I recently came home from attending the NASPA Annual Conference in Indianapolis, IN. During this conference, I was invited to be a part of a panel discussing the current state of and future directions for student development theory in graduate preparation programs. As a part of this panel, I was invited to share some introductory thoughts regarding the following four questions:
In coming to my opening remarks, I wanted to create a nuanced argument that implored educators (myself included) to pause from perpetuating the use of student development theories (largely developed as a result of our field's psychological roots) and, instead, focus on broader critical, queer, and poststructural analyses that detail how systems of (in)equity mediate the lives of students, faculty, and staff in asymmetrical ways.
My goal was not to say that student development theory was useless or we as educators should get rid of it. Instead, my argument was that we need to pause (or take a break from) the normative assumptions we have learned (and continue to teach) about student development theory. In essence, I was suggesting that theory itself is incredibly important to the work we do as student affairs educators...but perhaps student development theory as we have come to know it is not so important.
Below are my opening remarks. I am indebted to the work of Janet Halley, who I have engaged in a previous post. I also owe a debt of gratitude to Dr. D-L Stewart, who checked my notes ahead of time and provided feedback, as well as Dr. Lori Patton Davis for extending the opportunity to be on the panel. I would be curious to hear others' thoughts on this idea, especially those of us who teach student development theory. Again, I am not saying theory should be pitched, or that all student development theory should be done away with; what I am suggesting instead is that we need to pause for a bit to think about how systems of (in)equity press on students, faculty, and staff, and how these systems trouble what we have come to know as normative developmental models, tasks, positions, and stages.
Without further ado, here are my notes...
First, thanks to Dr. Patton Davis for inviting me to take part on this panel.
In answering these questions, I think it is important to first think about what student development theory does for us as educators. From my vantage point, student development does three things for us, or at least we think it does, or talk about it as though it does. Those three things are:
Now we may not agree that these goals are desirable (I certainly don’t think they all are), but this is how most student affairs educators are “raised” in the field in relation to student development theory. Although many are quick to state that theory is not a panacea, many also suggest it is vital to doing our work as educators in a careful, thoughtful, and thorough way. We are encouraged to “meet students where they are at,” use “plus one staging” approaches to promote development, and I even remember talking with colleagues about framing entire curricula around development theories.
What I want to propose today is that we should take a break from student development theory. In doing so, I am picking up on the language of Janet Halley, a law professor who wrote the book Split Decisions, where she discussed her proposal to “take a break from feminism.” Although I don’t have as much time or space as Halley did to lay out my argument, let me say just a few reasons why I think we need to take a break from student development theory.
Now I say we need to take a break from student development theory as someone who has, and is currently, teaching student development theory courses. So the question then is, what should we do? I think theory has a place in graduate preparation programs; however, I think it needs to be couched in analyses of systemic oppression and privilege. For example, using Critical Race Theory, Intersectionality, Queer Theory, and other critical and poststructural analytical frameworks as lenses through which to look at and critique normative student development theories is of critical importance for me. Additionally, we as educators need to encourage the students with whom we work to think about what dangerous assumptions we make when we assume that being “more developed” in the eyes of normative student development theories is always better.
I also think we need to be doing more work to think about broader systems and environments (both material and virtual), and how these shape and are shaped by students’ lives. For example, we all need to use Dr. Patton Davis’ most recent publication in Urban Education on using CRT to understand how postsecondary education was literally built as a result of slavery and anti-Black racism. We could also use Dr. Nolan Cabrera’s 2014 JCSD piece on White racial joking to understand how White supremacy is literally laughed off by White students, thereby creating a violent and hostile climate for racialized students, faculty, and staff. We also should be doing more Critical Discourse Analyses like the one Dr. Patton Davis did on the Morehouse Appropriate Attire Policy.
And finally, I truly believe we need to be doing much more work that is for, about, and focused on marginalized populations. Rather than writing theories for dominant audiences to “better understand” minoritized populations, I think it is important to write theories and promote research that is unabashed in its creating counterstories that are for and about those of us who occupy the margins, so that we, too, can see ourselves represented in the literature. Doing so embraces what Drs. Jones and Stewart write about as “third wave” perspectives on student development theory in Dr. Elisa Abes' forthcoming New Directions for Student Services monograph on the topic. A perfect example of such scholarship is a recent, award-winning 2015 publication by Dr. T.J. Jourian, S Simmons, and Kara Devaney in TSQ: Transgender Studies Quarterly on trans* college educators.
So I think I have been able to touch on each of the four questions Dr. Patton Davis asked us to discuss, albeit in a bit of a circuitous route. All in all, I do strongly believe we need to take a break from student development theory (which may require us to, in the words of my dear friend Dr. D-L Stewart, simultaneously “break up with constructivism”) and, while we are on our break, we need to reconstruct courses that use critical, queer, and poststructural analyses to decolonize the way we have come to understand development, “where students are at,” and the false notion that being more developed is always already better.
This blog is a space where I engage with ideas, concepts, and research that seeks to increase life chances for trans* people.