Working in Higher Education, Making Meaning with Students, and the Concept of Doubt and Wonder

It is a lingering road that I’m embarking upon
allowing wonder to push perspective.
What reflects? I am a quiet pond. All ripples silence.
If I try, the price is to be what is left.

Who is competent is small.
Who is learning is finding themselves in poetry.
If I can, why shouldn’t I ask? I don’t know if
I will ever know. But I can learn.

What language shows and hides is in doubt.
Convincing you to let your expectations
fall way to a cradle of winter rain, icy
yet comforting in sound, like a sigh,
like a possible word to say thank you.

On a beach, a teacher shows two students a small creature in the sand.

The world of ideas and thought has always been a place of comfort for me. This comfort is one of the reasons I find myself attracted to a life in higher education, continuing to learn, to strive for improvement, and to grow. Since I was a child, it was imperative to me to lead an examined life, consistently evaluating how I can be more, do more, and give more to the world around me. For all these reasons, I tend to be inwardly focused, and therefore, education is a challenge, turning my learning outward from ideas to people. But I love to be challenged, to do things that test me, push me, and encourage me to continue developing as a more authentic human being.

However, my path to higher education, student affairs, and student services has been a “wavy” one. I spent six years working toward a career in acting and theatre after graduating with a BFA in Theatre Studies from Southern Methodist University in 2000. I love and will always love the theatre, but I tired of the uncertainty and nomadic nature of the actor’s life. So, I spent three years studying Creating Writing and writing instruction at Colorado State University, graduating with an MFA in Creating Writing in 2009 with the original intention of teaching writing. However, late in my program at CSU, I began to realize that the moments I most cherished with my students were in conferences or office hours. Often, it seemed that the 15 minutes I saw them one-on-one were more rewarding than the entire semester’s worth of in-class writing instruction. The thought occurred to me that advising and student services could be a perfect fit for my variety of interests and abilities, offering me the possibility of helping my students create meaning, not just of a singular text, but of their entire college experiences.

Reflecting on my learning in the College Student Services Administration program, this blogfolio will act as a narrative and poetic documentary of my experience at Oregon State University. I create it as a blog in order to devise a living text, one that others can add to, comment on, and provide feedback for, so that I can engage various communities in my reflection process. To honor my background in the literary arts, I have added highlighted text, single words or phrases, that link out to poems. These poems offer another way of reflecting for me, creating both broader and more detailed meaning, as I find it important to create art to give my readers a more in-depth picture of who I am and what I’ve learned. They also offer insight to my thought process, making meaning through associations, intuitions, and poetic and philosophical leaps. In addition, I know that I can take myself and my work too seriously at times, and the poems provide a relief valve for that tendency, letting light and laughter into my practice.

The overarching concept for this blogfolio is the dichotomy of doubt and wonder. This may not seem like a dichotomy to you at first. Are they really in opposition? And what do doubt and wonder have to do with education anyway? For me, doubt and wonder are the two necessary ingredients for education because without them I cannot have faith. And I believe faith, in nothing more or less than human possibility, to be the most important quality of an incredible educator.

When I doubt, I am uncertain. I sit with ambiguity. I work hard to wrestle with the doubt. I distrust myself and my ability to do this work well. When I wonder, however, I am curious. I press forward in awe and admiration. It is wonder that keeps me wanting to learn, wanting to grow, even as I doubt myself, reason with myself, analyze myself, critique myself. One of my committee members suggested to me that, in the ways that I describe it, this concept of doubt and wonder sounds like Sanford’s (1967) theory of challenge and support. Challenge and support form the theoretical bedrock of the student affairs profession by offering a practical understanding of serving and educating students. By balancing the ways in which we challenge students, creating cognitive, emotional or psychological dissonance, with how we can support them, so that they feel someone is caring and has their best interests in mind, students will be more likely to persist and find success in college. Striking this careful balance will be different for each student, with the personal background, interests, strengths, and aspirations impacting support and challenge needs.

However, I also see the uneasiness of both doubting and wondering as what Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule’s (1986) Constructed Knowing feels like in action, an element of their cognitive theory exploring Women’s Ways of Knowing. My knowing, when it comes to my learning in the CSSA program and student affairs, is a culmination of integrating my own intuitive understanding of the world; the expertise of others in the field, including instructors, theorists, researchers, and supervisors; and the critical thinking and reasoning that comes from careful analysis of how my personal knowledge meshes with the worldview of others. For this process to take place, I need faith, faith in my own knowledge, my ability, the possibility that I could make a difference in the lives of students. For faith, I maintain that I need to hold onto both doubt and wonder. (For more on Women’s Ways of Knowing and other  theories that influence my work, take a look at my post on analyzing and applying student development theories.)

The program competencies and the learning I’ve done over the last two years in the CSSA program are a starting point for my lifelong learning, not only in student affairs and higher education, but also in becoming a more authentic human being. Throughout this blogfolio, I will attempt to demonstrate a sufficient breadth and depth of knowledge to prepare me for a position in the field. I invite you, reader, to challenge me, to question me, and to disagree with me. It is through your perspectives that I will learn even in the reflection on my learning, that I will gain a clearer voice in the profession, and that I will demonstrate my ability to move forward from the CSSA program to a life in higher education that fulfills me by educating, challenging, and supporting students.