#ENG818

Over the last several months, I’ve regularly bugged folks on the Twitters for suggestions for a new class I’ve been putting together for this semester, called “Peculiar Genres of Academic Writing.”

The initial ask.

This is a course I’ve wanted to teach for eons, both because it fills a gaping need that I felt in my own graduate education, and because I’ve longed to get back to teaching writing.

More begging.

Putting this course together has been a joy, not least in getting to read through so many great examples of those peculiar genres as folks shared them with me.

Begging for blogs.

I’m enormously grateful for all the suggestions everyone made, as well as for the excitement that I heard out there every time I mentioned the class. I promised repeatedly that I’d share the syllabus once it was done (or at least “done”).

I’m a huge advice writing nerd.

Today I finally got the course site published, so the syllabus is now available to all. (Some of the readings are not, alas. But I’ll be happy to share what I can.)

Thanks to everyone who contributed their thoughts to my planning. Problems in the syllabus are all my responsibility, of course. I’ll look forward to updating as things evolve.

Plans

For the last several years, I’ve had a daily planning routine. While I’d begun that routine in the Moleskine that was always nearby, I moved it onto my computer about a year ago, taking advantage of Obsidian‘s daily notes capabilities. I set up a template for those notes that allowed me to capture a few morning thoughts, a sense of the day’s schedule, a few key priorities, and then any later notes from meetings or events during the rest of the day.

My Obsidian daily notes template.

It’s been great having this reliable space for thoughts and notes, but it hasn’t been so great for planning at the level of the day. For one thing, my actual calendar is elsewhere — in Outlook, where it needs to remain so that my colleagues can find times to meet with me as needed. For another, my actual task lists and projects are elsewhere, too — in Things, which works extremely well for me. Beyond that, though, the daily notes version of my schedule and goals more or less records a plan already made, rather than allowing me the necessary distance and vision to build that plan.

I did some poking around looking for a planner app that might allow me to bring together my calendar, my task list, and my notes in more flexible ways. Ideally, I’d want to be able to assign tasks to available time on the calendar, to take notes on events, and to keep tabs on progress toward whatever goals I might have. Unfortunately, I haven’t found an app whose developers’ brains work the ways that mine does. (Yet. I could still imaging finding the right thing.)

Finally, a tweet from Nyasha Junior made me reconsider my approach.

@NyashaJunior, asking for planner recommendations.

I read through the piles of excellent responses she received, and explored a lot of great-looking paper planners. And in the process it hit me that what I was looking for was something with the flexibility of paper and the convenience of the digital — which made me start thinking about my reMarkable.

I originally bought the reMarkable in order to have a focused, paper-like environment for PDF reading. Since then, the release of the Zotero beta for iOS has taken over most of that space; the workflows for extracting highlights and notes into Obsidian are just too good to ignore. But the reMarkable remains unbeatable for both pen-on-paper feel and for single-tasking focus: whatever document you’re in is where you are, with no apps or notifications to distract you.

So I started searching for, and found, a reMarkable-based planner. In some ways — technological ways — it’s super simple: it’s a giant PDF. But that simplicity disguises enormous flexibility. Careful linking allows you to move from pages representing calendar months to pages for weekly and daily planning, as well as additional pages for goal setting, project planning, habit tracking, and more.

It doesn’t connect to anything, except my brain and my hand. So each day’s plan requires me to copy my calendar events and my tasks — but at least so far, the act of doing so seems to open up possibilities for the rest of the day, allowing me to think about how the pieces fit together. It’s a bit reflective, and it allows me to doodle in ways that planning apps don’t.

I’m literally one day in with this new system, so it remains to be seen how it works over the long haul, and how I might maintain the connectedness of my Obsidian notes while having this separate space for planning. But so far I’m encouraged, and thinking about how a small return to longhand exploration might shape the days ahead.

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.

Focus

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.

Previously:

* * *

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!