Wandering the Path: Exploring Compliance & Belonging

January 19, 2016 § Leave a comment

Inspired by my lovely wife and her observation that I embody the Tolkien quote “Not all who wander are lost,” my goal is for this piece to be continuation of a series highlighting aspects of my thinking, my strengths, and my authentic self as I attempt to connect more deeply with you all.

“Every new beginning comes from some other beginning’s end.” ~ Seneca (Popularized in a 1998 song release by Semisonic)

As each semester comes to a close, another set of students have grades on their transcripts, most earned yet some barely if even attempted. Akeep-calm-it-s-on-the-syllabus chorus of “It’s on the syllabus” rings painfully in my ears as well-meaning educators assuage their frustration by asserting their hierarchical superiority. My social media feeds are filled with snark about processes unfinished and digs at people’s aptitudes, aptitudes measured almost solely on a person’s ability to conform to a system and comply with its demands. None of this is new, and that is the part that bothers me most because this is the way it’s always done.

For those who know me, it comes as no surprise that “the way we’ve always done it” is my least favorite phrase that doesn’t literally deal with life and death matters. Yet, changing processes or being human and humane in the execution of processes can be met with life-and-death level resistance. And so, the cycle of shaming people into compliance for the sake of the system continues. It’s a self-justifying cycle. Students are shamed by teachers to comply because teachers will be punished if they don’t comply. Administrators shame teachers to comply because they will be punished if their compliance data doesn’t neatly conform. Whoever is at the top shames administrators to comply because they will lose face with the public or funders or both if the compliance numbers don’t neatly conform to spreadsheets that show productivity. However, all that is truly produced is compliance which is rarely good enough, so the public and the funders demand action, which typically results in some other form of compliance-related accountability measure, claiming that this time compliance will bring results. But what sort of results? More of the same typically.

So on we go, promoting systems in the name of learning. Many of us as students, educators, and administrators alike look for solace in the work we put in all semester long to soothe our anxiety-ridden push of paperwork at the end. Our semesters shouldn’t have to end with fears about whether or not we’ve learned enough, demonstrated our competence, and/or played the game well enough to be invited back next semester. Instead, each semester should end with honest reflection on how we’ve grown, including where we’ve come up short and where we’ve achieved our milestones like grades, but in order to belong, our growth, no matter its form, should be honored. My guess is that I am not alone — that the students who confide in me these same fears and long to be seen for who they are are not alone.


Belonging is more than singing Kumbaya

Belonging must be tangible to be taught, and it is. Contrary to more pessimistic views, belonging is not holding hands and singing songs while telling everyone how great they are. Belonging is connecting with others in “
a community of peers that values going beyond one’s comfort zone and learning about the world.” To achieve this, trust and security are necessary components that must be fostered.

There is much debate about the level of value related to psychological and sociological studies regarding the importance of belonging. As it pertains to higher education , a sense of belonging has been long understood by Student Affairs personnel as a key retention factor, and in the past decade or so, the academics have too identified belonging as a key factor in not just retention but as a foundation for learning in general. This “non-cognitive” factor as many prefer to label it moves our understanding beyond previous tough-guy tropes regarding effective learning. No longer are students responsible for sucking it up and dealing with whatever is given to them. And yes, perseverance in the face of adversity is a valuable skill, but no, persevering is not in direct opposition to belonging as many still argue. Belonging is foundational to any social and cultural structure, and yes, education is a cultural construct. There are many valuable ways to increase belonging and there are many excellent studies being conducted on the subject through a number of important lenses. Any one of them is a good start. In short, belonging matters.

Belonging in the classroom is variable just like our the social groupings to which we belong outside of the classroom. What belonging in any setting doesn’t include or shouldn’t include is marginalization. Marginalizing actions, not hard work or perseverance, are the opposition of belonging. Like belonging, marginalization comes in many varieties. What is important to us as educators in order to avoid marginalizing students is becoming fully invested in learning who our students are. I would argue that an overwhelming number of educators at all levels know their students. However, I am not as convinced that an equally high number of educators use that information to build a strong foundation of community and culture in their classrooms. If they did, the numerous complaints regarding course compliance and student investment that flood my social media feeds at the end of every semester wouldn’t be so pervasive.

So why do we seemingly default to compliance and assimilation as measurements of good enough in the classroom? I know that the emphasis on compliance is systemic as is the push to assimilate students who do not fit in. Otherwise, standardization wouldn’t be fraught with normalizing students to the characteristics of the people in power. But I digress as standardization as an enemy of belonging is a blog topic worthy of its own separate word count, and we know that no matter how guilty the system is — and it is guilty — that fact doesn’t absolve us of our actions. Following orders is automatonGrowth thinking, not the exploration of cultural experiences, and as such, it has no legitimate value in education. A well disciplined mind is not one that thinks what and how it is told to think, but one that understand how and why it thinks. The former is the product of compliance, while the latter can only come from healthy growth. And healthy growth, my dear readers, begins with belonging.



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