Volume 84 | Issue 3
May/June 2016

Research in Unions and Activities: Defining the Scholar-Practitioner

Kimberley Haines

Read the print version of this article.

How do leaders develop effective means for influencing and inspiring change? To answer this question, we need to explore the role of a scholar-practitioner.

For generations in academia, there has been a gap between scholarly work and the role of the practitioner. Despite the prevalence of advanced degrees among union and activities professionals, scholarly work still seems to be more closely tied to our faculty counterparts. As researchers noted in the Journal of College Student Development, “Student affairs practitioners typically do not experience the same pressure as faculty to publish results related to the impact of programs on established outcomes or on student growth and development. This means that unless practitioners take time, in addition to their assigned work, to complete research articles or presentations, those professionals who most closely work with students will not be those who lead improvements in practice or theory development.”

Therefore, it would seem that union and activities professionals need to rethink and reorganize their understanding of being scholar-practitioners. As Rishi Sriram and Meghan Oster noted in the Journal of Student Affairs Researchand Practice, “While ultimately, gaining the status of ‘scholar’ for all student affairs practitioners is not the goal; the activities of a scholar connecting research and theory to practice for the benefit of students and campuses is.”

Put simply, being a scholar-practitioner means having the ability to put theory into practice. When faced with a problem of practice, a scholar-practitioner seeks research that will help to enlighten them about productive solutions. Scholar-practitioners make “informed, sophisticated choices about engaging in each and all aspects of empirical research, how to justify and explain research, and how to integrate what you learn with what you already know,” wrote authors Sharon Ravitch and J. Matthew Rigon in their book Reason & Rigor: How Conceptual Frameworks Guide Research. These individuals understand the need to look at a problem from multiple vantage points, including how one’s interest, research, and positionality play a part. Specifically, three actions influence the scholarly and practical process:

  1. Recognizing the importance of creating a holistic learning approach that helps to understand, question, and articulate research that is knowledge-based.
  2. Understanding how a researcher’s own interests, values, and beliefs can affect the work being done.
  3. Understanding a need to serve as change agent.

To further highlight the scholar-practitioner role, it also is important to explain what the scholar-practitioner is not: a reflective practitioner. The elements that define the role of a scholar-practitioner go beyond just research and best practice, which are components of reflective practice. Rather, when faced with a problem of practice, a scholar-practitioner takes a holistic approach that includes careful analysis of the research and the researcher, an understanding of meaning and interpretations, and exploring the best recommendations for a change in practice. A scholar-practitioner is encouraged to not just acquire knowledge that influences best practices, but to dive deeper into analyzing and interpreting data in such a way that it challenges assumptions and poses new questions. As Scholar-Practitioner Quarterly reported, “The scholar-practitioner will find that having a perpetual curiosity, a focused commitment, and a willingness to risk challenges increases the desire to acquire new information about one’s practice and engagement.” It might be more easily interpreted that reflective practice is a part of the scholar-practitioner process, but certainly not the whole. When thinking about the role for each, the scholar-practitioner takes the learning and engagement to a much deeper level.

Union and activities professionals looking to elevate the caliber of their work can strive to become scholar-
practitioners by examining these elements as they relate to conducting research.

Holistic Learning Approach

In her book Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom, bell hooks wrote: “All of us need to open our minds and hearts so that we can know beyond the boundaries of what is acceptable, so that we can think and rethink, so that we can create new visions.” This statement encapsulates the ideals of a scholar-practitioner and combines the role of researcher and practitioner into one comprehensive approach.

In developing a holistic approach, we need to understand how our interests can be associated with what is valued in learning and what we want to further explore. “Personal interests and experiences drive you to do the work in the first place—your motivation for asking questions and seeking knowledge,” Ravitch and Riggan stated. So, in a role such as scholar-practitioner, what you are passionate about is important; it can drive your focus on scholarly work and how it is accomplished as well as motivate you as a practitioner in your daily work experiences. Irving Seidman wrote in his book Interviewing as Qualitative Research: A Guide for Researchers in Education: “It is important that the researcher identify his or her interest in the subject and examine it to make sure that the interest is not infused with anger, bias, and prejudice.” Therefore, developing and reflecting on our interests can prompt how we structure our research as well as how any results might be applied.

As Ravitch and Riggan have referenced, a scholar-practitioner employs conceptual frameworks to direct the practitioner’s work and give it credibility. For example, in a union setting, this could mean a scholar-practitioner acknowledging their frustration over deferred maintenance of higher education facilities and using frameworks that reduce potential bias in their research on trends in union renovation projects. By taking a holistic approach to inquiry, the scholar-practitioner examines each element of the learning process so that they provide a stronger foundation for decisions and needed change.

Identity and Positionality

Beyond our interests, identity impacts our research and knowledge at all levels. As Ravitch and Riggan stated, “Both how you think about doing the work and how you carry it out require careful consideration of your role as researcher, how you see the world (and yourself in it), what to emphasize (and de-emphasize) in your data collection, and how to represent yourself, your work.” Understanding who we are is important for considering the implications, both positive and negative, that can be associated with our research process and our work.

Identity influences an individual’s reality and creates some understanding of how we see ourselves in relation to others. In his essay for Thought and Leadership, professor David Takacs wrote: “Few things are more difficult than to see outside the bounds of our own perspective—to be able to identify assumptions that we take as universal truths, but that instead are crafted by our own identity and experiences in the world.”

Part of the role of the scholar-practitioner, particularly when considering change, is to be open to dialogue. Dialogue can be an opportunity to learn and deepen one’s knowledge base. It also serves as a means for understanding one’s interpretations of information. So by understanding our own positionality, we better appreciate the importance of learning about and from others. The Curriculum Studies Reader indicates, “To communicate effectively, educators must understand the structural conditions in which the thought and language of the people are dialectically framed.”

Furthermore, it is through self-exploration that we can also become more “vulnerable” to listening to, understanding, and making the decision to not be a bystander but to become fully engaged in the pedagogy. This recalls Takacs’ words: “When all are experts, because their knowledge comes in part through differently positioned life experiences, all can learn—but only if you listen.”

Applying this concept, two individuals analyzing the same qualitative data might interpret it differently. Consider, for instance, interview comments about new professionals’ experiences. A researcher who has been a supervisor in the field for decades might have a different lens than a graduate student working on the same research project. “We can seek to attempt to see another’s perspective or be sensitive to hear their opinions as we (un)pack our backpacks and seek to learn together,” researcher Yvette Franklin explained in the journal Educational Studies. Therefore, it is valuable for scholar-practitioners to understand their own feelings and positionality so that they can interpret their research in a way that leaves them open to seeing all of the opportunities for change.

Identity can serve as a gateway to new experiences and appreciation of differences with others. That self-exploration can lead to new understandings, interpretations, and perspectives about yourself and about others.

Serving as a Change Agent

In reflecting on the ideals of progress, part of the scholar-practitioner role is to serve as an agent of change where often this change is grounded in a desire to make improvements with a current problem of practice following thoughtful research. “Change leaders work on changing the context, helping create new settings conducive to learning and sharing that learning,” reported professor Donna Thompson in Scholar-Practitioner Quarterly. Scholar-practitioners are not just mere consumers of knowledge; rather the reason for acquiring knowledge is to promote change.

Serving as a change agent often takes a degree of courage. As professor James Banks indicated in the journal Epistemological and Research Issues, “Educators, today often accept mainstream knowledge and resist other knowledge forms because it reinforces the social, economic, and political arrangements that they perceive as beneficial.” Scholar-practitioners need to have the courage to not simply conform, but to seek out knowledge that informs how we improve our practice in a much more substantial and meaningful way. Lasting change does not happen effortlessly, but rather occurs because we have followed a thoughtful, holistic process grounded in research and theory.

For instance, a scholar-practitioner at a college in a small farming community might notice low engagement levels among first-generation students. Building from theories related to this population, research might be constructed to identify strategies that would ultimately help rural campuses enhance their programming efforts to better meet first-generation students’ needs. This approach differs from assessment of existing programs or simple focus groups or surveys conducted at one institution because it seeks broader, more lasting results.

In her article for Scholar-Practitioner Quarterly, Terri Hebert described researcher Carol Mullen’s vision of “a change agent who deals with the enormous pressures facing all educators today, by confronting these struggles instead of merely absorbing or ignoring them. In order to successfully emerge from these demands, a scholar-practitioner must be a craftsman of his or her trade, wisely selecting appropriate tools that will serve to accomplish the specific task.” Essentially, scholar-practitioners serve as agents of change because their work and philosophies are grounded in theoretical/conceptual frameworks and exploration, which are then used to strengthen and implement the practical applications needed for change.

Scholar-Practitioners in Unions and Activities

In considering the aims of education, union and activities practitioners need to explore how they contribute to the education and overall development of the student. As Sriram and Oster noted, “There ought to be some connection between what student affairs professionals do and the body of knowledge that the profession is built upon. The current research suggests that there is a need for increased engagement in research among professionals. If so, then those in professional associations, graduate preparatory programs, and divisions of student affairs on campuses should take intentional steps to help professionals understand the importance of reading current research for the sake of better practice.”

Becoming a scholar-practitioner is a continuous learning process. It is important to recognize the role of research; to develop the skills for effectively managing research tactics; to develop one’s scholarly voice in both written and oral formats; and to understand how all of this affects how we manage change. The question now is: How do we transition to becoming more holistic in our approach to student development and adopt the role of a scholar-practitioner?

“Student affairs professionals are often highly pragmatic and feel pressed to get the job done to serve others and/or influence higher education,” according to a 2010 study in the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice. Because of this, research may at times become secondary to actual practice. However, the work of any scholar-practitioner is more important than ever and is crucial in impacting future policy and best practices associated with education today. In their NASPA Journal article, Stan Carpenter and Matthew Stimpson wrote: “Only continuous reflection, commitment, learning, and growth are acceptable if we are to be of service to our students and our institutions. We owe our profession nothing less.” It is imperative that individuals seeking to become scholar-practitioners understand all of the elements involved in successfully navigating that process. A scholar-practitioner’s work must be guided by strong ethical and value-driven initiatives associated with supporting the ideals of change and understanding the significance of research to what they do. Simply stated, union and activities professionals need to embrace more fully the role of scholar-practitioner and begin to utilize its principles to make lasting contributions to education and the growth of our students.


Kimberley Haines, director of the student union and activities at The College of BrockportKimberley Haines, khaines@brockport.edu
Kimberley Haines is director of the student union and activities at The College at Brockport. A longtime member of ACUI, she is currently on the Education Council and previously served as Region 2 director. Currently Haines is pursuing her doctorate through Northeastern University. She received her undergraduate and master’s degrees from Canisius College. She lives with her husband and two children in upstate New York.