Wednesday, February 13, 2008

 

Thoughts on the Fifth Estate

Oso Raro has a thought-provoking, if maddening, piece up – check it out – on the changing role of the Student Life side of the house, or what he calls The Fifth Estate. In his telling, as I understand it, what he calls the Fifth Estate of Student Life professionals represents a liability-driven resource suck, a sort of brainless parasite growing fat on the diverted resources of its increasingly dessicated host. As he puts it,

They [once] seemed a vague presence on the edge of more important things: the machinations of evil administrators, the follies of faculty, the striving of clerical staff. But increasingly, the Student Life professional represents a new cadre in the academy, one imbued with considerable power and influence over the structuring of students’ social lives and, consequently, some of their relationship to the dynamics of the classroom.

A new cadre is on the rise! The barbarians have breached the gates! Circle the wagons!

He elaborates...

This is a dangerously missed opportunity, for two reasons: firstly, Student Life services are here to stay. They are a competing power centre in the institution, and they tend to be allied directly or indirectly with the concerns of administration, which are mostly about maintaining control, period. Secondly, in their disinterest, faculty have unintentionally abandoned aspects of their traditional precincts of teaching to an administrative arm of the institution that arguably is not as concerned with intellectual enlightenment as it is in enforcing the rules. Did you know there are now degree programs in Student Life services and academic administration? Student Life is a growth industry, even as tenure-line faculty positions go the way of the loon.

This is one of those times when I have to decide where to start.

I believe, having read his stuff faithfully for years, that OR is well-intentioned, very smart, and trying to do the right thing. His insights on the contrasting attitudes of Gen X'ers in our student days, and the Millennials now, are recognizable, humane, and funny, if a bit overdrawn. And I won't deny – hell, I've written myself -- that many 'diversity training' programs are actually much more about avoiding legal liability than about actually teaching something or provoking thought. They can be staggeringly banal, which must be particularly galling if that's your area of scholarly expertise. All of that, granted.

(At Proprietary U, the HR department made the management folk watch “Remember the Titans” during work time. I think that, as a general rule, if a given piece of art works well as an HR demonstration piece, it fails completely as art. But that's another post.)

The loaded language doesn't help -- “machinations of evil administrators” who “are mostly about maintaining control, period,” a new “cadre” that forms a “competing power centre,” etc. I think it derives from the old “total institution” school of analysis, which assumes that any given institution – colleges, hospitals, prisons, whatever – can be understood as a freestanding polity unto itself. If someone other than faculty is getting resources, the only possible explanation is a sort of agonistic competition. It couldn't possibly be that, say, there are other tasks that need doing, or other constituencies to which the college has to answer.

Except, of course, that there are.

From this piece, you wouldn't know what Student Life (or Student Affairs, or Student Services) offices actually do. Put differently, the point of Student Life offices isn't to dumb down political discussion, to centralize administrative control, or to devalue faculty. It's to take care of the necessary and important things that faculty don't do.

On my campus, as an example, the Student Life area includes such new and cutting-edge functions as the registrar, the Admissions office, financial aid, student clubs and organizations, athletics, and counseling. I'm not sure which of these is supposed to be sinister; they all seem pretty useful to me. One can always argue about the best uses of limited resources, I suppose, and I certainly won't say that I've agreed with every decision I've encountered from those quarters. But they aren't competing with the faculty. They're doing other things, and those other things need doing.

Without adequate 'back-office' functions, colleges lose their accreditation, and faculty lose their jobs. (The recent demise of New College in San Francisco is as good a test case as any.) Without a vigorous Admissions office, the college goes out of business. Without adequate student record-keeping, everything falls apart. Without financial aid, the most disadvantaged suffer the most. Without clubs and athletics, students get a one-dimensional educational experience (not to deny that some of them are okay with that) and are less likely, statistically, to finish their degrees. Without counseling, faculty are left to their own devices to handle student mental health issues and all their legal and ethical complications.

There's no such thing as a total institution. The college is not a self-contained unit. We have to comply with the ADA, so we need people to provide services for diagnosed learning disabilities. We have to comply with Title IV, so we need people whose job it is to make sure we follow all the financial aid regs. Our ERP system is off-the-shelf, and it takes very smart people a lot of time to figure out how best to bend it to our (and our students') needs.

Some of those issues are deadly boring to lively academic minds. But 'boring' and 'unimportant' are not the same thing. My paycheck arrives with boring predictability every other week, and I'm glad it does. In some parts of life, 'boring' is good. And to assume that those things just happen, without someone making them happen, is just magical thinking.

On the complaint that much of the public programming offered by the Student Life folk happens without faculty input, I'll offer an incredibly simple response. Volunteer. (Or 'infiltrate,' if that makes you feel better.) Make the outreach yourself. Call the external events person – or whatever the local title is – and make yourself available. At both of the colleges at which I've deaned, the folks over there have always been short of ideas for programs, and eager to enlist volunteers. I have personally volunteered at both, and have personally done presentations for students and for the community. (I started in my faculty days, before a deanly title was even part of the equation.) The reason my college has a debate club is because one of our faculty got tired of students' political apathy. He got some funding from SL and became the advisor to the club. If you can lead a more thoughtful and useful discussion of 'diversity' than the usual consultants do – and you almost certainly could – then *%&^#% do it. And list it as “college service” on your P&T forms.

If it doesn't count for much, the issue isn't with Student Life.

When I've talked with my colleagues in SL about their interactions with faculty, I've always received two responses. “They always blow us off,” but “we'd still love to work with them.” The former is iffy, but the latter has consistently proved true.

Rather than viewing the Fifth Estate as a “competing power centre,” I see it as helping us help students. We're here for the students. That's the point. To the extent that the SL folk help students get their stuff together sufficiently to sit in your classes and glory in scholarly nuance, everybody wins. To view the SL folk simply as competitors for fixed resources is just narcissistic. The college doesn't exist for the faculty. (Put differently: it's not about you.) It exists for the students, and their needs go beyond the classroom.

There are real enemies out there. Don't go after the folks who make your job possible. Engage with them, and the students – the reason we exist in the first place – will benefit. If we replace “Remember the Titans” with something reflecting actual thought, if we supplement role-playing game clubs with debate clubs, you'll see eventual benefits in your classes. It's not about keeping your friends close and your enemies closer. It's about knowing which is which.


Comments:
What a great response. I personally work very closely with our SL office, helping them help students use technology to connect with each, promote clubs and activities, and explain the horrors of the DMCA (somebody's got to). I've heard the same thing about faculty blowing them off or looking at their work askance. But then, the minute something's going really well, they want to get involved. I get so tired of faculty complaining about resources getting "diverted" to things they see as extraneous (computing services, for example). I often say if you care about such things, then say something. Get yourself on the right committee or talk to the people on the right committee or make some phone calls and inquiries. But they don't. They just complain after the fact. As a colleague of mine said (a faculty member actually) of the tenured faculty--you are the institution; if there's something you don't like about it, then change it. It's easier to play Monday morning quarterback.
 
Hmmm. I suppose first I should note that I don't think all Student Life offices and/or administrators are evil. But to put words in the mouth of Oso Raro, which may or may not be accurate, I don't think that he does either. I think that some of what you criticized in the post was meant to be hyperbolic and, dare I say it, funny. Sure, he talks about the "machinations of evil administrators" but he also talks about the "follies of the faculty" - not saying those two images are equal, but I got the impression with both that he's playing on stereotypes with his choice of phrasing.

As for your claim at the end of the post, that faculty should volunteer and work with the student life people, and finally this statement: "There are real enemies out there. Don't go after the folks who make your job possible." All I can say is 1) at least at my institution, students drive what gets funded through Student Life (as they should), so while I as a faculty member would be able to give of my time to their efforts (with little payoff for me personally), I wouldn't have any sort of decision-making ability or real voice in, say, choosing a speaker to bring to campus. I would be told to go back to my department or to my college for funding. Now, there's more than enough service to go around at my institution. So if I blow Student Life off, I do so because I get more resources and more personal satisfaction by spending my service time elsewhere. 2) I don't know how else to put this: student Life people don't make my job possible. They may not be the enemy, but come on. Or maybe you were talking about administrators there? Hmmm. Again, I don't think administrators are the enemy, but to set it up that they make the faculty's job possible, it privileges their role in ways that preserve antagonism between faculty and administration. One could just as easily say that without faculty there would be no university, and administrators wouldn't have jobs. Note: I'm NOT saying that, but one could, because it has the same kind of logic. The point isn't who makes whose job possible. The point is that we need to acknowledge the competing interests within colleges and universities, note who has power and over what. I thought that was the point of Oso Raro's post, ultimately, and I think that is obscured by your interpretation of it.
 
I don't things are quite as simple as you make out here. I am all for resources devoted to SL stuff, and when done well I believe SL and faculty can work together to make students' experiences better, richer, etc.

BUT. In my experience, SL folks have at my school have taken faculty's historical dismissal of their role for present reality, and don't even attempt to engage the faculty now-- and rebuff faculty's own efforts at interaction. When faculty *do* try to get involved, they're treated as interlopers for trying to bring some intellectual content to SL's programming, or trying to sync up SL stuff with classroom activities. The result is that we have a kind of "separate spheres" thing going on, which --at the very least-- doesn't maximize benefits for students. At the worst, it advertises two very different sets of expectations for students: most of the SL folks here are fully committed to treating students as *children*, whereas most faculty are constantly trying to get them to act like adults.

I'm not saying this is a universal condition. I've heard rumors about places where SL and faculty work closely and productively together to provide an integrated and rich experience for students. But I don't think Oso is wrong in saying that in places where a dysfunctional relationship has developed, the rise of this "fifth estate" *is* something to be taken seriously.
 
Spot on DD. The more faculty work in good faith with our colleagues in Student Life, the more two good things happen:

1. Student Life programs and staff get infused with a better understanding of the centrality of the academic mission of the university.

2. Faculty get a much better sense of the whole of the student experience and that can only make us better teachers, mentors, and advisors.
 
It also might be helpful to point out that graduate degrees in student affairs (historically called College Student Personnel Administration) have been around for at least 20 years or so. Not really news.
 
At the worst, it advertises two very different sets of expectations for students: most of the SL folks here are fully committed to treating students as *children*, whereas most faculty are constantly trying to get them to act like adults.


Yes, yes, yes. There's a lot of SA-faculty conflict on my campus, and it has very little to do with funding or status or who has the administration's ear, except to the extent that SA uses those advantages to make faculty feel as if they're being cruel to expect a little responsibility from their students.
 
If you were here at this moment, I would kiss you full on the lips! Well said Dean Dad, well said!

an inspired Mighty Favog
 
I admit that as I was reading this, I had a vision of a college where all the various programs that were "competing" with the faculty for dollars went away, and the faculty was left to run things. Professor Woodenhed, who routinely needs instruction on how to get the copier to make two-sided copies, is in charge of the registration system. Professor Flytee, who has been known to show up for Monday morning classes as late as Wednesday at noon, will be taking care of students' financial aid packages. Professor Golpher, who hasn't been seen on campus after 2 pm since the late '80's, will enforce the residence hall regulations. Professor Hermitt, who hasn't really met the person who for the last decade has been in the office next to his, can give the campus orientation. Oh, and we can all chip in to spend the Dean's unlimited slush fund.

Jogger
 
This seems similar to the argument made the other day about the difference between limited ability to access healthcare, which a single payer system would possibly alleviate vs. quality of that healthcare under whatever system is in place.

I can certainly see what Dean Dad is saying about SL people serving a complimentary function in shaping and enhancing a student's overall experience. However, as in all things, that function performed poorly will likely yield some of the outcomes with which previous posters have expressed frustration or dissatisfaction.

In the particular school of the Big Prestigious U that I attended, in my opinion, that Dept was completely useless in adding any meaningful quality to student experience and when and where they might possibly have served as advocates on our behalf, it seemed as if they did not want to touch that task with a bezillion foot pole. Instead the opted for programming, which was filled with all sorts of social events such as theatre or museum outings, massage sessions during mid-terms and finals week, etc. Considering the demographic at this school this type of programming seemed absurd to me, and amounted to the "treating students like kids" that Maggie alluded to above. After a while I came to believe that SL types seem to thrive on this kind of stuff, whether or not it is relevant to the populations they're serving.

Speaking of which, last month I attended a program in honor of Martin Luther King. I believe last year's program was sponsored in conjunction with a faculty department and was truly inspiring and informative. This year's program was sponsored in conjunction with the school's SL office at the graduate and undergraduate levels. I don't know about other attendees, but I found this year's program to be at best, inappropriate to that particular holiday and rather insipid. Had I known beforehand that would be the case, I would not have bothered and will be cautious about future programs under their auspices.
 
At Proprietary U, the HR department made the management folk watch “Remember the Titans” during work time.

So did you all dance around the breakroom singing Motown? Cause that's the definition of racial harmony in that movie. That said, the one time I've been subjected to HR, the diversity training was the only legitimate part.

More on topic--haven't read Oso Raro yet, but what you quote sounds like he agrees with you. "This is a dangerously missed opportunity." The reference to Fifth Estate connotes the faculty as aristocracy who refused to compromise and forced the French Revolution, no?
 
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