On NASPA, Yik Yak, and Perhaps What Really Matters

imageI’m in the airport on my way home from the annual NASPA Conference. And I’m thinking about the great NASPA Yik Yak fiasco of 2015. If you haven’t caught up yet, there’s a lot of brouhaha about a variety of yaks that have been made by conference attendees over the past couple of days. It made it into The Chronicle, in fact. I find this whole situation to be fascinating. The presence of the offending yaks. The responses. It’s all very interesting.

Let’s start with the very beginning: the types of things people are saying on Yik Yak. There are yaks about the other SA pros that people find hot. There are yaks about getting drunk. There are yaks about being hung over. There are yaks about hooking up and getting laid. There are yaks complaining a bit about sessions or the conference in general.

It’s sort of like Yik Yak on every other day. It’s an anonymous, written manifestation of the reality of social interactions, behavior, conversations, and personal thought in the microcosm of the immediate geographic community.

Don’t get me wrong; do I think it’s the epitome of professionalism to be focusing on getting laid, getting wasted, and dropping snarky or hurtful remarks about others while at a conference? Nope. But I invite you to consider with me the ways in which some of our natural or first responses to this behavior are tinged with hypocrisy, naïveté, and some unrealistic expectations for ourselves as profession.

Response 1: Yik Yak is the enemy. How dare you use Yik Yak (thereby compromising the good fight)? Yik Yak is definitely not the enemy. Yik Yak is just a platform. It’s a forum. The real enemies are hate, misogyny, racism, homophobia, transphobia, bullying, harassment, and the inhumanity and harm that come from fear, anger, and misunderstanding. If Yik Yak is a “problem” on your campus, I promise you that the problem is not the app. The problem is the culture and our society at large. Don’t fight the symptom, fight the cause. Mocking and shaming SA Pros for being on Yik Yak is not productive. In fact, it’s sort of ageist, because younger professionals are much more likely to be using emerging social media technologies. I understand that some responses that fall under this category are attempting to call out specific types of behavior on Yik Yak, but generalizing and shaming use of the app overall is not helpful.

Response 2: Shame on you. You should know better. Implicit in the act of shaming someone for behavior that is regarded as unprofessional, unethical, or otherwise inappropriate is an unwillingness to understand, engage with, and call in our colleagues. When our students act in a way that we find unacceptable, we have educational and meaningful conversations with them to discuss the impact of their behavior, understand where they are coming from, and make plans to help them act in ways that are more appropriate in the future. But when our colleagues foul up? So much for compassion. The student affairs sword of judgment is swift and sharp. We need to be willing to challenge and support each other. Development does not end after graduation. Making mistakes does not end after graduation. Young professionals are still developing and learning ways of being in the world and acting professionally. If you bear witness to a colleague behaving in a way that is detrimental to their career, to our profession, or to the well-being of students, please summon the courage to hold that person accountable in a caring and compassionate way. Maybe they don’t really know better. Be a role model. Let them know (but try to do it without condescension).

Response 3: Student Affairs is better than this. I really don’t even know where to begin with this one. This response feels most defensive and most likely to be hypocritical. Last time I checked, Student Affairs professionals are humans. Humans who get drunk and get it on. I’ve only been in the profession for a handful of years, but I’ve always found it to be an incredibly…progressive…space. A space in which people regularly get very drunk at conferences. A space in which professionals are definitely sexually and romantically involved with each other. I’ve been watching professionals get drunk at conferences since I was an undergrad. These things are not secrets! Also not a secret is the fact that individuals and the field are still on a path to more socially just practice, and that not everyone is “there” (wherever exactly “there” is) yet. So yeah, people are going to make comments that are not cool, that are micro aggressions, and that are harmful, and we need to call them in and invite dialogue to move everyone forward.

We absolutely cannot act like our whole field is constantly attaining some level of ethical and professional perfection. We are educators, not saints. The reason that we have standards and competencies is because we need to work to meet them, not because becoming a student affairs professional comes with automatic immunity from making mistakes or acting human. It’s unfair and unreasonable to set up shaming systems that promote double standards of behavior. We talk constantly about living authentically. Authentic living includes mistakes. It also includes examining where judgmental reactions come from. Are we afraid that if people get turnt at conferences, we won’t be taken seriously as a field? Are we worried that such baseness will mar our prestige? Are we worried that this is making us look bad with our academic colleagues who are reading about us in The Chronicle? Because I promise you, they are turning up, too.

Of course, we need to promote and foster boundaries regarding ethical and professional behavior in all aspects of our supervision, mentoring, and role modeling. The behavior of student affairs professionals at conferences and in Yik Yak and other forums indicates something about the culture of our field, of our institutions, and of our association.

I’m willing to bet that the sources of these offending yaks were new professionals. And I feel fairly confident in saying that this is a symptom indicating that there are gaps that exist in either how we are socializing new professionals into the field or in how we enact vs. espouse our values. I think that it’s a little bit of both, to be honest. Responses to issues like this go beyond public shaming. Certainly, given the anonymity involved here, it is impossible to target specific individuals with caring and compassionate professional interventions. But perhaps that is for the best, because that challenges us to consider the way we hold ourselves at all times, with all colleagues, around social expectations, role modeling, and fostering reasonable and authentic standards of ethical behavior.

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