Myths About Self-Authorship in Student Affairs

I thought I would blog about self-authorship to help clear up some misunderstandings I’ve personally experienced throughout my time in the field.  Self-authorship is something that I research and study, so I try to notice when it is misunderstood.  I thought an easy way to clear it up would be to share four main myths I’ve heard about the concept.

Myth #1: Self-authorship is simply saying “I’m making this decision myself, so therefore, I’m self-authored.”  For example, “I’m sorry Sarah, I decided to self-author my homework and not do it.”

Myth #2: Self-authorship is only for White people.

Myth #3: Self-authorship is participating in self-reflection.

Myth #4: Self-authorship doesn’t allow you to build relationships with others.

So let’s start with some basics.  Self-authorship is a way of making meaning. A self-authored individual makes meaning of their experiences by determining their own values and beliefs while seeing others’ views as important and worth considering (Garvey Berger, 2011). This addresses myth #1 and myth #4.

Another way of looking at self-authorship is that it is a way of making meaning in which individuals possess the ability to face economic complexity, balance multiple roles, interact effectively with a diverse world, and responsibly confront social issues (Baxter Magolda, 2001).  Having the ability to face each of these issues most certainly is necessary for those working within the field of student affairs, as the problems of our field seem to only be increasing in complexity within each of these areas and more.

A self-authored way of thinking isn’t just about thinking about oneself (myth #1), it actually requires one to become closer to others in order to see their view point. Kegan (1994) discusses this by stating,

“When we see that we are not made up by the other’s experience, we then have the capacity not to take responsibility for what is now genuinely and for the first time not ours. And as a result, we can get just as close to the other’s experience (even the other’s experience of how disappointing, enraging, or disapprovable we are!) without any need to react defensively to it or be guiltily compliant with it” (p. 127). 

Imagine if in student affairs, we could interact with each of our colleagues and others at work having this capacity!

Myth #2 is addressed through research that is being conducted worldwide, as documented in Development and Assessment of Self-Authorship: Exploring the Concept Across Cultures (Baxter Magolda, Creamer, & Meszaros, 2010).  Book+Self+AuthorshipWithin the book, there are chapters on Bedouins and Jews in Israel, Latino ethnic identity, and other groups of people; and those aren’t the only studies occurring.  In fact, if you explore almost all development theories, you will find a common ebb and flow to them if you explore “how” development is occurring, not just “what” is being developed. Like almost all development theories, those who experience the most dissonance are the most likely to develop toward it.

Myth #3 is not what self-authorship is, but is instead a way to promote the development of self-authorship.  Again, given the issues facing our field, I believe we want to promote it. We need people who are conscious of themselves and the systems that are at work in student affairs and higher education, so that they can make responsible decisions for the good of the community by recognizing what is their responsibility and what is not in an ever increasingly complex world.  Other processes that promote self-authorship include:

  • “an ingenious blend of support and challenge” (Kegan, 1994, p. 42)

  • “listening without judgment, working on the process of one’s own way of making meaning, and intentionality” (Garvey Berger, 2012)

  • “identify diverse experiences, epistemological reflection, and participation as methods” (Mezirow, 2000, 2009; Zull, 2002)

It is also important to remember that being self-authored in how one makes meaning isn’t the end goal–there is more to our development and it continues to be explored.  Being self-authored in how one makes meaning allows individuals to move beyond solely depending on the external environment to tell them who they are and what actions they should take. Being able to think for one’s self is a way of thinking that employers seek in employees (Kerry, 2013, para 6; Krislov and Volk, 2014, para 13). However, my own research on new professionals indicates that those entering the field of student affairs aren’t yet self-authored (Schoper, 2011) (sorry if I’m bursting that bubble), so how can we expect them to assist in fully developing undergraduate students to meet the qualifications that employers seek?  I don’t believe it is simply the fault or full responsibility of student affairs preparation programs. It seems as though the field of student affairs may still be, “overly focused on outcomes and not process” (Jones, 2006, p. 4).

To me, it is the collective responsibility of all of us to promote continued development, not just in our students, but in ourselves. If for no other reason then it enables us to approach the problems we are facing with a different mindset.

Einstein

 

Wouldn’t it be GREAT if Support Could Take Away the Challenge?

In student affairs, one of the “go to” standard responses (especially during the job interview process) when asked how one translates theory to practice is to provide challenge and support. The origin of this phrase in the field comes from Nevitt Sanford’s (1967) theory of challenge and support. I’m not always certain based on my experiences, however, that the theory translates over into the field exactly how it was designed. In fact, the more experiences I’ve had in the field the more I’ve found myself responding by asking the question, “what do you mean by that?” or “what does that look like?” when I hear someone say that they will “challenge and support the student.” I ask these questions because in my experience using challenge and support often looks like this:

Step one: Student finds a student affairs professional and says that they are overwhelmed/stressed/upset/not doing well with something.

Step two: Student affairs professional listens to the student and then helps the student figure out what to do about the problem. The help that is given to the student more often than not involves telling the student what steps they need to take.

Step three: Student follows the steps, or does not, and either the problem is solved or it is not (if it is not, and the student returns to the student affairs professional to discuss it again, or the student affairs professional hears from someone else that the student didn’t follow the steps they were told to follow, and discussion is often had about how it is the student’s fault for not “accepting the help” they were receiving…in other words, not doing what they had been told to do)

Step four: Student affairs professional feels good because the professional helped provide support for the student as the student was experiencing challenge.

I can’t help but wonder, however, if students are learning from such experiences what they should be learning from institutions of higher education. I’m also not sure that using challenge and support in this way is what Sanford intended… as I don’t really believe in the idea of using support to remove the challenge. I also don’t believe it is very helpful to create relationships with students where they are dependent on student affairs professionals to get the answers to their questions. Doing so often results in students repeatedly coming back to student affairs professionals to ask what they should be doing in a variety of situations, and student affairs professionals telling them how to address their issue (although this might make us feel popular/wanted as student affairs professionals, it has potential to result in quite a number of challenges for students upon graduation when they no longer have a student affairs professional to go to for all of the answers to the challenges they are experiencing). I’m not saying that students should be ignored when they seek out help, or be told to “figure it out” for themselves. Rather, I think we want students to learn to consider what they already know and how that might help them navigate through whatever experience they are being challenged by. Doing so, does not mean that students are alone in the process of navigating through whatever challenge they are experiencing, but rather it means that we partner with them. In other words, the support we provide is us being with them as they work through the challenge. I actually experienced such support this morning as I installed a ceiling fan.

Yes, challenge and support is applicable to all learning experiences…including installing ceiling fans. 🙂

This is the finished product:

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Yet, it almost didn’t become a finished product because I had reached a point of maximum frustration and impatience (lots of “this is stupid” and “why did I ever start this?” kinds of thoughts were occurring both in my mind, as well as being muttered under my breath). You see, I have learned just enough about changing out lights/fans/etc. that I am now the family member volunteered for such home improvement projects when visiting relatives. Given that I currently am visiting my sister, I was volunteered (and agruably I volunteeered myself, although I am hesitant to admit it given my most recent Sarah-as-an-electrician fan installation experience) because I wanted to do something nice for her (she is having surgery today, and I thought it would be nice to do something nice for her to experience when she returned home). I had most certainly reached a point where I just wanted to be told what to do by someone else to solve the problem of the switch not working after I thought I had done everything I should have done. So, reached out to my partner, John, and asked him to do just that. I even, in quite a sassy tone, told him that I didn’t know what to do and was done.

“I’m done. I quit. Just tell me what to do.”

Instead of responding by telling me what to do, he asked me to explain what steps I had taken. At first, I will admit, I was quite frustrated by this question. I didn’t want to tell him what I had done, I just wanted the switch to work!!!

Once I told him the steps I had taken, he asked me what I knew about why it might not be working. This led to us determining that perhaps the wiring wasn’t as straight forward as it appeared. In other words (this will make sense if you’ve ever done any electrical work) matching the black wire to the black wire, and the white wire to the white wire no matter how many times I did it was not going to provide different results (indeed, my continual repetitive trials of doing so were already proving this!).

At this point in time, I had calmed down enough that I started to consider again what might be going on. This time, however, John and I problem solved together, and the question of how we could figure it out was raised. This led to me getting on the internet and searching words that explained the experience I was having. At the same time, John thought that perhaps looking at the wire connection of a switch hook up in another room could help. Once we each did that, we discussed what steps we would take next and low and behold we got the switch working. (Hallelujah!)

Funny enough, John providing me with this kind of partnership, instead of just telling me what to do, has actually resulted in me feeling satisfied and motivated to install a second ceiling fan. While I shared this experience as an example of the kind of partnership that reflects a more complex way of providing challenge and support, and not one in which John used support to “solve” my challenge, it also illustrates the motivation and skill development that results from such partnering.

The next fan I will be replacing:

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(Yes, you are correct…that is a baseball fan ;))