Theory as Healer

By Johann Ducharme

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    “Theory is not inherently healing, liberatory, or revolutionary. It fulfills this function only when we ask that it do so and direct our theorizing towards this end.” (hooks, 1994, p. 61) 

    “Is the soul solid, like iron?
    Or is it tender and breakable, like
    the wings of a moth in the beak of the owl?”
    ~ Mary Oliver

    Identity as stable (Positivism). Identity as fluid (Constructivism). Identity as complicated (Poststructuralism). Education research hinges upon this triune axis. The starting point, or at least the divergence of perspective, is found here. If identity is stable, knowledge of one’s subject should be objectively observed, constant and reliable across disciplines. If fluid, the pursuit of knowledge originates not in a silo but is co-constructed between individuals. And if identity is complicated, well, best of luck to you.

    It is the first semester of my PhD program at William & Mary, and I am deep in research paradigms, one of which I will have to choose for my dissertation. Recommendations are welcome. This sort of thing determines a great deal – my dissertation committee, quantitative vs. qualitative vs. mixed methods, and potentially my entire career as a future professor.

    Having grown up under a Positivist construct, the battle scars or wounds from transitioning out and beyond this structure of thinking are semi-fresh. What are the moments, experiences, people or episodes that assisted with this transformation? Instantly, I’m back at Gordon College. My undergraduate liberal arts education provided all the tools and critical thinking necessary for broad deconstruction, to view the world more pluralistically. The absolutism of knowledge shrank, and I was left seeking modern paradigms.

    Who is to be trusted?

    Beyond Positivism, the scaffold of constructivist thinking was erected slowly. Mainly because it took me a while to figure out the answer to the trust question. Enter Constructivism. I remember arguing in my capstone communications course that truth-with-a-capital-T could be identified when all of the necessary actors/members/parties contributed equally. I liked this wave – pluralism had an important role to play. All should sit at the table, in order to co-construct knowledge.

    However, disruption comes in many forms. Mine was the year I worked as an AmeriCorps teacher in Washington, DC. My students were inner-city GED-seekers, from high school dropouts, single parents, parolees, immigrants, and refugee backgrounds. Without prior knowledge of Critical Theory or Social Transformation, I was plunged into a storied landscape of how “society marginalizes people based on power differences inherent to social identities” (Abel, 2016, p. 12). My teachers that year were the construct of race, systems of oppression, the marginalization of the poor, and privilege & power dynamics. Knowledge came at a price.

    As I look back on my own student development practices and the theories that informed them, there is a truth I am certain of: college students undergo transformation, and a ‘healer’ can come in many forms.  Whether identity is stable, fluid or a generous mix of ‘complicated’, I am persuaded to see knowledge and theory as healer.

    How does this work in practice? First, an active acknowledgment of the backgrounds or environments our college students come from seems pivotal. I might think an advising session is ‘good’ and enjoyable company to a student, but without contextual data on the student, I may be sorely mistaken. For example, over the past four years, I worked with international STEM students, mostly from Muslim Arab backgrounds. How these students responded to, or flat out ignored, academic responsibilities during the month of Ramadan made for complicated discussions and value-based debates with them and their scholarship sponsor who demanded adherence to new norms.

    Second, as a higher education practitioner, it is important to understand how a student interacts with, makes decisions from, and integrates his/her beliefs into academic and social life.  What values does the student currently hold? Is he/she willing to share them with me?  The vocabulary or language used by the student to make meaning can indicate their willingness to share some of these dynamics. I am not advocating for student affairs to act like a chameleon, adapting to each background that walks through the office door. However, in order to embody theory as healer, we must encourage and instill confidence for future college students to authenticate their values whereas “development is not always movement toward complexity but rather continuous, fluid interactions” (Abes, 2016, p. 17).

     Like social change agent & scholar bell hooks, I am asking.




    Abes, Elisa S. (2016) Critical Perspectives on Student Development Theory. New Directions for Student Services, 2016: 1-4.





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