Sunday, March 18, 2012

On the use of language and power

In the introduction section of this blog, I included a quote from the philosopher Slavoj Žižek, wherein he says that words matter because they define the contours of what we can do. On the other end, the conservative white supremacist Rush Limbaugh is ultimately correct when he points out that "words mean things" - Limbaugh's failure is how he ignores or misses how meanings are contextual and change through time. But the point is that words are important limiting and influencing (sometimes controlling) signs for us.

What is the student affairs professional? What is the student affairs practitioner? These terms are important  because they connote certain meanings. The use of the term professional (and subsequent efforts for accreditation) are powerful in that they create a certain image of the Student Affairs Professional - an individual who has been trained and assumes a certain authority over the student body they work with. They must maintain a certain distance from those students, as befits a professional, and conduct themselves in a certain form or demeanor that similarly communicates that of a professional. In this, you see discussions over how to dress and how to speak. In this way, what matters as much (or less) as what you say is how you say it. As the communications theorist Marshall McLuhan noted, "the medium is the message."

The practitioner, a term derived primarily from a person who has a "practice" or "study" of some point, suggests the image of a student affairs worker who has a codified body of work that they draw upon and "practice". It is, in a way, the medicalized student affairs professional: they diagnose the problems of students and apply the appropriate remedies. Student development theories are their tongue depressors, their stethoscopes; programmatic interventions or conduct are their scalpels. This term also connotes a certain type of authority to it, in that it draws upon the medicalized notions of knowledge (where one is a "doctor", who has studied intensely the subject that they work on for years, and can demonstrate or has demonstrated deep, intimate knowledge with that subject).

I describe both of these examples because I want to draw your attention to the way that we orient ourselves in relationship to students and organizations or institutions through the language we use. The student affairs professional is one who ultimately draws their body of knowledge from professional organizations, training, vocational and otherwise, and is one ultimately defined in relation to the institution that they serve. The student affairs practitioner, alternately, is the way that we orient ourselves in relation to students. This establishes a firm dichotomy between the student affairs practitioner and students, and a relationship where we can take students as objects of study, analysis, diagnosis, and operation upon. Students literally become objects for us to take apart; their nuance is erased. To those who would take issue with this, I want to say that this is the function of the language that we employ, not the intentions of the people in the field - I absolutely must emphasize that you must divorce yourself from the notion that there are good intentions which will lead to good results. Good intentions are places to start, but not to finish.

When we construct these languages, we also create a certain power relationship between us and the students we work with: one wherein we are positioned as a "knower" of the issues that students face, and can prescribe the proper intervention. It is to the student affairs practitioner to aid the struggling student using our toolbox. But what kind of tools do we have? We have primarily personal-focused measures, if we would estimate from counseling and student development backgrounds (to say nothing of the uncomfortable intersection between Human Resources and student affairs). Where is the systematic analysis? Where is the history of the individual student in this? The closest I would identify as a useful analytical tool for the material circumstances that students face is millenial theory, but even there, we use it less as a consideration of the social, economic, and technological circumstances shaping the lives of students that grew up in that time but as something distinct from them, in a sort of Weberian social fact, as it simply is who they are and is embedded in them, arising from them.

This sort of critique of our language is essential to the ongoing critique of our field. We construct the fields and lenses through which we interact with students through the language we select in the field. It is to our benefit to ask how and why we construct them, and what channels they guide us down in their use.

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