Friday, February 10, 2012

The First-Year Experience movement: Are we serving or exploiting?

"I am not confident that we serve those we research well. . . .  With skepticism we should continue to question our rationale for studying the disenfranchised. . .we serve ourselves too by taking up their cause."

This is one of the more insightful things I've read in the last few months.  It comes from a book I've referenced before in a previous post.  The author is a qualitative researcher and, like many of his methodological peers, he spends a great deal of time researching populations who society views as "in need" in some way or another.  However, unlike many of his peers, he is astute (and probably humble) enough to realize that his work may not always be as helpful as he thinks.  And, it made me question the motives I have in my work and whether I am as "helpful" as I think I am.

I would consider myself to be one who is involved in what has come to be known as "the first-year experience movement."  I am an administrator in a program designed to serve first-year students, I have in the past been heavily involved in new student orientation programming on my campus, and the research I do is either focused directly on first-year issues or involves data gathered from either first-year students or the peer mentors who work with them.  I would like to think that my work serves this population in some way and that what I do each day when I come to work makes some kind of difference.  On the whole, I would like to think that my motives are pure and see myself as one who "serves" the students on my campus.  However, it would be unfair to claim that I am completely selfless in all of this.  Not only do I do this work for a salary and benefits (pretty good benefits compared to most of higher ed), but I travel to conferences 2 - 3 times a year (usually in warm places that are nice to visit anyway), am beginning to publish research on my work, and occasionally get invited to make presentations relating to my work and research.  So, the first-year experience movement has been good to me.

All of this has me wondering if, despite our good intentions and noble purposes, those of us who do this work might occasionally (and probably unintentionally) be guilty of exploiting the very population we claim to be serving.  We claim to do work that helps or serves these students as they make the transition into higher education and our scholarship is intended to advocate for these students and somehow improve the experience they have on college campuses.  But, what if the article I publish is only read by a handful of people?  And, what if after reading it, they don’t approach their work any differently than before?  Have I then used the first-year student population on our campus and elsewhere to further my career, without making any real contribution to the experiences of the real people experiencing the first year of college?  Or worse, when write a conference proposal am I ever more interested in visiting a new city and taking my wife with me, than in moving forward an argument or idea with real merit? What about that article that will be published this month? Do I really think it will add to the dialogue and help other practitioners, or did I just want a line on the vitae I'm trying to build?  

It seems like those of us purporting to serve first-year students (and this may be true for any researcher or practitioner, especially those in the social sciences) should take care to avoid becoming a player in the scholarship game where we do research, publish studies, and present at conferences, simply for the sake of those activities.  Ultimately, we probably can’t ever really know if our work or scholarship is a benefit to others and if we spend too much time worrying about any of this, we'll go crazy. All of us will at some point sincerely try to conduct a study and write a report that will “serve” someone somewhere and still miss the target.  Maybe the important thing is to be vigilant, honest, and ethical by holding ourselves to high standards and continually committing to doing the highest quality work we can. . .a helpful thing for me to remember next week when I'm enjoying warm weather and the San Antonio Riverwalk at the Annual Conference on the First-Year Experience.

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