– Big pond, many fish

I missed the 4C’s convention in Louisville this year (sponsored by the Conference on College Composition and Communication), which is a biggie in the teaching writing world.  I went last year and even gave a presentation, one among hundreds of presenters. This year, Alex Reid went, and he did some basic arithmetic that describes how dilute the audience gets at one of these huge conferences where everyone is vying for a little sip of the attention water. He estimates that, on average, most of the 3,000 attendees make it to 6 out of about 600 panels and that most panels attract between 10 and 30 audience members. That’s the thing about big ponds.

I was swimming in another school of fish last weekend, attending the 2010 ACPA annual convention in Boston (sponsored by the American College Personnel Association, the leading organization for student affairs professionals). It was a good chance to hang out with James and also reconnect with that world, in which I felt more a part when I worked in academic support and writing centers. Even though I no longer have official student development responsibilities, I do believe that I will again, someday, and that in the meantime I continue to be a deeply interested observer in how undergraduates mature and how the academy can support their development in thoughtful and humane ways.

I went to five or six panels; I took notes. Rather than writing a summary, I’ll try to capture what floated to the top and what ideas have stayed with me enough that I’m still thinking about them a week later.

For LGBT undergraduates, degree of “outness” correlates to higher ed outcomes, i.e., academic and social investment.

This is the conclusion of a pilot study conducted by Kip Sorgen at Penn State that examines how sexual identity influences higher ed outcomes. The flip side to his positive conclusion is that internalized homophobia negatively affects academic and social investment. In short, “outness is important to academic success.” Sorgen’s study seems to emphasize an individual’s development. I wonder how environment might play into this, or if the results of his study could persuade universities to fashion themselves into more accepting and diverse communities. If a college prides itself on its students’ academic achievement, and if academic investment is correlated with outness, and if outness could be correlated not only with identity but with an open community, then… well, you see the logic. (Note: Sorgen needs 500 more college students to complete his survey. If you work with college students and are willing to send out the survey link, write to Sorgen at kip.sorgen@psu.edu and ask about his “Implications of Sexual Identity” study.)

As more veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan and enter college, we will see more and more PTSD as a disability on campus.

In a panel on serving student veterans and fostering their engagement on college campuses, the presenters from George Washington University (Andy Sonn, Brian Hawthorne, and Christy Willis) described the challenging transition from soldier to student, and how existing student services might help vets and how new services must be imagined. While surely there are individual students, here and there, on every campus who have witnessed a murder or survived violent crime, to have a cohort of students who have experienced the trauma of war is a special challenge that requires a new framework for understanding the military and designing services for former soldiers.

For an autoethnographic study by a doctoral candidate, 10 years of e-mail between a student affairs professional and her students will serve as data.

At Iowa State, Laura Bestler’s prospectus for her thesis on social justice and compassion fatigue is concerned with how “campuses are not good at helping students deal with unjust treatment.” Although she did not describe the methods she’ll use to analyze her data (the 10 years of e-mail), I found it to be an intriguing possibility. Could she put them in wordle and discern some patterns? Could Many Eyes be an analytical tool? Of course, I wondered what I could do with my own textual archives — e-mails, notebooks, papers from college and graduate school, blog posts — and what hopper I could throw them into for analysis.

Five simple biographical questions, addressed by strangers in a small group, leads to connection, fellowship, and even illumination.

I was compelled, naturally, to go to one of the few panels with the word “story” in the title. Kerri Smith, Kristina Bethea, and Lauren Chapman from the University of Arkansas modeled a narrative writing workshop that they conduct with student affairs staff to “improve workplace relationships while providing personal enrichment.” They invited the audience to break into groups of four and makes notes on the following five questions. Then we were prompted to share our answers.

  1. Where are you from?
  2. Who is your family?
  3. Why do you work in higher education?
  4. What are turning points in your life?
  5. What do you value, and why?

As I scribbled some answers in my notebook, I thought the questions seemed merely factual, even job-interviewy. And when we went around in the circle for the first question, I felt no spark of connection with my small group members. However, what was really cool,  as we continued to work through the plain vanilla questions, was that we started to get to know each other: the quirks, the commonalities. It took only until question 3 for me to start to feel really invested and interested in the others and for their answers to make me think things about myself that seemed personally illuminating. To number 5, I answered: “Fairness. My whole life, I’ve found it frustrating whenever someone said, ‘Life isn’t fair.’ We should therefore try really hard to make it fair.” To number 5, my friend James, also in my group, answered: “To be understood.” Answers by the two other people in our group fit with ours. Is this why we work in education? Because it is the place where we can find outlet for our deeply held values? Yes, I think so. And that others are committed to work in education for the same or different values is inspiring. Our common mission is education, and yet we come to it from different motivations. We can use narrative writing in the higher ed workplace, the presenters argued, to understand these motivations, our own social location, and the social location of others.

We need co-authors to make meaning.

Nathan Slife from Tulane examined Relationality, “a meta-theory from philosophy and psychology,” to analyze and critique self-authorship, a theory that emphasizes an internal coordination of beliefs and values and the self as its own maker. Slife found a way to question the central principles of self-authorship and reconcile them with a relationships-based view of development. “Does self-authorship lead to a problematic focus on the self?” he asked. Citing Bellah et al. (1985), sociologists, Slife countered that “an internal expressive voice” emerges in “authentic relationships.” So… loosely translating, it seems that Slife is saying that an individual has a voice, develops a voice (a metaphor for thinking, being, speaking, acting), in community. It’s a loop, or even a paradox: we make the self among and with others.

School is a place where this happens.


Image of fish in glass tank by Grace Guterman, Oct. 2009, Aquarium of the Bay, San Francisco.

One thought on “– Big pond, many fish

  1. Jane, as one of our Department’s four academic advisors, I’m really intrigued by the panels you saw at the ACPA, especially the one about outness and academic success. The results aren’t that surprising, I suppose, but it’s great to have hard-and-fast evidence about it. Sounds like a great conference!

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