Science meets Student Affairs (a.k.a. why use the scientific method to explain my competencies)

Posted on January 7, 2009. Filed under: Uncategorized |

The concept of formatting my defense of competenices using the scientific method was itself a long, evolving process. From the start of my time in graduate school I have been acutely aware of how my previous experience in the hard sciences has impacted my transition to the social sciences. In many ways I feel like one of my most significant evolutions has come from broadening my definition of what knowledge is and how it can be measured and applied. I have also come to realize that the scientific processes of experimentation, data collection, and analysis of the results are all part of the academic and practical applications of student affairs work (and therefore make a perfect format for outlining my competency defense). Sure the venues have been expanded: experiments and data collection can take place in the classroom, but also during academic advising sessions, orientation programs, conduct hearings, football games, staff meetings, or simply walking around campus. Sure the analysis is more complex: there may never be an opportunity to recreate the exact experiment because student populations will change, new programs will be created and old ones will be lost, economic, political and social issues will change the dynamics of the entire college community. In other words, it may be a challenge to see student affairs through a scientific lens, but it is worth the effort. If A.L. Luria’s assertion that “The main goal of scientific observation is to view an event from as many perspectives as possible” than student affairs has a firm grasp in the scientific world and I for one am eager to keep exploring, learning and evolving!

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3 Responses to “Science meets Student Affairs (a.k.a. why use the scientific method to explain my competencies)”

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Ruth,
I really enjoy the scientific method metaphor in framing your portfolio. In addition to what you state, I often think of the scientific method as one which seeks to get “answers.” How do you compare this journey for truth with the study of student affairs? What truths do we know? And how does the complexity that you discuss help and hinder our profession and practice?

Dear Jessica,

First off, thanks for commenting on my blog. Secondly, I think that you have asked a question that could easily take up a whole post, but I’m trying to develop the skill of brevity so I will only offer a few comments.

First off, I think that the scientific method provides an excellent venue for testing and confirming facts, but in no way does it stop there. The goal of any research project is to create a series of events that produce the same result over and over as long as the “controls” (same temperatures, same type of bacteria, same time period, etc.) remain the same. However, once the results have been confirmed there are usually countless other questions that develop, which means the scientific method is equally good at unearthing new questions.

In student affairs we are at a disadvantage when it comes to research because we simply don’t have the “controls” that other sciences have. We don’t have an ability to control the demographics of the students we serve, the institutional missions of our colleges, the preparedness of students, the services and support systems that are available to them, etc. And we all know that all of these play a huge role in student success and other outcomes we may be looking to research. This lack of control creates a hindrance in our ability to ever create a theory or “truth” that can be applied to every student, every student group or every university.

At the same time this lack of control and plethora of variables creates an environment that is ripe for research. Just because a theory can’t be applied across the board doesn’t mean it isn’t valuable to those professionals and colleges that find themselves needing to increase services to particular populations or address particular critical issues. As long as student affairs professionals understand the variables at play in their work and they can analyze the “truths” of the profession without buying into them hook, line, and sinker. They can apply specific theories or parts of theories in the areas where they work, take away broader based principles that may work across greater populations, and leave the remainder to be used when it fits the circumstances they are in.

Ultimately, it is a critical eye that is most helpful to scientists of all disciplines as they search for new truths and it will be of the utmost use to the student affairs profession as it looks to address up and coming issues within the field.

Ruth, I really like this post and the subsequent comments. I think there needs to be more overlap and conversation between the hard and ‘soft’ sciences around methodology (mostly because I know too many hard sciences folks who don’t realize that the soft sciences are using the same method).

That said, I think what you’re describing is just that using the scientific method in student affairs simply results in conclusions that are a lot more limited or applicable only to narrower situations. I don’t think the General Theory of Student Affairs exists. However, as long as practitioners (and I think this holds true for the social sciences in general) are careful about not overgeneralizing their results, then I firmly support the use of the scientific method.


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