23 July 2021, 09:51

I’m in the early pages of Jenn Shapland’s gorgeous My Autobiography of Carson McCullers, which brings the methods and subjects of literary criticism and biography and memoir together in lyrical and deeply personal ways. At one point, Shapland comments on McCullers’s loving relationships with women:

There are so many crushes in a lifetime, so many friendships that mix desiring-to-have with wanting-to-be. It’s the combination of wants that makes these longings confusing, dangerous, and queer.

Shapland 20

This took my breath away, not least for the way its description dragged me back to the days of my MFA program, and to the boy I spent those three years desperately in love with, a love that was only partially and never sufficiently requited, that left me simultaneously heartbroken and ashamed of that heartbreak.

It took years after it all ended for me to figure out that on some level I didn’t want to be with him, I wanted to be him. I wanted the boarding school and the Ivy League education, the rakish grin, the scruffy rejection-but-not-really of style. I wanted the ridiculous vocabulary, the encyclopedic knowledge of his favorite writers, all of whom were so much better than my faves. I wanted the ability he had to insist on taking his time rather than rushing into forced production, the compulsion and the patience to hold himself to aesthetic standards that I found both impressive and impossible.

I’m not sure I would have recognized that longing as queer, even once I figured it out, but I do now see a kind of queerness in it. And I definitely see danger. It took a very long time for me to recognize that not only would being near him never make me into him, but that it would inevitably make being me seem a source of disappointment. It took even longer, far too long, to shed that disappointment.

In the Swim

Are there skills you developed as an adult that you enjoy enough that you wish you’d picked them up when you were younger?

Mine, which has come on with a vengeance in the last month, is swimming. Lap after lap after lap.

The swimming lessons I had as a kid were 100% aimed at making sure I didn’t drown. I was never given any instruction on swimming well. And certainly never given any sense that I could potentially be good at it, or of how to go about getting good at it.

In grad school, a friend tried to get me to swim with him, and I discovered that while I had a strong breaststroke I couldn’t swim a length of freestyle without wanting to die. Later, at Pomona, I tried again, but hadn’t magically gotten any better.

But two years ago, I got in the pool at our gym here just to do some laps of breaststroke, and threw in a length or two of freestyle. And it wasn’t good, but I didn’t think I was going to die, which seemed like a positive sign.

So I started reading things online about how to swim and discovered one obvious thing I was doing wrong: kicking too hard. It sounded completely counterintuitive but I figured I’d give the advice I was reading a shot.

And it worked? It actually started to feel… good?

But then it got cold and I stopped swimming. And then there was COVID and the gym closed down and that seemed like the end of my progress. Except when we rejoined the gym this summer and I got back in the pool for the first time, it turned out that I was able to pick up where I’d left off.

I’ve been swimming like crazy for the last three weeks, and the progress I’ve made is amazing. As in, today I swam a mile of freestyle, without pause, in a time that seems to me pretty respectable for a slow old lady.

Part of me wishes I could go back and give my childhood self a few hints — well, a few hints and access to a pool and a swim team and a family able to support such luxuries — to see if I might have gotten any good.

But it’s amazing to have this now. To get good at something after 50 feels like a victory of its own.

Higher Education as a Social Good

A few days ago, I had the honor of keynoting the annual meeting of the APLU’s Commission on Economic and Community Engagement. The text of my talk is below.

Screenshot from an article on mlive.com, described in the text to follow.

Last week, an independent economic group released a report indicating that the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University together boosted the state economy by $19.3 billion in 2019 — a figure that they went on to note is more than 20 times the funding provided to them by the state.

This is an extraordinary report, which confirms what we all know: public research universities are crucial contributors to the economic well-being of their communities. Our universities not only conduct the research and development that leads to new business opportunities in the state, but also build an educated workforce ready to take on the challenges our communities face now and into the future.

It’s great news, and it’s particularly great to have numbers that can be used in arguments about the value of public investment in institutions of higher education, especially at a moment when relationships between legislatures and universities are strained. But I want to spend a bit of time today talking about why reports like this make me nervous. It may sound odd, but frankly it’s because they do too good a job of tying the public vision of the value of the university to its economic impact, and in the process they inadvertently run the risk of undermining the other equally important areas and modes in which the public research university contributes to the well-being of the publics that it serves.

That is to say, the danger of a report like this one, as positive as its results are, is that it speaks to a particular mindset in American culture that is primed to hear it, with the result that it completely overshadows all of the good that the university does in areas other than the economic. That focus on economic impact may be fine in good times, when taxpayers and legislators feel like they can afford to invest in a broad range of kinds of exploration and education on campus. But in bad times, when budgets are tight and jobs are scarce, many begin to look at those kinds of exploration that don’t have obvious or direct economic benefits as “luxuries,” as frivolous, as extraneous to the institution’s mission — precisely because the institution’s mission, and the public good that it serves, have come to be wholly associated with the economic.

There is, in other words, a deeply ingrained mindset in American culture that lends itself to the assumption that economic development is the primary good that the university can and should serve. This is a mindset that I would love to see us work on changing. It has its underpinnings in our faith in the extraordinary creative potential generated by capitalism, but it leads to the assumption that all of the problems in the contemporary world can and should be approached through market-based solutions.

This tight focus on the market as the telos of contemporary life is often discussed under the umbrella of “neoliberalism” on campus. “Neoliberalism” is admittedly one of those terms that has been so relentlessly misunderstood and misused that it’s become a kind of caricature, an empty critique with all the force that “bourgeois” had in the early 1970s, or “postmodern” in the early 2000s, or, from the other side of the aisle today, “critical race theory.” It’s the kind of term that causes a lot of us just to stop listening, because we know that what’s coming is (a) profoundly ideological, and (b) likely not to mean exactly what its speaker thinks it means.

But neoliberalism is nonetheless an important concept, and one that can tell us a lot about what’s happened within American culture since the early 1980s — the forces that have encouraged the public to question the value of institutions of higher education, as well as the other forms of public investment in the public good. In fact, it’s part of what’s surfaced the question of whether there even is such a thing as the public good. Just as Margaret Thatcher argued in the 1980s that there was no such thing as “society,” but instead only individuals and families that needed to look out for themselves, so we find today a predominant political perspective in this country that holds that all goods are and should be private rather than public, individual rather than social.

The effects of this conviction on our culture today have been corrosive. We have experienced over the last four decades a dramatic increase in inequality, both economic and social, as those who already have benefit from an environment in which rewards accrue to the individuals who are already most equipped to pursue them. We have also seen a radical decline in our cultural sense of shared obligations to or even basic care and respect for others. Broadly speaking, we’ve lost our collective grip on the notions that our individual actions affect others, that we should act with those others in mind, that we share common concerns, and that we are collectively responsible for ensuring that we provide a viable future for all of us. Without those understandings, without a recognition that the global crises we face today require responsible social engagement and collective action, poverty will continue to increase, structural racism will continue to grow, and the very prospect of a livable planet is thrown into serious question.

(A little aside: at this point in the presentation, I somehow triggered Siri on my watch, and she piped up and said “I’m sorry, I don’t understand.” I burst out laughing, told the audience what had happened in case they hadn’t heard, and let them know how appropriate a moment for that interjection it was.)

So. I want to pause here and acknowledge that this all no doubt sounds alarmist, that I’ve managed to get in a very few minutes from a highly encouraging report on the economic impact of public research universities to the question of whether the future will be a livable one, and that there are several links along the way that I haven’t yet fully explored — not to mention all kinds of alternative paths that we have available to consider. So let’s backtrack a bit. If, as I am arguing here, our overdetermined focus on the economic good that universities provide has the potential to undermine the other kinds of goods that our institutions serve, what are those goods, how are they undermined, what do we lose if we lose them, and how might we begin to ensure that they remain a crucial part of the public vision of what the university is for?

In order to explore the university’s purpose in serving the public good, and the ways that the neoliberal understanding of the university’s function have weakened it almost beyond recognition, we might begin by thinking through the distinctions drawn in economics among the four primary types of goods, and the ways they are defined, first, through their “excludability” — or whether non-paying customers can be prevented from using them — and second, through their “rivalrousness” — or whether their use uses them up. Public goods are nonexcludable and nonrivalrous, meaning that no one can be excluded from their use and no one’s use uses them up for others. Private goods are typically both excludable and rivalrous, and are typically market-based as a result. Goods that are non-excludable but rivalrous are thought of as common-pool resources, which were assumed for a long time to be subject to the “tragedy of the commons” until the work of Elinor Ostrom demonstrated the potential for shared governance in ensuring their sustainability (a set of ideas that I unfortunately don’t have time to dig into today, but that have deep implications for our understanding of how we can create a sense of shared responsibility for shared resources like the public university). Finally, club goods are those that are excludable but non-rivalrous — goods that are not diminished through use, but that people can be prevented from using unless they pay for them.

The question, then, is what kind of goods higher education and the knowledge that it provides and creates are and should be. Knowledge is certainly nonrivalrous; if I have it, and I share it with you, I do not have less of it as a result. The question lies in excludability: where once knowledge and the higher education that fosters it might have been seen as striving to be nonexcludable, making itself available to anyone desiring it, it has since the 1960s increasingly become excludable, restricted to those who can pay. Access to knowledge is today a club good, in other words, rather than the public good that was once imagined to best serve our society: supported by all for the benefit of all.

Those ideals regarding public education were always flawed, even at their most promising moments: our system of land-grant universities was founded on the appropriation of land from indigenous nations, and the GI Bill supported rather than undermined racial inequities. But their underlying ideals were based in an understanding that the university’s purpose is the broad education of the public. And that broad education has always been understood to have benefits beyond the directly economic. The Morrill Act of 1862, which established the system of land-grant colleges and universities, designated funds to the states for

the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts, in such manner as the legislatures of the States may respectively prescribe, in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.

7 U.S. Code §304

Liberal and practical. Pursuits and professions. There are clearly economic goals embedded in this sense of what it is to improve the lot of the industrial classes, but there is also clearly expressed here a desire to create a world that is not just more prosperous but better in a much deeper sense.

The wide array of research done on our campuses in pursuit of that better has a range of important social impacts that may not be directly economic. This includes basic research in the bench sciences, as well as a panoply of projects in the social sciences, humanities, and arts. These projects help further our shared understanding of how the world works, how it should work, and how it could work. They examine the material world and our interactions with it, as well as the world of ideas and institutions and cultures, enabling us to know more about who we are, about the forces that structure our lives, and about the potential for creating something new. When we focus too narrowly on economic impact, research into gene regulation in fruit flies, or ethics in food distribution and consumption, or migration patterns in the African diaspora, or the history of patronage in early eighteenth-century music, all run the risk of being seen as extraneous, and therefore unworthy of funding, when in fact they extend our understandings of who we are and how we relate to one another in crucial ways. Even more, these projects are not ends in themselves, but the basis for future work in their fields, and that ability to develop and share knowledge in service to a larger project of collective understanding is at the heart of the academic mission.

The challenge, of course, is that our communities off-campus often aren’t privy to the reasons why we work on the projects we’ve selected, or what the importance of those projects might be, and so it winds up appearing that researchers on campus are engaged in the contemporary equivalent of investigations into the numbers of angels that can dance on the head of a pin, wrapping ourselves up in issues that don’t matter — or worse, that aren’t real — rather than those that will have a direct, material impact on the world. On campus, we know that what we do matters enormously, but we too often fail to communicate that significance in ways that connect with the publics around us. And this divide points to a significant structural problem with the ways that scholarly work on campus gets done: ensuring the visibility and the viability of our fields requires us to communicate our work in public-facing ways — and yet what we’re individually rewarded for, both on campus and within our broader fields, is overwhelmingly our inward-facing communication: the articles and books we write with other experts as our imagined audience. Which raises a key question: how can we begin to shift our reward structures on campus such that faculty are encouraged to communicate not just with one another but with the broader world?

Of course, one of the most important ways that we communicate with the broader world is through our students. Unfortunately, our students have increasingly been raised in a culture that tells them that the purpose of a college degree is developing the skill set that will lead directly to a lucrative career — and given how much they and their families are paying, and indeed going into debt, for that degree, it’s understandable that they gravitate (or are pushed) toward practical, pre-professional majors. Preparing students to enter the workforce is not a bad thing, and I’m not arguing at all that we should wave that aside. But the goal of the university should be producing graduates who are not just successful economic actors, but who are well-rounded humans, who are able to think creatively about the complex conditions in which we live today, and who are willing to contribute not just materially but socially, ethically, even morally to the improvement of the world around them, not just for themselves but for others.

This is generous thinking: finding ways to use our collective knowledge for the public good, demonstrating our deep connections to — indeed, our responsibility for — the world around us. The university’s educational mission — one we need to claim ferociously, loudly, publicly — is cultivating that generous thinking, preparing our students not just for the professions that might lead to wealth production but for the “several pursuits” in life. We are educating the “leaders of tomorrow” not just in the conventionally understood political and business realms, but in the kinds of engagement that will help their communities grow from the grassroots up. And that mission demands that we focus on what is required to make a better world, both on campus and off. It requires that we think about our institutions’ often unspoken structural biases, including that toward “economic impact”; it requires us to focus not just on making it possible for more kinds of people to achieve conventionally coded success, but on examining what constitutes success, how it is measured, and why. And that requires a values-first approach to higher education, and an ongoing examination of the ways that those values are instantiated in institutional structures and processes.

So: what if we understood the well-being of communities to lie not just in the individual economic prosperity that can result but in terms of individuals’ ability to work together — to engage in collective action — toward a wide range of common goals? What areas of the university might we find value in if the kinds of leadership we educate for were focused less on individual professional success and more on connection and collaboration?

We’d probably want to start by ensuring that every student on campus receives a deep education in ethics, in creative thinking, and in individual and collaborative expression. These are, as it turns out, the skills and qualities that many employers are looking for today, and that too many of our pre-professional graduates don’t have the opportunity to develop, as they’ve been led to understand the liberal pursuits — the study of literature, of art, of philosophy, of history — as extraneous to their goal of beginning a remunerative career.

We’d also want to think about the kinds of studies and stories that we would use to highlight the contribution of universities to a more richly understood social good. Those studies and stories may not have the dramatic numbers that we can point to as evidence of the university’s economic impact, but they can play a key role in surfacing the significance of a broad range of work on campus for the publics whom we serve. Producing those stories will require deep faculty involvement, and will thus ask the university to think about how such public-facing work can be understood to “count” in the structures of faculty evaluation and reward. And that public-facing, community engaged work must count, precisely because it can help us communicate the impact of everything that the university does — not just its economic impact, and not just the benefits that it provides for individuals, but our deeper social and cultural impact, and the benefits we provide for communities and for society as a whole.

Opening Up Peer Review

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to speak as part of a workshop held in conjunction with the annual meeting of the European Network for Cinema and Media Studies (NECS). A NECS working group had drafted a Statement on Open Scholarship that was under consideration for adoption by the membership, and the workshop was intended to provide an opportunity to dig into some of the issues raised by the statement. I took advantage of the opportunity to do some thinking about open peer review, which I hadn’t written about since before Generous Thinking. I’m glad to have had the opportunity to have put these thoughts together, especially regarding the questions of community and equity that have become so important to my recent work.

Thanks so much for asking me to participate in this workshop. One of the things that most excites me about the NECS statement on open scholarship is that it treats open access as a step toward creating greater equity in our fields, but it does not stop there. The statement recognizes that disseminating our work in open venues is just one important move toward a much larger and more important rethinking of the ways that we work and the values that we both bring to and uphold through that work.

That rethinking includes moving away from treating scholarly work as a production line, turning out an endless supply of new products, and instead understanding scholarly work as an ongoing process of discovery and exchange and conversation that benefits from openness in fostering greater collaboration and dialogue.

At the center of that process lies peer review, a form of sharing and discussion with colleagues that is designed to ensure that the work we produce is as good as it can be. Conventionally, that process or review has been handled through an intermediary, with a high degree of secrecy: editors select reviewers, who usually remain anonymous to the author, who in turn is often anonymous to the reviewers. The reviewers evaluate the work on behalf of the editor and submit reports to the editor, which the editor may or may not pass on to the author, and which are frequently redacted. The author then typically responds to the editor with information about how they will address the reviewers’ concerns in revision.

The anonymity and third-party mediation of this process evolved out of a desire for objectivity and impartiality in peer review — a laudable aim, if arguably an impossible one. If critical theory over the last fifty years has taught us nothing else, it has shown that we are all deeply subjective beings, and perhaps especially at those moments when we think we’re being most objective. Even more, those categories of identity that go unmarked — for gender, for race, for sexuality, for class, and so on — have close associations with what we define as “objective,” making minoritized perspectives always already “subjective.” As a result, our conventionally mediated anonymous forms of peer review sacrifice the potential for a highly productive set of exchanges among colleagues in service to an ideal that promotes and prolongs the status quo.

Opening up peer review is not a simple matter, of course. Scholars who act as reviewers in open processes need to find constructive ways of conveying critical responses — which often takes more thoughtful, careful work than does reflexive dismissal and rejection. They may also need to find the wherewithal to “speak truth to power” in cases where an author outranks them in the academic hierarchy — something that always feels risky, and especially so for early career scholars. Authors similarly need to confront their own feelings of vulnerability in making the bumps and foibles involved in the drafting process visible, and they need to be prepared to engage thoughtfully with critical commentary, perhaps especially when they disagree.

But all of this, as I hope you hear, is not about our publications, or about our publishing systems, but about us — about how we relate to one another, about how we engage with one another as we discuss our work. And thus all of it is within our power to improve — especially if we act as a community of practice, with an emphasis on community. We’ll need to establish standards and expectations for how collegial, constructive, and yet critical conversations can be carried out, and we’ll need to hold ourselves and one another accountable for adhering to those standards and expectations. But if we can do that, there is an enormous potential benefit for all of us, and for students and scholars yet to come, in getting to see and be part of the conversations that form a crucial part of the scholarly process.

Over the last dozen years, I’ve constructed and engaged in a range of open review processes. The first of these was a process I held in 2009 in conjunction with the submission of my second book, Planned Obsolescence, to NYU Press. While the press sent the manuscript to two anonymous reviewers, as usual, I posted the entire manuscript in CommentPress for discussion. The two reviewers from the press gave my editor, and through him, me, very thoughtful suggestions about how the manuscript might be strengthened, but the nearly 40 reviewers in the open process actively discussed those suggestions with one another, and with me, allowing me a much richer sense of what was just an idiosyncratic opinion and what was a real problem I needed to contend with — and even more, what that problem meant in the context of my argument. That open process also drew in a far broader range of readers and perspectives, including folks outside my immediate field whose opinions would never have been consulted in a conventional review process. And having those reviews as part of the public record of the manuscript’s development allowed me both to give credit to those reviewers whose ideas were particularly formative in my thinking and to allow the genealogy of the eventual book to remain visible to students and other readers curious about how the arguments evolved.

Since that time, I’ve replicated the process with a number of other projects, including a couple of journal articles and another book project. And in each case, the community of readers helped me to find means of rethinking and clarifying my arguments and their expression. I do want to acknowledge, though, that it hasn’t been all rainbows and unicorns. First off, this process has required a lot more labor, both from me, in encouraging and engaging with readers, and from the readers themselves. And parts of these processes have been difficult, including a few places where I wish the flaws in my drafts were perhaps a little less public, and a few comments that stung. But all of that — including the vulnerability and the exposure I felt — has both made the work better and made me a more generous scholar, recognizing as I do the enormous generosity readers extended to me in taking the time to read my work and to share their responses to it.

So what I hope that this workshop and the NECS statement on open scholarship will help the field develop is more such practices that are designed to highlight and reward the generosity of the scholarly community, that enable us to explore and expand on our processes of research and communication by calling attention to the work of peer review as a crucial contribution to scholarly conversations, enabling all of us to pursue both the goals that we have for our individual work as well as the collective goals to which our work contributes.


I’ve been wearing glasses with progressive lenses for a few years now, since it became clear that no form of contact lens-based correction was going to work anymore. (I tried multifocal lenses, and found that the sweet spot for my focus was about eight feet away. I do very little that requires me to look at things that are eight feet away. I also tried the thing where you correct one eye for distance and the other one for reading, and your brain is supposed to make up the difference. My brain handled that okay as long as I wasn’t the least bit tired, which was way less frequent than I’d like.)

Anyhow, I adjusted to the progressives quickly enough after a few false starts. But during the pandemic, as I found myself strapped to my computer most of the day, I started developing a bit of neck pain from tilting my head back to exactly the right angle to get the spot on the screen aligned with the right spot in my glasses. I said something about it to my eye doctor last summer, and he gave me a prescription for computer glasses. Which I promptly put on the shelf next to my desk and ignored.

About a month or so ago, I’d had it. I ordered a pair of frames online (exactly the same frames as one of my pairs of progressives, because I did not have the patience to actually try things on) with the computer lenses in them.

And they’re amazing. First off, because they’re a much lighter prescription than my correct-all-the-distances glasses, they’re literally lighter too, so I’m way less prone to the headaches produced by the weight of my glasses on my nose. And because I can see my two computer screens clearly through any point in the lenses, I’m having to do way less to contort myself, which is a relief.

But there’s another benefit that I hadn’t considered at all when I bought these. The focal distance for these glasses is roughly between 18 inches and four feet, which means that everything other than my computer screens is rendered in a soft blur. Which means these glasses are like focus mode for your face: they reduce external distractions and increase the possibilities for concentration. Which is unexpected and kind of amazing.

The only problem is that I forget I’m wearing them, and so will often get up from the computer and experience the rest of the world in a bit of a haze. But then, given the rest of the world, it could be worse.

LG: Call for Respondents

Friends, in support of the revision process for Leading Generously, as well as my broader research into the conditions for creating transformative change within institutions of higher education, I am inviting participation from scholars, librarians, administrators, and academic staff members at all levels who are willing to discuss their experiences with me. Your responses will help me broaden the range of examples and perspectives I discuss in the forthcoming book.

Participants will be interviewed via Zoom, with questions provided in advance, and interviews will be recorded for my research purposes only. Respondents will have the opportunity to determine whether they want their comments to be attributed or to be anonymized, and I will share the resulting manuscript with them once the study is complete.

If you are willing to participate in such an interview — or if you know of an academic leader with whom you think I should speak, someone who has worked toward transformative change in an institutional context — please contact me at kfitz at kfitz.info.

LG11: Onward

I hope that your holidays were restorative and that your 2021 is beginning as well as it can. In addition to spending this morning getting myself rebooted for the upcoming semester, I’m posting the final section of the draft of Leading Generously. I spent a fair bit of time over the break thinking about the path forward, including a number of keywords I want to add and a number of people whose input I want to seek. If you have thoughts to share, please let me know, either here or via email at kfitz @ kfitz.info. I’ll look forward to posting further updates here as they emerge.


* * *

What’s next.

Ordinarily, this is where I would present a conclusion that might serve to put together the pieces of what you’ve read to this point. In the case of this guide, however, concluding is hard: there isn’t one overarching argument to be reiterated, and there isn’t a definite outcome to be highlighted. It’s all but impossible to conclude, in fact, when the work is just beginning.

So what’s called for here, at the end of this book, is less a conclusion than a benediction of sorts: a blessing for your path ahead. Because this is where I hand the project over to you and your collaborators. You know your on-the-ground situation far better than I ever could. You know where the opportunities for change lie, and where the resistance sits, and you know the colleagues you can work with to develop the best collection of ideas for moving forward.

What remains is just a few last words of advice for the road, things to bear in mind as you plan the work in front of you.

1. Be patient — but not too patient.

Change is slow. Building coalitions is time-consuming work. Listening to those around you, really trying to understand where they are and what they need, and developing the trust necessary to working together — all of this requires deep patience, and a willingness to take the time to put together something lasting.

On the other hand, as you no doubt know all too well, stalling is a time-honored practice of those resistant to change. Delays, slow-walking, and more and more meetings, all can serve as a means of frustrating those who are seeking to transform an institution, who are suffering under its status quo.

Finding the balance between patience and insistence can be a challenge. The goal is to maintain momentum, and to ensure that you don’t wear yourself and your colleagues out over the long haul. There will be progress, and there will be setbacks, and keeping focused throughout requires the right combination of hard work and stopping to breathe.

So be patient with yourself most of all. Recognize that you might be learning how to navigate new systems and new relationships, and that learning can be exhausting. Taking some time to recharge in order to return to work at full strength is not a delay; it’s a necessity.

2. Be prepared — but stay nimble.

The terrain you’re navigating has some features that are well-known. There are undoubtedly processes for getting revised policies and structures approved that you should be familiar with, such as how you get a proposal on a committee’s agenda and where it goes from there. There are also personalities involved, people who are likely to respond to proposals in ways that are more or less predictable. Preparing for both the processes and the personalities is crucial.

However, you don’t want to prepare so thoroughly that you can’t cope with sudden changes or take advantage of new opportunities as they present themselves. The business world has come to think of this in terms of agility: the ability to change course, to pivot, to innovate. And there’s something important that I think we can learn from that notion of agility, if with a bit of caution: changing course on a dime, innovating for innovation’s sake, can be more destructive than constructive.

If you think about adaptation to circumstances less in terms that sound like blowing with the wind, and more in terms that focus on accurately reading the terrain in front of you, you might begin to develop a kind of nimbleness that will allow you to use your preparation even under changing circumstances. I’m totally not a rock climber, so I may blow the metaphor here, but my understanding of climbing is that it’s a constant process of reading the path in order not just to find the next handhold but the next three after that.

Nimbleness and preparation go hand-in-hand: having a clear plan will allow you to keep an eye on the changing terrain.

3. Play the long game.

It’s easy to let short-term setbacks discourage you. It’s also easy to let short-term wins make you comfortable. In order to avoid getting too caught up in immediate gains and losses, it’s important to keep your eyes on the long term. How are the actions you’re taking today not just helping everyone through the current crisis, but helping create a foundation for a better institution ten years from now?

Playing the long game — recognizing that some changes you make today won’t pay off immediately, and that some immediate improvements will have long-term costs — requires thinking strategically rather than tactically. Tactics are the expedient on-the-ground moves you can make right now in fighting for a goal. Tactics can be crucial, especially for creating change that begins outside conventional power structures, that grows from the grassroots. But tactics in the absence of a strategy to guide them and build upon them can wither.

Strategic thinking requires a focus on long-term goals. Your strategy should describe the path to those goals; your tactics can then become steps leading you along that path.

4. Work in the environment you want to create.

This one comes down to a kind of institutional “Be the Change”: if you want to build an institution that is structurally capable of living up to its duty of care, you need to ensure that you’re living up to that duty of care in the ways you go about that transformation. That is to say: everything you do in the process of creating values-based policies and processes must itself be values-based. Building a more just world requires ensuring that justice is centered in your actions.

It sounds obvious. And yet’s it’s awfully easy for movements for change that are operating within at times hostile environments to get sucked into the ethos of those environments — to allow their desire for transparency and openness to be infected by the secrecy and suspicion surrounding them, for instance.

Check in with yourself and your colleages frequently. Remind yourselves why you’re doing what you’re doing. And explore ways that you can build a local environment that works the way you’d like the institution as a whole to work.

5. Take care of yourself, as you take care of others.

It’s all too easy for people committed to creating a better world to wear themselves out in the process. Transformational change is exhausting work, not least because of the obstacle course you’re having to run over and over. Your commitment can keep you going up to a point, but after that burn-out can set in, making even the smallest actions feel like running in knee-deep mud.

Taking time off — time to allow yourself to recuperate, time to re-center and re-ground — feels self-indulgent. It is not, however, a waste of time. In fact, attempting to power through when you’re exhausted is counter-productive: you worsen your own exhaustion, not least because everything is three times harder than it ought to be.

Finding means of self-care that can help you maintain a sustainable commitment to the change you want to create is a necessity. That might mean protecting your time away from work by shutting off your email and unplugging from the other ceaseless flows of networked demands. It might mean taking a few days off to focus on things that you find restorative. It might mean saying no to requests that don’t help you further your own goals.

The key here is to take care of yourself in the way that you would try to take care of the others around you.

6. Find other guides and sources of support.

This guide and its keywords have in some ways been more conceptual than practical. I haven’t told you how to run your meetings, or given you drafts for revised policies. Rather, my approach to thinking about leadership relies heavily on your own ideas as prompted by the issues and examples I discuss. What I suggest or describe won’t work everywhere, though. You know your own situation far better than I ever could.

I’m compiling a list of recommendations for further reading, which I’ll include at the end of the text; if you have things you’d like to suggest, please leave them in the comments!

LG10: Solidarity

I’m taking a bit of a break from my official job-related duties this week, which is allowing me to think a bit about the path forward for Leading Generously. As this process has unfolded, I’ve come across several keywords that I want to add to the project. I’ve also confirmed my sense that I need to conduct some interviews with folks whose experience of institutional challenge and change run deeper or in different directions than my own. I’ll post more about that process as it takes shape.

In the meantime, here’s the tenth section of the draft. Wishing all of you a peaceful and joyous new year.


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“Solidarity is more than acts of generosity, important as they are; it is the call to embrace the reality that we are bound by bonds of reciprocity.”
—Pope Francis

Right off the bat, I want to acknowledge that “solidarity” is a challenging term — in at least a couple of different ways. I’ve chosen it purposefully here, however, and I’ll explore why in what’s ahead. I hope you’ll allow yourself to sit with any concerns that the term may create for you as you read.

In the introduction, I noted that crises such as those being faced throughout higher education in 2020 often produce invocations of the idea of “shared sacrifice.” At times this idea is invoked with a kind of generosity in mind: if we all take a small pay cut, we can help some of our colleagues avoid furloughs or layoffs. But the term “shared sacrifice” is often heard differently than you might expect. Not only does sacrifice inevitably roll downhill, affecting most heavily those who are least well-positioned, but the idea begins to suggest that we are in fact the sacrifice, offered at the altar of the institution and its financial reports.

The notion that our sacrifice is shared — that it is part of a collective determination to sustain the community we together form — depends on a deep understanding of what it means to be a community, and an equally deep faith on the part of those being asked to sacrifice on its behalf that the community will in turn sustain them. It requires believing that those above are as committed to the notion of community as those below. And that belief is very hard to come by, for very good reasons.

In fact, the concept of “community” is too often used to suppress dissent, to persuade those with concerns and grievances to put them aside in favor of a a conflict-free norm. That norm, unsurprisingly, usually favors the interests of those in charge, who benefit from maintaining the status quo. Moreover, where the community is encouraged to take action, it’s often to fill gaps or meet needs for which institutions and governments refuse their responsibility. This is how we end up with school bake sales rather than proper education budgets.

In much of my prior writing on the future of higher education, I’ve leaned fairly heavily on the concept of community, whether in reference to the connections we build within our institutions or to the connections we create between our institutions and the publics that we serve. However, my growing recognition of the problems with what Miranda Joseph has referred to as the “romance” of community has led me to seek a more active term. What I want from community — what I think many of us want — is a sense of belonging and a sense of shared commitment. I want to know that my community has my back, and I want those in my community to know that I have their backs as well.

And it’s that shared commitment that leads me to the notion of solidarity. Solidarity implies, to my way of thinking, not the descriptive blandishment that community risks falling into, but active relationship-building and mutual support. Solidarity requires action.

It’s crucial, however, to be very clear about solidarity with whom, and for whom. As Mikki Kendall has argued, too often White feminist calls to solidarity are issued in order to ask Black women, Indigenous women, and other women of color to put their own particular concerns aside in support of some ostensibly more generalized sisterhood. To say that such calls miss the point is an understatement. There can be no solidarity when the privileged insist that the marginalized support them. Rather, solidarity requires us all to recognize that fighting for the most challenged among us is all of our responsibility. And it’s this form of solidarity that can create a genuine community, that can transform community into action: placing the interests of others in front of our own.

What does this mean in the context of the organizations and institutions I’m focused on in this book? First, it means returning to the claim I made early in this project, that people are the most important component of our institutions, and revising it slightly: all of the people that make up our institutions are its most important component, from the least powerful to the most. All of those people must be considered crucial to the institution’s operation.

Second, we need to take a hard look at the ways that categories of employment are used to divide us, to pit our interests against one another. In institutions of higher education, discussions of these divisions often focus on the tensions between the tenured faculty and the not-yet-tenured, or those between the tenure-track faculty and the fixed-term, or the full-time and the part-time. But we need to pay attention to the divisions and hierarchies within the staff as well, and between the faculty and the staff. And then there are the divisions between faculty and staff on the one hand and student employees on the other. All of us know that there are enormous differences in the benefits and privileges that these different categories of employment provide, and yet every position held by every employee is equally necessary to the functioning of the institution.

So how can we ensure that every employee, in every category of employment, is able to function as a full member of the institution? We must begin by shaping a notion of shared governance in which each member of the institution is a fully enfranchised participant in the processes that most matter to them. This means that all of the members of a department, regardless of position type, should have the right to participate in most department, college, and university processes. This suggestion will no doubt trigger a lot of resistance; in a lot of departments, opening up the vote to non-tenure-track faculty, to post-docs, to staff will leave the tenure-track faculty outnumbered. That points directly to the problem: a small, and in fact diminishing, number of highly secure employees who have the ability not just to determine their own working conditions but to profoundly affect the working conditions for the rest — and who too often use that ability not to lift others up but instead to shore up what they see (not incorrectly) as eroding protections for their own roles.

I’ll say it bluntly: defending the privileges of tenure worsens things for everyone else, and winds up undermining the best of what tenure is supposed to be.

This is not to argue for doing away with tenure — not at all. Rather, it’s an argument for looking closely at what we expect tenure to do and extending its most important benefits to all categories of campus employment. Those benefits include, after a reasonable period of probation and evaluation, job security, intellectual freedom, and governance rights. Each of those benefits comes with restrictions — there are ways to lose your job, even with tenure, and there are limits to academic freedom — but each is crucial to an institution of higher education’s capacity to advance knowledge and serve its publics. And each should be considered crucial throughout the institution, and not just for an elite subset.

We need all members of the campus community to be able to reach their fullest potential in order for the institution to operate. Faculty members with active research agendas cannot achieve their goals without the work of teaching faculty who bear the weight of larger course loads, post-docs and graduate assistants who work in labs and support research efforts, staff who ensure that the budgets and buildings function as needed. Faculty members who teach cannot do so without the work of their colleagues at every level, from the dean’s office to housekeeping and dining services. And all of us — and the “us” I’m talking to at this point is my most privileged colleagues, who like me have succeeded within a competitive system that promises to elevate us above the rest — all of us need to recognize that the concerns of every group on campus are concerns that we should all share. We are deeply interdependent, and creating a genuine collective out of a campus requires us to be ready to step forward on one another’s behalf, to ensure that all of our needs are met.

Solidarity, in other words.

Does solidarity mean establishing a union? Not necessarily, though unionizing does provide some key benefits for structuring the relationships between labor and management. Management often agrees: George Justice reports in How to Be a Dean that many deans prefer unionized campuses. The process of collective bargaining can be challenging, and the resulting contracts can be complex, but they are contracts, with legal standing, that define the terms of a productive working relationship.

Of course, the existence of that union and the contract it negotiates isn’t enough to provide genuine solidarity. That requires organizing above and beyond the union itself. And it may require cross-union connections. In my own institution, during the current budget crisis, the administration has negotiated furloughs and salary changes with each union independently. Given that each has a separate contract, those distinct negotiations are inevitable. But ensuring that the many unions on campus are in agreement with one another, and willing to defend one another, requires a kind of collectivity that operates at a different level from the union.

Most importantly, there came a moment in this process when the continuing faculty, both tenure-track and clinical, realized that everyone on campus was represented in these bargaining processes except us. The faculty have resisted unionizing, in ways similar to many other campuses around the country, insisting that we aren’t labor, we are professional, and even mistaking the authority that we have on campus for management. In these negotiations, however, it became clear that, as a friend of mine is fond of saying, if you’re not at the table, you’re the meal. The faculty were not engaged in a negotiation of the salary and benefit cuts that we would take; we were informed of them. And worse: I have heard through the grapevine that our inability to refuse those cuts was treated as if it were acceptance, and used as a bargaining chip with the unions. The faculty, they were told, have agreed to take this cut; you have to give us something comparable.

In other words: our refusal to organize, to understand ourselves as part of the collective of workers on campus, not only hurts our own ability to affect our working conditions, but also undermines those abilities of those have organized and are trying to work together. If we are to transform our campuses, if we are to create better working conditions for everyone on campus, we must all be in it together. We have to ensure that the secure, the empowered, the privileged are fighting on behalf of everyone else, rather than interfering with their ability to fight for themselves.

So where I’d like to end this call to solidarity is with a strong “one faculty, one union” argument. We are all workers in the same enterprise, if with different responsibilities, and ensuring that we are all mutually supporting requires us to refuse being divided into categories and appointment types. Shifting to this kind of collectivist thinking is no easy matter, however, and especially not for those of us who have long been trained to believe that we operate within a functioning meritocracy (and that that’s a good thing), that our achievements are individual and that our rewards should be individual too, and that we’re best off when we can negotiate special deals — a course release here, an augmented budget there — by and for ourselves. But building habits of collectivity will not only help us create a more equitable, caring community within our institutions, but will press us to focus the institution’s efforts on its broader social responsibilities.

Developing a strong sense of solidarity is no simple matter, especially not in institutions and cultures that thrive on competitive individualism. But leading the way toward a more just and equitable world requires that we start thinking about one another’s needs and perspectives with the same urgency that we consider our own. As the authors of Secrets of a Successful Organizer note, “Solutions are collective, not individual.” Working toward those collective solutions, especially under challenging circumstances, requires a solid foundation in the ability to think generously.

LG9: Stories

Week 9 of Leading Generously; just a couple more to go. I hope you’ll send me any stories you’re willing to share.


* * *

Narrative goes deeper than numbers.

The last few chapters have collectively argued for transforming the metrics-reliant, form-based, discipline-oriented processes of assessment being used by the majority of our organizations and institutions into formative, individuated, supportive modes of exploring our values, our goals, and our plans for achieving them. Designing these new ways of reviewing our work, however, requires us to rethink the nature of the evidence that we bring to bear in the process.

As we noted in considering the role that key performance indicators, or KPIs, currently play in our processes of assessment, most of the evidence that we use in processes of evaluation today is numerical. This is true of our evaluations of both people and programs: we ask how many articles a scholar published, how many citations an article received, how many students a program served. Numerical evidence is extremely useful is processes of evaluation, not least because numbers are relatively stable entities, and some are bigger than others. This allows for an easy means of capturing trends and — most importantly for the ways we think of assessment today — creating points of comparison.

But numbers can’t tell the whole story. A countable difference between one number over here and another number over there may direct our attention to an aspect of our work, or our colleagues’ work, that we need to understand or investigate. But the numbers don’t explain what’s happening. Numbers can highlight or inform, but they can’t tell you whether they matter, or why.

Take, as an example, citation indexes. Knowing that your article has been cited more than 100 times is an interesting data point, but no more than that, unless we know why and how it’s been cited, by whom and to what end. After all, citations of articles whose premises are being refuted are counted in exactly the same way as citations of articles that are foundational for new work in the field.

Exploring whether a particular numerical difference is something we should pay attention to and why it matters requires digging into the story behind the numbers. Where numbers can direct our interest in ways that might lead to speculation, narrative can explain, compel, open up. Narrative can lead us to understand the significance of what’s happening, and can help us communicate the importance of the ways we work. Narrative can bring both its writers and its readers into a deep consideration not just of what is happening, but of why it is happening, and of what it means for us as individuals and for our organizations as collectives.

We already use narratives in crucial ways across academic work, even in the most empirical, quantitatively-focused fields. Articles reporting on research in the bench sciences, for instance, are narratives of that work, exploring the presuppositions and questions that led to the research, the process of conducting it, the outcomes and the questions that remain. Numbers are a key component of the evidence presented through those stories, but without the actual story of the research, the numbers themselves make little to no sense.

For this same reason, most personnel review processes in higher education institutions and other mission-oriented organizations do not simply rely on the employee’s resume or c.v., or on any similarly abbreviated listing of or metrics regarding their work product, but also include a narrative exploration of the goals behind the work, the ways that it proceeded, the challenges the staff member faced, and the future directions that they are likely to take. The story ideally presses beyond a dry recounting of accomplishments to reveal a thought process at work. And by centering the review process on that story, by foregrounding where the colleague under review is headed and why, the moment of review can turn into an ongoing conversation about goals and how they might be supported.

And the same is true of the assessment of that work by those responsible for evaluating it. Whether the assessment takes place in the course of a project (in the form of peer review of a grant proposal or of a publication) or in the course of a career (in promotion and tenure processes), reviewers are charged not solely with rating the work but with relating something of the story of the work’s potential or existing impact on the field, in order to help improve the project or colleagues’ changes of achieving those goals.

None of this is to say that narratives are in and of themselves more trustworthy than numbers. Stories can mislead, they can deflect, they can delude. I’m certain that many of us know someone with a highly compelling story to tell but no evidence of that story’s reality or of their follow-through. So the evidence presented in the telling of the story matters. However, that evidence needs to be part of the narrative, leading to its end goals. Too often, we wind up privileging numerical assessments of a candidate or a career — x number of grant dollars raised, y number of dissertations overseen, an h-index of z — rather than understanding those figures as steps along the way toward a more significant end. Focusing instead on the candidate or career’s progress toward their own goals presents enriched potential not only for the colleague being assessed but also for those doing the assessing: assessment can in this way become a form of support, in which we help one another think through our purpose and shape the paths that lie before us.

Even more, telling the story of our work creates the potential for drawing larger audiences into that work and its significance. This is something more than just an elevator pitch, and it’s something more than just public relations: it’s the ability to help others get interested in what you’re doing and to understand why what you’re doing matters. And that’s a skill that can support more successful grant applications, more successful project proposals, and a host of other situations in which you need to lead others to understand and be compelled by your goals.

This mode of storytelling is important enough that numerous colleges and universities have invested in hiring communicators to bring the work of the institution to public attention. These communicators are not just marketers, and they don’t merely have access to the networks and technical tools necessary to get the word out about academic work. Rather, they have the narrative skillset necessary to draw others into that story.

All of us, however, can work on developing that skillset — and all of us should. Not just because our ability to tell the story of our work can help us obtain the support necessary to doing the work, but because telling that story keeps us focused on our larger goals, on the work’s impact, on the ways that the questions we pursue can help to change the world. Telling ourselves that story is just as important as telling it to funders, or to assessment committees, or to the outside world. Numbers may persuade, but they persuade best in the context of a narrative that explains their significance and creates a sense of connection to the work at hand. And it’s through those narratives — the ones we tell those around us, and the ones those around us tell us — that we have the opportunity to help one another reach our individual and collective goals.