Inspired by Rejection? Or Merely an Idea Whose Time Has Come?

Like several hundred other ACPA and NASPA members, I submitted a program proposal for the upcoming Joint Meeting. Like many other programs, the main topic of my proposed program was Facebook. My program specifically centered on two points:

  1. Introduction and discussion of relevant historical and contemporary computer-mediated communications (CMC) research. This is important not only to bring home the point that this emerging phenomenon is not as new or emerging as many people think it is (relevant research has been conducted for several decades) but also to illuminate particular findings of interest to student affairs practitioners.
  2. Discussion of proposed linkages between CMC research and student development theory.

In September, NASPA published a paper (article only available there to NASPA members; download it from my website here) that I wrote several months ago in their e-zine NetResults. In this paper, I laid out thoughts rem,similar to the ones I was proposing to layout and expand in this program. I’m pretty confident that my thoughts are important, original, and significantly contribute to the community and its understanding of this perceived new challenge.

My program proposal was rejected. Although I am stung by this rejection, it’s not so much the rejection that bothers me. My primary concern is that there was consideration given for balance, diversity, and creativity in those programs that were approved. I reviewed programs this year and I don’t recall any of the programs that I reviewed as being heavily based in theory; to the contrary, the programs I remember reviewing were heavily based in recent experiences with some including only a token mention of theory or relevant scholarship. I also know another person whose *incredibly cool* theory- and original research-based technology proposal was also rejected. These scant (!) data points combined with my own experiences are enough to make me start wondering about the value that these professional organizations place on original research and theoretical constructs that are related to technology.

Eric Stoller echoes some of my thoughts in a blog entry in which he writes: “Can someone please inform ACPA and NASPA that technology is not an ’emerging discussion.’ It is this kind of language which causes student affairs administrators to remain stuck in 1995.” In another entry he discusses an online professional development course he (accurately, judging from the description) labels a “fear session.” His question “Why do we not think holistically about technology?” is a fantastic question that I believe most have at best ignored and at worst disdained. Eric is presenting a session at a two-day professional development opportunity in January but judging by the titles of some of the other sessions (“Virtual Affliction: Understand the Power and Addiction to the Internet” and “Crossing the Line Online: How Cybersex, Cyberaffairs, and Pornography live in the shadows of the Net”) it’s clear that we have a lot more work ahead of this to counterbalance these fear sessions.

I know there’s a lot of interest in the student affairs world in practical experiences and discussions but I really think we can (and in many ways are working to) back ourselves into a corner unless we remain open to wider viewpoints. We owe it to those who have come before us to apply what they discovered to emerging phenomena. Consciously and deliberately applying these old theories to new phenomema and situations allows us to measure what we know of new phenomena using measuring sticks of known length. Further, it allows us the unique opportunity to reevaluate our assumed and received knowledge and, as appropriate, build on and modify that knowledge.

I assert that, like nearly everyone else, our viewpoint is rather narrow. What we view as emerging and new phenomena are rarely as emerging or new as we may believe. Most are, like all other inventions or innovations, built on earlier works. And guess what? There are pretty good odds that several people have conducted significant and insightful research focused on those earlier works! The works and insights by danah boyd, Fred Stutzman, Nicole Ellison, and others did not spring forth from their head fully-formed and -armed like Athena from Zeus; like other scholars, they have built on what has come before them (the “References,” footnotes, and endnotes ain’t there to pad their papers!).

And that’s all I want to do: build on what others have built before me. Those others may not necessarily be or have been student affairs practitioners, student development researchers, or higher education scholars. Some are psychologists, sociologists, or IT practitioners. Some ply their craft in communications, new media, informatics, or information science. But they’ve all discovered and proposed insights that can help us understand what are to us “emerging phenomenon” because to them it’s old hat and merely the next step in an evolution they’ve been tracking for a long time. We, in turn, can contribute our hard-earned understanding of young people and the pervasive culture of higher education to view their findings in the unique lens of our own education and experiences.

If this sounds like a deep insight or a desperate plea to link these disparate fields, it’s not. It’s merely an idea whose time has come. Some are undoubtedly already doing it. Some have already done it. If they’re out there, I want to find and join them – it sounds like a lot of fun!