I’m six weeks into my student affairs and higher education graduate program and I’m beginning to recognize characteristics of the field I was largely unfamiliar with a short time ago. I feel as though I need to preface this blog by convincing you that I genuinely love the field and am incredibly honored to be attending Miami University. In 6 short weeks, I’ve learned an incredible amount. That being said, I have concerns.
These concerns are the result of a collection of undergraduate experiences, graduate involvement, and my overall exposure to, and immersion in, the culture of student affairs as a collective whole.
For those of you who are relatively unfamiliar with the profession, “student affairs” encompasses services at institutions of higher ed that generally do not fall under “academic affairs” or what you generally think of as standard classes. This includes offices like leadership, career services, Greek life, residence life etc. While collaboration does occur between faculty (professors), academic affairs (classes), and student affairs, by and large, the above explanation is how student affairs is categorically defined.
My current questions and concerns surround one umbrella topic most accurately described as “inclusivity”. A simple Google search provides the following definition, “Inclusivity: an intention or policy of including people who might otherwise be excluded or marginalized, such as those who are handicapped or learning-disabled, or racial and sexual minorities.”
I question whether that definition of inclusivity is, in and of itself, actually inclusive.
That question I just posed above, is a prime example of a mindset cultivated by student affairs education.
Before I discuss my concerns, I want to set the grounds for you by analyzing the definition of inclusivity I just quoted. In terms of the minorities listed, “sexual minorities” does not automatically account for gender (vs. biological sex) identities and does not explicitly recognize sexual orientations; racial minorities does not necessarily encompass ethnic minorities; and the term “minority” itself can be seen as controversial. According to the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, “[The word minority] may be viewed pejoratively [term of abuse/derogatory] because minority is usually equated with being less than, oppressed, and deficient in comparison with the majority” (6th ed., 5th printing, p. 75).
If you’re confused and you’re asking yourself, “Well…umm…what term can I actually use then?”, then I’ve proven my point; we’re on the same page.
It’s like walking on egg-shells.
In a good way at times, and in a bad way at other times.
Obviously, in some ways it’s good. As a professional working with students and other professionals on a daily basis, I want to be as inclusive as possible. I want to be intentional about my word choice. I want to create welcoming spaces for students.
But on the other hand, when I place the term “inclusivity” into the educational setting (Master/Doctoral programs in Student Affairs & Higher Education) and the student affairs culture as a whole, I see hypocrisy, I recognize discrepancies, and I’m worried.
To quote the Miranda Rights, “Anything you say can and will be used against you.” Student Affairs is undeniably a field that educates its future and current professionals on how to be inclusive. But to some extent I believe this “education on how to be inclusive” cultivates an exclusive group. And I wonder what implications this “exclusive” nature has when interacting and collaborating with others – within the field and outside of it. I recognize the importance of being politically correct and inclusive, but I’m having a hard time understanding where the line is: the line that divides the realistic expectations from the unrealistic.
In the world of student affairs, it’s wonderful that we hold such high expectations of others in terms of being inclusive, but how do we bridge the gap between this exclusive group of “inclusive” individuals and the rest of society. In no way am I implying that individuals outside of student affairs are not aware of social justice issues, what I’m saying is that many people will never have the privilege of obtaining the level of education student affairs professionals are required to possess – especially in terms of social justice education. Much of society will never be immersed in graduate programs that focus on the proper use of inclusive language and all that accompanies such heightened levels of political-correctness. Even if individuals do obtain higher education degrees, few programs place such an emphasis on understanding how to be politically correct.
My ultimate concern is the following: When do student affairs professionals cross the line from “advocate of the victimized”, to “victimizers” ourselves? We cannot expect the rest of the world to even have a remote awareness of some of the topics we discuss. I’m afraid that two years into this program, I’m going to be incredibly offended by 99.99% of conversations, advertising campaigns, books, jokes, and sarcastic remarks. And I don’t want to be.
I want to be inclusive, but not at the expensive of becoming an exclusive member of a supposed “inclusive” group of professionals.
A lot of my personal experiences have been small in relation to large-scale controversial issues that arise on the daily. Most issues have never been a huge deal, but as a collection, they have introduced me to a spectrum of sensitivity: a spectrum with incredibly extreme ends. Which leads me to two other broad ideas: “context” and “intent”.
We must take context and intent into account. Words are placed into a context intentionally. We construct sentences so they make sense in a particular way. So our words and actions convey distinct messages we are trying to get across. Yes, at times words and actions are placed into particular contexts with malicious intent; it’s an undeniable truth that people intentionally offend other people. And that’s never going to disappear. But in other cases, people offend individuals unintentionally. And there needs to be room for that.
Recently, it was brought to my attention that the term “bomb dig” could be off-putting to some people. I do recognize that the word “bomb” is primarily defined as an explosive, but it is also defined as something that “fails miserably”, or something that is “excellent”…as in “That’s the bomb!” This is where context and intent come into play.
Before using the term, I researched the origin of the term “bomb diggity” to ensure it had no negative connotations. The synonyms of “bomb diggity” or “bomb dig”, include words such as, “better than, excellent, great, good, amazing, and awesome”. I chose to use “bomb dig” to reflect my own personality. I felt that the alternative options were relatively cliche and wanted to avoid them. I also think the phrase “bomb dig” resonates with my generation and conveys a sense of humor/light-heartedness more accurately.
In addition, I compared this phrase to other phrases such as, “Shoot for the stars!”, “Silver bullet!”, and “That blows me away!” The terms “shoot, bullet, and blows” all can be used negatively. But in their current contexts, we understand their good-natured intent and purpose.
Likewise, in the profession of student affairs we continually use phrases like, “That could be a trigger.”, or “That’s a trigger word.” What’s not triggering about the word “trigger”? The primary definition is as follows: “a small device that releases a spring or catch and sets off a mechanism, especially in order to fire a gun.” The secondary definition of trigger (verb) is: cause (an event or situation) to happen or exist.
So going back to my original point, I’m having a hard time deciphering where the line is. And that’s relatively rhetorical. For each individual, the line is positioned at a different point, for different reasons, and is the result of different beliefs.
How do I, as a student affairs professional, accommodate this wide spectrum of political-correctness, and at the same time, still say words and write things? How do I take the vital ideas of context and intent into account?
I was hesitant to write this article. Questioning whether my own field is entirely inclusive is a “taboo” topic. But since we claim inclusivity, this diverse perspective should be given space.
We’re an incredibly self-reflective group of professionals, but personally, I think we fail to reflect on aspects of our profession that could be seen in a less-than-perfect light.
Because we’re inclusive, right?