Friday, October 11, 2013

The First-Year Experience: Shifting from a movement to a respected discipline

Earlier this week I attended the National Academic Advising Association (NACADA) Annual Conference in BYU looks and feels a lot like advising.  To be honest, I wasn't expecting much, largely because the professional development provided to advisors on my campus is pretty pedestrian and uninspiring.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that, on the whole, academic advising is really growing into its own as a viable discipline, as opposed to a marginalized movement that can be pushed to the periphery of higher education.
Salt Lake City, UT.  It's not a conference I normally attend because I'm not an academic advisor; however, it was only an hour away and a portion of my work at

During the conference, I attended a presentation by the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition where Mary Stuart Hunter, the Executive Director of the Center made a really interesting statement, which was that their center is working to move the First-Year Experience from "a movement to a discipline."  I couldn't agree more.  And, I think that FYE could learn from NACADA about how to navigate this process.  I say that because during the NACADA annual conference I saw some signs that academic advising is maturing into a real discipline.  And, if FYE is ever to become a real discipline, they will need to follow a similar path.

There were some important things I noticed about NACADA during the conference, and things that FYE will need to attend to if it is serious about becoming a respected and viable discipline:

1.  An attention to its history.  There were a number of sessions during the NACADA conference that focused on examining the history of academic advising and how the advising field has evolved over time.  In addition to being interesting, this historical focus is critical for a field in terms of documenting and learning from its past.  While veterans of FYE like John Gardner frequently discuss its history, it isn't part of the shared dialogue among practioners and scholars who are concerned with the first year.  And, I've never seen a conference presentation or extended dialogue around historical issues.  By examining its history in a scholarly and even empirical way, FYE could take great strides toward becoming a discipline by documenting how it has evolved and changed since the 1970s when it first emerged as a movement.  And, this historical glance would yield important insights related to the theory and practice of FYE (see #2 for more on that idea).

2.  A move toward a unified theory.  One of the hottest topics at NACADA this year was whether or not academic advising can or should attempt to articulate a comprehensive or unifying theory of advisement.  Part of the struggle is that there are a number of different theories than inform advising practice, from student development theory (e.g. Chickering and Reissor), to educational theory (there was a fascinating session from +Kurt Xyst on how Deweyan theories of learning might inform advising), to hermeneutic theories (think Heidegger).  So, naturally, there is some disagreement over what theories are more appropriate for the aims of academic advising.  I'm not sure that I believe that its necessary for a field to subscribe to a single theory and it doesn't seem realistic that advisors will ever come to any real agreement over this; however, the discussions and attempts to clarify the theoretical positions that should inform the field are critical.  For FYE, theory isn't absent; however, there seems to be a bit of theoretical orthodoxy around student development theories, such that there are very few other voices represented.  For FYE to become a discipline, it will need to invite practitioners and scholars from other theoretical backgrounds (e.g. education & the humanities) to the table and involve them in meaningful ways.  For example, what does learning theory have to offer in terms of structuring meaningful first-year experiences for learners?  What tensions might exist between student development theory and educational theory?  What other theoretical frameworks might be helpful to consider?  I don't hear or see people in FYE asking these kinds of questions, at least at the level where it is visible to others (e.g. at conferences, in publications, etc.).

3.  Lively disagreements and arguments.  There was a great deal of disagreement (albeit very civil) at the NACADA conference over issues of theory and philosophy.  That's a good thing and the sign of a maturing discipline.  But, it's something I don't see happening a great deal within FYE.  There are plenty of disagreements and arguments we participate in, but they are largely with those outside our movement.  One of the signs that we are becoming a viable discipline or field will be when we are starting to disagree with one another around critical issues (and they are likely to be associated with history and theory).  That seems a bit paradoxical, but it's those tensions, disagreements, and contrasting ideas that will move us forward and give us credibility as a healthy and thriving discipline.

4.  A member driven governing body.  NACADA is a membership organization, meaning that academic advisors have the option of becoming members.  That means paying annual membership dues, but also means that those who do are able to be involved in the organization in really meaningful ways.  It also means that there is an elected leadership that has a strong voice and influence in shaping and directing the field.  NACADA also has an executive office with a paid administrative staff who work with elected representatives.  This hybrid structure of elected volunteers and paid administrative staff helps to balance both continuity/stability with innovation and growth.  This, currently, might be one of the most glaring gaps in FYE.  The National Resource Center is a great resource to practitioners and scholars in FYE.  However, because it is made up entirely of an executive staff housed on a single campus, it is ultimately a pretty insulated body.  They do their best to form partnerships with other groups (like NACADA and NODA) and involve scholars on other campuses in producing publications, offering online courses, and organizing conferences.  However, if FYE is really to become a discipline, it needs to provide membership opportunities and everything that comes with that structure.  In fact, the previous three recommendations I've made aren't likely to be realized until a membership structure is in place.  I'm not suggesting that the National Resource Center should go away, rather that it should work to bring into existence a complimentary membership organization that it could support and guide into the future.

Ultimately, what FYE needs to work toward is becoming a community of practice, with its own history, philosophy, theory, discourse, and dialogue.  The progress it has made as a movement over the last 35 years, leave me very hopeful that the next 35 years can see it become a discipline.  And, if this is to happen, it is likely to happen around issues of history, theory, lively disagreement, and membership.

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