Belonging in HE: my own experiences

It has taken me nearly three weeks to realise that one of the reasons for resigning from my current job is related to my research area of belonging. I want to use this post to reflect on my own recent experiences of belonging and how this might provide insight for my research.

To set the scene, one of the reasons for leaving my current job is that I did not feel a good fit (an aspect of belonging) in the organisation. For me, ‘fit’ is the group aspect of belonging; the sense that you are part of something bigger than yourself. I find there is also another useful aspect of belonging for which I use the term ‘contact’. This describes the individual relationships with people that help you belong in a certain environment.

So what have I learnt from my own experience of not fitting in. Firstly, a lack of belonging is hard to articulate and often hard to identify as the cause of why you might feel unhappy or uncomfortable in an environment. It took me nearly three weeks to make the connection (and notions of belonging are fore most in my mind) and it required a lot of reflective thinking to understand what was happening. This confirms to me that the story telling approach is the right way to go with the research. Simply asking about belonging or using belonging self-rating scales will not work because of the difficulty in thinking about and articulating belonging. However, in previous interview data I can see aspects of belonging emerge from stories and experiences, although clearly it is a highly interpretive process.

Secondly, it confirms to me the value of breaking down the concept of belonging into component parts, in this case ‘fit’ & ‘contact’. What was evident in my own work experiences is that fit is a more important aspect of belonging for me than contact. Really strong relationships with people can compensate for a lack of fit but a strong fit means contact can be much lower. What will be interesting in the research is to see if that is true for others or as I suspect contact may be more important for some. For example, I could imagine a student who gets through their degree thanks to excellent support from a lecturer and a small group of friends even though they don’t feel a strong fit in the university. ( I realise as I write this that I need to really ‘nail down’ how these two terms are defined in my research and how they are related but different.)

Thirdly, I need to identify indicators of belonging, fit and contact. In exploring why I did not feel a fit with my current organisation I identified shared values, ways of working and shared identity. By shared values I mean is this a place that has an emphasis on the values I think are important; are my values mirrored in the way the organisation works? The reality of how values are enacted or experienced as opposed to how values are espoused is important here. By shared ways of working, I mean are my strengths recognised and can I work in a way best suited to me. By shared identity, I mean do I recognise others like me who share an identity or have an identity which I value. The difficulty here is how to translate my experience to the student experience. To help I will draw from a specific example of a student who was dissatisfied with the academic environment because she expected it to me more welcoming of diverse opinions and more willing to challenge preconceptions. Her own values of diversity were not mirrored in her experiences (shared values), her opinions were not as respected as she had hoped (ways of working?) and she did not see fellow students on her course as having a shared identity. In not fitting in to her course she sought other means to fit in my being active in the Student’s Union were her values, opinions, ways of working and identity were mirrored more closely.

Fourthly, in exploring ‘fit’ in more detail the notion of a mirror seemed important. Fit is like a mirror; when you look at the people in your environment you expect to see some of yourself reflected back. When that does not happen then you don’t fit in. I don’t mean just your physical self (although for some the physical aspect might be important) but more those cognitive and affective aspects of you such as values and opinions.

Fifthly, the impact of belonging on your self. Like one of those fairground mirrors your sense of self can be distorted by your environment. You can start to question your own values and wonder whether you are right or not. Whilst this questioning can be a good thing it can also make you very unhappy or force you into acting in ways you would not normally in order to fit it.

Lots of food for thought but now back to the literature to find my thinking is way off base!