I’ve arguably been working in the field of student affairs since I accepted an RA position at TCU when I was a sophomore. However, it wasn’t until I began my journey to become a full-time professional that I began hearing the phrase “meet students where they are at”. Many years later, during which time I was a student affairs practitioners at several different institutions, I continue to hear this phrase used. This time, however, I am a faculty member, and so yes, although it did bother me as a practitioner (I know, I know..I can recall using it and still find myself using it at times…I own it) it seems to be bothering me even more as a faculty member.
It just isn’t feeling comfortable.
It isn’t that I don’t understand why it is being used. I often jokingly respond to someone when I hear them use the phrase “do you mean physically meet them because that seems like it might be impossible given we’d have to go to students homes, etc.?” To which we often laugh and then they proceed to tell me that what they mean is developmentally. Which actually, despite the courses that I teach and my research interests, actually doesn’t help me. Rather, it makes me curious about how the person using the phrase came to determine where the person is at in terms of their development.
My curiosity around what I refer around “the how” (aka how they came to determine, in this case, where a person is at in their development) seems endless the more experiences I have, and yet, I often feel alone in the conversation, or at least I’m reminded that my curiosity is different, which is connected to feeling alone. Patrick Love wrote an article about informal theory a few years ago in the Journal of College Student Development. I’ve often thought of this article, especially as I’ve heard people say that they aren’t “theory to practice” people. I’m not even sure what that means? (It is extra intriguing when those same people use the phrase “meet them where they are at”…mind boggling)
Isn’t everything a theory? I think the systems at work in our world are just a theory (quite a powerful one) about how we “should” see each other, how we “should” be, etc. And that theory is so powerful it is often seen as truth…often without question. It gives value to some things and not to others, and it is often so dominate it can’t be seen. The movie Precious Knowledge did a nice job flushing that out.
If not being a “theory to practice” person means that one isn’t using the theory they were taught in a class to guide their practice, I would ask what theory are you using? Not that I’m saying everyone needs to use the theory they were taught in class…more, I’m just raising the idea that perhaps there is always a theory guiding everything that we do, and as many of us know “theory can make you miss things”…this would mean that we are always missing things…so then what do we mean by “meet students where they are at” and why is that a more common phrase used to describe one’s practice than “this is how I came to hear the student” so there is at least a better chance of surfacing what is being missed?