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Questions and Provocations for Newly Minted College Student Educators

Last week was commencement here at Louisiana State University.  While I certainly celebrated my own crossing of the stage, becoming Dr. Eaton, I was also blessed and honored to speak at the hooding ceremony for Master’s students in our Higher Education program.  I thought I would share my comments here – addressed to newly minted college student educators – whether Master’s or Doctoral.

Graduation Photo

I want to thank the organizing committee for asking me to speak on this momentous occasion. It is a blessing and honor to share my passion for higher education and student affairs with you – students, faculty, parents, family, friends, alumni, future graduates. More important, to reflect on our learning community here at Louisiana State University – a home, a refuge, a school, a feeling, an experiment – a place I personally came to out of convenience; a place that I now find it difficult to imagine physically departing. As I prepared for today I thought about the many commencements I have attended. I spent close to a decade working in orientation and new student programs – a job that I loved because it was a commencement – both a celebratory time in people’s lives and a time teeming with possibility. I would always attend graduation for similar reasons – it is powerfully inspiring to be surrounding by so much potential.

I thought about the many commencement speeches I have listened to over the years. Often they are filled with advice or answers, designed to inspire us or make us feel secure – and I certainly could have approached this opportunity as one to provide our masters graduates with advice from my years in the field. Yet, like you, I am commencing a new journey today. I was faced with a question: What advice or answers might I provide not only to you, but to myself? I want to spend my brief time with you offering not answers or advice but questions and provocations. The great curriculum theorist Madeleine Grumet once stated of those working in education: “It is we who have learned to offer answers rather than questions, not to make people feel uncomfortable.” Answers are simple. Questions are the planes of multiple possibilities. What might we, collectively, expect on this day of commencement?

I’ll begin with this: What does it mean, being a Master? This might more appropriately be phrased as multiple questions – What is a Master? And then what does it mean? Who are we to be masters? To be doctors? Our contemporary understanding of mastery in education certainly applies to those of us who are graduating today. We have each completed a rigorous course of study designed and agreed upon by our faculty and larger societal norms as having prepared us for the work we each will undertake in our postgraduate lives. We have studied social and historical foundations of higher education, student development theory, helping skills, organizational dynamics, leadership, assessment, research, law, strategic planning. Many of us worked in assistantships, completed internships and practicums, all designed to expose us pragmatically to the actual practices of higher education. We have called this theory-to-practice, practice-to-theory. This is our current model of education. It is our largely agreed upon model of education here in the United States, perhaps around much of the world.

Yet I return to a question – has this model really made us a master or a doctor? There are other models, other ways to consider mastery. In many cultures elders are the masters – people of great experience and longevity; many of us are aware that wisdom traditions and spiritual traditions ask us to consider the mastery of those who came long before us – these individuals are the masters. In some traditions individuals cannot be masters – rather, it is the collective that exhibits mastery. We might also consider the masterful wisdom and intelligence of those who are not human – sentient beings such as animals, what we consider non-sentient yet still living – microbes and viruses, plants, ecosystems and the earth – masters of adaptation, survival, change, masters of being and knowing that we, as human becomings, cannot even begin to understand. This is not minimizing our accomplishment – but provoking us to think and question how we might continue our becoming a master or doctor. Commencement actually means “a beginning.” Are we actually just beginning – just commencing our journey of becoming a master or a doctor? If we answer in the affirmative, how does this impact the professional roles we will undertake? Will this humble us as professionals? Will an affirmative answer to the question inspire us to commence our mastery as responsibility?

There is tremendous responsibility associated with obtaining a master’s degree in Education at this time in our world’s history; those who know me well recognize that I occupy a continuum between crazy fun and crazy serious. Here, I want to discuss some questions we must ponder about our responsibility as educators that will be considered by some as perhaps too serious. Yet, I think that our responsibility as educators is persistent questioning – and importantly, becoming comfortable with asking and speaking the uncomfortable questions that will move our practice forward.

Each of us enters or re-enters the field at a serious moment – I’m not creating here a hierarchy of seriousness – certainly those who came before us had their own serious challenges – and those who come after us will have their serious challenges as well. Yet, it is our responsibility to ask these questions of education in our time. What are our serious challenges? Here I offer a few perspectives to ponder.

We often speak of “social justice” in this program. I hope we have prepared you, and provided the space for you, to carve out your own definition of what that will mean in your practice – but it is still worth asking the questions: What is your definition of social justice? What role do you believe education plays in the concept of social justice? And what do you see as your responsibility – as a college student educator – toward social justice in your own practice?

There is no shortage of questions we must answer in this regard as we commence our journey today. There are national stories of which many of you are aware – virulent racism streaming through student organizations and college campuses; assaults on women, sexually, emotionally, organizationally; attacks on the rights of indigenous populations to exist in our educational environments or on their own lands. The historical continuity of marginality too many of our students will experience on many campuses – Black men, people of different abilities, people of color. Transphobia and gender normative constructions of the campus experience – from on-campus living to gender conforming normatives undergirding many student organizations. Religious and spiritual intolerance. Islamophobia. Christianophobia. Judeophobia. Questions about the rights of immigrants to pursue postsecondary education in the United States and around the world. Ethnocentrism. Violent attacks on schooling, not just here in the United States in places such as Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University, Florida State University, or Lone Star College, but also internationally: in Kenya, where just last month 147 students were massacred at Garisa University –solely for their religious beliefs; this week, in Nigeria, where the organization Boko Haram – a group whose name means “Western Education is a sin” – killed a student at a university in the Northern city of Potiskum. In China, where the government seeks to suppress the Hong Kong Federation of Students and Scholarism – a student group agitating for democracy – free and open elections promised in negotiations that returned Hong Kong to Mainland China in 1997. The rampant dehumanizing dismissal of those living in poverty – coupled with the closing off of educational opportunities, the closing of schools, and viewing education as a private investment rather than a public good. The ever-increasing student debt associated with this attitude toward education.

Some of you may view this list as a series of problems. I implore you to see them as a series of questions regarding responsibility. So we might refashion this list differently. For example, Why are schools seen as places to inflict violence, nationally and internationally? How might we consider issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, religious or spiritual affiliation, ability status, mental health, and other socially constructed identities in our institutional practices and policies? More importantly, how do we dialogue openly and honestly about such issues, knowing there are no easy answers?

What we are called to do as college student educators is utilize questions to envision possibilities of the not yet. To engage in relationships that will allow the world to unfold with new potential. To continue our journey toward mastery by being open to our own continual becoming. We have the responsibility to challenge the process, to bring to our institutions, our practice, our policy makers, our researchers, and the students with whom we have the privilege of working and learning alongside a different set of questions and new languages.

Will you see your work solely as a job? Our society currently places tremendous emphasis on education as a machine – a factory to churn out productive workers. For me, education has never been a job – it has been a calling. I feel deeply committed to education and its transformative potential. I feel deeply committed to working with and learning alongside students.

How will you foster environments on your campus where students, faculty, staff, community members, alumni, policy makers, parents, grandparents, and many others critical to the practice of education foster relationships across difference to both ask and collectively work to answer the questions that we each will face in our daily engagements? Ours is a field of relationship building – to be impactful in our work we need to foster and build relationships across difference. Will we build relationships only with those who make us comfortable? Or will we also reach out and work with those individuals and groups who will challenge us? Will we adapt and become comfortable with the mantra of “We’ve always done it this way,” or will we truly challenge ourselves to think outside the box? Will we adopt a philosophy toward answering questions of either/or; or will we be capable of thinking both/and? These are questions of change – of becoming – the great constant in our world and our practice. As you’ve heard me ask many times – how will you be open to the continual becoming of self, of others, and the world around us?

We are collectively college student educators. How will you be passionate about students? How will you foster the multiplicity of potential within each and every student you come into contact with? It really does not matter what “quote unquote” functional areas you work in when you leave here – residence life, student transition programs, academic advising, career services, recreational sports, financial aid, student health and wellness, alumni relations, campus development – we all collectively will intra-act with students. This is the purpose of our calling – to be with students as they seek answers to their questions. To ask them, in critical moments, the easy or difficult questions to ponder. Some students come to us teeming with energy, enthusiasm, passion, and cosmically unbounded dreams. Some students come to us broken, uninspired, heartbroken, and without direction. All students come to us seeking mentorship and encouragement. Regardless – all students come to us with a multiplicity of potential. Will we be passionate about fostering that potential?

All students come to us with what Gert Biesta would call a gift. Will we be open to the gifts that accompany our students – into the student organizations we advise, the mentoring relationships we foster, the classrooms in which we teach? The gift of which Biesta speaks is the possibility of learning from our students, of having our world and our perspectives changed through each intra-action. Will we humble ourselves enough to recognize that although today we are called “masters” and “doctors” – perhaps our greatest teachers and mentors will be our students and our greatest lessons are yet to come?

With this thought in mind it is appropriate for me to thank each of the master’s students for the gifts you have offered me, our School of Education, Louisiana State University, and the profession of student affairs. You have been great teachers and mentors to me, to each other, to the faculty, staff, and students here at LSU; I know you will continue to provide gifts to the world in the years ahead. It has been an honor and joy to work and learn alongside each of you these past two years, and I look forward to reuniting with you throughout our careers – at professional conferences, through professional associations, and perhaps even working on the same campuses. I consider you all esteemed colleagues and congratulate you on reaching this important personal and professional milestone in your lives.

The idea behind offering a series of questions and provocations today was inspired by a multitude of forces. It was several months ago, right here at LSU, that Alecia Youngblood Jackson discussed the importance of education being a place of provocation – I hope that today I have provoked some thoughts through the questions I have asked. It was several days ago that Noel Gough – a posthumanist educational philosopher – asked me a profound question through his writing, and it is this profound question that today I will leave you with: What is an end?

Thank you.

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