The Interconnectedness of Scholarship-Practice: A Perspective from a Practitioner-Scholar

Ann M. Gansemer-Topf
Iowa State University

As a new faculty member teaching graduate students in student affairs, I am keenly aware of my responsibility to not only disseminate knowledge about the field, but to help students develop and define their roles as scholar-practitioners. In designing my syllabi, or planning learning outcomes, I attempt to answer the following questions: How will this information develop students’ understanding and ability to engage in scholarly work? How will the activities and class projects that I assign enhance students’ skills as practitioners?

With almost 20 years of practitioner experience and now transitioning to my current role as a faculty member, I have become increasingly aware of how these two roles (scholar and practitioner) and two activities (using scholarship and doing practice) are seemingly distinct yet irrefutably interconnected; scholarship has influenced and informed my practice and my practice has influenced and informed my scholarship. As Blimling (2011) articulated, ‘scholar’ and ‘practitioner’ are not mutually exclusive and both inform professional judgment. When I was a graduate student and new professional, I agreed philosophically that scholarship and practice were intertwined, but having limited experience, I had difficulty articulating examples of this interconnectedness. These examples became apparent through my work in the profession and now as a faculty member. I strongly believe the more I begin to understand the relationship between the two, the more effective I become as an educator. How does scholarship inform practice? How does practice inform scholarship? How are the two concepts interconnected?

Questions regarding how scholarship and practice mutually inform and are connected to each other, I believe, lie at the heart of what it means to be student affairs professional. Therefore, they require significant reflection and dialogue. To begin this conversation, I offer three personal examples to illustrate my experience of the scholar-practitioner relationship. I share these experiences in the form of questions as a way to invite the reader into the dialogue that asks one to ponder, question, and critique how one can integrate these two roles into what higher educators do. If student affairs professionals purport to be scholars and practitioners, then being able to articulate the ways these roles intersect and mutually reinforce each other can only improve one’s effectiveness as an educator.

For Whom Does This Scholarship Apply?

The concept of utilizing scholarship to inform practice was first introduced to me as a college student majoring in psychology and minoring in sociology. I have always been interested in human and group behavior—why did people make the choices they did, why did they behave in certain way—through my coursework, but now I had theoretical concepts and language as a way to articulate my observations. If I wanted to explain why people did what they did and more importantly, make an evaluation of them, I now had a language. I had discovered the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) that provided the classification of all mental disorders.

While in college, Carol Gilligan’s (1982) book, In a Different Voice, a development theory based on females, was gaining wide recognition. She wrote her book in response to Kohlberg’s moral development theory, which had focused on the experiences of males. Around the same time, a new version of the DSM was published (i.e., the DSM-IV), and in this revision, ‘homosexuality’ was removed.  In other words, Kohlberg’s theory of moral development—which I had learned two years earlier—does not accurately describe the experiences of all individuals; experts who wrote the ‘approved’ manual could revise it, showing it was subject to change. I began to wonder why studying theory, which may not accurately represent all students experiences and relying on experts who may change their mind was worthwhile.

Theories can be useful in providing a language, a conceptual framework, a way of making sense. However, it is equally as important to understand the population and context within which and for whom the theory was intended. It is also, as suggested by Reason and Kimball (2012), important to utilize student developmental theories and the informal theories one develops through one’s lived experiences as each making significant contributions to practice. Theory, despite its limitations and even potential biases, is useful by forcing us to articulate and defend our beliefs and through our disagreements, begin to uncover our values.

Similarly, one must be critical in thinking about how other forms of research and scholarship, like theory, can inform practice, and vice versa. For example, one may use benchmarks to evaluate institutions and students (e.g., retention rates, graduation rates, reading scores, math competencies). However, does one set of numbers adequately represent the complexity of the institution?  Do the numbers accurately represent all student populations or do they mask the reality of other subpopulations?  What about the stories behind the data? Are these stories being heard, encouraged, celebrated, or attended to?  A significant amount of emphasis is placed on the quality and prestige of institutions based on these numbers. But what and who do these numbers represent?

If we are using scholarship to inform practice, it is necessary to examine the context, focus, and population from which the scholarship has emerged before applying it to our practice. As practitioners, it is necessary to consider whose voices are being considered, whose voices are not being heard, and ultimately, for whom does this scholarship apply?

How Do I Know If My Practice—Which Was Based On Scholarship—Is Effective?

As an academic advisor pursuing a doctoral degree, I enrolled in a program evaluation and assessment class. Until that point, I had focused primarily on how research impacted practice, but I had not always considered if my practice was any good.  I thought I was good, and I believed that what I was doing was effective, but I did not have any tangible evidence. And thus, I was intrigued by the need to do assessment.

Similar to other practitioners, I did not pursue a career in student affairs because I loved assessment. Nevertheless, I have come to embrace and respect assessment as one way to critique both practice and scholarship. While research can inform practice assessment serves the dual role of questioning the research behind the practice and assessing if the practice was effective.

In the assessment course I teach, I partner with staff in the Division of Student Affairs to offer students in the course the opportunity to conduct an assessment project in student affairs. Student affairs professionals provide a list of possible assessment projects and students may choose from this list. Throughout the semester, the students then learn about and then apply their knowledge of assessment to their project. As they craft their assessment purpose statement, develop their assessment methodology, and analyze and interpret results, they engage in the work of scholar-practitioners. In some cases, student have found that assessment results can be used to inform the broader research on a topic or practice and in other instances, assessment can be used to understand the success of the practice.

Assessment can be a bridge between scholarship and practice, providing a vivid illustration of the interconnectedness of the two roles. Assessment can help to answer the question: how do I know if my practice, which was based on scholarship, is effective?

How Would I Practice the Scholarship?

As a practitioner and an administrator, I could articulate how scholarship has impacted my practice. I could discuss Astin’s (1984) theory of involvement or Tinto’s (1993) interactionalist theory or elaborate on how the many student development theories helped to frame how I approached student issues and concerns while working in residence life, campus ministry or academic advising. Ironically, now as a faculty member focused more on creating scholarship and teaching in the areas of research, higher education, and student affairs, I find myself wondering, how would I practice this scholarship?

I can teach individuals the criteria to developing a strong assessment plan, I can teach students to recognize the factors important in analyzing campus environments, and I can challenge them to think about issues of social justice, access, and equity. But being a successful practitioner involves more than ‘knowing the facts’ or speaking the correct language. While one may engage in student affairs scholarship with the purpose of improving student access, success, and learning, individual actions may not always consistently support these efforts. For example, I can use language like ‘safe space,’ and ‘inclusiveness,’ and ‘social justice’ and yet my actions, priorities, and daily interactions with my family and friends may not reflect the values that I espouse. We can study best practices, become aware of the professional competencies, and keep abreast of the current research, but putting this information into action can be difficult and overwhelming requiring not only factual knowledge but reflection, communication, and practice.

As a ‘scholar,’ it is also imperative to remain connected to those professionals who are working in student affairs divisions.  In order to successfully practice scholarship, the scholarship must evolve and adapt to the changing needs of students, institutions, and especially, to practitioners.  Practicing the scholarship also requires understanding the context, methods, and limitations of the scholarship.  While many practitioners do not have time to engage in research activities, successful scholar-practitioner have a solid foundation of research methods and scholarship to appropriately answer the question: How can this scholarship be practiced?

Summary

Through my experiences as a practitioner and now as a faculty member, the relationship between scholarship and practice continues to grow and evolve. My belief is that this interconnectedness will help to enrich and improve my work as graduate student educator and student affairs professional. The challenge then, for all of us, is to remember and embrace the interconnectedness. Upon graduation, does one leave scholarship behind to become a ‘practitioner?’ As ‘practitioners,’ how do we allow time to become aware and incorporate new research into our work?  As ‘scholars,’ how do we remain in touch with the practice?  Most critically, what does it mean to be a scholar-practitioner and how does this integration ultimately benefit the students, institutions, and profession that we serve?

Discussion Questions

  1. The article is based on the assumption that to effectively serve students, the institution, and profession, student affairs professionals and faculty must embrace the interconnected nature of scholar practitioner. Is it possible to be an effective student affairs professional by focusing on only one of these roles? Why/why not?
  2. What are the challenges of being a scholar-practitioner?  How can these challenges be overcome?
  3. The article lists three examples of the interconnectedness of scholarship and practice. What other experiences/examples illustrate this interconnectedness? How would you explain the meaning of scholar-practitioner to someone unfamiliar with student affairs?

References

Astin, A. W. (1984). Student involvement: A developmental theory for higher education. Journal of College Student Personnel25(4), 297-308.

Blimling, G. (2011). How are dichotomies such as scholar/practitioner and theory/practice helpful and harmful to the profession?  In P. M. Magolda & M. B. Baxter Magolda (Eds.),Contested issues in student affairs: Diverse perspectives and respectful dialogue (pp.  42-53.). Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Gilligan, C. (1982). In a different voice: Psychological theory and women’s development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Reason, R. D., & Kimball, E. W. (2012). A new theory-to-practice model for student affairs: Integrating scholarship, context, and reflection. Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 49, 359-376.

Tinto, V. (1993). Leaving college: Rethinking the causes and cures of student attrition (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

About the Author

Ann Gansemer-Topf is an Assistant Professor of Higher Education in the School of Education at Iowa State University where she teaches courses in assessment, campus environments, and academic issues and cultures.  Her research interests include: assessment of student learning, effective teaching/learning pedagogies, student success, and educational policy related to strategic enrollment management. Prior to assuming her current position, she most recently served as Associate Director of Research for the Office of Admissions at Iowa State University and Associate Director of Institutional Research at Grinnell College. She also has prior professional experience in residence life, admissions, student financial aid, new student programs, campus ministry, conference services, and academic advising. She holds a Ph.D. in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies from Iowa State University, a MS degree in Higher Education from Iowa State University and a B.A. in Psychology from Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa.

Please E-mail inquiries to Ann Gansemer-Topf.

Disclaimer

The ideas expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Developments editorial board or those of ACPA members or the ACPA Governing Board, Leadership, or International Office Staff.

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