Being a scholar-practitioner
In November 2013, I attended my first ASHE conference. ASHE is the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE). I had only recently learned of this conference, knew that mostly faculty and graduate students attended, at least that was my perception. I was excited to attend the conference for the first time. After several recommendations, I signed up for the Council on Ethnic Participation (CEP) Preconference. The sessions were innovative, the research was exciting but I found myself feeling out of place. I have always identified as a scholar-practitioner but in this space I found I would introduce myself as a doctoral student first, and then my practitioner identity, if at all.
This is when I really started reflecting more on this identity. What did it mean to be a scholar-practitioner? Where was our voice at this conference? In this association? In higher education at all? As I sat through session after session and paper after paper I started asking the same question of the presenters, “what are the implications for practice?” Most often I received a pretty vague answer or an answer that deflected the responsibility for practitioners to determine the implications for practice. The same questions swirled through my mind throughout the conference.
When I returned to campus, I tried to engage with colleagues about what I had learned at ASHE, new knowledge I acquired, exciting research on the horizon and found that many of my colleagues didn’t even know about ASHE but also weren’t very interested. Again I sat confused. This research and scholarship can ground our work. It can help us make programmatic changes that are addressing the changing needs of our student population. It can also help us figure out the ways we can inform scholarship or engage in our own research. I continued to be baffled and frustrated. Why did it seem there was such a huge disconnect between the study of higher education and practice in higher education?
Upon reflection I traced this idea of being a scholar-practitioner back to my master’s program. I recall Dr. John Wesley Lowery telling us that we had a responsibility to give back to the profession and continue informing the profession regardless of the path we took. I took this to heart and I find that this is at the core of what it means for me to be a scholar-practitioner. Tangibly I think this can be summed up into three areas: presenting, writing/publishing, and practicing.
I’ll start with practice. So often we get a new position or start a new job and there are programs to run so we pick them up and go. For many of us this work just needs to get done, students need to be served and we’re call to provide educational experiences for our students. But how often do you pause and interrogate the work you’re doing, why you’re doing it, and why it’s being done in that specific way? Is the foundation of the program or activity informed by theory or research? Do you have a literature review to support it? Can you pull one together?
Presenting. This is an area in which many practitioners participate and contribute but may not see this as scholarship. So many of the presentations provided at local, regional, and national conferences can easily be turned into blog posts or publications. They can also be used on your campus to build relationships across departments. Or used with students to help them understand why a particular program exists and why it is organized or run in a specific way.
Finally writing/publishing. I think this is the toughest one for me. I have been lucky enough to have been invited to contribute chapters to books or write for blogs and still really struggle with writing and can’t even imagine initiating the publishing process. I often doubt my voice as a scholar-practitioner. I don’t write like an “academic.” I actually don’t even know what I really mean when I say that but I know it’s in my mind. I don’t always believe the really cool learning assessment project I’m doing in my office is valuable to others. I may be quick to submit a program proposal but actually writing something on it is scary. And thinking about publishing is even scarier.
For practitioners out there, I urge you to cultivate the scholar-practitioner inside of you. Engage in research and scholarly activities while you continue to practice. A few tips that have helped me along the way:
- Develop a habit. When you get the office, before opening your email, before checking your voicemail. Set a timer and give yourself 30 minutes to read or write. It’s a priority, so do it first.
- Create spaces and communities of practice that foster scholarly activities. If you oversee a staff, intentionally cultivate this with them. You may have to cultivate this community with your supervisor as well. If it’s not part of their identity and they don’t see the value in scholarly practice, it may be challenging to carve out time in your schedule.
- Be critical and be radical. Be critical of the work you’re doing. Ask why things are run a specific way. Look to research and scholarship to better understand your student population, your environment, your institution and your learning goals? Take a risk to make change(s) that some may see as radical
- Do self-work. Reflect on who you are and who you want to be. Deconstruct messages you’ve receive about what it means to be a practitioner, a scholar, or a scholar-practitioner. I have always felt confident in my work but attending my first ASHE conference illuminated that I had to do some work around valuing my own voice in the academy.
As a critical educator, it is imperative for me to be a scholar-practitioner so I can continue to inform and change a system that wasn’t built for those carrying marginalized identities. What does being a scholar-practitioner mean to you?
Director, Center for Intercultural Program