Does Higher Education Understand The Culture of Blogging?

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It has occurred to me that in my field, student affairs, blogging that addresses social issues is probably unique (or close to it).

Student affairs in higher education is an exciting field that a person has to discover. Often, as undergrads, we are involved in various work as RAs, Orientation Leaders, and other student leadership positions and at some point, we have the epiphany of sorts that our superiors get paid for doing this kind of work. That’s when we get guided to placement conferences and grad school programs and our student affairs careers are off and running.

But there is one thing that I have not quite figured out. Why don’t more people know about Student Affairs? I mean, arguably, we have thousands of professionals across the country trained as counselors, educators, advocates, and administrators, but it’s rare that I can say I work in Student Affairs without having to explain what that means. With all those professionals contributing to our understandings of human development and social justice, you’d think they would constitute a strong voice for American politics and social issues, and yet they seem to have no external voice. Even publications like The Chronicle of Higher Education and Inside HigherEd tend to only be directed and read internally.

I am definitely not seasoned enough to draw any conclusions about the culture of our field from just these observations, but they do make me wonder how people perceive blogging, or the blogosphere in general. I’m a young new professional trying to get his first job, and this blog is currently the primary display of my skills and capacity, but I can’t be sure that all of my readers will know how to appreciate what I’m offering.  I don’t think there is any venue within the profession comparable to blogging in terms of quantity and quality of writing. The quality of writing is admittedly not the highest priority, nor do I expect that readers see it that way. My primary goals in blogging are to be current in topics, fresh in perspective, receptive in delivery, and consistent in production. This culture and style of writing seems to be in relative contradiction to the culture of higher education’s objective academic writing and “silent professionalism.” (By silent professionalism, I refer to the way—from my perceptions at least—many professionals in the field seem wary of speaking out in candid ways or becoming too involved in issues and efforts outside of their institutions.)

How different would higher education look if its professionals spoke out regularly? What if financial aid officers were regularly offering commentary on the economy and how it is affecting students? What if multicultural affairs professionals were regularly speaking out about racial injustice in our everyday culture? What if greater society recognized the enigmatic “student affairs” field as a collection of experienced and knowledgeable professionals with enormous amounts of wisdom to share beyond the borders of their respective campuses?

It would be a very different culture than we have now, I suspect. But that is not how things are. Part of the reason I write this blog is in the hope of shifting the paradigm in that direction.

I have been doing a lot lately to develop this blog. I completely redesigned the site. (Feel free to look at the old one.) There is also significantly more structure and functionality “under the hood.” I am trying to offer a much higher quantity of content without sacrificing the quality of those posts. Because I have the time, I have dedicated a lot of energy to developing a high-quality blog that people can easily find and interact with through search engines and feeds, social networking, and social bookmarking.

If there’s one thing I have learned in the past few months as I’ve connected with fellow bloggers, it’s that people respect and appreciate what I’m putting out there. They might not always agree with what I say, but they respect it. And all the better when they disagree, because that’s how we can all learn and grow from each other.

But do my colleagues in higher education understand the culture and purpose of blogging? By asserting my point of view confidently, might my colleagues perceive that I’m pretentiously offering a definitive professional perspective as opposed to just my personal opinion? Since I just happen to be sharing my personal opinions openly, might some professionals presume I am thus incapable of representing an institution or serving students’ needs “professionally” and impartially?

New media, like blogging, Facebook, and Twitter, is about writing the now, about speaking out without hesitation regarding the events unfolding around us. It’s not my place as a new professional to assert to what extent higher education needs to better embrace new media. I do worry, however, about how disconnected our field might become if it ignores this growing culture. Take a look at this October 16th story about Butler University’s effort to sue one of its students for his blog. (Please read the article on Inside HigherEd as I won’t be posting a summary here.)

I am no legal expert and don’t presume to know how to define libel or defamation, but I think this is a serious case that deserves attention. Young people are becoming more and more apt in how they use social media, and if our universities are unable to respond to critical public dialogue, they will likely be seen as more and more out of touch. Beyond legal cases, universities might not be able to meet the needs of their students if they are unable or unwilling to interact with this exciting, albeit challenging, new paradigm. New media represents not only new venues for communication but also new cultures and subcultures for how that communication is produced and received. What might be the consequences if universities totally oppose (or perhaps even create a culture of prevention around) participation of their students or employees in these new dialogues?

It has been disappointing that I have not yet secured a job in this field. Times are tough, searches are slow, and the market is competitive, so I’ve tried to stay optimistic. This blog itself has been crucial in that optimism. It has given me a venue to stay connected and energized about issues relevant to the work that I want to do. It also has allowed me to continually hone my experience with technology in ways I expect will make a big impact on my work with students. While it may not be the same in quality or nature as an academic article published in a peer-reviewed journal, it is still a product I am quite proud of and that I hope represents my professional qualifications. Blogging is not my primary career goal, and I certainly would never let it take priority over my job responsibilities. If, however, potential employers see my public ruminations or  my eagerness and finesse for interacting with new media as deterrents from my professional capacity, I wonder if that is not only a concern for my career but also for the field itself.

As always, I welcome feedback on this or any of my posts. I created this blog in the hope of stimulating dialogue.

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