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?

On My Journey Through Darkness

I recently reread a short essay by Maureen Watson (2015) titled: Treasures in Darkness: Loving the Questions.  In the essay, Watson speaks about what it feels like to live in the darkness. A year ago I was in a dark place, and although I had good reason to be there, it was torture. Parker Palmer’s metaphor of winter also speaks to where I was at the time. It was cold and it felt like the wind was blowing hard as I stood on a flat plain all alone in the dark of night.  1488905_10102331116884928_919608754_n

My choice to phrase the above paragraph in the manner that I did was intentional, and does mean that I’m no longer solely in that place. I don’t want it to be heard that I’ve somehow done a 180, but I have made progress. And I can see the progress. All of this I share because recently I’ve been thinking about how I once had a counselor who asked me if it was okay to revisit experiences that I thought I had worked through.  I was in a very stubborn place and was sharing with her that I refused to consider the past…I just wanted to be fixed even though I knew that she wasn’t going to tell me how I could be fixed. She pointed out that despite working through something in the past, I had since had more experiences that might lead me to see my past experiences differently, and she asked me if I thought that was possible.  Her question stayed with me, and is often something I still consider.

All of these thoughts combined with a passage I was recently reminded of in my Introduction to College Student Personnel course:

“Personnel workers see the person–at whatever age–not as a single moment independent of the past and the future, but as a transition point in a stream of experience that goes back to infancy and will continue on into the future” (Lloyd-Jones, 1954).

And the combination of these thoughts with current events such as the shooting of Keith Scott, the homelessness of the Syrian Refugees, the Native American tribal land protest, and the weekly interactions I have with first generation students place my mind in a spot where I can’t imagine how we could ever feel settled in higher education.  Yet, feeling settled is often what I believe we desire.  I know that I’ve desperately wanted to feel the security of having settled over the past year and a half–the safety that I can count on at least one piece of knowledge and believe it to be true.

Wouldn’t it be nice if we could feel comfort in spite of today’s current events instead of only frustration and darkness?

It is in these moments of desiring comfort and stability, however, that I can see that I’ve managed to get through the dark place I was in and find a bit more light by going one step at a time.  And this time, I deeply value the light rather than taking it for granted.  In other words, now that I am able to see how far I have come, I find that I want to make sure that I am always a bit uncomfortable, and in many ways I hope that we all are a bit uncomfortable. For it is in that spot, that I believe we discover the most about ourselves.

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Are Our Inclusive Communities for Those with Disabilities?

Since the beginning of 2016, I’ve challenged myself to have new experiences, which have led me to increasingly realize how hard it is to function in a world that isn’t designed for people with foot drop.  I have a physical disability that can be seen, and although people can see it, I often think of disabilities that aren’t as visual.

Where are our student affairs conversations about any of those who comprise these groups when we talk about social justice? 

In our efforts to create more inclusive communities?

Unfortunately, I can find it only occurring among those like me (or those who are close to us), and I am new to the group.  So, please don’t take what I’m writing here as me speaking on behalf of everyone with a disability, and don’t dismiss it either, as it is insight into one person’s experiences.

Identifying as a person with a disability is not unlike many other identities, except that it is not always visible.  Nearly 1 in 5 people have a disability in the United States.  It is an identity that cuts across race, class, and gender, etc.

As someone who has more recently become disabled, I get it:

The world would be easier if people like me, people who looked abnormal when trying to function in a “normal” way (in my case walking) would just go away.  I feel that message from the systems that exist in the world almost every single day. I know that I am not alone in feeling this way, and I know that the feeling does not belong to just those with a disability.

I’ve spent time considering a few points this semester since attending and presenting at a conference, and participating in recruitment days

Western Illinois University representing at ACPA (I am on the far left)

Western IL University representing at ACPA (I’m the far left)

for the program in which I teach–neither of which were especially challenging for me physically prior to everything occurring.  I am not sharing these points because I want everyone to constantly think about what it must be like to have a physical disability.  In fact, I suspect that most people, even after reading this, will do what I used to do, which is go back to a comfortable, able-bodied routine.  However, I still think I have some points worth sharing, so here are three thoughts for the field of student affairs to consider:

  1. Please understand that I will not walk into a crowded room and work the room, as I don’t know who will be paying attention to where they are walking and/or what might suddenly change about the environment.  In fact, I would prefer to sit and, as I meet people, I will explain to them why I am not getting up.
  2. Just ask me if I need help and know that I am okay with saying that I have a disability.  Perhaps I haven’t had my disability long enough to insist on person first language, and I do understand (deeply) the negative stereotypes that come to mind when folks use the world disabled.  However, after all the work I’ve put into my recovery, the last thing I have energy for is serving as the “word police.”  I get it…if you are describing me, I’m okay if you say “the disabled person”.  I’m just happy that you saw me without me having to remind you that I exist.
  3. Finally, I know there is talk about gender inclusive restrooms within the field, which is great. For me, at the end of the day, it comes down to being able to use any restroom.  At.  All.  So, please stop going into what is often the only accessible stall simply because it has more room.  I know people do it…I used to. I’m six feet tall and used to weigh 36 pounds more than I do now (I’m still considered “big boned”), add to that a backpack, a winter coat, and I feel more comfortable using a larger stall.  Now, I need it. Please don’t hear that we should decide who gets which stall and when. However, for me, there is no getting off the toilet if there is no bar to use to pull myself up.

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

 

The “How”, Spoon Theory, and #SAPros

In January, I experienced a medical crisis that caused me to reestablish all of my personal and professional goals for 2015.  I have been working toward my goal of recovery and adjusting to my “new” normal ever since.  Recently, I was given permission to return to my teaching position in order to teach one course this summer.  I am both excited and anxious about it.  So far, it is progressing nicely, but week one is always an easy week, because you are getting the course established and going.  🙂

Beyond my anxiety around not being able to fully walk due to my acquisition of foot drop, I knew I would be challenged to have enough energy to fully return to work.  I’ve been told ever since I “woke up” on January 7th that I would be tired and would need a lot of rest.  And, yes, early on this was true, I did need rest.  Yet, my need for rest has evolved as I’ve progressed in my recovery (at first I was tired from coming back to life, and now I get tired from using more higher order cognitive skills).

brain-sleeping1Recently, I was describing the unique way in which I found myself tired– “I can feel my brain and it is tired”, and a friend told me that it sounded to her as though I was describing Spoon theory.  A few days later, Spoon theory was shared on the Stroke Talk for Facebook group that I am a member of, so I decided to spend more time with it.  Prior to my January experience, and the conversation with my friend, Spoon theory was not a theory I’d come to know.  It isn’t found in any student development book that I know of, nor have I come across it in any counseling theory texts.  I found it to be accessible, easy to understand, and quite important to our field when considering a host of invisible disabilities.  (I will assert that I believe we quite often complicate how to bring theory into practice by not using accessible examples for all—perhaps we need to use more dining utensils 😉 ).  midi-spreader-appetizer-fork-demi-spoon

Furthermore, I teach the Student Development Theory 1 course at Western Illinois University and during class we spend time exploring how development occurs.  We do this because I believe it is powerful to know how development occurs if one is going to promote development amongst students, not just what the identity or characteristic that is developing.  It is challenging to explore development theory this way because it is almost always easier to identify “what” the theory is developing rather than clearly articulating “how” it is being developed.  As we do such exploration as a class, we begin to realize the power dynamic present when one determines a developmental place:

Does one place another in a specific spot in their development? 

Does one allow another to share where they are at in their development for themselves? 

These are important questions.  They are the difference between prescribing developmental interventions, as if we ourselves are fully developed, and creating developmental interventions, with the assistance of others, because we acknowledge that none of us are fully developed.

I’m not necessarily advocating for Spoon theory to be included in student development theory courses, although I do secretly think it would be a good idea.  I am asking us to consider what it would look like if, instead of focusing so much on “what” is being developed, and the end result of that developmental process, we start the conversation about bringing theory into practice by focusing on “how” development is occurring.

For example, Spoon theory asserts that if my foot drop heals (which I am really hoping that it does) and I am left with a non-visible neurological disorder due to my January experience, I will only be given a limited number of spoons for the day that I can use to accomplish my tasks.  It also claims that each of my tasks will use up a spoon, which might result in me only having one spoon left for the day come 6 p.m., but more work to do.  In other words, instead of focusing only on what my decreased energy is at various places on my road to recovery, Spoon theory also helps others understand how it is that I’ve come to have decreased energy.  And, personally, I’ve found that understanding both how I’ve come to have decreased energy, and what decreased energy is like for me, allows others to better understand my experience and support me as I continue to develop toward my goal of full recovery.  If this is how I’m left feeling about the inclusion of attending to how, and not just the what, in the process of development, imagine how our students might feel if we were to do the same as we put theory into practice as student affairs professionals.  It certainly seems to me as though it would create a more inclusive environment for our students.

Congratulations to the Class of 2015 New Student Affairs Professionals!

The following is the speech I gave at the graduation reception for Western Illinois University’s College Student Personnel program 2015 graduates.  I share it, slightly amended, because I think that it applies to all graduates entering the field of student affairs as new professionals.  Congratulations to everyone!

Hello, parents, family, and friends. My name is Sarah Schoper, and it is wonderful to stand before you here today. I want to start off by thanking you for being who you are because who you are has had a profound impact on the students. I have truly valued getting the opportunity to learn with each of them, and find them to be amazingly, beautiful individuals. I look forward to seeing how they contribute to the world around them, and cheering them on from afar.

(You should be forewarned that my mom told me to be funny so that I wouldn’t cry, and what I’m going to share is my attempt to do that.)

As you may have heard from your student, I decided to take a last minute sabbatical this semester (they probably referred to it as a trip to the hospital). Apparently, I felt the need to do a little more research on the biology of learning, and have indeed discovered that the experiential learning cycle is how learning occurs, that neurons need to connect to build pathways in the brain for learning to happen, and that we take in information through all of our sense that contributes to our learning, amongst other things. I am still in the midst of my research, also known as therapy, but so far, I can assure you and your student that I’m doing everything I can to teach only accurate and true information. It is this most recent research process that I’ve engaged in that has led me to five points, I want to share with the graduates to consider as they continue on in their life’s journey.

1.  Celebrate everything (and if you do so with nonalcoholic mimosas, various owl gifts, inspirational items, orange nails, and motivational quotes) all the better! In our world, it is far too easy to see the gl10968367_10204276114079969_5288278294979119983_nass half empty rather than half full. Don’t underestimate the small steps you take because they add u10562959_10206085533515956_3287090894491426514_np over time to big changes.

2. If you are doing your job well, you will be uncomfortable and feel quite challenged. (no, this doesn’t mean that you should go around instigating issues haphazardly). Going into the field of student affairs means that you get the opportunity to impact every day (no matter your position) the lives of the students you interact with in ways that are life altering. This enormous amount of responsibility and privilege should leave you feeling uncomfortable and challenged for many reasons, including that by doing so you are also continuing to grow and develop. (which, as we learned together in theory class, most of us don’t want to do.) So, breathe deeply, stand tall, and be persistent as you find yourself feeling uneasy, it might just signify that learning is about to happen, which is hard, but also might just provide an amazing opportunity to grow.

3. (and this relates to the point I just made about seeking out uncomfortable experiences and challenging yourself.) Do your best to step back so that you can get a different perspective on the situations you are experiencing. This can mean taking time to quietly reflect while going on a walk and/or it can mean discussing a situation with a trusted friend or mentor in order to help process out your experiences. We discussed once in class how we tend to focus on those who we interact with the most (which are also those who happen to be like us the most), but remember it is important to be aware of those we don’t spend time with and to consider why that might be. Especially since student affairs exists to serve all students.

4. It is okay to be protective of your environment, so that you can be yourself, and perhaps more importantly, so that you can have hope. In almost every class, we’ve discussed the interaction between environment and person, and we’ve established that it has a profound impact on how a person makes sense of the world, which in turn has a profound impact on what they contribute to the world. If you don’t create space for hope to exist within the educational environment, it is far too easy…especially these days, to become negative and cynical, which will then impact the work that you do and the learning that occurs for your students. If you don’t believe me about this, consider times when you’ve been around people who are pessimistic about their experience and how easily their negatively caught on and became the thing to do…almost without conscious realization of it. You will pass along such negativity to those coming to you for help if you do not create space for hope.

5. (and perhaps most important) Show love to everyone around you. I know that you are all capable of doing so, because you have shown it to me (especially this semester as I’ve been doing my research 🙂 ). Doing so, won’t always be easy either (again, sort of like this semester), but it has the ability to transform the world into a kindeunconditional_lover place, and I know this because it has transformed me.

During your program interview days, I remember sitting in the academic discussion, and one of you asking me to share what I’ve learned from the students since I had just finished talking about how learning goes both ways. At the time, I had a lot of thoughts in my head, and stumbled through my answer—the student came to WIU, so I must have done something right.  🙂  Now, that you all are about to graduate, the answer to that questions seems so clear. I’ve continually learned how to love more unconditionally, and for that, I am ever grateful. You’ve helped transform me into a stronger person, and I thank you for that because I’ve needed that strength this semester. One of my mentors, Marcia Baxter Magolda, once told me to never underestimate the students, and I sincerely believe that and encourage you all to hold onto it. All students have something to contribute, and it is amazing and beautiful to acknowledge and an honor to be a part of that.

So, in conclusion, I will leave you with two quotes. First, a Christopher Robin to Winnie the Pooh quote (seems sort of fitting at a graduate level graduation):

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The second quote is from a spoken word poet, Shane Koyczan: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gZfhpD42Z4Y  The specific quote I read starts on 4 minutes, 2 seconds.

“Shine in the dark places. Lend the world your light.”

From my heart to your heart, thank you for helping me to find my light this semester—I can only hope that I have returned the favor and helped you to find yours during your time in the program. Congratulations!

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Accepting Identity in Student Affairs

In my last blog post, I wrote about the connections I saw between rehab and learning. Since that post, I’ve been home for three weeks going to outpatient rehab. Outpatient rehab requires me to be outside much more, and living at home makes it so that my world is much bigger than it was when I was living on the second floor of the hospital. This also means that there are many more chances for me to be “watched/observed” by others. Now, I’m not necessarily someone who care what others think, but since January 6, I have felt much more exposed than usual while I am adjusting to my own “new” way of being in the world. This includes wearing an ankle and foot orthotic and walking with a four point cane.

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Last year, I attended and completed a series of workshops put on by Western Illinois University’s Disability Resource Center called Faculty and Staff Partnerships for Accessible Solutions (FASPAS). During these sessions, I learned again about the importance of universal design, and how I could bring such concepts into the learning environment within my classroom. I say again because as a student affairs professional I sat on committees at other institutions and attended workshops on accesssibility in higher education. At these workshops, there is always discussion about letting the person with the disability speak up and ask for help…don’t assume you know what they need. What there is a bit less focus on was the “feeling” in the room when everyone gets silent simply because you walked in to take a seat. The whole journey I am on, has helped me to realize that I, too, was probably one of those people, who suddenly got quiet when someone who looked like they needed my help walked into the room. Now, however, I feel quite different about that silence. I get it, I don’t look “normal”, but I am still the same person I was before, and I am on the journey of integrating a new identity into the whole of who I am as a person.

Recently, I finished reading the book Whistling Vilvaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do by Claude Steele (2010). In Steele’s book, he writes:

“Prejudice matters. It can shape contingencies. But identity contingencies can profoundly affect a person–to the point of shaping her life–without her encountering a single prejudiced person along the way….But remember, contingencies grow out of an identity’s role in the history and organization of society–its role in the DNA of a society–and how society has stereotyped that identity.” (p. 212).

If you had the chance to be around me since January of this year, there are a few main points you might hear me share.

First, I am not dead nor am I dying any time soon (if I can help it).

Second, I still have my brain. Simply because I am working on my recovery doesn’t mean I can’t think and/or that I am suddenly stupid.

When I came across this quote in Steele’s book, I couldn’t help but realize that what I’ve been concerned about are stereotypes that exist about people with disabilities in our society. Not that anyone has done anything directly to me, but they exist because I know them and I am impacted by them because I want to make sure that I am not fulfilling them. So, I’ve been working extra hard to get better as fast as I can. Now, it does occur to me that I am quite privileged in the sense that I have somewhat of a choice about getting better. I say somewhat, because nobody really knows how much I will recover, and I find that while I want to recover fully, I also am trying to process through what it will mean if I don’t. Steele summed up my recent tasks this way:

“My mission in this book is to broaden our understanding of human functioning, to get us to keep in mind that, especially in identity-integrated situations, people are not only coping with the manifest tasks of the situation, but are also busy appraising threat and protecting themselves from the risk of being negatively judged and treated. Perhaps the chief discovery of our research is that this protective side of the human character can be aroused by the mere prospect of being negatively stereotyped, and that, once aroused, it steps in and takes over the capacities of the person–to such an extent that little capacity is left over for the work at hand” (p. 213-214).

And, I by no way think that I am the only person who has ever acted this way. Indeed, Steele’s book cites research that supports his points. It does cause me to pause, however, and realize in a much more intense and powerful way what the students attending institutions of higher education who are exploring various identities might be experiencing.

Now, Steele offers a way for us to help lessen the impact of his reaction:

“A central policy implication of the research discussed here is that unless you make people feel safe from the risk of these identity predicaments in identity-integrated settings, you won’t succeed in reducing group achievement gaps or in enabling people from different backgrounds to work comfortably and well together” (p. 215).

What I am learning, is that safe environments aren’t environments that simply state that “all people are welcome”, nor are they environments in which people have learned social justice speak (both, assertions I experience student affairs professionals make). For me,

safe environments are those without the intense feeling of silence because everyone is afraid that you might fall and hurt yourself.

It is quite important that we consider how we create these environments in student affairs in such a way that they don’t inadvertently trigger identity contingencies.

Whistling
Steele, C.M. (2010). Whistling vilvaldi. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York, New York.