Fitting the ‘file’ image.

This week I’ve had the opportunity to interview many students for our summer staff positions. Prior, during and after I had a lot of conversations with my students who were going through the interview process. One in particular stood out – my student and I talked about how during interviews they often felt “fake.” They know what professional staff members in my department want to hear, they know the answers they are supposed to share and the “correct” outfit for the occasion but they simply feel that isn’t authentic to who they are.

Our conversation really made me think about how we can pigeonhole students through our interview processes. We are looking for students who look and act a certain way. But what way do we mean when we say that?

During the conversation, my student and I talked about the ‘just be yourself’ idea; but, perhaps what people really mean when they say that is, be a version of yourself that you pull out for occasions like this. Be yourself but a little more cleaned up. Be yourself but in an outfit you’d never typically wear. Be yourself but sell yourself through the experiences you’ve had. Be yourself but don’t really be yourself.

What message does this all send? We can be accepting if only you look, act and are a certain way?

I don’t think this is something only undergraduate students experience. It’s not something that can be chalked up to a “developmental phase” – it’s something, I believe, all feel pressure in.

I was thinking about this throughout the week and then something clicked. I had the opportunity to hear Jess Pettitt speak on social justice and I realized why this bothered me so much. It’s about power and privilege; it’s a social justice issue. I think I’m finally able to put some language to this feeling but bear with me as it may be a bit rough…

During the lecture, Jess Pettitt talked about envisioning a dentist. Do this. What does a dentist look like? Most people recalled an image of a white man. Then, perhaps an image of their own dentist. But the ‘file’ image in your brain for ‘dentist’ is a white man. What is the file image for RA? Student affairs professional? Etc.?

If you don’t fit this image, of who is first recalled in the mind of most when a particular profession is mentioned, how much harder do you have to try? How much more time do you spend making sure you look the part? What are the ways you compensate for not being the ‘file’ image?

The inauthenticity my student was feeling might be because they didn’t fit that file image. They were attempting to ‘fit’ a mold, which wasn’t ever made with them in mind.

This begs the question – what do we do to change this? Do we need to? Where is my role here? For now, I’m not sure but this is certainly something I will continue to reflect on.

2 thoughts on “Fitting the ‘file’ image.

  1. The charge to make some change in this process is sort of an assumption, as if what is happening in this process is necessarily wrong. It goes back to another important message Jessica and many supporters of social justice always come back to: recognize and acknowledge your biases and judgments. Biases and judgments, while often used contextually as negative terms, are the core to the human experience. Basically, we do it all the time and every day. A lot of it depends on a sense of survival or needs.

    In a professional setting, this phenomenon is often hidden as the term “fit.” Candidates in an application and interview process are just as responsible in assessing their “fit” in the organization and institution as the hiring agents are in identifying those same qualities. What might be questionable is the biases and judgments that do shape what our definition of “fit” actually means. Hiring processes are especially subject to a sort of group-think. Because then, even the most individuals might be forced to fit in with a set of values that may not even be their own rather the institutions.

    The related phenomenon that comes into play is that many people would choose candidates who have similar qualities, ideas, or experiences as themselves. What we have to acknowledge is that we don’t just hire people who do work, we hire people who we can potentially spend a good deal of our time with. Even if we see an individual only 25% of our time at work, 10 hours is a large portion of our lives. It’s hard to not consider that as a factor. What matters: how inclusive are we really of others who are different from us… us as an institution, as an organization, and as individuals… each full of standards, expectations, and histories?

    Plain and simple… it’s not easy.

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