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Cecilia Lucero, University of Notre Dame

Cecilia Lucero.jpgThe road to self-authorship—where an individual’s internal voice emerges and asserts its authority—begins with cognitive dissonance, perhaps even existential crisis, that challenges the individual’s assumptions about the self, social relationships, and the world.  Pizzolato (2005) refers to such experiences of dissonance as “provocative moments.”  Achieving desired college learning outcomes such as critical thinking, cultural competence, and moral and ethical judgment depends on where students are on the journey to self-authorship (Baxter Magolda & King, 2012).  Baxter Magolda and King have found that “students who are not yet able to author their inner psychological lives often allow their external influence to derail their academic goals, jeopardize their identity development, or ruin their relationships” (2012, p. 13).  Guiding students to self-authorship exemplifies the kind of advising practice that Lowenstein (2014) argues leads to integrative learning.  That is, advising becomes a space for active learning, wherein students reflect on who they are and make educational decisions based on their self-knowledge—for example, majoring in English because they love literary analysis versus accounting because their parents want them to be practical.  Through advising-as-integrative-learning, students can also begin to make sense of their education as a whole and its relevance to their lives beyond the academy.

This article considers advisors’ role in creating provocative moments, particularly with regard to topics centered on race, gender, and socioeconomic class.  Advisors, of course, have varying backgrounds and biases with regard to sociocultural issues.  In facilitating dissonance, they risk alienating students, who might misinterpret their motives.  Professional development that enhances the cultural competence of advisors, however, can help them shepherd students through provocative moments in meaningful and mutually beneficial ways.  One such professional development program is described briefly in this article.

Self-Authorship Theories and Students at the Crossroads

To author is to create something; to have authority is to be accepted as a source of reliable information or evidence (Oxford English Dictionary).  Self-authorship is to claim one’s self—not an external authority such as a parent or boss, or even tradition—as the creator of one’s knowledge, values, beliefs, and identity.  When advisors speak of students taking ownership of their learning, they are essentially talking about them becoming self-authoring individuals.

The theory of self-authorship grew from Kegan’s (1994) exploration of the evolution of consciousness, which was inspired by Piaget’s constructivist theories of adolescent and adult development.  These theories propose that learning occurs through individuals’ interpretations of experience, i.e., the transformation of knowledge and skills, not merely the accumulation of them.  Kegan (1994) focused on “the personal unfolding of ways of organizing experiences” (p. 9) that grow more complex, and is often disorienting, as individuals differentiate themselves from others yet seek inclusion in their environment.  This multi-layered, meaning-making process guides behavior and has three dimensions: the cognitive/epistemological (in which the individual asks “how do I know?”), extrapersonal (“who am I?”), and interpersonal (“what relationships do I want?”).  Self-authorship is continuous and cyclical, and is shaped by the environment, social relationships, and the intensity and pace of individual development. “In the self-authoring mind, [the individual is] ‘able to step back enough’ from the social environment to generate an internal ‘seat of judgment’ or personal authority that evaluates and makes choices about external expectations” (Kegan & Lahey, 2009, p.17).

Building on Kegan’s theory, Baxter Magolda (2010) identifies three phases on the way to self-authorship: 1) Trust in the inner voice represents an epistemological shift, wherein the individual begins to recognize her own identity, values, and beliefs separate from external authority.  She also realizes her ability to control reactions to, perhaps even negotiates with, external authority.  2) In building an internal foundation, the individual’s beliefs, identity, and relationships become more salient.  3) In securing internal commitments, the individual integrates all three dimensions and lives according to her self-defined values and beliefs (Baxter Magolda, 2010).

As college students develop self-authorship, they will find themselves at the crossroads, a “place for discontent” (Pizzolato, 2005, p. 625) where their internal voice and external authority vie for prominence (Baxter Magolda, 2010).

Several scholars have critiqued Kegan’s and Baxter Magolda’s theories of self-authorship, arguing these perspectives emerged from foundational studies with predominantly white male participants.  Recent scholarship more intentionally examines the role of race, gender, and other facets of identity on individual development.  Torres (2010), for example, shows that for Latino students and other students of color, facing racism is a central task in identity development.  Hofer (2010), who compared the epistemologies and academic performances of Japanese and American students, argues that constructivist theories have privileged Western culture that values autonomy over collectivism, which is prioritized in many Asian cultures.  Similarly, Pizzolato, Nguyen, Johnson, and Wang (2012) found that dissonance leading to self-authorship “may be more interpersonal than autonomous” because of “familial and cultural psychological contexts” (p. 673).

Jones (2010) argues for intersectionality as a framework for self-authorship research.  While some scholarship acknowledges race, gender, class, and other sociocultural factors as influences on identity, each is still treated as a discrete construct.  This additive approach is problematic because it “presumes the whiteness of women, the maleness of people of color, and the heterosexuality of everyone” (Risman, 2004, p. 442). Intersectional analysis, however, centers race, gender, and class in lived experience.  Furthermore, it calls attention to the power dynamics in play between individuals and social structures that might thwart their progress.

Provocative Moments in Advising

Learning environments that promote self-authorship challenge students to grapple with dissonance and ambiguity and to see themselves as knowledge creators.  Advisors can create such learning environments by engaging students in reflective conversations (Schulenberg, 2010) or other exercises that encourage introspection of their values, beliefs, and identity, such as responding in writing to ePortfolio prompts.  One might ask, however, if it is appropriate for advisors to challenge students on prickly topics such as race, gender, and class: “identity politics.”  Should advisors, for example, raise the specter of sexism and/or racial bias against a professor when a student complains about a bad grade from that professor?  Or probe deeply the reasons why a student betrays resentment for need-based scholarships?

If we advisors believe that “helping students learn is an essential quality of advising” (Lowenstein, 2014, p. 7) and view advising as integrative learning, we are obligated to engage students in provocative moments centered on race, class, and gender.  Just as we broach uncomfortable topics about student life that affect learning and well-being—binge drinking, sexual assault, mental health—we can help students recognize how sociocultural constructs shape their college experiences and their education as a whole, as well as life beyond the academy.  As Lowenstein writes, in addition to understanding the “logic of the curriculum,” students must also be able to make sense of their relationship to the world (p. 7).

Creating provocative moments without offering adequate support, however, could blindside the student and lead to mistrust of the advisor.  Baxter Magolda (2004) offers the Learning Partnerships Model (LPM) to balance provocative moments with support; this model resonates with Lowenstein’s (2014) description of transformational advising.  Three principles guide the LPM: 1) validating students as knowledge-creators, 2) situating learning in students’ experiences, and 3) defining learning as mutually constructing meaning.  For the LPM to be effective, advisors must be explicit about the purpose of provocative moments, the challenges and support students can expect from advisors, and the potential outcomes.  In other words, advising-as-integrative-learning requires transparent design.

Cultural Competence of Advisors

Implementing the LPM requires advisors to be culturally competent, in addition to being “intellectually agile” and broadly educated (Lowenstein, 2014, p. 8).  One example of a professional development program that cultivates cultural competence and entails “personal, reflective analysis of [advisors’ own] education” (Lowenstein, 2014, p. 8) is the National SEED Project (Seeking Educational Equity and Diversity).  Founded by Dr. Peggy McIntosh, SEED “creates conversational communities to drive personal, organizational, and societal change toward greater equity and diversity” (The National Seed Project).  SEED’s principles echo the goals of self-authorship and LPM principles. Through SEED training, advisors can learn to employ the LPM effectively in their advising sessions, and model for students how to embrace and work through provocative moments.

My institution, the University of Notre Dame, has offered SEED seminars to faculty and staff since 2012. Evaluations have shown a strongly positive response to the program. Peer-led SEED seminars guide participants through their own provocative moments. SEED seminars, comprised of 15–25 participants per cohort who meet monthly during the academic year, include “personal reflection and testimony, listening to others’ voices, and learning experientially and collectively” about “systems of oppression, power, and privilege, without blame, shame or guilt.” SEED assumes “we are each the authorities of our own experience, and can learn to facilitate effective conversation about issues of equity and diversity,” as well as understand how our own educational formation addressed or ignored these issues (The National Seed Project).

Given the racism, sexism, homophobia, income inequality, religious intolerance and other discrimination that beleaguer our communities, it is imperative that we, as educators, help students engage these issues meaningfully—and fearlessly—on their road to self-authorship.

Cecilia Lucero
Academic Advisor, Co-Director of Balfour-Hesburgh Scholars Program
First Year of Studies
University of Notre Dame


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Cite this article using APA style as: Lucero, C. (2018, March). Provocative moments in advising: Guiding students toward self-authorship. Academic Advising Today, 41(1). Retrieved from [insert url here] 

Posted in: 2018 March 41:1


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