By Sandra Rodríguez
Director of the ASUN Center for Student Engagement
Whether or not Higher Education as an institution can evolve into an entity with greater depth and meaning is challenged if it is rooted in cultural hegemony, that is, the cultural dominance of one social group – the white, educated, upper class in the ivory tower (Gramsci, 1971). I write this with the conviction of a student affairs professional that is trilingual. I speak Spanish and English. When I was a child I remember speaking with a Spanish accent and being ashamed of it. I remember trying really hard to formulate my o’s and a’s and u’s and “th” and “sh” sounds. There was a clear difference in the sound of my voice that detracted and diminished the value of my voice in its observations of the world in the classroom.
My mother, in her infinite wisdom based on her mono-language and mono-cultural existence, understood early on that if her children read books in English, fluency in the language would follow. Instinctually, she believed that opportunity was tied to an education that consisted of a wide scope and breadth of knowledge rooted in assimilation. I most definitely got the impression that our ability to speak only Spanish made us inadequate in terms of our education and our “Americaness” and thus opportunity. From the onset, this ensured my “social identities” would be at odds with themselves (Harro, 2000).
Today, I speak the third language of scholarly critique although not as fluently as I would like to. You see, right now, my ability to speak in critique is hindered by the very accent that I feared and was ashamed of in childhood. My language of critique is accentuated by difference rooted in a worldview that is inconsistent with the dominant culture’s view. It sounds different because it comes from a different perspective. As a result, my critique is inconsistent with institutionally culturally sound critique and becomes questionable in its legitimacy.
A simple example of this may be my choice as a director to shut down a job search because it is void of a diversity of qualified applicants and the resistance that follows. As an institution, we’ve become so focused on creating seamless environments, that difference becomes a roadblock, a factor inconsistent with the institution’s need for uniformity, inconsistent with meeting goals and objectives, inconsistent with the institution’s need to maintain tradition as paramount to its own existence and consistent only with the institution’s inability to become a learning community that values difference.
Why should opportunity be tied into a cycle of institutional socialization? Consistency in socialization ensures we learn “how to be” within community (Harro, 2000). From the stand point of creating and or legitimizing knowledge, that action stands diametrically opposed to both critical thinking and critical consciousness and in essence and reality undermines the very purpose of the societal and scholastic responsibilities of higher education as an institution. It also undermines our role in ensuring students are being asked not “how to be” but rather “who will they become?” (Harro, 2000; Sponsler, 2016).
Unlike my mother’s desire to have her children speak English so that opportunity would be available to us, my desire in speaking the language of critique should not be filtered through a culturally hegemonic lens. In principle, I do not believe opportunity should be tied to my own socialization into institutional culture – any institutional culture. The mission of the institution is to educate. Do our actions as student affairs professionals turn to socializing our students into the institutional dominate culture both in and out of the classroom? If difference is not a valued part of the institutional culture, we’re missing an opportunity to grow beyond our own lived experiences. Should we (the institution) not be able to do the same in terms of our community’s diverse identities and the social and cultural capital with which they enter the institution?
The difference would be in evolving institutional culture toward pluralism versus hegemony. As a profession, student affairs must be willing to take a critical look at how we educate in the co-curricular classroom. In critical analysis, I believe there is a tremendous difference between instruction and pedagogy. Bridging our profession from the first to the latter is a crucial step in ensuring the integration of a transformative process that facilitates the creation of a true learning community that values and respects difference in the academy. I believe it bridges efficacy to agency in both the student and the professional. True academic success/opportunity does not put a student’s identities at odds with one another. It adds to the precious capital they bring with them. Perhaps all we really need to do is to listen differently?
Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks of Antonio Gramsci: Ed. and Transl. by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith. G. Nowell-Smith, & Q. Hoare (Eds.). International Publishers.
Harro, B. (2000). The cycle of socialization. Readings for diversity and social justice, 15-21.
Sponsler, L. (2016). Speech delivered to student services faculty on July 19, 2016. University of Nevada, Reno.