constellational thinker. critical scholar. transformative educator.

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On Milkshakes and Taking Breaks from Meaning-Making

**On Tuesday, I had such a great conversation with Dr. Dian Squire’s Student Development Theories class; this post really comes from the conversation we had together. Thanks to Dian and the Iowa State 1st Year Master’s students for prompting many of these thoughts for me.

When discussing the application and translation of theory-to-practice, Dian asked about what I thought about the concept of meaning-making. What does it mean to me? Of the questions I was asked by the class, that one had me pause to think about my answer the longest. I asked if I could cheat by using the words “meaning” and “making” in my description and then I talked myself out of that. Ultimately, I shared that meaning making for me is the way we make sense of the world around and within us with the goal of continuously making space for more expansive, complex sense making (in many more words than that).

As Dian and the class shared with me, their sense of the term is one of overuse in student affairs, much like the terms of “salience” or “intentional.” Terms that are often fillers in our language but ultimately vapid when we unpack them. And I agreed. I think that’s why I paused so long. And kept thinking about the question more.

What I shared with the class is I really wonder if we are over-doing, over-demanding, and over-saturating meaning-making in student affairs. And that lead me to thinking about milkshakes. Go with me, I promise we are going to wind up in a good spot.

When you make a milkshake, you generally need milk and ice cream. I think about the meaning-making process as one where the milk and ice cream are being blended together. I think often our goal as educators is to help students to reach a sweet spot for meaning making, one where the consistency of our blend of ingredients results in the “perfect” milkshake. Something smooth yet not too liquid-y. Something that is not ice cream soup (a childhood favorite of mine) nor something that’s a Dairy Queen Blizzard (famous for their temperature being so cold that they can be held upside down with nothing coming out of the cup).

This prompted further thinking for me, though.

I was really thinking about things like: well who defines a good consistency of a milkshake? Maybe some folks like ice cream soup more than milkshakes? Is a blender (higher education) required to make a milkshake (complex meaning-making structures)? How do we think of complexity beyond this one frame of the “consistency” of the milkshake but also think about how flavors, mix-ins, and serving size all fit into the greater meaning-making conversation? Does everyone need milkshakes all the time?

And I think the last question and my answer to it are actually very telling. I would love to have milkshakes all the time. I love them, they taste great, and are always a welcomed addition to my day. However, I don’t need milkshakes all the time. There are times where I need something else or nothing at all. I worry that I think too much about how students are not making enough meaning when sometimes they just want to take a break from making meaning about their contexts and worlds, especially when they have other things they are just trying to get or move through – like full course loads, multiple jobs, campus organizations – and especially when their livelihoods and life chances are and feel under constant threat.

I am not saying we as student affairs educators should not help students make meaning or create intentional learning experiences to help them reflect on their experiences and the implications of those experiences on their current and future lives. What I am saying is for us to think more about our overuse of a term and our overuse of a concept. I want to think more for myself how I take breaks from meaning making for students and for myself and how that is perfectly okay.

I think about when I just need to spend four hours of time watching Netflix and not needing to make sense of anything else in the world in that time because I need a break. I think about playing games on my iPhone for 15 minutes just because I need to not think about all of the labor I need to do elsewhere in my life. And sometimes I want to rush the milkshake making process and just have a milkshake. And that’s perfectly okay.

Alex Lange