In #SAcdn, Articles

by John Hannah, Director, Special Projects & Storytelling, Ryerson Student Affairs

Yesterday a few of us at work were talking about teeth. (Long story). Someone wondered if human teeth continue to grow throughout a lifetime,  suggesting that this is likely where the phrase “long in the tooth” originates*. Which led to the obvious one-liner: “Imagine how long John’s teeth are?”  

It’s a joke I would have made if I wasn’t beaten to the punch line. I didn’t take offence.  It’s true. All of a sudden, I’m often the oldest person in the room at work. Sneaks up on you, that. It’s a new awkward identity, that I can be goofy and self-deprecating about, and others can openly tease me ‘cause it’s early-stage. But the comments do catch me off guard sometimes. Little barbed stingers, from people younger than me. I’m losing my edge, the kids are coming up behind, James Murphy lyric rings in my head.  If I wasn’t so dripping with privilege, and felt I had any real claim on or affection for the term, I’d consider calling those comments microaggressions, because behind some of them could come a tacit presumption about my diminishing value and relevance.  Or something. Eventually. I ain’t bellyaching – I’m not really suffering. But it feels perhaps useful to muse about this for the SA-Exchange audience as we celebrate its first anniversary and contemplate the role of history in Student Affairs. There is a relationship between the extent to which we value history in our profession and how much we value the elders in our midst who know and hold some of that history. I’m biased now, of course, but we dismiss the value of age diversity in the profession at our peril. So, this is me, the guy with the long teeth, not an elder yet, but making a case for them.  

There’s a wider cultural context here worth noting;  we live in a world that overwhelmingly values youth over age, (a predicament felt most acutely by women). Just consider the multi-billion dollar anti-aging industry. Getting older, it seems, is a thing to avoid at all costs. And consider too, the open-season on old people as objects of ridicule: “she’s having a senior moment”, “he’s young at heart”, “grumpy old man” – and take a look at the birthday card section in the drug store next time you’re there. Ted Nelson says, “Older people are told they are not valued, they are leeching off of society, they are useless, and that they should just die already,” (2016, p. 192).  Overstatement to make a point I guess.

A quick search reveals that there is a surprisingly little research on the topic of ageism in the workplace and virtually none in the field of Student Affairs. So I don’t know what the implications are of all this cultural preference for the young. It’s probably just some normal playing out of something, some archetypal feature of human existence. Let’s not start a moral panic. But I’m sure, as in most things, we could probably attend to it all more thoughtfully. Anyway, I’m  (mostly) ok with getting older, despite, or maybe because of the teasing that sometimes accompanies it. I mean, I’m only in my fifties for god’s sake. I have all my teeth and I know what a meme is.

But in a Student Affairs context, I’m a fossil.

It’s a funny profession, Student Affairs, in its approach to age. What place do we make for the older folks? In what ways do we value the unique dimension they bring?  Now, it’s all obvious for the people who have chosen and succeeded on the path to senior management. That’s all normal and plain to everyone – a “person of a certain age” who has done the expected and risen through the ranks. But what of the others – those who perhaps prefer to stay closer to the “front lines”? The ones who are old but not senior. This is where we miss the boat, I think. We don’t see the inherent value of age, we see the value of position in the hierarchy that comes with age. So, the message to the younger folks is: “when you get older, you can be a senior manager”,  and we disregard all the other possible aspirations – to be a holder of history, to be a person of wisdom and experience, to be, in the vernacular of many Indigenous cultures, knowledge keepers.

I invoke Indigenous cultures here, not as a token over-simplification. I am not an Indigenous person so I would not pretend to represent adequately the intricate and varied roles that Elders play in cultural lives of other folks. But surely, even at its simplest level, there is something good to be learned here, an acknowledgement that the traditions still rooted in a deep, abiding respect for generational roles and responsibilities, and an approach to living together grounded in “All My Relations”, hold onto something that is good and important –  a thing that we in the western traditions have lost.

I’m taking a guess here, but I suspect that the Student Affairs profession is a field dominated by people under forty. There is a lot of turnover, a steady influx of new folks, freshly graduated from their Master’s program in higher education. This a good thing, a necessary injection of energy, and new ideas, to usefully disrupt the sometimes tired traditions held by their older colleagues. But I worry that it has become (or has always been) the superficial face of the profession, its brand. Youthful, energetic, shiny, bright, fresh, and full of pep. And in that shiny place, the older, non-senior folks have to carve out an identity that is valued, an  increasingly difficult thing to do.

Like I said, if you haven’t grabbed onto senior management, what’s left?

You may keep plodding on in the role you actually have always enjoyed, but people start to wonder about that. Why is she still here? Isn’t she bored of that job? I think she’s losing touch with students today. I guess she wasn’t good enough for promotion. She really should move on and make room for someone else.

Or maybe you make lateral moves, to satisfy your desire to learn and be creative. And people wonder about that too. Why did he want that job? Where did he come from? What does he know about this area? Guess he doesn’t want senior management.

Or maybe you reinvent yourself, or simplify your life by working fewer hours. And people wonder about that too. I guess they just have to find a place for her. She’s probably on her way out but likes the pay cheque. I sure wish I had that luxury. Have you seen her salary, she’s on the sunshine list. What does she actually do all day?


It’s this last one – what does she actually do all day –  that is the most telling. Ours is a profession that fetishises the doing. We love the doing, the busy-ness, the tangible accomplishment – how many events, how many students reached, how many outcomes achieved. And, naturally, it’s good to do things. But what about the question what does he know? What can we learn from her? What have they lived through? What does their experience tell them? What wisdom is held there? When was the last time that was asked of someone at a cocktail party? (Translation: in the olden days, a gathering of people getting together to have mixed drinks and banter was called a “cocktail party”).  

Now, reaching a certain age does not guarantee wisdom. Like I said, sometimes old traditions are just plain dysfunctional, and sometimes old people cling to those dysfunctional things. But in the pursuit of wisdom, getting older does help. Folks who have been around for years or decades in Student Affairs just know things, they have history, they have seen the recurring waves of buzzwordiness, they have learned from their own experience of things, they have made things, they’ve plodded and failed, and tried again.  There’s value lurking there. The value of history.

An oft-cited complaint about higher education in general, maybe Student Affairs in particular, is that it is slow to change, slow to evolve. We explain this away by simply referring to the scale of the enterprise, it’s too big to change, like turning the Titanic. But I would argue it’s because we do not sufficiently acknowledge the history of things and  honour the guardians of that history, give them a place to remind us that we’ve been here before – sexual violence on campus is a thing we’ve reckoned with for a long time, mental health of students is a thing we’ve reckoned with for a long time, precarious budgets, been there, student attrition, done that, student events and advising, and tutoring and mentoring and leadership development and curriculum and assessment – all old things. A disregard of the elders in favour of the young and new perpetuates a cycle of simply re-setting, and repeating, over and over, with no memory. It’s Groundhog Day. All things are new. This is very good for the “system” of education that resists change. Keep things going, keep the enterprise afloat, don’t rock the boat too much. Stifle memory.

So, I think we should be more mindful of that value, the elder voices in our midst. Not just the senior managers who may happen to be older. But the elders. Michael Etherington, an Omushkego Cree of the Mushkegowuk nation makes a useful distinction for me – the term Elder, he says, “is not a title, it’s a form of recognition.”

In this way, it is a thing to be earned, not simply bestowed on the old. And I think it is incumbent upon all of us to make sure we recognize the value of history in our profession and the folks who have earned a place as knowers of that history.

They were there.

I once wrote in response to a young SA pro writing about her experience as a millennial in the field. I suggested that it’s important to keep asking how to make room for young folk in a place made stuffy by the existing and previous workplace tenants. But to also honour those existing and previous tenants who have done good work there. A workplace, in my opinion, is made great by a confident, self-assured mix of ages, one that honours but also critiques its own history, a place where the younger needn’t be intimidated by the older, and the older needn’t be threatened by the younger.

Students, the reason we are here, are themselves an age-diverse group of folks and I’m pretty sure they would concur.

Works Cited

Nelson, T. D. (2016). The Age of Ageism. Journal of Social Issues, 72(1), 191-198. doi:10.1111/josi.12162

Saba, R. (2017, August 23). Bridging the generation gap. Globe & Mail. Retrieved from


Losing My Edge – LCD Soundsystem

Yeah, I’m losing my edge.

I’m losing my edge.

The kids are coming up from behind.

I’m losing my edge.

I’m losing my edge to the kids from France and from London.

But I was there.

I was there in 1968.

I was there at the first Can show in Cologne.

I’m losing my edge.

I’m losing my edge to the kids whose footsteps I hear when they get on the decks.

I’m losing my edge to the Internet seekers who can tell me every member of every good group from 1962 to 1978.

I’m losing my edge.

To all the kids in Tokyo and Berlin.

I’m losing my edge to the art-school Brooklynites in little jackets and borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered eighties.

But I’m losing my edge.

I’m losing my edge, but I was there.

I was there.

But I was there.

I’m losing my edge.

I’m losing my edge.

I can hear the footsteps every night on the decks.

But I was there.

I was there in 1974 at the first Suicide practices in a loft in New York City.

I was working on the organ sounds with much patience.

I was there when Captain Beefheart started up his first band.

I told him, “Don’t do it that way. You’ll never make a dime.”

I was there.

I was the first guy playing Daft Punk to the rock kids.

I played it at CBGB’s.

Everybody thought I was crazy.

We all know.

I was there.

I was there.

I’ve never been wrong.

I used to work in the record store.

I had everything before anyone.

I was there in the Paradise Garage DJ booth with Larry Levan.

I was there in Jamaica during the great sound clashes.

I woke up naked on the beach in Ibiza in 1988.

But I’m losing my edge to better-looking people with better ideas and more talent.

And they’re actually really, really nice.

I’m losing my edge.

I heard you have a compilation of every good song ever done by anybody. Every great song by the Beach Boys. All the underground hits. All the Modern Lovers tracks. I heard you have a vinyl of every Niagra record on German import. I heard that you have a white label of every seminal Detroit techno hit – 1985, ’86, ’87. I heard that you have a CD compilation of every good ’60s cut and another box set from the ’70s.

I hear you’re buying a synthesizer and an arpeggiator and are throwing your computer out the window because you want to make something real. You want to make a Yaz record.

I hear that you and your band have sold your guitars and bought turntables.

I hear that you and your band have sold your turntables and bought guitars.

I hear everybody that you know is more relevant than everybody that I know.

But have you seen my records? This Heat, Pere Ubu, Outsiders, Nation of Ulysses, Mars, The Trojans, The Black Dice, Todd Terry, the Germs, Section 25, Althea and Donna, Sexual Harrassment, a-ha, Pere Ubu, Dorothy Ashby, PIL, the Fania All-Stars, the Bar-Kays, the Human League, the Normal, Lou Reed, Scott Walker, Monks, Niagra,

Joy Division, Lower 48, the Association, Sun Ra,

Scientists, Royal Trux, 10cc,

Eric B. and Rakim, Index, Basic Channel, Soulsonic Force (“just hit me”!), Juan Atkins, David Axelrod, Electric Prunes, Gil! Scott! Heron!, the Slits, Faust, Mantronix, Pharaoh Sanders and the Fire Engines, the Swans, the Soft Cell, the Sonics, the Sonics, the Sonics, the Sonics.

You don’t know what you really want

You don’t know what you really want

You don’t know what you really want

You don’t know what you really want

You don’t know what you really want

You don’t know what you really want

You don’t know what you really want

You don’t know what you really want

You don’t know what you really want

You don’t know what you really want

You don’t know what you really want

You don’t know what you really want

You don’t know what you really want

You don’t know what you really want

You don’t know what you really want

Lyrics by James Murphy


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  • John Hannah

    *Human teeth actually do stop growing in adulthood. Horse teeth, however, continue to grow and this is likely where the phrase comes from.Reference

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