Huh?

Disclaimer: This post is entirely too long, boring, and talks about school-related things. Read at your own risk. Or at least be drinking a venti Starbucks beverage when you do.

My elusive search for a dissertation topic is taking me places I’m afraid to go.

Again, given my growing disdain for the pursuit of what I have started calling my fake doctorate, I’m resolved to look for something short, sweet, and easy to do. After all, I think it’s a safe bet that by the time the ink dries on my dissertation, I’ll be so sick of the higher education enterprise that I’ll probably just end up leaving the field altogether and becoming a graphic designer or a stripper.

But alas, I’m an overachiever, I have a hundred grand in student loans, and at this point in my life, this is all I know to do, so I’m pressing on.

When I started the program in 2005, I started out with a potential topic on cultural identity development in college students. For those of you fortunate enough to have not heard me talk about this, cultural identity is pretty much a construct that I made up that says that an individual’s cultural identity is the intersection of the cultural elements (beliefs, values, practices, rituals, etc.) that result from his or her membership in a particular set of cultural groups. These groups are not bound by racial or ethnic lines but can encompass any collection of people that counts as a culture. So that would include qualifiers like gender, religious affiliation, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status. As a result of membership in these groups, an individual’s identity is fluid and contextual. And so when a conservative Baptist African-American lesbian attends a meeting of the Republican National Committee, certain parts of her identity take precedence (guess which ones).

Interestingly, I came up with this construct in my head before I learned about Susan Jones and MaryLu McEwen’s (2000) model of multiple identity development. Their model basically says the same thing, only they call it “multiple identity” rather than “cultural identity.” At least mine sounds a little less schizophrenic.

But anyway, the notion that identity can be fluid and contextual really interests me. It stems from my experiences as a “third culture kid” (TCK) in Thailand. I met other TCKs and learned firsthand about the challenges of straddling two or more cultures at the same time. You can navigate both but don’t necessarily belong in either. In any case, it’s something I’m definitely going to pursue at some point down the road.

However, the recent alignment of school, work, and professional interests gave me the idea to pursue a totally different topic for my dissertation: the alignment of student affairs assessment with external measures of institutional effectiveness.

Those of you outside higher ed administration probably went Huh?

In a nutshell: Generally, colleges and universities are divided into an unholy trifecta: academic affairs (faculty), student affairs (people like me), and business affairs (the soulless bureaucrats trying to milk Johnny’s parents for all they’re worth). Internally, each unit pretty much operates independent of each other. Each has different reporting structures and requirements. And each has different ways to measure and evaluate success. (Note to those not in the know: “streamlining” is a foreign concept in higher ed. Colleges and universities thrive on redundancy.)

Externally, local, state, and federal governments impose their own set of reporting structures, requirements, and measures of success. One of these criteria requires external groups to evaluate an institution’s effectiveness before the institution becomes eligible to receive funding. Basically, this process is designed to ask, Is this college any good? before taxpayer dollars are spent on the institution. The “goodness” of a college or university with respect to institutional effectiveness is typically measured using only student retention and degree completion rates. (Anyone who’s been in college knows that those two indicators are probably the least meaningful measures of the college experience, and yet those are among the primary criterion for literally billions of dollars in local, state, and federal funding provided to institutions. But that’s a subject for another post altogether.)

This is where the rub comes in. Of the three members of the unholy trifecta, student affairs is probably considered the least credible, especially in the measurement of outcomes. With academic affairs, you can at least assess with a level of certainty whether students have learned how to identify a Monet, solve a calculus problem, or explain macroeconomic theory. With business affairs, the financial bottom line is a pretty obvious measure of success. But the pervading perception in the academy is that student affairs, as the redheaded stepchild of higher education, trades in feelings. Apparently, all we do is facilitate endless “feel good” exercises and icebreakers with students.

But what some folks don’t realize is that student affairs is probably the unit that can get closest to actually influencing students’ learning and development. In the last 20 years or so, the field has exploded with assessments of outcomes beyond just retention and completion. Research has shown the “value added” of student affairs to undergraduate education—specifically, what the larger “college experience” outside the classroom contributes to institutional effectiveness.

And so what I’m interested to find out is the extent to which external measures of institutional effectiveness (at the state or federal level) incorporate the assessment of student affairs programs. I guess the ulterior motive is to raise the credibility of student affairs by saying that measures of institutional effectiveness need to look beyond just retention and graduation rates.

I don’t know if any of that made sense. This area is admittedly a lot more muddied than my identity development topic because 1) this one has so many components that have to do with how colleges work, and 2) it doesn’t behave like a theoretical model. But I’m open to any kind of hole-poking in my topic, so feel free to shoot it down in the comments section.

Also, if I should start looking to sculpt my abs in order to become a successful stripper, let me know now before I get in too deep.

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One thought on “Huh?

  1. Strippers make a lot of money, this is true . . . but I’m still pushing for the Doctorate – regardless of how many people believe it’s ‘fake’.

    Your two topics are both amazing, and I want to read the results from both studies, so why not just do both? I mean, you’ve got plenty of time and unlimited resources, right? Seriously, though, both are VERY interesting – the latter of the two probably more ‘newsworthy’, in the sense that the first ‘has been done before’.

    Peace! :o)

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