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Research & Canadian Student Affairs

Originally posted on Ryerson Student Affairs on January 20, 2016.

Research goes hand in hand with assessment. While assessment is driven by the need for accountability and improvement of existing programs, research strives to yield new knowledge. This knowledge then allows us to build new and innovative programs and services that are grounded in data. Currently, most of the research we draw upon is based on US data. Which reminds me of the time I spent doing my Masters in Ohio.

Courtesy of by Hongku Hon.

The first class I went to was called “Fundamentals and Functions of College Student Personnel” where I learned about the history, philosophy, and goals of Student Affairs—all within an American context. I was the lone Canadian in my cohort at Bowling Green State University in Ohio at the time and I definitely didn’t expect to feel culture shock in a place within driving distance of my home, but it hit me hard. One example happened in that first class when my professor attempted to get me to draw an analogy of students as customers by listing a number of well-known American retail chains—which I had never heard of. It was just the first example in what would become a long list of cultural disconnects based on my Canadian background. Some were small—like my confusion when anyone used the word college (in the US, college and university are synonymous) or constantly misspelling words in my papers (or correctly spelling them depending on how you look at it). Others were more significant, like my struggle to understand the Greek system, using different language to support diversity, and wrapping my brain around the roles of private and public institutions in education. All of these examples taught me that higher education in the US has many slight, and some significant, differences when compared to the Canadian landscape.

So you can start to see the difficulty here. In drawing from research almost exclusively carried out in the US, we’re creating new programming that addresses trends and needs that are not endemic to our students.

The Canadian Association of College & University Student Services (CACUSS) has declared this month as the first “Research in Canadian Student Affairs” month, and it’s easy to see why we need it. Of the research available to Canadian professionals, the vast majority has been conducted in the US. While instinct tells us that Canadian students likely aren’t drastically different from those south of the border, I can tell you personally that there are considerable differences, both individually and systemically. For one, our education systems have evolved very differently. Looking at the Forbes list of top US colleges, it is dominated by private institutions (which also outnumber public institutions in the US college system). This is in complete contrast to the Canadian landscape where private institutions play a smaller role in higher education when compared to public institutions. Our student demographics are very different. Even our field, Student Affairs, has a very different history and reality in Canada when compared to the US. There are many more examples that make it obvious why we need to conduct formal research in a Canadian context to understand what our next steps should be.

So what do we do about this? We’re starting to see an emphasis on assessment data in Canadian higher ed that is paving the way to justify resources for research projects. A community of practice has been formed as part of CACUSS that focuses on assessment and research. Even this month of awareness will help by offering a stage to showcase research initiatives, and paving the way for future ones, because the best research not only answers existing questions for us, but also poses more.

Research can sound like something unattainable for practitioners, either because we’re already short on time and resources, or because we feel that we don’t have the requisite skills to conduct it—but good news is on the horizon. We’re starting to see opportunities for grants and more widespread support for research initiatives, in part because of things like CACUSS’ research month. But we all need to be part of this push for knowledge—you can take action to start paving the way for future research by engaging in scholarly practice. Try to read about current research in Canada and in the US. Commit to learning more and asking better questions in your current assessments. Ask yourself what you wish you knew about your students. Talk to your supervisor about how scholarly practice or research might fit into your current job duties. From there, all you need to start your journey towards conducting research is a question you’re passionate about, and a desire to find a way to answer it. Beyond that, there are a lot of resources available to help you learn how to find your answers.

What Is An Ethics Review?

When designing a research project, one vital part of your planning is to consider how your study could impact the participants in the study and the wider community. Will there be possible negative impacts? Triggering discussions? Limitations on your results that could lead to incorrect assumptions about the community? Research is serious stuff, so each institution where research is being conducted will have a group that reviews research from a perspective of ethics. This group of people is generally made up of experienced researchers and experts who will review your research plans, assess its potential impacts, and make any recommendations to both improve the study and mitigate any negative outcomes.

This process can be lengthy depending on the study, so plan lots of extra time for review. The RyersonResearch Ethics Board takes roughly 6 weeks for the initial response after submission, and any approval is valid for one year. Also check out this link for a handy tutorial produced by the Government of Canada about ethics review.

One of the consequences of relying heavily on the breadth of US research available is that we’re constantly comparing ourselves to our US colleagues. At times we look with envious eyes at resources, staffing, and data that are more available south of the border. It’s a waste of our time. Let’s finally let go of our inferiority complex and appreciate that we are different, and we must find our own version of success. We have a unique history that demands equally unique solutions to best serve our communities. The key to making this happen is to embrace our identity and look to the future for proactive approaches. I believe that the first step in this process is to amass a body of research and data about our local communities. Only then can we fully appreciate who our students are, and who we are as practitioners. I know I’m not alone in this belief and I’m excited to be a Student Affairs professional right now, so I can be part of building a uniquely Canadian identity in our field.

So, I guess I’ll leave you with one question: what do you want to know about your work?

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© Copyright 2016 - Lesley D'Souza * Photos by Katherine Holland Photography