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Humanizing an Essential Question: The Agency – Structure Dialectic

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Faculty
May 13, 2023 Peter Mather Ohio University

JCC Connexions, Vol. 9, No. 2, May 2023

Lessons in Moral Development Learned From a Sabbatical Adventure: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions

Pete Mather serves as the senior associate editor for the Journal of College and Character and is a professor in higher education and student affairs at Ohio University. He is providing this column in Connexions based on his 2021-2022 academic year sabbatical. During his sabbatical, Pete has been interviewing innovative thinkers about the future of student engagement in higher education, reading on the topic of higher education reform, and has been on a soul-searching mission to discover ways of encouraging best models of practice for today's and tomorrow's students. This column focuses on how higher education faculty and administrators can promote moral development in an evolving higher education environment.

Please see his reflection/adventure/sabbatical blog here

Returning to Teaching

As I returned from my faculty fellowship leave this past fall semester, I was full of enthusiasm about sharing what I had contemplated and learned about the future of higher education and student affairs with my students. Having reflected on the significant strains on contemporary community life—on campuses and in society at large—I was ready to encourage our master’s students in college student personnel to consider the power they possess to affect change in the world, and to foster the same sense of agency among the students with whom they work. In a student development theory course, we examined educational approaches such as appreciative inquiry for organizational and personal change and social psychological theories of motivation, goal achievement, and creative problem solving as important foundations of their work with their students today and in the future.

Meaning and Existence

These theories are customarily not taught in student development classes. In my own experiences teaching the course, I regularly found that students had difficulties knowing how to translate their understanding of theories into their work. I believed I had found the silver bullet: theoretical models that promote action. My attention to the framework of agency was built on a belief that the world is complex, in an ongoing state of flux, and people are confronting epic, existential concerns that deal with meaning and existence. As I have described in my sabbatical reflections, I had seen a world that was on fire as I traveled through the smoke-filled mountains of the Western United States. I based much of the course on my assumption that if we are going to deal with issues of global warming, gun violence, mass incarceration, political polarization, and the mental health epidemic, we need to ensure that students are prepared to adapt to ever changing circumstances and to have the knowledge, dispositions, and skills to address these daunting global concerns.

Redirecting Blame

Alongside the considerations of what it means to be an agent of change in the world, the course also gave attention to the evolving understanding of how social identities shape students’ experiences in the world. We studied issues of injustice, and we explored ways of advocating for remediation of oppression. In the midst of learning about how people navigate the world from positions of marginalization, I drove the conversations to consider how individuals facing oppression can assume agency to maximize their opportunities for success and how we all could work to dismantle oppressive structures. When discussing personal possibilities and responsibilities to promote change, I found myself running up against students’ concerns that focusing on issues of student agency redirected blame for society’s challenges to the cohort of students who are now transitioning into increasing adult responsibilities. The essential unfairness of the circumstances they face showed up regularly as an impediment to my sense of how change could be affected by our work.

A Mismatch of Perspective and Experience

My enthusiastic evangelism for how I viewed our collective opportunities to be agents of change regularly bumped up against a force field of resistance. My frustration grew as I continued to experience a mismatch between what I wanted for them and the ways they were making sense of their place in the world. I eventually came to recognize that this question of tension between personal agency and human ecological structure was at the very heart of their lives. This cohort of master's students have endured rah-rah, feel-good messages in the midst of a plethora of challenges, not the least of which was navigating the isolation brought on by the COVID pandemic.


COVID along with a host of other social calamities are not externalized realities, but rather are part of what Bourdieu (1977) described as habitus. External realities are internalized in human beings, and these social systems and the environmental milieu, at large, are imprinted in the lives and experiences of young adults. Importantly, Bourdieu pointed out that people’s lives are not entirely prescribed by environmental realities. Indeed, there is an interplay between structures and the individual. However, my enthusiasm for what students could be failed to recognize how social realities had shaped who they are. I was coming off the adventure of a lifetime, granted to me by the privileges I had as a tenured professor in higher education (among other aspects of my identity). On the other hand, my students were coming out of a period of immense challenges at an important time of their social and professional development. I thought I could just teach (or preach) them into a new reality. As it turned out, I could not.

I was trying to close a big gap in our experiences by giving them techniques and practices that could affect change. But, they needed deeper consideration of who they are in the world and who their students are. There is a common adage in the field of student development that we must meet students where they are. I was approaching my teaching by asking them to meet me where I am.

A Hard and Honest Look

Following the semester, I invited students to join me in a presentation about reconstructing the course at the NASPA annual conference. (Ironically, I had proposed a session about revisioning student development theory courses before I had taught this one!) Two students volunteered to join me in the presentation. We decided, rather than espousing the virtues of the class, to take a hard and honest look at approaching the class in a new way. As we prepared the presentation, we decided we would each tell our story about our positionality and our hopes upon entering the class, and then how we each experienced the class.

These conversations leading up to the presentation turned into rich opportunities for learning for me and the students. One of the student presenters identifies as autistic. He shared his view based in the social model of disability (Oliver, 1990), which holds that disability shows up when society disables people’s participation. He conveyed the many ways he faces disabling environments and social structures, and his frustration with a lifetime of messages focused on how he must adapt and accommodate himself to the neurotypical majority’s preferences, as opposed to society doing the same for neurodivergent people like him. Throughout these conversations, I was the learner. He discussed the importance of the teacher being willing to listen as well as profess. He was too kind to say it directly, but I understood that he was frustrated by my narration of the world being dominant in the classroom space. Furthermore, his experience in the world, like those of his classmates, matched my sabbatical experience in respect to depth and impact. It was a story that was worthy of telling.      

Social Structure and Personal Agency

Through the process of putting together the conference presentation, I recognized that my goals were misguided. Rather than just giving them the tools to affect change, they needed to have an opportunity to examine who they are in the world. My role as the instructor is to ensure that members of a learning community should have the opportunity to acknowledge the ways in which the complex stories and narratives of each of our lives shape who we are and who we hope to be. It is about humbly sharing our perspectives with one another—student and student, faculty and student, etc.—and owning the deep complexity of the issue of the relationship between social structure and personal agency. While we seek to meet each other where we are, we also seek new ways to make sense of where our ideas might take us. Importantly, I have reflected since my class this past fall that the conversation that can transform our thinking and practice is grounded in students’ hopes for themselves more than in my hopes for them.

A Deep Connection 

The importance of embracing students’ experiences and ways of making meaning does not mean that outside texts are dispensable. A piece that can evoke valuable conversation about the agency-structure dialectic comes from the indigenous wisdom of Gloria Anzaldua. Anzaldua (1999) wrote:

The struggle is inner: Chicano, indio, American Indian, mojado, mexicano, immigrant Latino, Anglo in power, working class Anglo, Black, Asian—our psyches resemble the bordertowns and are populated by the same people. The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in outer terrains. Awareness of our situation must come before inner changes, which in turn come before changes in society. Nothing happens in the "real" world unless it first happens in the images in our heads. (p. 87; italics added for emphasis.)

Anzaldua’s statement is rich with opportunities to foster conversations among students about this dialectic that contains so much power in the current milieu. Anzaldua highlights the deep connection between “who I am” and “what the world is and can be.” Indigenous wisdom may take many students into a way of making meaning that is unfamiliar—the very thing we hope to do in transformative education. Just as importantly, it also moves many educators (including me) into new understandings of how change might be possible.

Shaping Journeys and Thinking

Another approach is to ensure that students are dealing with deep questions about their relationship to the environment that has shaped their journeys and their thinking. Here are a few examples of questions that can provoke us to consider who we are in learning spaces:   

  • How are my thinking and feelings shaped by the environment? (e.g., political propaganda, educational system, ideological cultures, commercial advertisement)
  • How does my power and presence show up in different spaces? That is, where do I thrive?
  • Where, when and with whom do I feel marginalized (disempowered), and how do I navigate that reality?
  • Where, when, with whom, and in what ways do I marginalize and disable others?

Some of these questions are difficult. To be sure, I have discomfort in answering them for myself. But they do meet us where we are, where we go, and how we consider our place, position and power in the world. Before I get in a hurry to help students know how to change things, I’ll give them space to explore their place in the world, as well as giving them access to how I am considering my own.


Anzaldua, G. (1999). Borderlands, la frontera: A new mestiza. Ann Lute Books.

Bourdieu, P. (1977). Outline of a theory of practice. Cambridge University Press.

Oliver, M. (1990). The politics of disablement. Macmillan Education.