On Professional Competencies and the Student Affairs Philosopher King

This series delves deeper into the new Technology competency recently added to the ACPA/NASPA Professional Competency Areas for Student Affairs Educators.  Intended to serve as a resource for faculty and professionals to guide professional development and teaching, it provides a deeper understanding of the topics covered in the competency and provides resources for further education.

Also check out Josie Ahlquist’s series for an excellent alternative take on the topic.

As I’ve been writing on the new technology competency area that has been added to the ACPA/NASPA Competencies for Student Affairs Educators, I’ve been thinking a lot about the idea of competencies themselves and how one should use them.  Perhaps it’s the Platonic philosopher in me (my undergraduate degree was in philosophy), but I do find value in thinking about what an ideal would be and reflecting on what this may look like in reality.  The ultimate question I’m exploring is… How should these competencies guide us?

Hypothetically speaking, let’s say there is a professional who is fully competent in all areas outlined within the competencies document.  A “super student affairs professional,” if you will.  For those of you who have philosophy background, or otherwise had reason to read Plato’s Republic (Wikipedia link for a refresher), you can also think of it as a “student affairs philosopher-king.”  An ideally competent professional.  This lead me to think of three questions:

  1. Is it even possible to be “fully competent” in all areas?
  2. Is it desirable to be “fully competent” in all areas?
  3. Should it be a goal to become “fully competent” in all areas?

competency flowerLet’s start with the first question, “is it possible to be “fully competent” in all areas?”  My short answer to this is no.  After looking at all of the different competency areas, it would seem impossible to achieve all of the advanced outcomes across all ten competency areas identified.  Thinking simply from a time perspective, it would likely require many years of work and experience to achieve it, and even if one were to get close to achieving it, the context of societal change keeps moving the goal post.  The authors of the document rightly identified that the competencies should be a part of a journey.  A journey that likely has no strictly achievable defined end point and one that may require one to “double back” as one progresses.

The second question is if this is even desirable.  On its face, it certainly seems desirable, even if its not achievable.  It may also be desirable, however, to step outside of the competencies.  The authors of the document rightly point out that these outcomes are placed within a student affairs context.  It might be possible (and desirable) to go beyond them.  At certain institutions and in certain contexts, broader knowledge beyond these competencies may help in one’s position.  Furthermore, I also don’t believe that one necessarily needs depth in all areas.  In my own case, I study and research social and digital technology.  There are certainly things that I do as a “digital professional” that go way beyond what I would expect every professional to do.  In other words, not everyone needs to be a “technology nerd” to be effective in their jobs, and I don’t expect them to.  Likewise I am not a “legal issues rockstar,” but I at least know whom to consult and the basics of what I need to know to be effective.  Surround yourself with good people rather than trying to be all things to all people.

ACPA NASPA Professional Competencies FINAL-1The last question is if this should be an end goal.  I don’t think broad competency in all areas should be an end goal.  Instead, I think it should be to advance in areas that are most likely to have the greatest impact on one’s work and on the students with which one is working.  This also relates to the ideas of strengths.  There are two competing philosophies in professional development: (1) focus on your areas of growth and try to become better at them; or (2) recognize your strengths and try to leverage them towards excellence.  In reality, I think it’s a mixture of both.  Many performance management plans emphasize the former, goal setting on areas you want to learn and grow in.  Areas where you could become more competent.  The latter is classically represented by the Gallup Organization’s StrengthsQuest.  Identify your strengths and focus on positions that allow you to use them.  In the competencies document, the authors state that the foundational outcomes should be mostly achieved through a Master’s program or equivalent mixture of experience.  They represent a baseline.  In my own opinion, where you choose to go next should be guided by a balance of enhancing skills in areas or growth as well as developing excellence and expertise in your areas of strength.

What do you think?  I don’t know that there is only one answer to some of these questions, but many.  Either way, I think they provide good food for thought.

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