectical notions of understanding our students, ourselves, and our institutions.  We do not want to have yet another bandwagon to hop on (Bloland, et. al., 1994) uncritically.  What I am proposing is a remodeling of student affairs, not only of our lived spaces and the way we interact, in the sense that we remodel our interior material space and practices and structures, but to change our models of understanding in a new way that will let in new light to our practices and ourselves.

ACPA/NASPA (2006). Learning reconsidered 2: Implementing a campus-wide focus on the student experience.
Amin, S. (2009). Eurocentrism (2nd. Ed.) New York, New York: Monthly Review Press.
American College Personnel Association (1995). The student learning imperative: Implications for student affairs. Washington, DC: ACPA. Available at
Bloland, P., Stamatakos, L., and Rogers, R. (1994). Reform in student affairs: A critique of student development. ERIC Clearinghouse on Counseling and Student Services, Greensboro, NC.
Brookfield, S. (2005). The power of critical theory: liberating adult learning and teaching. San Francisco, California: Jossey-Bass.
Brown, W. (2006). Regulating aversion: Tolerance in the age of identity and empire. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.
Cleaver, H. (2006). On schoolwork and the struggle against it. Retrieved from
Evans, N., and Reason, R. (2001). Guiding principles: A review and analysis of student affairs philosophical statements. Journal of College Student Development, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 359-377. (July/August 2001).
Freire, P. (2009). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group Inc.
Giroux, H. A. (2001). Theory and resistance in education: Towards a pedagogy for the opposition. Westport, Connecticut: Bergin & Garvey.
Tyson, L. (2006). Critical theory today: a user friendly guide (2nd Ed). New York, New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis.
Zinn, H. (2003). A people’s history of the United States: 1492 – Present. New York, New York: HarperCollins.
Zizek, S. (2008). The sublime object of ideology. London, England: Verso. 

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