Interview with Social Class Scholar Dr. Buffy Smith

Tori Svoboda

September 23, 2014

The Socioeconomic & Class Issues in Higher Education Knowledge Community (SCIHEKC) is featuring a “Social Class Scholar” on our blog each month in the 2014-2015 academic year, highlighting faculty and practitioners who are engaged in dismantling inequities in higher education.  Our first featured scholar, Dr. Buffy Smith, is the author of Mentoring At-Risk Students through the Hidden Curriculum of Higher Education, the text we are using for our first virtual book club this fall. 

What brought you to this work (of studying social class in higher education)?

My scholarship is influenced by personal and professional experiences. I come from a low socioeconomic background, and I was a first-generation college student. Although I was fortunate to participate in both the Educational Opportunity Program and the Ronald McNair Scholars Program (e.g., TRIO programs), I still encountered many academic and social challenges in college. When I attended graduate school, I was a teaching assistant, and I noticed low-income and working class students did not know the cultural codes of how to thrive in college. It was clear that the students I advised struggled with the formal curriculum because they lacked the knowledge of how to navigate the university’s culture. Therefore, the birth of my scholarship came in graduate school when I became conscious of the impact of the hidden curriculum on students’ academic performance.

How has your scholarship evolved over time?  What surprised you or might surprise our readers about your findings? 

Initially, I wrote the book to help college educators (student affairs staff, administrators, and faculty) to be more mindful and intentional about making the unwritten cultural norms, values, expectations, and codes of conduct transparent to all students, especially underserved students. Now, I realize that a student’s arrival at college is too late to start teaching about college culture. Students need to learn and practice how to identify, decode, understand and interpret the hidden curriculum during their K-12 experience. I also believe creating academic mentoring networks could reduce suspensions, dropout rates, and juvenile incarceration rates among our youth. In order to reach students at an earlier age, I have intentionally reached out to partner with K-12 educators.   

The most surprising finding for me was that as mentors, we primarily advise our students. Some of us will advocate for our students, but rarely do we take the next step and work intensively with a student as an apprentice. I know it is easier and less time-consuming to just advise students, but if we are serious about helping students thrive in college, we will need to “show” rather than “tell” them how to navigate the hidden curriculum. As educators, we must strive to incorporate the apprenticeship cycle in all our mentoring relationships.

What are you writing/reading these days to deepen your knowledge on the topic?

Currently, I am reading articles related to teaching controversial topics. I want to write a reflective essay that integrates personal narrative with research findings on how to create a welcoming and inclusive classroom environment. I plan to use social class as my primary lens to examine how cultural capital and social capital influence classroom dynamics. I want to illuminate the process of negotiating both my multiple identities and those of my students when entering difficult conversations associated with issues of privilege and power. The goal of my essay is to offer recommendations for helping students become comfortable with their discomfort as they address equity issues in society.

Some of the articles I am reading are:

  • The Messy Teaching Conversation: Toward a Model of Collegial Reflection, Exchange, and Scholarship on Classroom Problems (Heidi Johnsen, Michelle Pacht, Phyllis van Slyck, and Ting Man Tsao, 2009).
  • Controversial Issues: To Teach or Not to Teach? That is the Question! (Sarah Philpott, Jeremiah Clabough, Lance McConkey, Thomas Turner, 2011).
  • Daring to Debate: Strategies for Teaching Controversial Issues in the Classroom (Nicole Fournier-Sylvester, 2013).

Can you identify some "best practices" happening in college or university settings that you believe are making a difference in eliminating some of the opportunity gaps?

I believe my student affairs colleagues at various colleges and universities are taking the lead to transform the college culture into a more affirming learning environment for first-generation college students.  Some universities have designed orientation sessions specifically for first-generation college students.  Other universities have organized campus-wide panel discussions around issues and concerns related to first-generation college students. In addition, some first-generation college students have created their own student clubs and organizations.

Of course, there are still institutional barriers (such as inadequate financial aid and unclear expectations of college culture) that limit opportunities for low-income students.  But student affairs professionals are moving in the right direction by creating a more inclusive and affirming learning community for first-generation college students.

What advice would you offer student affairs professionals regarding social class in higher education (in terms of their own identities, and/or their work with students, and/or their influence on institutional policies/practices)?  

I admire and applaud student affairs professionals who are designing innovative programs to improve first-generation college students’ campus experience. I would encourage my colleagues to continue to reflect on their current social class identity and the privileges and power associated with it as it relates to their position at the university. Regardless of our social class of origin, we are all now in a position of power to influence institutional policies and practices that can either hinder or improve the academic achievement of low-income or working-class students. We have to be intentional and use research as the foundation for our programming in order to make sure it has the most positive impact on our students’ academic success.  

Any final words of wisdom to share? 

I am a better scholar and teacher because of the strong and meaningful relationships I have with my student affairs friends and colleagues. I hope student affairs professionals know that their efforts really do create opportunities for students to develop and refine the skills necessary to thrive in college and throughout their professional lives.

Nominate scholars/practitioners to be featured in the future by emailing Tori Svoboda: [email protected]

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