Most of the #ActivismOnCampus Research Team – not pictured: Ricky Roberts, Meg Evans, and Wilson Okello.

The #ActivismOnCampus Research team, under the direction of Drs. Chris Linder and Stephen John Quaye (Miami University), has been hard at work since Fall 2016. In August 2016, the research team gathered to design a study to better understand the experiences of identity-based student activists and their relationships with campus educators and administrators. The team consists of eight graduate students, faculty members, and student affairs educators at four different institutions:

Meg Evans, University of Georgia
Dr. Marvette Lacy, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
Alex Lange, University of Iowa
Wilson Okello, Miami University
Ricky Roberts, University of Georgia
TJ Stewart, University of Georgia

During the fall of 2016 and Spring of 2017, we interviewed 27 student activists engaged in identity-based activism (e.g., activism related to racism, transphobia, sexual violence, and additional forms of oppression) and 17 educators that activists identified as “supportive” of their activism.

We completed preliminary data analysis on the data collected and presented three presentations at the Association for the Study of Higher Education in November 2017.  

As with most qualitative research, the process is messy and non-linear. The data indicates that students have complex and nuanced relationships with the label activist, with most students of color not explicitly identifying with the term. Most of the students of color in our study indicated that they did not think of their work as “activism,” but rather as a responsibility or commitment to addressing hostile environments on their campuses. Participants in the study also described their work as a form of labor, most often unpaid labor, that benefited the institution. Using a racial battle fatigue framework (Smith, Allen, & Danley, 2017), we challenge administrators and educators to consider the consequences of activism for student activists, including exhaustion, burnout, and suffering academics. Administrators and educators should not rely on student activists to do the work of addressing hostile campus environments; instead, administrators and educators should be doing the work they were hired to do – create effective and just learning environments for all students, including the ones who have not historically been welcomed or centered on college and university campuses.

Participants also illuminated for us the ways they engaged with educators and administrators and shared their experiences with backlash, gaslighting, and placating responses from administrators. Student activists are keenly aware of the ways administrators frequently try to “wait them out” or engage in non-performatives (Ahmed, 2012) so as to not interrupt the power structures that exist on campuses.  Finally, when we asked student activists what institutional agents had done to be supportive of their work, we were disappointed to learn that the bar has been set very low.  Students consistently highlighted listening, validating, and showing up at their events as “supportive.”  As researchers, we were particularly troubled by this low expectation and that students considered the absolute minimum of listening as a form of support.  What does that mean for where we are as institutions of higher education that the idea of “listening” came up over and over again as a “supportive” strategy? Shouldn’t listening be a basic expectation of our students?

Members of this research team are committed to scholar-activism, meaning that we do not intend for this research to be solely used in publications.  Although we will certainly submit several manuscripts for publication from this study, we also intend to facilitate workshops in a variety of forums with data from this study.  For example, we will be facilitating an extended session at ACPA in March for student affairs educators interested in better understanding how to support student activists.  Similarly, we hope to engage in similar workshops on our home campuses with both student activists and educators and administrators who want to better understand their roles in creating equitable and just campus environments.

Members of the research team shared several things they learned as a result of engaging in this research process.  Specifically, Ricky Roberts shared,  “The Student Activism research team with Dr. Linder and Dr. Quaye was an exciting and challenging experience for me.  It was my first opportunity to see the research process from start to finish. We truly had an amazing collection of individuals on our team who brought varied levels of research experience to the table. The professors, managed this very well by being very supportive and meeting each of us where we were.”  She continued by saying that she gained “insight into the importance of balancing collaborative work with the individual duties that I was responsible for.  In addition, I was provided with invaluable tips about the writing process.  Overall, I can honestly say that this research team experience helped me feel less afraid of the work that I need to do to finish my own study.”

Similarly, Meg Evans shared that they learned about conducting a project from start to finish, working collaboratively, and “Gaining a deeper, more nuanced understanding of how to read/analyze/critique existing research.”

We look forward to continuing to share our results with you as we move forward!

Dr. Chris Linder is an Associate Professor in the Department of Counseling and Human Development Services and the Program Coordinator for the College Student Affairs  Administration doctoral program.  Dr. Linder’s research interests include creating and maintaining equitable campus environments, with a explicit focus on race and gender. Specifically, Dr. Linder researchers intersectional and power-conscious approaches to addressing sexual violence on campus and student activism.

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