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Making a New Hat out of a Few Old Ones

Making a New Hat out of a Few Old Ones

I still have many notebooks stored in my office with weekly “Work To-Dos” with subheaders of “Events,” “Advising,” “Assessment,” and “Diversity & Dialogue.” In my role within an Office of Student Activities, I coordinated and led the department’s assessment processes, and additionally created and facilitated diversity, inclusion, and social justice education opportunities for the campus community. In balancing this work with the traditional responsibilities of advising student organizations and assisting in major campus programs, I task-mastered each and every day, effectively categorizing my work into silos.

While the work effectively got done and continued to be very rewarding, in reflecting on it now, I found myself switching hats between roles. There was Assessment Trainer, Strategic Planner, and Data Analyst Amy, and then there was Diversity Educator and Intergroup Dialogue Facilitator Amy. Some of the activities between these roles overlapped - I would develop programmatic learning outcomes and assess my social justice education programs, and would practice active listening and encourage staff to take risks when learning new things during assessment trainings - but I approached these work tasks as separate roles; separate areas of professional interest and skill that I was developing apart from one another.

Room full of hats

Therefore, reading the latest issue of the Journal of Student Affairs Inquiry, focusing on “What role, if any, does student affairs inquiry (assessment, evaluation, and/or research) have in equity work across college campuses?”, both invigorated me and gave me pause. It was exciting to explore the conflation of my major professional passions (there were many finger snaps while reading), and yet, why had I not been approaching my work within assessment and inquiry with a framework of social justice and equity all along? As someone who has loudly and frequently said that both social justice education and student affairs assessment are everyone’s jobs, I had been leaving the social justice piece out of parts of my professional actions as I switched between roles.

I returned to my initial invigoration to further read and reflect on how I can redirect my assessment and inquiry training and practice to advance social justice. The Journal of Student Affairs Inquiry has been an excellent resource in this exploration. I find myself returning to Bourke’s (2017) “Advancing Toward Social Justice via Student Affairs Inquiry” as he clearly illustrates the role of student affairs inquiry in advancing social justice and the use of data in transformative ways, while also exploring the possibilities of ethical dilemmas in approaching objective inquiry work with a subjective understanding of social identities, power, privilege, and oppression. Specifically, the discussion of the transformative uses of data has challenged me to consider new and different ways to approach our institutional data set, including reviewing campus policies, examining differences between groups, and sharing data with key stakeholders, including students, in meaningful ways (Bourke, 2017). At a STEM institution with a 69% male population, and I am consistently analyzing data based on binary gender, but what about our trans*, gender queer, and gender non-conforming students? (Do we even have all of those identity options when collecting demographic information for our surveys?) With all of the data sets I have access to, how have I shared this information with students and campus stakeholders to advance social justice?

I have also thought critically about the power and political and social capital associated with being a knowledge holder at my institution, both as a professional leading the capacity building of assessment work with staff and as a strategic planner and data analyst collecting and making sense of student data. While I do not have hierarchical power, I do have agency in how I train staff in areas of assessment and how data is interpreted and shared within our department.  In building a culture of assessment with our student affairs staff, how can I root our assessment training and divisional practice toward advancing social justice? When looking at data, whose stories am I sharing and who am I leaving out? How am I framing these stories for stakeholders and am I naming the truths found through inquiry? (Bourke, 2017) Is there evidence in my analysis of unconscious bias given my own social identities, and if so, in what ways can I identify and challenge that bias?

Toward the last question, David Takacs’s (2003) “How Does your Positionality Bias your Epistemology?” has been an insightful resource. Takacs (2003) asks us to consider how who we are, shape what we know, and to acknowledge universal truths that we have crafted from our own unique identities and experiences. I gravitated towards his praxis of addressing this issue of positionality biasing one’s epistemology, as much of it is rooted in the principles of dialogue. Takacs (2003) asserts that the broadest set of experiences is necessary to understand a topic as completely as possible, and therefore advocates for active listening and seeking understanding of those different from ourselves. This challenges assumptions rooted in our own positionality, and leads us to be more aware and objective. Given this understanding, I plan to connect with those different than myself around inquiry work. Additional viewpoints on data analysis or the creation of an assessment plan will challenge my positionality and highlight bias, while also continuing to build upon the broadest set of experiences possible.

In student affairs assessment and inquiry we are working to understand - to paint a larger picture of college student learning and the student experience. It is important that we actively engage in understanding ourselves and those who are different from us in order to critically examine the picture we are painting. Who is in it and who is missing? Have we considered lived experiences different from our own? Are we aware of which stakeholders will also be looking at this picture and how it will be interpreted? Considering these questions, including social justice in all pieces of our work, not just a hat we wear when called upon, will continue to lead inquiry as an act of justice.


Amy Corron, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

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I really appreciate the perspective on positionality, particularly through the framing of Takacs's piece. Understanding how we situate ourselves in assessment work is such a critical perspective that we need to address more directly in the field.

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Great insights! Assessment gives us valuable information about improving our programs and services AND our deeper understanding of equity and social justice must inform and improve how we approach assessment.

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Great reminders, Amy! Thanks for sharing.

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Excellent piece, Amy. It's reflective and provocative.

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