Our Love Affair With Dualism

As a society, we love dualism. We enjoy reducing our options to two, and framing it so that the only options we have are the two that we often can’t stop obsessing over. Yes, our love of dualism is a lens to view the most recent presidential election and its aftermath (e.g., You either were for Trump or participated in the marches this past weekend, You either were for Trump or are for abortion, etc.).

It is also a lens to view most decisions. A few dualisms related to higher education, and specifically student affairs are:

films-cinema-movie-choices-romances-tedium-rte0331_low.jpgWe either go to college or we don’t; We are either life-long learners or we’ve stopped learning; and one that has been on my mind over the past two years, “I will either get better or I will not”.  Thankfully, given my health challenges I’ve had to make my options for this one more complex than a simple one or the other.

Another that has cropped up recently in my mind is:

We are either for students developing/growing/learning/becoming complex in how they make meaning or we are for student success.

Why is it that we do this?

I genuinely am interested in knowing. It makes no sense to me why we would frame our practice as though we have two options (please know that I am not perfect in not doing it either..see above). Yes, there is a movement to use “big data” to shape the higher education experience for students. And I agree that it has potential to result in some more personalized experiences for our students, which is great! Still, I believe that it is us humans that assist in the dfear-greed.jpgevelopment of students (aka, helping others learn), not computers exporting formulas. Thus, I believe that there will always be a need for some sort of student affairs professionals.

Additionally, although I agree that the innovation of the assembly line in the United States (U.S.) allowed us to gain traction in terms of having an advantage on a global scale economically speaking, I do not think that human growth occurs in an assembly like fashion. If it did, I hope we would have had it figured out a long time ago. Thus, another reason why I believe that there will be a need for student affairs professionals.

Another way that we enjoy dualism in our everyday lives is to reduce our interactions with others to be simply an evaluation of someone’s intelligence.

They are either intelligent or not.

This one I’ve heard a lot lately due to the el130003e1461282313o8184.jpgection, so not just within education.

Although lately in higher education, we seem to be doing this in regard to a variety of issues: social justice issues, what it means to be professional, political perspective, etc. I hope that we catch ourselves in these moments and pull back from drawing a causation between a person’s intellectual abilities and how they make sense of the world. I know that we often don’t…as evidenced by conversations I’ve witnessed in person and on social media.

The multitude of options that exist between two choices is an area we as student affairs professionals can assist others in seeing. As long as we continue to be the folks who have examined change (aka development) on the individual level, as well as on the organizational level–including how the two interact. Again, there is another reason we need student affairs professionals….perhaps even for life, not just within institutions of higher education.

Lynn Pasquerella, President, Association of American Colleges and Universities, speaks to our belief in dualism as well in a video published by The Chronicle of Higher Education in December, 2016.

So, again, I ask: Why do we reduce our options to only two? And this time I add to the question: What can you doing to recognize it and help move beyond it?

Discussing Metacognition in Student Affairs

As a doctoral student at the University of Maryland, I was required to take classes toward a concentration. I knew that I wanted my concentration to be in learning and development (my true passion), but I admit that I was quite nervous to take courses outside of my degree department. Still, I kept in mind the advice I received from Sharon Parks Daloz during my first year as a student affairs professional at Longwood University. She had come to campus to speak, and I had the opportunity to drive her home, which I took full advantage of by asking her about the PhD process (I knew that I wanted to obtain a PhD, but was still in the exploration phase). I can only imagine she was exhausted when I dropped her off at the airport from the amount of questions I asked, but she was so kind and patient in responding to all of them (Thank you, Sharon!). One piece of advice that she shared that stuck with me was to, “take courses outside of the field I was interested in contributing to so as to find unique contributions/ideas/thoughts/insights.” And so this was the advice that I clung to as I entered unfamiliar classrooms in unfamiliar buildings in pursuit of my concentration.

Perhaps the course I was the most nervous about taking was a cognitive psychology course. I recall having to look on the campus map for the building, and arriving early the first day to make sure that I found the classroom. I wasn’t sure of the style of teaching I would experience, and knew that I would fail miserably at any course that was going to require rote memorization. Considering this thought now makes me chuckle a bit, given that such a teaching style would not implore all of the research contributions cognitive psychology has made to the learning process…at the time though I was unfamiliar with such contributions. I just knew that I was leaving the familiar discussion-based classroom environment of the Benjamin Building!

It was here in this course that I began reading articles from the field of neuroscience, and considering the physical processes of the brain such working memory, executive function, and long term memory. I could see the benefit of research conducted from a more positivist paradigm (although I did keep showing my paradigm by thinking…why try to control for so much when people don’t experience the world in such a controlled way?), as it allowed for a deeper understanding of specific details. All of this, I was encouraged to translate into what I understood to be the learning process, specifically the transformative learning process that I was exploring and writing a bit about in the field of student affairs. It was exciting as I could see the interconnections of two fields, and it added depth to what I was learning about the developmental process spoken about my theorists such as Piaget, Kegan, and Bronfenbrenner. I’ve continued post-PhD to explore as much as possible fields such a neuroscience, biology, physics, and psychology for the insights being made into the learning process. In this continued exploration, I have come to learn more about the process of metacognition, and recently came across this chart:


to demonstrate the process of metacognition. James Zull (2011) included it in his most recent book titled From Brain to Mind. It is his depiction of the process one needs to experience to move from brain to mind…to reach metacognition. In the chart you would move up through the different levels. Zull goes into a detailed discussion of what it might look like to be “at” each “bar” in the chart, and I encourage you to read his book for more insight. What is hanging with me is the assertion he makes that metacognition depends on the nature of our experiences, and that these experiences must involve self-awareness. That such experience must allow the learner to integrate, “cognition, emotion, action, feelings, sensory experiences, and motor experiences” (p. 279). They must encourage the learner to draw and develop connections. It is from this that “the self emerges”, and it is allowing spaces for the learner to be them “selves” that allows for difference, that allows unique interactions with the world, and through unique interactions innovation thrives. Innovation is what many argue our world needs to continue progressing. Innovation is what many argue we need for survival.


So, I, like Zull, offer the above chart and my reflections here to encourage a discussion to those in the field of student affairs. What are your thoughts about how you design experiences for metacognition within the learner? What are your thoughts about involving self-awareness for the learner?