This post was a requested response to Response to "Chapter 19: What is the Value of Student Affairs Research as it Relates to Issues of Equity, Civility, and Safety?" from the Contested Issues in Troubled Times book.
While I appreciate VanHecke and Bowman exploring contributors preventing student affairs professionals from engaging in research and theory on equity, civility, and safety, I was disappointed with what wasn’t discussed. I found it surprising neither addressed equity’s role in the process. In thinking about the content and looking to extend the conversation, issues with systemic structures, privilege, access, and inclusion stand out to me.
VanHecke mentioned student affairs professionals may not see equity, civility, and safety work as their responsibility. Such a stance is troubling, and not just on the individual level. Systemic issues may be present, where inequitable learning environments may appear as:
- individuals with minoritized identities discouraged from engaging based on their lived experiences
- individuals lacking preparation to understand the content or realize the personal and professional relevance to these topics
- individuals lacking resources or permission to engage beyond their immediate role/tasks
Institutional leaders bear some degree of responsibility for each of these elements. Employees are owed a safe and productive work environment. Taken further, it can be easy to argue leaders who do not embed (or at least encourage) equity as part of their area’s work are complicit in systemic, majoritized structures that perpetuate inequity. Inaction and silence create negative perceptions of values and priorities, not to mention increases the potential for harm.
Following leadership’s example or not, there exist instances where lack of engagement in equity, civility, and safety work is a choice. With or without choice, inequitable situations can prove problematic for everyone. Case in point: VanHecke noted one barrier to engagement was a failure to stand for our convictions. While a privileged number of people have a choice to stand for their convictions without consequence, minoritized and oppressed individuals often must make decisions and act out of concerns for employment or personal safety. There are still far too many work environments without protections for all identities, where someone being their authentic self could result in ridicule, harassment, or termination.
Moreover, not all voices are heard and respected equitably in the workplace. On the opposite end of the spectrum, individuals may be unwillingly called upon to speak or act on behalf of an entire population, as if identity and cultural monoliths exist and can be represented by a single perspective. These conditions are tolerated and continue to exist due in part to the inaction of those who have the ability and privilege to be heard and engage.
Shifting from practitioners and leaders, VanHecke and Bowman called for researchers to articulate more explicit implications in their work. Given implications could be generated on topics for different audiences (e.g., researchers, practitioners, students), it is important to acknowledge the populations being included versus excluded (intentional or not).
Moreover, it is worth considering who is talking to whom. For many, effectiveness or credibility can become lost if there is a mismatch of perspective, such as a straight white male writing to gay Black females. Regardless of implications provided, failing to acknowledge positionality is a missed opportunity and carries implications of majoritized versus minoritized perspectives.
Thinking bigger picture, published research as a resource may not be equitable by design. If one doesn’t have a subscription to a journal, they cannot engage in the content (finance and access issues). When they do have access, if not familiar with academic jargon, they may not understand what is being discussed (barrier for native English speakers, let alone ESL learners).
Historically, the popularity and prevalence of voice in research has been that of white males, which can leave other identities experiencing a lack of representation or understanding. Where published, people with marginalized identities may see fewer opportunities, publicity, or promotion. All of these aforementioned elements are topic-agnostic, but can be especially disheartening when present in relation to equity, civility, and safety.
While VanHecke and Bowman addressed researchers and practitioners separately, these populations can benefit from being partnered together. We can work to create access and opportunities to encourage collaboration for researchers to better understand practitioner needs and communication preferences, as well as for practitioners to understand more about the researcher’s process. Doing so could break down barriers, demystify the unknown, and attempt to equalize potential power dynamics between positions.
The pairing of perspectives may also be one avenue to explore Bowman’s push for research to be made available sooner. Researchers and practitioners could partner on the front- and back-end of research to push information through different media and populations. Practitioners could blog or use other avenues of sharing to build interest in topics or provide gateway access to content. Practitioners could also lead presentations and conversations to translate content and speak to applicability; especially if implications are more general or research-focused in a publication.
There can be many paths forward here. In thinking about practitioners best referencing and using research and theory – and recognizing the mostly equity-related issues I discussed – we need to be sure to acknowledge the equity, civility, and safety issues or environmental conditions that can stifle success. We should also be sure not to talk about researchers and practitioners as if they are mutually exclusive populations. We should be partnering and involving one another to support the achievement of collaborative goals. Research and practice should both be leveraged to create space for involvement, amplify voices not often heard, include those typically on the margins, and strive to ensure accessible and equitable environments to learn, grow, and perform so as to best support student success.
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- Heiser, C.A., Prince, K., Levy, J. D. (2017). Examining critical theory as a framework to advance equity through student affairs assessment. The Journal of Student Affairs Inquiry, 2(1).
- Levy, J.D., & Heiser, C.A. (2018). Inclusive assessment practice. NILOA Guest Paper Response. Retrieved from http://www.learningoutcomesassessment.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/EquityResponse_LevyHeiser.pdf.
- Maki, P. L. (2010). Assessing for learning: Building a sustainable commitment across the institution (2nd ed.). Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing LLC.
- Montenegro, E., & Jankowski, N. A. (2017, January). Equity and assessment: Moving towards culturally responsive assessment (Occasional Paper No. 29). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA).