The forwards came pouring in to my inbox this week, and I found myself both amused and amazed at the number of colleagues who thought of me before hitting ‘send.’ The topic of the moment was a blog post authored by Eric Stoller on Inside Higher Ed entitled “where are the radical practitioners?” In this post, Stoller asked several important questions about whether the field of higher education student affairs supports and nurtures self-identified radicals, or whether in fact the norms of our profession serve to isolate them (us). As all my kind colleagues who forwarded the post intuited, Stoller’s most provocative query rang true to what I’ve spent a great deal of time and energy trying to discern: does student affairs deconstruct the status quo, or do we sustain it?
I’ve been interested in radicalism in our profession for a long time, ever since I took my first job as a sexual assault educator and found myself regularly lots of questions beginning with the word ‘why.’ By radicalism, I do not mean simply having a penchant for organizing, picketing, or defying authority for the sake of doing so. Instead, I mean the kind of radicalism – the Latin root of the word, after all, is root — typified by asking difficult but important questions about the root causes of inequality in higher education, a willingness to engage in analysis of the power structures that operate in higher education, and a commitment to doing so in the service of determining where we can be most impactful in paving the way for greater participation of ‘the many’ in all that higher education has to offer. When I began my doctoral work fifteen years later, everything I read about the founders of our profession, and their ingenuity and vision in arguing for education of the whole student, suggested that the legacy of our work is, inherently, change. As each year passes, I am more convinced that the value of the work we do will not really be about our ability to translate the work we do in terms of quantifiable learning outcomes. It will be ultimately determined by whether and how we have managed to swing the proverbial doors open more widely, and in turn, change the very way we think about what it means to participate in a college education.
I care very much about this question, and if you’re reading this, I suspect you do, too.
This community is about promoting women in student affairs, and I would guess that most of us are sympathetic to (if not self identified with) the aims of feminism. Together with my colleagues Pat Fabiano and Marlene Kowalski-Braun, I helped to facilitate a conversation at the 2009 NASPA conference in Seattle about feminist leadership in student affairs. What started as a desire to have meaningful, if modest, conversation about what it means to commit to acting radically in everyday ways became a heartening demonstration of solidarity. To our great surprise, the room was packed. We learned from this experience that feminists were everywhere in higher education student affairs. We were working, carefully and thoughtfully, to change higher education from the inside. We were working to enact an environment that focused on empowering those who were typically not at the table, and to make their voices and needs more visible on campus. We were doing so without a guidebook, and frequently, with only each other and our ability to witness each other’s bravery as a template. And while many spoke of the difficulties encountered in doing so, no one spoke of wanting to detach from the effort. The stakes of not acting in feminist ways, and the rewards of doing so, are simply too great.
What came as less of a surprise to us than the number of participants in the room was the vivid reminder being together is the first step to moving forward. We can effect change, and make the kind of difference we care about, but are far more powerful when we do so together. The isolation experienced when we feel disconnected from others like us is a powerful deterrent to acting radically. When we can’t see ourselves, or our values, in the actions of others, not only is transformation less palpable, but the sheer joy of participating in social change is dampened.
That’s what makes participation in communities like this one so important. You may not think of yourself as a radical, and that’s okay. By my definition, being radical – being committed to a sense of fairness, equality, and actively resisting the status quo in everyday ways – is not an easy path, in student affairs or in any other profession. The fact is that the norms and cultural values that govern higher education do not easily abide change. But in creation of networks to link those who are committed to this vision to one another, we strengthen the fabric of the enterprise for everyone. We make a different vision part of the conversation. We find it in ourselves to keep going. WE, ultimately, make WISA what it is. But if we decide to step away, the fabric is frayed. That’s why we must endeavor above all to listen and understand each other, through the noise of daily life, political expediency, and career advancement. I’m convinced there really isn’t any other way.
Though I’m glad to be thought of, in some small way, as a radical in student affairs, I know in my heart that what I value about higher education isn’t really radical at all. It’s simply, as Martin Luther King, Jr. said, the arc of the moral universe, bending towards justice. And so I bring the question back to you – are you a radical? Can you muster support for others who are? Can we find ways to be both radical, and thoughtful, and patient? What does a true commitment to equity ask of us, and how do we know where we can make the most difference? Most importantly, how can we support each other in doing it, and continue to love our work? That may be the most radical act of all.
Susan Marine is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education at Merrimack College.