Y’all. I found myself really needing to make some progress on a writing project. In order to do so, I needed to clear both my head and my schedule.

Like a ton of you, I never took any real down time during the summer. I kept saying I was going to, but put it off for one reason and another, and by the time I tried to schedule it I couldn’t. And it wasn’t just a no-break summer; it was a systems-are-breaking-all-around-you summer. Here’s your duct tape and your baling wire; spend hours on Zoom with your colleagues and see if you can keep it all running. All of which meant that, as a colleague of mine said a couple of weeks ago, I felt at the beginning of October like I usually do in April: exhausted, short-tempered, and desperately in need of a break.

And yet: October! Projects! With deadlines! And semester in progress! And then there’s this writing project, which is the second-easiest thing to put off (down time apparently being the first).

Except that the project has some time pressure behind it. I mean, it doesn’t exactly have an expiration date, but the sooner it comes together the better, for a whole lot of reasons. 1

So I made a commitment a couple of weeks ago to deliver a proposal for the project… in a couple of weeks. And then I looked at my calendar and figured out that with a little effort I could totally unplug for a four-day weekend and focus in on getting it done. I warned my colleagues week before last that I’d be completely out of pocket, and then reminded them last week. On Wednesday at 4pm, I put out of office bounces on my email accounts, and set my Slack/Teams statuses to away, and turned off every notification I could. And I settled in for the staycation equivalent of a writing retreat.

By Friday afternoon the proposal was done and ready to send. By Sunday morning I had a schedule for posting drafts of the chapters here to get input into how things should expand and develop as I work. And in the midst of all that, I read a book I’ve been asked to review, sketched out my initial thoughts about what I want to say about it, read half of another book for fun, cooked for the week, and rearranged a part of my kitchen that’s been annoying me.

And I slept over eight hours every night. And I’m actually excited about getting back into the swing of things tomorrow. If this is what unplugging can do, I clearly need to make a regular practice of it.

27 June 2020, 16:53

From today’s campus coronavirus update: “News this week of a spike in positive COVID-19 cases in the East Lansing area highlight the importance and urgency of our collective work to prepare for reopening campus this fall.”

That news highlights the urgency of something for me, but I’m not sure it’s preparations for reopening.

Your Institution Does Not Deserve to Survive

That is: unless you are committed to the survival of the people who make up and serve that institution first, foremost, and above all.

* * *

There’s an awful lot of “shared sacrifice” and “for the good of the institution” rhetoric circulating in higher education circles today, driven both by the collective uncertainty about returning to campus in the wake of COVID-191 and by the resulting budgetary crisis colleges and universities find themselves in. Kevin McClure does a good job of digging into that rhetoric and turning our attention from how we should work to reopen our campuses to focus instead on why.

That why, where it’s addressed, is being treated as if it were a matter of concern for students and their futures: in order to deliver to them the high-quality educational experience they want, we must band together, take precautions, be prepared. If we don’t deliver that product, we are told, they won’t come back, and the institution will not survive.

I am a believer in the value of institutions of higher education, especially broadly public-serving institutions of higher education, which have long functioned as an engine for social mobility and empowerment. I want to see those institutions survive. But they do not deserve to survive based on that mission alone, and particularly not if they have to sacrifice the health and well-being of their very publics in order to do so.

The executive management teams at our colleges and universities have been charged with their institutions’ survival. I understand that. But we need to consider carefully what the institutions are for if not for the people who learn in them, the people who teach in them, the people who build them and keep them operational. The relationship between institutions and those people is the entirety of the institution’s value, and if the lives of those people do not come first, the institution should not survive.

My life would be enormously impoverished, both literally and metaphorically, if my institution were to shut down. But it is not worth the lives of my students, my colleagues, the members of my community — not to mention the lives of their families and friends and neighbors — to protect my livelihood.


Generosity in Hard Times

Over the course of the last couple of years, I’ve spoken on several college and university campuses where faculty, staff, students, and administrators have been thinking about how to create and support a greater sense of connection between their campus communities and their public-facing mission. The folks who invited me — ranging from the officers of campus AAUP chapters to presidential advisors — felt a connection with the arguments being made in Generous Thinking not least because of their recognition that their institutions require not just better strategic plans but deep culture change. That culture change demands, among other things, a serious rethinking of how we work, why we work the ways we do, how we assess and reward that work, and how we recognize as work things that tend to get dismissed as service but that play a crucial role in building and sustaining collaborative communities.

Making a better, more sustainable institution, in other words, requires us to move away from quantified metrics for meritorious production — in fact to step off the Fordist production line that forever asks us to do more — and instead to think in a humane fashion about ways that we can do better. Better often in fact requires slowing down, talking with our colleagues and our communities, and most importantly, listening to what others have to say. Better requires engagement, connection, sharing, in ways that more nearly always encourages us to rush past. Turning from more to better goes against some of the ingrained ways of working we’ve adopted, but that turn can help us access the pleasures — indeed, the joys — of our work that life on the production line has required us to push aside.

But after one of the talks I gave, an attendee asked me a question that’s lingered in the back of my head ever since: generosity is all well and good, she said, and something that it’s relatively easy to embrace when we’re flush, but how do we practice generosity in hard times? Can we afford to be generous when we’re facing significant budget cuts, for instance, or is it inevitable that we fall back into analytics-driven competition with every unit — much less every worker — out to protect their own resources and their own privileges?

I don’t remember how I answered then. I suspect that it was some combination of “you’re exactly right; that’s the real question” and “the difficulties involved in being generous in hard times are exactly why we need to practice generosity in a determined way in good times.” And I may have said some things about the importance of transparency in priority-setting and decision-making, and of involving the collective in that process.

But I do know that as I stood there saying whatever I said, I was thinking “wow, this is hard, I don’t know.” I don’t know how we find the wherewithal to remain generous when times are bad, except by having practiced generosity enough to have developed some muscle memory. And I especially don’t know how we remain generous at a moment when our institutions are approaching us — we who work for them, as well as we who rely on them — invoking the notion of a shared sacrifice required to keep the institution running. I don’t know because I do want the institution to survive, and I want to maintain the community that it enables, but I also know that the sacrifices that are called for are never genuinely equitably distributed.

And I also know that however much I may want to keep the institution running, the institution is not thinking the same about me. Our institutions will not, cannot, love us back. However much we sacrifice for them, they cannot, will not, sacrifice for us. As with so many of my thoughts, this understanding was clarified for me by Tressie McMillan Cottom, who posted a Twitter thread describing the advice she gives to Black scholars who ask her how to survive the academy. One tweet in particular stuck with me:

This is especially true for minoritized groups working within the academy; it’s especially true for faculty without tenure; it’s especially true for staff; it’s especially true for scholars working in contingent positions; it’s especially true for everyone whose positions in the hierarchies of prestige and comfort leave them vulnerable, especially at moments when “we’re all in it together” is invoked not in the context of resource-sharing but of sacrifice.

Sacrifice tends to roll downhill, and to accelerate in the process.

That is, unless we build structures to channel it otherwise. And this is the deepest goal of Generous Thinking. I’m far less focused in the book on getting individual academics to think more generously than I am on what is required for us collectively to build a more generous environment in which we can do our work together. That is to say: what would be required for us remake the university into an institution that was structurally capable of living up to its duty of care for all of its members, in good times and bad?

There’s a catch in that question, of course: the university is not going to remake itself. It has to be remade. And the “us” that I’m pointing to as doing the remaking is meant to indicate those members of the university community who are to varying extents empowered and motivated to take that work on. But it’s unquestionably true that the empowerment and motivation of that “us” vary enormously from position to position, from institution to institution.

I spoke last year at a large midwestern public institution that had hands-down the most demoralized faculty I’d ever encountered. The reasons for that state have become painfully clear, if you’ve been watching the higher education news over the last week: they’ve got a right-wing activist president who is bent on transforming the institution into a fully corporate enterprise, and on undermining everything that ties the institution to the liberal arts, to critical thinking, to public service, to community. The faculty members I talked to despaired of their ability to do anything with such a force at the top of their institution, much less with the board that hired him.

There’s reason to despair in such circumstances, without question. But for whatever combination of reasons — privilege, thickheadedness, temperamental indisposition — I’m not able to sit back and say, oh well then. Generous Thinking is in large part about finding the things that we can do, the basis for and the places of trying. Some of those places are internal: finding ways to engage in a deeper, more attentive manner with the work that others are doing, and drawing out what’s best in that work to build upon rather than focusing on what’s absent from it or what it doesn’t take on. Some of those places are external, but personal: finding ways to develop working relationships with our colleagues, with our students, and with our communities that invite them into the work we’re doing, that share it with them, and that make that work into a form of collective action. And some of these places are external, but structural: finding ways to make it possible for others to engage in this kind of generous thinking as well.

This call to structural work is the call to institutional transformation I issue in my last chapter — again, not a call for us to do more to support and sustain our institutions but a call to do better in ways that can help build institutions that are worth supporting and sustaining. But here’s the thing: while it would certainly be helpful to have goodwill at the top of that institution as we try to remake it, I do not believe that better requires executive-level power to put into effect.

My colleague Bill Hart-Davidson has said that universities are built of three primary elements: buildings, which change only very slowly and expensively; people, who come and go more quickly than the buildings do but, being people, carry their own resistance to change; and documents, which often get treated as if they’re immutable but are in fact always editable by someone, somewhere.

Those documents are one key to institutional change, especially in thinking about the kinds of change that can be created where you are. Documents under local control, such as department-level bylaws and policies, might be revisited and revised to create more inclusive environments, for instance: to consider a broader range of forms of intellectual production under the category of “research,” for instance, or to open up participation in departmental processes to all appointment types. This is a form of change that may only be local, but that can transform a unit’s culture and increase its morale in ways that other units might notice and emulate. Grassroots change like this can grow, and can create change both outward and upward.

This is just one example of what has been boiled down into the slogan “lead where you are.” Each of us has certain kinds of influence over certain aspects of our local circumstances, and by working together to improve those circumstances for those around us, we can inspire further change. That potential is part of what allows me to remain optimistic about working toward structural forms of generous thinking even in hard times. Because another world is possible, if we’re willing to take the making of it on.

* * *

There’s much more to think about here, so much more that I haven’t even contemplated yet much less thought through. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Isolation, Mission, Connection

The last month has been an utter blur. We traveled for spring break, which is on the early end of things here; we left Michigan in late February for a bit over a week in a quiet resort hotel in Cancun. It was our usual writing vacation: we stayed fairly well holed up and wrote and ate and drank and enjoyed the warmth and sun.

That trip now feels a bit like a fever dream, given everything that’s followed. We got home Monday night and I turned around and headed back to DTW on Tuesday evening for two days of work-related meetings. Inbetween, I had just enough time to teach my class, and I spent the first half of it talking with them about what they’d do if we were unable to finish the semester face-to-face. Did they have a place to go? Would they be able to get there? Did they have the connectivity they would need in order to finish classes online? I was worried at first that I’d really freaked them out by raising the possibility, but it gradually sank in how freaked out they had already been, and that it was a bit of a relief to get to talk about it.

That was the last time I saw them in person. On Wednesday at 10:00 am, while I was in those work-related meetings, we got word that the university was suspending in-person classes at noon. We’d just come back from spring break, so there was no cushion, no pause taken to allow everyone to adjust. The expectation seemed to be that we’d all pivot immediately. And there I was, in an increasingly apocalyptic-feeling airport hotel with 20 colleagues — many of them administrators with significant responsibility for faculty, staff, and students back on campus — all of us trying to do at a distance what we couldn’t do in person.

It was a weird start to the weirdness that has settled in all around us. The meetings at DTW wrapped up just in time for my Thursday class to start. I hopped online just long enough to say hello to a few students and tell them that the plan I’d tried to put in place the day before wasn’t going to work after all. Rather than sit in the hotel for an extra hour and chat with them online, I only wanted to get in my car and drive home, as quickly as I could. Sitting there, all I could think was that we hadn’t been grocery shopping in over two weeks, and that lack of preparation was feeling scary despite the fact that recommendations, and then directives, to stay home were still days away.

I got home safely Thursday evening, and Friday we did as much of a grocery stocking-up as we could. We also filled the car with gas. Since then — just over two weeks ago — I’ve left the house twice for further grocery runs. R. has gone out another couple of times, since we discovered that our Whole Foods has reserved the first hour of the day for folks over 60. (This, he says, is the first good deal he’s gotten out of “senior” status since Social Security.) In two weeks we’ve put about 20 miles on the car.

But Zoom. So much Zoom. I’ve had several weekly video/teleconferences on my schedule all year, but now every meeting I have — and I have a lot of them — is likewise on Zoom. As was our big annual symposium, which my colleagues did an absolutely heroic job of reinventing for an all-online world on ridiculously short notice.

Between classes, and meetings, and the symposium, and the sudden spikes in importance of projects like Humanities Commons that have grown gradually up until now, I’m busier than ever. And I’m exhausted, and stressed, and prone to whine a bit about it all. Or was, until I found myself chatting this morning with a collaborator whose family, without enough to keep them focused and motivated, is feeling acutely the effects of boredom and anxiety.

It is a good moment to have a mission. And so I’m taking part of this weekend to contemplate mine, to think about how the networks I’ve helped to build and the values I’ve hoped to instantiate might support scholars, their organizations, and their institutions as we all collectively weather this mess.

So despite it all, I am filled with gratitude for the work ahead, and for the safe place I have in which to do it. For the ability to connect. For all of you.

Infrastructure and Capacity Building

Crossposted from Platypus.

I was delighted this week to be notified that the Humanities Commons team has received an Infrastructure and Capacity Building Challenge grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.

This grant is the foundation of a long-term sustainability strategy for the Commons, which includes hiring two new full-time staff members to join the team and contribute to the build out of both our technical infrastructure and our community and governance models.

Of course, being a challenge grant, it comes with significant responsibilities on our part: chiefly, the raising of a 3:1 match to augment the federal funding. But we are excited about the prospects, and looking forward to getting started.

Another aspect of this plan includes migrating the Commons’s hosting and fiscal sponsorship to Michigan State University. The MLA has committed enormous energy and resources to getting the Commons off the ground and will continue to contribute to the network as the founding member organization and a key development partner. A research university, however — and particularly one as focused on public-facing research and scholarship as MSU — can provide certain kinds of long-term stability for our growing network.

You’ll be hearing more from us about all our plans in the weeks ahead. In the meantime, I want to thank the NEH for their ongoing support for this project, and thank all the members of the Humanities Commons community for getting us to this point. We look forward to serving the future of your work for years to come.

Becoming Human

This brief presentation was part of a panel at MLA 2020 in Seattle entitled “Being Human, Seeming Human.” The panel brought together researchers from Microsoft with a couple of DH folks (me and Mark Sample) to talk about the history of research into artificial intelligence and conversational agents, some current experiments and challenges in the field, and the possibilities this work creates for literary artists today. The role I took on, as the last speaker in the session, was to raise some questions about how our engagements with these conversational agents might be affecting us.

Becoming Human

My presentation required me to open with a mildly mortifying revelation: When I was young, I took a lot of unconscious cues for how relationships were supposed to work from the ways they were represented on television.

Screenshot from Dynasty

This, perhaps needless to say, was a terrible mistake, which I discovered full-force the first time I ended an argument with an incisive, cutting one-liner and stormed out of the room. The person with whom I was arguing did not chase after me; there was no stirring emotional reunion. There was no sense in which I got to feel like I’d won. There was only a deep breach of trust, leading eventually to the loss of a relationship and the realization that so much of what I’d ingested as a child had been utterly wrong, that real connections between actual humans could not survive the kinds of dramatic behavior I’d been encouraged to think I was supposed to emulate.

This of course seems like a no-brainer now. Perhaps it’s just one of those things you shed in the process of maturing, but it’s hard for me today to imagine taking the relationships I see enacted onscreen to have much to do with my actual relationships in the world.

Screenshot from Friends

I know I’m not alone in my prior mistake, though; I have a close family member who once confided in me that she had been sorely disappointed to discover that as an adult she did not develop a cluster of relationships like those portrayed in “Friends.” I understand her disappointment; I was similarly saddened to discover that the world was not inclined to serve as a receptive backdrop for my self-dramatization.

What does this have to do with the current state of the development and deployment of artificial intelligences and conversational agents in online environments?

Screenshot from Her

Only this: as we engage with more and more non-human actors in technological environments, we may be prone to think of one another — and indeed ourselves — as less than human.

I want to be clear, though: like my failed understanding of the ways that relationships on television distorted and misrepresented actual emotional interactions among actually existing humans, the fault is not in the quality of the writing. “Better” television would not have produced a better understanding of human engagement.


Similarly, “better” conversational agents will not lead to more humane interactions online. The problem lies rather in a prior category error that makes it difficult for us to separate selves from self-representations. And it’s this category error that has led to what I increasingly think of as the failed sociality of social media.

That argument, in very brief, points to the ways that social media has promoted and benefited from a misunderstanding of and mistaking of connected individualism for real sociality.


Yes, we engage with one another’s self-representations on these platforms, but the engagements are not real sociality, any more than the self-representations are our actual selves. We are cardboard characters in a poorly imagined drama, often behaving toward one another in ways that real relationships cannot survive — in no small part because social media platforms are heavily based around and in turn feed our cultural tendency toward competitive individualism, a tendency that slides all too easily, inexorably, into the cruel.

This argument — that social media as we participate in it has never been and in fact could never be social — requires me in this presentation not only to acknowledge my somewhat mortifying childhood failures to discriminate between representations of relationships and actual relationships, but also to acknowledge my much more recent failures to think all the way through the potentials of the proliferating platforms we use for online interaction and the ways they might transform scholarly communication. My assumption in my earlier arguments was that such two-way, many-to-many communication would open up channels for new, better ways of working together. Today, I am far less sure. This is not to say that I want to abandon those platforms or the possibilities they present for communication, but it is to say that I now recognize the extent to which our networked interactions with one another are not going to transform the academy, much less our society, for the better until we become better humans. To the point of today’s conversation: a huge part of becoming better humans is bound up in how we recognize the humanity of others, and the representations we create of that humanity — whether dramatized on television or functionalized as conversational agents — not only draw heavily on our most unspoken assumptions about one another but also set the course for how we’ll treat one another in the future.

Code over a cyborg face

Here’s the thing: what we’re producing in more human-seeming agents is in fact more human-representation-seeming agents, which is to say portrayals of our ideas about what “humans” are. In the case of conversational agents and other kinds of AIs, the emphasis is on intelligence — and intelligence, at least in the ways it can be modeled, is not the same thing as humanity. And perhaps that’s all fine as long as those agents remain tools. But countless examples, from adorable kids talking to Siri and Alexa, to trolls online tormenting bots like Tay, demonstrate the ways we all blur the lines in our interactions with these agents. And I don’t think there’s that much of a leap between trolls tormenting Tay and Gamergate, or revenge porn, or swatting, or any of the other innumerable ways that new technologies have facilitated the violent, racist, misogynist, dehumanizing treatment of people online.

Shadows of people on a beach

So we have to ask some hard questions not just about the AIs and conversational agents being developed, and not just about the algorithms that allow us to interact with them, but also about the ways that we interact with one another on equally technologically mediated platforms. For what definitions of “human” are we building human-seeming agents, and why? If our models for the human mistakenly substitute intelligence for humanity, what becomes of emotion, of kindness, of generosity, of empathy? How do those absences in models for the human pave the way for similar absences in actual human interactions? And how does the consequence-free inhumane treatment of conversational agents encourage the continued disintegration of the possibilities for real sociality online?

Generosity, Humility, Vulnerability

A few conversations in recent days, as well as a bunch of the reading I did during my holiday writing retreat, have led me back to thinking about generosity. One would think I’d have exhausted myself on that concept, but not even close. In the same way that I find myself continually relearning the same lessons via blog posts that retread the same terrain, I find myself returning to the notion of generosity to be sure I’m taking the right things from it, and that I’m emphasizing the right things in it.

I spend a lot of time in the book trying to hone in on exactly what I mean when I talk about generosity. It’s a fraught subject. As I argue at some length, the requirement to be generous is not evenly distributed in our culture — whether by that I mean to point to the academy or to the contemporary US more broadly — and so where I exhort us toward greater generosity, the primary object of my “us” is people like me: centered rather than marginalized, over-represented rather than under-served, comfortably secure rather than precarious. Empowered.

I also note in the book, however, that people like me have everything to learn from the folks around us who have long since grappled with these issues, and who grapple with them daily. There is a reason why many might hear me talk about generosity and the ethics of care in which it’s grounded and hear that as a highly gendered goal, for instance: because it is, and because it is meant to be. I draw many of my models for the kinds of solidarity I hope that we can work toward from social movements and theories of education that have received inadequate uptake from the contemporary university. In invoking those models, I’m asking what it might mean if we were to recenter our approach to higher education around their goals. What if the purpose of higher education were not personal achievement — the building of individuals — but instead a social good — the building of communities? And how, as I explore in the book’s final chapter, would the internal structures of our institutions need to transform in order to appropriately value and reward the labor involved in such care?

There are a couple of other aspects of generosity that I want to underscore. The first is critical humility, by which I mean in part starting an argument with the acknowledgment that I could quite well be wrong — that I could have misunderstood or misread the speaker or text I’m engaged with, that we could in fact be closer to agreement than I think. That whatever I am reading deserves all of my attention. Such humility plays a significant role, as the passage I quoted yesterday from Eduardo Bonilla-Silva makes clear, in our ability to build coalitions and stand in solidarity with communities we hope to support. Our relationships depend crucially on our ability to invert the hierarchies we ordinarily experience as teachers, to become and remain learners instead. We have a lot to learn.

This inversion, however, leads to the second aspect I’d like to emphasize: a willingness to make oneself vulnerable. Vulnerability is of course radically unevenly distributed in contemporary culture, and in the contemporary academy, and far too many people experience it daily in unsought and undesired ways. But if those of us who are able to do so — again, those of us like me, who are centered, represented, secure, empowered — are willing to make ourselves vulnerable, allowing our learning processes and the mistakes that result from them to take place in public, we can clear paths for others to work and learn more safely as well.

Such is the heart of Shawn Graham’s brilliant new book, Failing Gloriously, just out today. All of us fail, after all, but the risks involved in those failures, and the freedom to admit to them, vary enormously for different members of the academic community. As Shawn notes in his introduction:

Learning to fail productively is not without risk and pain. It’s not easy. It’s not a gimmick. Some of the stories I share here hurt. To fail gloriously is to share and use the productive fail to offer others a shortcut. (viii)

Sharing these stories of failure is a radical act, a generous act, one that requires a willingness to be vulnerable so that others can learn from your failures. Doing so, as Shawn has done, can create the potential for helping others through the failures we all inevitably encounter. And that vulnerability likewise creates the potential for connection, for solidarity, for our ability to talk to one another, for a good that reaches beyond the self.

But, as Shawn notes, our institutions are — and in turn train us to be — deeply risk-averse, and those of us who are safest in assuming certain kinds of risk are (as evidenced by our success within the system) the least likely to do so:

competition is everything in academia, and so academia is not set up to recognize productive failure. Indeed, in a competitive system, failure necessarily has to be punished. The systems and meshworks, the entangled flows of power and money and incentives that make up academia are fragile, and failure is seen as a rupture, a breaking, a threat. (3)

We need, in other words, new institutions that do not see failure as a threat, new institutions that support risk-taking and community-building and generous thinking. Among my goals in the coming year is to continue thinking, with those institutions that want to recommit themselves to their mission of public service, about ways we can together create an environment in which we honor and support generosity, in which we engage one another and the world around us with humility, in which we can be safe despite (and perhaps even in) our vulnerability. This is the kind of institution we need to be building together — one that is structurally capable of supporting the notion of together in the first place.

30 November 2019, 18:46

Those of us who labor in academia have a responsibility and a role to play in the transformation of society, but we are not, and should never aspire to be, Comtian ‘sociological priests,’ giving the people formulas of what the new world should look like…. Our job, then, is to work *with* and *for* the oppressed, *join* social movements as well as help bring them to the fore, and help craft ‘radical theory’ and radical knowledge to assist the social movements that are trying to change the world. Consequently, scholar activists must be humble and develop the capacity to listen and learn from the various political and organizational efforts of the oppressed.

Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, _Racism without Racists_

Loss, Shame, Validation, and Work

This is likely to be a bit of a hike. It’s one of those posts in which some precipitating event has sent me off on a bit of an introspective tail-spin, and sorting out what’s going on in my head and my heart requires putting fingers to keyboard and letting some of the mess out. It’s also the kind of post that has the potential to leave me feeling over-exposed once it’s published, but that I feel nonetheless compelled to get out there, precisely because that feeling of being exposed is often a sign that I’ve tapped into something that many of us have in common and yet don’t often talk about. So here goes.

* * *

I lost two friends from high school last week. Both were kind, caring, talented men, both deeply committed to family and community. Both gone suddenly and utterly unexpectedly.

I hadn’t been in close contact with either of them for some time, though I kept up with them through Facebook. And of course it was Facebook that let me know they were gone, a means of communication simultaneously brutal and anodyne, both a gut-punch and a welcome space in which to share sudden grief. And there was something in the combination of the losses, coupled with the social network’s collective outpouring and my own personal store of regret and shame — seriously, you name someone from high school and the first thing my brain will kick up will be some embarrassing or painful moment that I wish I could go back and undo — that dropped me in a spiral of weirdly retrospective sadness. I was at one and the same time feeling the loss of these two wonderful men, recognizing the pain that their families and closest friends must be feeling, and caught within an upwelling of all of my old high school trauma.

None of this news, this loss, was about me, of course, and my unconscious, reflexive move to make even the death of a friend — of two friends — somehow focus on me and my loss and my trauma brought me up short. It forced me to recognize the extent to which my high school years were characterized by my absolute conviction that no one else anywhere could possibly be going through anything that compared to what I was going through. That recognition deepened the sense of shame that had already resurfaced, making me wonder whether I’ve ever grown up enough to get over the things that happened to me back then, whether I’m in fact still the same insecure, needy, selfish mess that I was at 14 and everything else is just a veneer of professionalization.

And I sit here now questioning my own motives in putting together this post: is this just more self-absorption, more narcissism? Why do I need to write about this?

* * *

I listened to a guided meditation yesterday morning that focused on developing emotional intelligence, something that boy howdy could I use more of. I’ve known for a few years now that I’ve abstracted myself from my emotions to such an extent that I’ll periodically find myself feeling — well, shitty, is all I can tell — and it can take me hours of being still and thinking “what kind of shitty is this? what just happened that precipitated the shitty?” until I’m able to backtrack enough to know that that thing that person said in that meeting really hurt and I’m angry and embarrassed and… phew, okay, I’ve named it and now I feel a little better.

I totally identify, in other words, with Anne Helen Petersen’s description of adulthood as being about “acquiring the skills to feel no feelings at all,” a purposeful movement into our heads and so far out of our hearts that we can, ideally, forget that they exist.

So, developing emotional intelligence; I’m in. Anyhow, the teacher yesterday guided us through a process of remembering something difficult we’ve been experiencing lately, of feeling the sensations of that difficulty as they manifest in the body, and of attempting to name the emotion that’s tied to those sensations. I sat with it for a bit and tried to come up with the right name. Sadness? Sure, but not exactly. Anxiety? Almost always, but not really in this case. Loneliness? Maybe.

And then after a pause the teacher gently listed a number of possible labels, the last of which was shame. Which made my breath catch. There it is.

The next part of the process was to reflect on what it is that emotion needs, what it is asking for. Anxiety, for instance, might be asking for reassurance. Loneliness might be asking for connection. I sat still, aware that the thought “do shame, please” was repeating in the back of my head. And at last, shame, he noted, might be asking for validation.

Asking for validation. It, as the kids used to say, me.

* * *

I suspect that I’m not alone in this, both in a general human sense and among my academic colleagues. And it’s my sense of the commonality within that latter group that has in part driven me to write this post. I think a lot of us share the need for validation as a component of what drives our work. And so when my colleague Beronda Montgomery writes about the importance of working from affirmation, not for affirmation, it feels to me utterly revolutionary: exactly correct, and miraculous if you can do it.

Because here’s the thing: I am at the top of my game. I have the best job I could imagine, working with the best people I know. I’m extraordinarily well-supported in getting to focus on exactly the kinds of work I want to be doing. I have a book out that is by all reasonable measures a success. Things are great. And yet I find myself prone to deep bouts of insecurity about that work, fretting over why the book wasn’t reviewed in that publication and whether I’m really doing anything that matters. And worse, waving off my accomplishments by repeatedly asking myself what I’ve done lately.

That last… is unfortunately not a question I’m alone in asking, at all. I’ve been on something of a lecture-and-workshop circuit this fall, visiting a huge number of campuses and talking with them about ways of cultivating the kinds of generosity that can foster a deeper sense of community on-campus and deeper ties with the communities we ought to serve. These visits have been productive and energizing, but at least once during each of them, someone has asked what I’m working on now that Generous Thinking is out. Or, where they’ve done some research and found the post (to which I am not linking, but you can find it if you want) in which I described the project I thought — and some days still think — would be next on my agenda, they ask more directly about how it’s coming.

These are the kinds of question that I ought to hear as you do great work and I’m looking forward to more of it!, but instead take in as so, no new material, eh?

No, no new material. What have I done lately?

I’ve been in meetings. I’ve been building a new research center. I’ve been attempting to find a way to ensure that an enormously successful and important digital project is able to thrive for years to come. I’ve been learning how to develop and implement a business plan, how to work with heterogeneous teams, how to corral university bureaucracy in ways that support rather than hinder our goals. (I’ll let you know if I manage to figure that one out.) I’ve been running around the country talking about the last book, rather than turning my attention to the next one.

And if I let myself stop long enough to think about it, isn’t that what I ought to be doing? I mean, the work of the book doesn’t stop with the publication of the book, especially not in the case of this particular book; building a conversation that might transform the ways we in higher education work today requires getting out and participating in those conversations. So the book is a step in a larger, longer process, rather than an end in itself.

Except of course for the systems, both institutional and internal, that count accomplishment based on products rather than processes. Those systems are all about ends in themselves, urging us always to press forward to what we’re doing next, rather than lingering where we are, pursuing the now of things to greater fullness.

I increasingly think that many of us might be driven to internalize those systems and to embed ourselves within those institutions that want us to account for ourselves via products rather than processes precisely because of our need for validation. We often don’t publish a book, in other words, because we have something we’re burning to say. We publish that book, rather, as a means of demonstrating that we have had something to say. Having said it, and having gotten external validation for having said it, we are required to move on as quickly as possible to the next thing. External validation demands it: you already said that; got anything else worth hearing?

Anyhow, it’s all got me wondering how much of my working life has been structured — by me; I’ll own this — not just as a retreat from the heart into the safety of the head but also as a means of overcoming shame, as a means of demonstrating my value, most of all to myself.

* * *

So let me correct myself: it’s not only that this is a long post attempting to think my way out of an emotional tail-spin; this has been a career thus far spent trying to think my way out of a similar kind of tail-spin. To find validation through achievement. To forget about feelings and all the difficulty they can cause.

Those feelings don’t go away. But the people you might connect with, the people you might work with, the people you might feel things for and share things with, do.

I had another friend from high school reach out to me over the weekend, a friend I haven’t talked to in years. He asked me to call him, and I’ll admit I was terrified — afraid that I was about to hear more bad news, afraid that I was about to be pulled into some emotional something that I couldn’t handle. What he wanted, however, was to offer me miles for a plane ticket home for one of the upcoming memorial services. As it turns out, I’m already going to be there for other reasons, and was planning to attend the service, but I hope that I’d have taken him up on that enormously generous offer otherwise. What could matter more than taking the time to reflect on the now of things, bringing the best of who we are today, and who we might become, into conversation with the best of who we once were, instead of burrowing into our still-lurking feelings of inadequacy and shame?

It’s a way of being that I’d like to bring to more areas of my life and my work in the year ahead: slowing down enough to recognize the importance of building connection and community, lingering in what I’m doing rather than pressing forward to what I think I ought to have done, focusing less on products and the external validation they bring than on process and its internal rewards, and having the conversations that might help make more of what we’re all working toward possible.