Research and scholarship.
Those three words can be enough to cause a cold sweat to break out on even the most savvy student affairs professional’s brow. Scholarship, which includes research, academic writing, and creative scholarly pursuits, is a key part of the work of most faculty members. As a result, practitioners often feel that scholarship is just a faculty endeavor; the only people allowed, encouraged, or expected to produce scholarship are those with terminal degrees pursuing tenure. However, an entire realm of scholarship, known as practitioner-scholarship, intends to eliminate this false dichotomy and open the world of scholarship up to any and all practitioners to engage in.
Practitioner-scholarship acknowledges that those working directly with students have insights that are valuable. Practitioner-scholars have the capacity to contribute to the body of knowledge that informs the profession. This includes documenting and critiquing theory-in-practice (something that a full-time, tenure-track faculty member may not be able to observe directly), philosophical or values-based essays on some area of practice or purpose of the field, and even empirical research studies conducted by practitioners. This framework stems from the need of the profession to advance its specialized knowledge, particularly knowledge that can impact the day-to-day approaches of student affairs practitioners.
By moving scholarship into the realm of practice for any and every student affairs practitioner, we can democratize the realm of research and scholarship, creating rigorous studies and philosophical essays that are accessible to and truly intended for more than just those with a doctorate. Ultimately, every student affairs practitioner has experiences that can help contribute to the body of knowledge that constitutes 'student affairs.'
Scholarship Takes Time
So, you may be thinking, “That sounds great, but how can I actually do scholarship in my daily work?” To be able to write, you have to have time to read current literature, to brainstorm, to draft, to edit, to submit, to re-edit, to resubmit. This investment of time is precious, but so too is the advancement of the field.
Reason and Kimball (2012) “call for practitioners to engage in reflection to shape both the informal theories that guide practice and eventually, the formal theories that guide our field” (pp. 360-361). I argue that this reflection upon theory-to-practice and theory-in-practice is the foundation of practitioner-scholarship in student affairs. The easiest way to start to create scholarship is to make time to reflect on our work in formalized ways, such as journaling or mindmapping.
Taking time on a regular basis to reflect on the practice of student affairs is the foundation of a critique of the real-world use of theory-in-practice. Without first thinking about how and why we are working with students, we cannot develop thoughtful, insightful critique that can help our colleagues to work in more effective and intentional ways. Formal, written reflection also helps to develop a routine of writing; by making writing a normal part of one’s week, the act of reflecting, critiquing, and synthesizing becomes something that is expected, rather than something that causes anxiety. From here, pushing forward with writing into a main point is essential.
Some questions to consider as possible ideas for scholarship:
What doesn’t work from theories that influence your work? Are there groups of students who don’t fit the mold of a particular theory?
What drives your work? What values are at the core of your practice and how are those different from the values espoused by the field at large?
What patterns do you notice when working with students? Is there already a study on what that pattern you are noticing might mean? Would talking to (interviewing, surveying, etc.) students about the pattern help you understand it better?
These prompts are not the only kinds of scholarship that practitioners can engage in, but are obvious starting places that use everyday experiences of practitioners to make meaning and look for new answers to the big questions of our field. The most important thing is to develop an idea and just keep writing. It doesn’t matter if you think what you’re writing isn’t in sync with a journal article you read last week. Even the most prolific scholars and writers rely on mentors and editors to help them refine ideas, develop arguments, wordsmith paragraphs, and correct errant commas. This brings us to one of the biggest roadblocks to scholarly writing:
I wrote about imposter syndrome on my blog, but the core ideas boil down to this: imposter syndrome is a fear of shame that stems from feelings that one isn’t smart or qualified enough to do, be, write, or create something.
Image: David Whittaker
Overcoming imposter syndrome can be challenging, but as more practitioners take the brave step of creating scholarship and asserting the need for others to do the same, the feeling that someone who is “just a student affairs professional” (whatever that is supposed to mean) cannot help others improve their practice through scholarship will begin to lessen. In the meantime, having a network of colleagues and friends who can offer you honest feedback and genuine support can help manage the feelings of imposter syndrome that may arise.
You’ve got an idea and you’ve carved out time to write and edit, where do you go from there?
Thanks to the power of the internet, student affairs professionals have nearly endless outlets to share their scholarly insights. Blogs (like this one, or those associated with a professional organization) are a great venue for sharing practical insights that can help improve the practice of other professionals. Personal blogs are a free way to share scholarly writing. They are something that you’ve created, that you curate, and they allow you to write anything from a brief reflection to a dissertation-length treatise on any topic that you are passionate about.
Online journals like The Mentor: An Academic Advising Journal, provide rigorous venues for scholarship without the same level of competition that a top-tier printed journal might garner, though those print journals can also be venues for strongly written, original arguments and research studies.
And, conference proposals can be a great venue for either piloting an idea that can then be turned into a scholarly paper or presenting such a paper to a wider audience, rather than publish it in a journal or on a blog.
No matter what the topic, the format, and the venue we share it in, practitioners in student affairs have the ability to offer critique and insight that can contribute to the scholarship of the profession. Now is the time to make scholarship—contributing to the learning of colleagues, not just students—a priority in our work. Now, let’s write!
Reason, R.D., & Kimball, E. W. (2012). A new theory-to-practice model for student affairs: Integrating scholarship, context, and reflection. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 49(4), 359-376. doi:10.1515/jsarp-2012-6436
About the author: Chris Venable is an academic advisor for the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Kent State University and uses they/them pronouns. Their research interests include the use of theory in academic advising practice, the professionalization of the academic advising field, and social justice practices in advising. They hold an M.A. in College Student Personnel from Bowling Green State University and B.A.s in Mathematics and Secondary Education from Webster University. Outside work, Chris enjoys reading, crafting, and spending time with their partner.