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Marcia Baxter Magolda, Miami University of Ohio

2011 Jon C. Dalton Institute on College Student Values Keynote Speaker

Baxter-Magolda-150x150.jpgBaxter Magolda teaches primarily student development theory courses. Her scholarship addresses the evolution of self-authorship in college and adult life and pedagogy to promote epistemological development, learning, and self-authorship. Pam Crosby, Clearinghouse editor, talked with Baxter Magolda by phone  January 7, 2011. The article below is based on that interview.

Professional Title: Distinguished Professor of Educational Leadership and Student Affairs in Higher Education

Institution: Miami University of Ohio

Marcia Baxter Magolda has always lived in Ohio. She grew up near Lima, studied at Ohio State University, and teaches at Miami University of Ohio. She remarks that many of the Mid-western, working class values she retained from small town life have served her well throughout her personal and professional life. One easily notices, when talking to her, the warm, friendly tone, the down-to-earth language, the good common sense. However, she is quick to underscore that at one point, a time she would call the “crossroads” of her life, she had to question some of the values she had learned as a child and young adult.

The Role of Higher Education

While there are those who think college is a place where students’ values (those modeled and taught by family and local community institutions) should be reinforced, not challenged, Baxter Magolda disagrees:

I think that there is a great fear [among parents and others] that if students think for themselves, they will not value what their parents and leaders want them to value. In reality when students have genuine values, they know why they have them; they hold them more strongly.

Although she does not suggest that when students come to college, they ought to “throw out their beliefs,” neither, she says, should they cling to them without examination. Students as adults are expected to deal with uncertainty throughout their lives.  Baxter Magolda explains that in order to be successful adults, individuals must reconstitute how they make meaning in the world,  confronting basic values  that have undergirded their  belief system, including those that may shape their faith and religion. We don’t want students to say, “I can do that because they said so, but I don’t know why,” but rather we want them to act on the basis of their own beliefs.

Other critics maintain that colleges and universities should not only refrain from encouraging students to examine deep-rooted beliefs and values, but also that higher education should avoid addressing issues relating to personal and social values as much as possible.  Instead, college leaders should devote their attention, efforts, and finances to what is measurable and predictable—and not as controversial —students’ academic knowledge and skills.

Baxter Magolda points out, however, that society expects its citizens to be concerned about their communities, care about the welfare of individuals, and succeed in their professional, public, and private lives—in short—to learn personal and social responsibility. Achieving these goals requires persons to cultivate in themselves a certain level of cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal maturity.  Colleges and universities, on the whole, she argues, rarely provide the right conditions for this advanced level of complex maturation to take place:

We as adult educators know what it takes to function in adult life. We also know that our students have yet to develop those capacities we have identified.  It is not something that we can ignore because it cannot be measured. Look at how long we have struggled with alcohol abuse issues. Are we making progress with fraternity hazing?  People are not willing to say we have to approach people’s development. We see what happens when people do not have these capacities.

She illustrates that colleges and university leaders cannot avoid their role in helping students to make decisions that affect the beliefs, values, and loyalties in the following example.  A resident assistant (RA) may attend meetings about the importance of enforcing policies that ban alcohol in the residence hall. She pledges, along with others in the context of the meeting, that she will enforce the policy. In the presence of her supervisor she may have experienced the intention to enforce the policy, but  after she returns to her floor and confronts her peers, who plead with her to let them drink in their rooms, she finds it difficult to stick with her intention.  Her peers as external authority may or may not have power to convince her to act in their apparent interest. If the RA is persuaded that it is somehow in herbest interest to let them drink, what might we conjecture is going on in the RA’s thoughts?

This is a more complicated situation than one might first think. But what has likely happened, Baxter Magolda says, is that peer pressure is too strong, while needed confidence to resist the pressure is too weak.  Peers as external authority, particularly in their presence in the situation, outweigh the external authority of the hall director. What the RA lacks is a strong and steady “internal voice,” which would have developed in an ongoing process of examining and re-examining beliefs. The RA needed to have determined what aspects (such as values, beliefs, loyalties) of herself she embraces and what she rejects in order that she not give in so easily in the heat of the moment and in turn find herself in another dilemma with her supervisor later.

As a result, says Baxter Magolda, the critical difference is that the values upon which she acts would be her values, not someone else’s values. Thus, a confident inner voice would likely enable the RA to say directly to her peers, “It is wrong to let you drink in your rooms, and I will not allow you to do that.”

This examination, this sorting by the person herself of what values, beliefs, and loyalties she thinks are essential for her to live a flourishing life—a complex, ongoing, act of defining and constructing what it means for her to be heris what would make her life genuine and strong in times of uncertainty and risk.

College as a Place to Cultivate Self-Authorship

Baxter Magolda has written numerous books and articles, and frequently leads workshops and gives  lectures about the crucial need for young and older adults to make their lives genuine, or in other words, to self-author their lives. With her extensive background on the subject she has become an expert on the need for college leaders and faculty to provide the right blend of supportive and challenging conditions for students to journey toward self-authorship.  Baxter Magolda emphasizes that higher education should not ignore students’ critical need to be self-authored because if they go out unprepared in a world where their employers, families, and communities depend on them to make responsible, mature decisions, they are likely to put everyone, including themselves, at risk:

We as educators and researchers know that this is a time of fragility, and we are learning much about the importance of teaching students to have personal and social responsibility in order to get them to function successfully in the world as adults.

In order to become self-authored, Baxter Magolda says, a person has to understand how knowledge is created. It is not just an epistemological, cognitive process. One must have undergone the social development that goes along with that.  For example she observed a zoology class during the course of the year in which the professor set up hypothetical situations to challenge students to predict outcomes of particular experiments. Students were encouraged to deal with doubt and to formulate their own answers to anticipate results. There were those who knew all the procedures and the language, but they did not have the sense of identity needed to be independent thinkers. Instead they relied on the professor to tell them the “facts” that they needed to know. “These students were not able to question others’ ideas,” she noted.

Questioning and taking into serious account others’ perspectives while at the same time negotiating one’s own perspective involves a complex level of thought that is buttressed by self-trust.

On the whole, college students have not had much experience with difference, with sorting through multiple perspectives, explains Baxter Magolda. College is a time for students to realize that the world in which they live—and the problems with which they must cope—is more complex than they thought.  But to get them to the place they need to be in order to be mature adults, they must go through the “crossroads.” It can be, she cautions, a very uncomfortable place:

Students are going to be threatened by something that does not fit their formula. A person who is at the crossroads is still struggling to make sense of the different context in which she finds herself.  She is more over the fence than on this side of it. This side of the fence is where it is more difficult to sacrifice others’ approval. On the other side of the fence, a person has more confidence to take responsibility for what she values and not to blame others for her circumstances.

As one’s sense of how knowledge is created becomes more complex, that person can cultivate a more profound interest in others. She admits that often individuals, when first hearing the term, think the theory is about encouraging students to focus only on themselves. However, she and her co-authors decided it would be too confusing to change the name when referring to their treatment and extension of the theory, which Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan first developed and christened.  But she wants to debunk the myth that self-authorship is selfish-authorship.

Baxter Magolda makes it clear that she is not an expert in the field of moral and civic development of students, but she explains that the concept of self-authorship has profound implications in these areas.  For example,

If you rely on external formulas to make decisions for you and these external formulas on the whole are ethical, then you are likely to behave at least ostensibly ethically.  But if the company for which you work is not ethical you will not be ethical because you are following the formulas. You do whatever works in the context.  You conform to the context. People can move around and act in various way in many different contexts.

Baxter Magolda often cites her ongoing longitudinal study of a group of adults in their 40s (beginning when they were 18) in her conversations about self-authorship. With data from over 1000 interviews, she can present microscopic views of individuals’ developmental journeys.  Consequently, her research findings in this and other studies can provide insight into those activities and projects for which students may likely be developmentally ready at certain stages in their lives. For example, students may be put in situations in college, such as diversity workshops, that they do not have the developmental maturity to handle:

We do workshops on how you should not be a racist. Students often are simply learning how to behave in the context of authority—but they are not undergoing a genuine transformation. We should not force students in their first year of college to undergo training in intercultural difference. Instead we should address them on their level of cognitive, social, and intrapersonal maturity. We should ask, “Do you want to succeed in these fields?” Then tell them, “You must have knowledge that there are different perspectives and what these perspectives are.”

One way that has the potential to provide college students the combination of challenge and support needed for them to grow in cognitive, intrapersonal, and interpersonal ways is involvement in service learning. Baxter Magolda points out that there are “pieces in service learning” that offer students “exposure to complexity.”  Individuals construct how to deal with complaints and issues. They learn how to work with others in solving problems. They experience feelings of conflict in seeing how persons for whom and with whom they serve are both profoundly similar and different. Often this experience enables students to acquire a “whole new way to see the world. “

Other potentials for providing conditions for complex growth include courses of study in humanities, which often compel students to reflect deeply about questions relating to what it means to be a human being,  how one can lead a flourishing life, what is our relationship to the world and our relationships to others, and so on.  But humanities study is not the only academic approach that can lead to advanced stages of growth. Baxter Magolda says it is important to stress that it does not matter what the discipline is if the courses are focused on students’ constructing their own meaning out of their learning experience.  For example, she observed a mathematics class where the teacher helped students to think about mathematics in terms of their personal values:  “In other words the teacher asks them to take into account what values they bring to their learning.” Students were challenged to relate the learning to their lives and with the guidance of the teacher, construct their own meaning of the mathematical concepts in terms of how these concepts pertained to their lived experiences.

Beyond the College Years

Although Baxter Magolda’s application of self-authorship theory is widely used in the field of higher education research, programs, and practices, the framework is not directed only to college preparation for adulthood. Her most recent book Authoring Your Life: Developing an INTERNAL VOICE to Navigate Life’s Challenges (2009) is aimed at adults in their 30s as well as at others who want to be good company, that is, those who want to offer support to others, such as family members, employers, educators, mentors, and so on:

I am trying to get people to see how self-authorship relates to themselves and to others they care about—regardless of their background of training. Persons often come up to me and say, “Hey, this is what is happening to my cousin. I am trying to get through to this person.”

To make the articulation of the theory in her book less technical, Stylus Publishing President John von Knorring guided her in creating the language that would effectively communicate to people and make them feel more comfortable.  During the course of her writing the manuscript, he constantly asked her if she thought her description and analysis would make sense to a broader audience.

As a consequence, she confesses that she wrote the book three times, trying to adapt Kegan’s theory, which  is often described  in complex and technical  language that she and colleagues have used in the past. In reference to the findings presented in Authoring Your Life, Baxter Magolda notes that few people in their 30s have advanced to the new vantage point of self-transformation. Many espouse a certain ideology, and they are comfortable and settled in with that ideology.   But those who have undergone the advanced phase of self authorship, “have the notion of trusting the internal force “to make decisions for themselves.

Not an Isolated Journey

In Authoring Your Life, Baxter Magolda uses the metaphor of persons riding on a tandem bicycle to illustrate the journey toward self-transformation. The move from relying only on external authority (as in being driven by someone in the front seat of the bike) to self authorship (driving one’s self) is a complex and arduous journey and takes much time, but we still need the love and support of others (those guides, family, friends, and mentors in the back seat).

The journey cleverly depicted by a map in the book (pp. 5; 20) is a path of risks, obstacles, high points, low points, and detours. It is a journey where we do not travel alone, for we need and are needed by others. But if we are self-authors, Baxter Magolda would say, it is our journey.

Baxter Magolda, M. B. (2009) Authoring your Life: Developing an INTERNAL VOICE to  navigate life’s challenges. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

For articles written by Baxter Magolda in the Journal of College and Character, go to