Pushing Privileged Pillars: A narrative study of university leaders’ beliefs about “poverty-class” students and poverty

Context and Importance: This doctoral research will explore university leaders’ (professors, advisors, administrators, alumni) perceptions of post-secondary students who grew up in persistent childhood poverty. Canadian higher education equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) leaders are grappling with diversity. Part of the difficulty lies with understanding leaders’ lay beliefs about poverty-class students—an under-researched area (Massey, 2016; Shields, 2013). Theoretically, those in academia understand that persistent poverty is a result of the intersection of structural forces (e.g., age, disability, gender, Indigenity, race, social class). However, predominant individualistic frameworks are also at play in shaping their decisions and actions (Greene, 1995; Haney, 2013; Iverson, 2013; McKenzie, 2015; Swanson, 2004). This research is timely: in 2016, The Right Honourable Prime Minister Justin Trudeau mandated the creation of the Canadian Poverty Reduction Strategy. This consultative, community-based initiative reports that poverty rates are increasing for the most vulnerable Canadian populations: single mothers, people with disabilities, recent immigrants, and Indigenous people (Government of Canada, 2016). Higher education is a crucial mechanism to reduce poverty and diminish the reproduction of poverty across generations (Government of Canada, 2016). The main goal is to explore university leaders’ perceptions about students who grew up in persistent childhood poverty in order to work towards socially just and equitable higher education.

I completed my MA degree at the University of Alberta in May 2017. My research consisted of a nine-month narrative inquiry into how persistent childhood poverty shapes undergraduate students’ experiences. Three central themes emerged: (1) Poverty-class students’ lived experiences are profoundly silenced in Canadian universities—and, absent in Canadian EDI policies and pedagogies; (2) Persistent childhood poverty shapes an entire life (Adair, 2001), and (3) The stigma and shame of poverty shape university experiences (Fraser, 2015; Tyler, 2013). My dissertation builds upon my MA by moving from the individual to the institutional to push the pillars of privilege through a critical investigation of how university leaders understand the structural pressures resulting from generational poverty—and, how these perceptions shape EDI policies. This is an important gap that, when explored, will help Canadian higher education systems realize their potential and play a critical role to foster equity and inclusion in Canada (Hunt & Bullock, 2016; Iverson, 2012; Pearce, Down & Moore, 2008; Reay, 2012).

In recent years, countries such as Australia, the United Kingdom, and the USA have been engaged in higher education EDI initiatives (widening access to and participation in higher education). Canadian universities are beginning to expand their EDI efforts on the inclusion of Indigenous students, persons with a disability, racialised persons, and sexual and gender minorities. Yet, the intersection of social class—specifically poverty—with other social characteristics (age, ability, gender, race, Indigenity) is not visible in Canadian conversations (Ghosh & Adbi, 2013). As a result, EDI efforts continue to exclude the most marginalized: those whose lives are shaped by systemic childhood poverty (Burtch, 2006; Government of Canada, 2016). Also, the lack of an intersectional focus results in creating social characteristic silos (e.g., diversity and race versus diversity and sexual orientation), which results in policies that lack nuance (Adichie, 2009; Greene, 1995; hooks, 2000). By excluding poverty from EDI policies, Canadian universities continue to be sites that perpetuate privilege (Brady, Blome & Kleider, 2016). Compounding  these gaps in knowledge is that although diversity initiatives are increasingly common, what diversity means theoretically, and in practice, is a highly contested area (Ahmed, 2012; Archer, 2007; Berrey, 2015; Smith & Mayorga-Gallo, 2017; Michaels, 2006).

Objectives and Research Questions: My research seeks to understand three main questions: (1) How are poverty-class students storied in their interactions with higher education leaders? (2) How do these leaders conceptualize university landscapes and EDI policies for poverty-class students whose experiences they may, or may not, understand? (3) What are Canadian higher education leaders’ lay attitudes about social class, poverty, and poverty-class students, including their perceptions of social class in relation to EDI? The overall objectives are to determine (1) What are leaders’ beliefs about poverty, and (2) how do university leaders’ beliefs about poverty-class students shape EDI policies, practices, and pedagogies.

Methods: (1) I will conduct a qualitative analysis of secondary materials relating to EDI policies and pedagogies from universities in the UK, the USA, Australia, and Canada; (2) I will conduct an historical analysis of how social class has been shaped in Canada under colonialism through to neoliberalism. A point often overlooked is the centrality of social class in everyday lives—and, especially for those from persistent and often generational poverty (Sayer, 2005, 2002; Skeggs, 1997; Tyler, 2013). This analysis will be framed within larger capitalist and neoliberal discourses of the myth of the classless society (Sayer, 2005, 2002), the American Dream, and bootstrap dogma (Weiss, 1998); (3) I will draw on key theoretical frameworks that support a narrative analysis of complex research conversations (e.g., Goffman’s (1963) theory of stigma); I will engage with the UK sociologist Tyler (2013) who is wrapping up a three-year project on the sociology of stigma; (4) I will conduct an extensive literature review of diversity debates in UK, the USA, Australia, and Canada in the context of higher education; (5) I will take advanced qualitative methods with Dr. Strega where I will develop my methodological position for my research, and (6) I will conduct open-ended and semi-structured interviews with leaders from universities in British Columbia, the prairies, central Canada, and the Atlantic provinces. Two to three research conversations will be conducted with up to 50 participants in person, over the telephone, and/or via Skype depending on participants’ locations and schedules. Conversations will be digitally-recorded and transcribed. I will conduct a narrative analysis using qualitative data analysis software.

Timeline and Degree Program: I am in the first year of my PhD in sociology at the University of Victoria. I will specialize in historical and contemporary sociology and qualitative methods. I will complete my candidacy exams by the spring of 2019, defend my research proposal no later than that fall, and obtain ethics approval. I will conduct fieldwork in year three. The final year will be the writing and defense of my dissertation, writing articles for publication, and producing a play and/or documentary in order to mobilize the research into the hands of frontline workers (e.g., student advisors, EDI committees, and university leaders).

Supervision and Access: I will be co-supervised by Professors Helga Hallgrímsdóttir (School of Public Administration) and Susan Strega (Social Work). Dr. Hallgrímsdóttir is currently appointed to Public Administration but supervising several students in Sociology. Human and Social Development is an interdisciplinary research-training environment, with research strengths in social problems, Indigenous issues, and educational policy, that emphasizes the application of research to transform public policy. University of Victoria is an ideal learning and research environment for my doctoral program, with its focus on Indigenous student inclusion initiatives and support for from/in foster care students.

Research Creation, Knowledge Production, and Social Change: Disseminating research, both inside and outside of academia, is of paramount importance. After I defended my master’s thesis, I engaged in conversations with the Canadian Poverty Reduction leaders in Ottawa. I subsequently sent a report with recommendations based on my SSHRC-funded master’s thesis findings for Phase One of this federal project. I have and will continue to engage in presentations and discussions with diverse audiences to continue to move my research forward. I will conduct workshops, give guest lectures, share my research via poster presentations, attend teaching and learning events, and work with those interested in reimagining higher education as sites of social justice and equity.

I will publish in open access journals such as the Canadian Journal of Sociology, Journal of Poverty, Educational Philosophy and Theory, and the British Journal of Higher Education) to share my research findings and methodological experiences. I will become involved in research creation through the production of documentaries, creative non-fiction, and plays to make visible to higher education change agents how profoundly beliefs shape EDI policies and pedagogies.

I am submitting abstracts to the Education Developers Caucus Conference (2018, University of Victoria), the International Society for the Study of Narrative Conference (2019, Spain), and the International Sociological Association World Congress (2020, TBA).

Program of Study: Works Cited

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