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Preview of Upcoming Session on Research on Social Change and Social Justice

January 21, 2016 Pete Mather Ohio University

This blog post is a preview of a session at the upcoming NASPA Annual Convention in Indianapolis. The session, titled “Fostering Student Engagement in Social Change and Social Justice,” will be held on Tuesday morning, March 15, from 8:30 to 9:20 in the Convention Center – Meeting Room 124.  Two authors (Matt Johnson and Pete Mather) who have written articles for the Journal of College and Character on the related topics of student activism and advocacy will present their research.

Matthew Johnson’s 2014 article, "Predictors of College Students Engaging in Social Change Behaviors" (Volume 15, No. 3) is based on a study employing the 2009 Multi-Institutional Study of Leadership data set. The study, which included over 96,000 participants, focused on understanding the student characteristics and activities that correlate with social change behaviors such as participating in activism, volunteering, and endeavors addressing social inequality.

Johnson found that a variety of factors contribute to student social change behaviors, including pre-college experiences, participant demographics, and college activities. While all of these made some contribution to social change behaviors, the most powerful contributors were college experiences, particularly student organization membership, leadership training, and engaging in discussions of multi-cultural issues.

I found one of the most interesting aspects of Johnson’s study to be the wide range in types of activities that contribute to students engaging in social change. Student engagement in social change can come about through direct community experiences, cross-cultural conversations and formal leadership experiences. Also of interest is the finding that short-term experiences can be as effective as long-term, sustained experiences. The factor that seems to matter most is the activity’s pedagogical quality.

Johnson’s study is an important complement to other college engagement research. Besides lending support to the general notion that engagement matters, this notion that quality matters more than type of activity or quantity is of particular interest. At a time when students’ attention is dispersed among many activities, including academics, cocurricular, work, family and a host of other occupations, we should be buoyed by this notion that short-term, high quality interventions can make a significant difference. On the other hand, it may be increasingly important that the few times we have access to student attendance and attention need to be maximized.

The second article was authored by Chistopher Bridges and Peter Mather, and is titled, "Joining the Struggle: White Males as Social Justice Allies" (Volume 16, No. 3). In this study, the authors employed a qualitative, grounded theory approach, studying the formation of a social justice ally identity, among 10 White males at a Jesuit university.

The authors noted that previous research had been conducted on social justice ally development; however, this study focused on a particular environment and an all White, male sample. The findings were presented as progressive themes, showing that participants evolved in their understanding of what it meant to combat issues of racism, sexism, heterosexism, etc. The authors describe the progression as embodying “increasingly complex ways of knowing, being, and relating.” The authors note that ally work is catalyzed both by participants’ interests in promoting fairness and by participant needs for community and belonging.

The findings also suggest that the very notion of being an ally becomes more contested by the allies as they evolve in their understanding of the complex power dynamics among members of oppressed and privileged groups. The authors note that acknowledgements of privilege often are accompanied by feelings of guilt and shame by students. Thus, it is important to support these students in order to turn those emotions into more positive and productive behaviors.

Questions for consideration and discussion for the authors:

  • As you reflect on your articles, what were your most important takeaways, and what other, related questions have your considered since you wrote your articles?
  • Both of your studies provide some evidence in terms of the types of mentorship and/or activities among higher education professionals that can contribute to student engagement in social change behaviors. I would be interested particularly in particular ways you think this can best occur within your professional domains—Matt as a faculty member, and Chris as an administrator.
  • How have you taken these findings and introduced them into your subsequent research and/or practice?