Dear Student Affairs family,
I love you. I do. Granted, it’s not as much as I love The Lord of the Rings but it is more than I love Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D (geek translator: still oodles and bunches of love).
But we’ve got to recognize something, especially with conference season kicking into gear: There is a culture of fear within student affairs, perpetuated by the term “Student Affairs is a small world”.
Here’s the thing: that phrase is fairly accurate. Just last night at an ACPA SCGSNP social I found myself in a group of folks knew via one degree of separation. Our field is relatively small and due to graduate school, people moving around to different institutions, professional organization work, and more, we essentially have fewer degrees of separation than Kevin Bacon (and collectively, not counting SSAO folks, we make his monthly salary).
Too often, from our campus to national settings, there are whispers of warnings about the concept of “professionalism” and a nicely-wrapped statement that boils down to: “Be professional. If you screw up, student affairs is a small world and you will never, ever get a job”.
It’s like there is a Student Affairs Santa making his/her/their list and checking it twice.
I know – some of you may be mentally protesting already. “Well Niki, it’s true. If someone doesn’t dress professional or drinks too much or acts in a certain manner or is all hooking up at a conference, people will indeed judge them (as people do) and that could negatively affect their career. It’s important we warn folks – especially graduate students and new professionals – of this so that they will be on their best behavior. We can’t control how other folks react so it’s good to play it safe.”
And I get it.
It’s like how I know student affairs systemically discriminates against minoritized folks (ex: majority of SSAOs are white men with other privileged identities) and I will, for example, inform my fellow women of this bias and help them navigate professional ventures with taking this systemic issue into account. I’m not fear mongering, I am real talking so they can advance as safely as possible in this field.
It’s difficult, however, to see the issue of student affairs’ culture of fear in regards to professional conduct in the same light.
Problematic Aspects of “SA is a Small World (after all)”
- Creates a “morality police”: Often the statement is meant to dissuade folks from drinking alcohol or acting in an unbecoming manner. I’m not saying “yes, let’s promote dangerous behavior, such as binge drinking” but I also think that folks are too judgmental on how they view other folks. So I see people acting like they are going to hook up after a social! Cool, dudes. Enjoy your lives – your actions do not affect me.
- Promotes a climate of judgement: We are human beings, and human beings often judge others, either consciously (shade!) or unconsciously (secret shade!). It’s going to happen. But by perpetuating this statement, we are making a statement that it is okay to judge someone’s behavior and let that interaction/moment affect their professional livelihood.
- Strikes down the concept that we, like our students are continuously developing: It’s unfair to judge someone by their actions from a past moment and assume they have not grown. So someone made an ignorant comment once or even twice – don’t act like you have been (and are) so enlightened.
- Perpetuates a white supremacist patriarchal heteronormative culture: Wait! Please don’t stop reading. I know these words scare a lot of folks. They are ‘mean’ and ‘student affairs isn’t mean’! But every time we talk about “Be professional” what we are really supporting is a concept of how folks should dress, act, and speak that was created in our country by wealthy white men and these professional norms still support that same group of people. Imagine, for example, that someone who you perceived to be a man was wearing high heels to a conference session. Would the thought of “that’s so unprofessional” cross your mind? Yet gender norms are unfair daily oppressions and we should allow folks to express their gender as they desire. However, we have been taught to interpret that the word “professional” is that of a mild-mannered white man in a suit, and we judge negatively folks who live outside that image.
- Roots itself in hypocrisy: I think what is darkly humorous about all the “Student Affairs professionalism codes” is that we know there are definitely some senior student affairs officers (SSAOs) indulge in heavy drinking behavior. And that’s cool! You do you. We all engage in different forms of socialization/stress relief. But why do we (collectively it happens a lot, even if not within every region/campus) say things perpetuating fear of drinking to newer professionals lest someone thinks ill of them?
So how do I do my own work to subvert this culture of fear? When I see someone take action or look outside the norm of professionalism that I personally live, I try to remember a few things:
- Recognize one or a few or even multiple interactions with a human being does not define them. Humans are multifaceted awesome creatures who are continuously developing. Just because they said or did something that I disagree with does not mean I have immediate insight into their mind and spirit.
- Remember I’ve certainly done things that were disagreeable to others. Let’s not share secrets in a blog post, but I am not perfect. I have made and will continue to make mistakes. Judge not lest ye be judged, as one religious text summarizes.
- Understand that people are going to make different choices than me (dress, drinking, sex, speech, etc) and that, within reason (aka no Dexter-level or Joker-level behavior), is perfectly acceptable.
I understand that we have to operate within the systems that exist. I understand that there are real consequences for folks who do not engage in the professional conduct codes. I understand that some aspects of these codes are needed for the profession.
But what I don’t understand is why we cannot have a nuanced and real dialogue of this “Student Affairs is a small world” ideology – stating it exists but also stating that it is not okay and discussing how to subvert this culture.
There are real consequences of this fear mongering – folks feeling they have to be inauthentic in behavior or dress, folks feeling like it is okay to judge others and let those perceptions limit future opportunities, and folks not engaging for fear of being judged (seen often in SA ethics or social justice discussions).
With #ACPA15 happening right now, this blog post has been on my mind as I keep hearing/reading tips on professionalism because student affairs is a small world. I’d rather we only discuss how small the world is when we are discussing networking and connecting to advance our personal selves, our students, and our field.
What are your thoughts? Send a tweet to @NikiMessmore. I’d love to hear them! I promise that I won’t judge you, either 🙂