First off, to all those SA grads that will be taking their comprehensive exams, defending a thesis, and going through the job search process in the next few weeks, good luck! I know a few of my colleagues here will be sitting for their exams later this week, and it’s made me think back to studying for my own comps last Spring.
I spent hours pouring over flashcards and notes and filling a 8’ long dry erase board in my office with as many major historical events, landmark case law rulings, mnemonic devices, and student development theories as I thought I would need to help me pass the exam. While I’d like to think it was a carefully planned, two week long focused study period, it was most definitely more of a 72-hour, coffee-fueled frenzy in which I tried to cram as much information as possible into my brain.
I trusted blindly that I would need every single nugget of this information to successful as a Student Affairs professional. I believed that if I couldn’t recite each of Chickering’s vectors word for word, I would never be taken seriously; if I didn’t know everything Schlossberg ever said, my own transition would be to the unemployment office. There was probably some overlap in wanting to be taken seriously during the job search process and beginning to feel the need to memorize everything written since 1937. If I had the knowledge, I would pass the exam, earn my degree, find a job, and instantly be a competent professional. That’s the way this works, right?
I’m not saying theory isn’t important, because it definitely is. But at some point, we have to stop learning the theory, and start learning how to apply it. I remember packing cheat sheets to TPE because some institutions are known fans of certain theories, and I wanted to ensure I could speak intelligently on each and every one. But even if I could recite the finer points of self-authorship backwards and forwards, I couldn’t really speak to how I would use it for the betterment of a student. And that just lead to a major case of imposter syndrome. The knowledge is only as good as the application.
The issue is, that’s not something you can learn strictly from a textbook or cheat sheet, no matter how many sources you cite. That application is something I feel like I’m just now beginning to comprehend and recognize as an active part of my work.
Helping a student who was going through a difficult period recently, my stone-cold INTP personality kept trying to rear it’s ugly, logical head and tell them to stop being so emotional. But the more I listened to them talk and refrained from jumping to seemingly obvious solutions, the more a really cool thing happened. I began to find ways to relate to them by utilizing theory.
A couple of months ago, I wrote about providing context to a student when correcting a behavior or providing advice. Now, I was using theory to help provide context to myself about what this individual was going through.
There’s a meme floating around that says “Thanks for not pointing out which of Chickering’s vectors I was in every time I cried in your office”. While I wasn’t saying it out loud, I was definitely mentally recalling theory and developing a larger picture on where this individual was in their development and in the transition they were going through and what they needed from me. While I know it won’t always be so obvious, and theory has definitely subconsciously affected my decisions over the past year or so, part of me still gets a huge sense of accomplishment for realizing that I am capable of putting theory to practice.
Does that make me a perfect, infallible professional? Not at all! I’m realistic that it’ll be a bit before I’m adept and comfortable with weaving theory and philosophy to develop an approach on the fly. But knowing that I’m capable of it is a step in the right direction.
“If knowledge is not put into practice, it does not benefit one.”
This post is part of the Emerging SA Pro series following 4 awesome people: Alexandria, Doug, Emily, and Alexander, as they blog monthly about 1 year of their journey as either a new SA Pro or SA grad student. We are proud to help them share their stories as they break into our field.
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