Kindling the Invisible Flames: Building Digital Places for Canadian Conversations in SA

On June 27, 2016, Nicole Crozier—a student affairs professional working at Queen’s University—published an article asking the question, “Where’s the Canadian conversation?” It opened with a line that, if I’m to be honest, really blew me away:

“Sometimes, I wonder if there are other student affairs professionals in Canada.”

Simple, straightforward, shocking. It certainly grabbed my attention because, as you’re probably thinking too, “Hey, I’m a Canadian student affairs professional—I’m right here!” But where is “here”?

Before you go any further with this article, you need to read Nicole’s. Here’s the opening excerpt, then jump over to her site for the complete article. No worries, I’ll wait for you to get back:

===Where’s The Canadian Conversation?===

by Nicole Crozier

Sometimes, I wonder if there are other student affairs professionals in Canada.

I mean, I know they exist. I see the job postings, and I meet them at conferences. But in between these in-person sightings… are they out there? I’m very confident there are other student affairs professionals in the U.S. I see them on social media all the time. I see them forming relationships, sharing information, talking about how current events are affecting their life. When large, earth-shattering events happen, the student affairs conversations happen. People ask questions, provide resources, state opinions. They ask ‘How do we do better? How do we talk about this with our students? How do we help our students through this event?’ Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, Brock Turner, Orlando, the list goes on. The conversations go on.

Where are the Canadian conversations?

Jump over to Nicole’s site to read the full article.

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Nicole’s question pushed a lot of buttons for me. It got me thinking about the conversations about conversations we’ve been having in Ryerson Student Affairs, and was the spark I needed to ignite. I asked Nicole if #RyersonSA could cross post her article (thanks for saying yes, Nicole!); but that didn’t feel like enough. So I shared the article with my team and brought it up at our weekly meeting, putting one question on the table: “What can we do?”

In the US, student affairs is an academic industry, requiring a Masters (often in Student Affairs) to even have a chance of getting a job. Which means grad students are often the ones initiating and fueling the online conversation (due to digital fluency and the overwhelming need and desire to cut a path for themselves through to employment). When they finally do get a coveted full-time position, their experience being a part of the conversation doesn’t leave, it just evolves. Meanwhile, there’s a whole new batch of recent grads continuing to have the conversation.

In Canada, our conversations happen differently. We don’t have the same nation-wide booming graduate prep program industry, which means we don’t have the same kind of drivers (i.e. grad students) to create shared spaces for conversation to happen. Nicole’s question, “Where are our conversations” is apt (as opposed to, “Why aren’t we?”) because, rest assured, Canadian SA professionals are talking—we’re just not necessarily talking regularly in national spaces.

Quick, off the top of your head, can you name 3 spaces where you know you can go to get national, engaging, thought-provoking, up-to-date conversations on Canadian Student Affairs and those things that affect it?

Hopefully you mentioned our national association (CACUSS) as a start, specifically their communities of practice; which have been doing webinars, drive-ins, regional meet-ups and more for members since 2014. Perhaps you’ve seen CACUSS’s forums or Facebook / Twitter feeds. I hope you’ve been lucky enough to attend one of CACUSS’ annual conferences. Do you read Communiqué; do you, consistently, write for Communiqué? Recently, as CACUSS has been developing the Canadian SA competencies, they reached out for feedback; did you participate? (Bonus question: did you know that CACUSS reached out for feedback?)

How do you—as a professional individual—engage in conversations that matter to Canadian Student Affairs? How does your postsecondary institution? When you have these conversations, how many people are listening? How many join in? (We’ve been doing the #RyersonSA blog for 3 years now, and our audience ratio is skewed with 71% from the US and only 17% from Canada.) Let me know your answers to these questions in the comments, or message @RyersonSA on Twitter.

What I’m getting at is that, as professionals, we’re passionate about the topics that affect our students and we are talking about the topics Nicole brought up—we just aren’t doing so, for the most part, in a national, up-to-the-minute space. We are hungry to talk—just look at how fast the podcast created by U of T’s Adam Kuhn blew up!—but if we cannot even find each other to openly discuss and share widely…Well, that’s as good as being silent.

Pretty soon our students, as a majority, will be recognized as “digital natives.” They are not just familiar with technology, but so confident with its use that they do not define where it ends and they begin. They will have these important conversations faster and faster as social media, the Internet, and technology grows. If we cannot keep up with the speed at which they talk, then we become irrelevant, out-of-touch; unnecessary.

We need to continue to be active as a profession, engaging in important conversations that affect our students—and we need to do it in the places where these conversations live. If we expect to be taken seriously—if we expect to matter to our students—we have to be timely in our engagement, and nowadays, that means embracing the digital landscape. Without it, we’ll never be able to properly debate, test, challenge, and improve our profession as a whole, let alone take on a leading role in thought leadership on the global student affairs stage.

Canadian Student Affairs needs more recognized, known digital spaces that are ours, where we can debate, question, critically converse, laugh, contemplate, and grow as a professional organization. We need to frequent the spaces that already exist, and create spaces where there are none. Spaces that exist on their own but interact with one another, so the sharing of ideas can be discussed, challenged, and ultimately improved. (Yes, this means more work to your already overloaded plate, but what’s one more hat to wear in Student Affairs—especially one so crucial in maintaining our value to students?)

RyersonSA is lucky; we’ve been able to spend time and money and people power towards dedicated digital spaces, and I know that’s not the reality at all institutions. Yet we need to find a way to bring everyone’s perspective to the national SA table, lest we end up with a lopsided viewpoint. (I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish with #RyersonSA, but I never forget that we have a southern Ontario viewpoint that is not reflective of Canadian Student Affairs as a whole.)

Knowing that we need space, we’ve inevitably ended up at the question my team did sitting around the table: what can we do to create, maintain, and grow those (and other) spaces?

Well, as you can probably guess, we have some ideas. For a year starting in September, we’re working with CACUSS to fan the flames of our national SA conversation, creating and adding to spaces for these conversations to live and grow. So when the next important discussion affecting our students arises—we will already have a space to discuss and understand.

If you already have digital, Canadian student affairs spaces you engage with, I’d love to know about them. Blogs, article aggregators, Twitter channels, Linkedin—wherever you go to be an active student affairs professional in Canada.

They won’t work without your participation. They won’t be worth it without your unique thoughts, perspectives, and input. Working with CACUSS, we want to spin the next thread in the web Nicole, Adam, and others started, encouraging others to continue spinning afterwards. As Nicole said,

“We need to find ways to do better, to be better. Ways to talk, to debate, to grow, and to be critical. We need to start creating the Canadian conversations. I don’t have a solution here, but I do want to, well, start the conversation.”

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CACUSS in Partnership with #RyersonSA Presents:

Connecting Our Country

Starting in October, we mean to take a good, long look at the Canadian Student Affairs identity. What does “student affairs” mean in Canada? What is the role of our association in Canada? How do Canadian issues (such as the Truth and Reconciliation findings) and global events (like #BlackLivesMatter) affect postsecondary students in Canada, and what role do we as SA professionals take in educating and supporting our students on these matters? What Canadian perspectives and expertise do we bring to the conversation?

Each month will be themed with a question to spur these conversations across a multitude of digital platforms. CACUSS and #RyersonSA will work together to create and share some of these spaces, but it is our plan to work with others across the country to experiment with a variety of different approaches, including Twitter chats and other social media.

Stay tuned to @RyersonSA and @CACUSStweets for more information in the coming months—and tweet us your current Canadian SA digital spaces!