Generosity in Hard Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

Isolation, Mission, Connection

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Generosity, Humility, Vulnerability

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loss, Shame, Validation, and Work

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

Self-Assessment

A writer whose work I admire enormously tweeted the other day about the new book they’re working on and the joy they’re taking in it. Reading this tweet left me simultaneously delighted and saddened — delighted because there will soon be more amazing work for me to learn from; saddened because… well, because me. Because I’m not writing right now. Because I despair of my ability to clear out the time and the brain space required to really dig into another serious writing project. Because I know I’ll never measure up to the example of that writer I so admire, who has published two brilliant new books in as many years and is well on the way to more. And who has won numerous awards for those books, so it’s not just about quantity, but about quality as well.

I look at my own body of work and, at my worst moments, feel its painful slowness. It took more years than I care to count after completing my first book for me to have any inkling that there might be a second one, and there was a similar gap between the end of book two and the start of book three. How long, I wonder, will it be before I really get traction on another writing project? Why can’t I be as prolific as that writer, or any of those other ones, whose work I so admire?

At moments like this, I remember a former colleague of mine listening to my frustration and saying “but, Kathleen: how many books do you want to write during your career?” That question brought me up totally short; my first response was going to be “all of them?!?,” but right behind that came the somewhat dumbfounded question, “is there some number that’s enough?” And then: if there were, what would it be, and how would you know?

Part of the issue, then, is this sense of not-quite measuring up to some standard that I’m not even conscious of having set. But part of it is the source of that unspoken standard, which is externally derived, leaving me engaged in the constant work of comparison, anxiously checking to see if my work measures up to that I see being done around me. A mentor of mine (one of the generous thinkers to whom the most recent book is dedicated, in fact) tried to steer me away from this kind of invidious comparison years ago, when I was one year behind an award-winning super-genius on the tenure track. Such comparisons do no one any good. At the pre-tenure moment, I was of course caught up in the (not entirely mistaken if undoubtedly overblown) impression that my colleagues would be comparing my work to that of my immediate predecessor. Now? If there is comparison going on, it’s fully internalized.

These are the moments when I most need to remember what my colleague Beronda Montgomery has taught me: the importance of establishing my own index for what I consider success and keeping myself focused on it. By articulating her own personal metrics for evaluation, Beronda keeps herself focused on values and purpose and ensures that the work she is doing fulfills them. Even more, she ensures that she’s working from affirmation, not for affirmation, as she shows up to the work already valued and affirmed in her purpose.

When I start from a conscious sense of my own purpose, rather than the markers of success I’ve unconsciously absorbed, I remember how much of the work in my portfolio that means most to me has been focused on fostering better conditions within which other people can do their own creative and connective work. It’s been about creating and transforming systems and structures that allow that work to be more engaged and more fulfilling for all of us. Perhaps I could write more if I weren’t doing all that other work — if I weren’t directing a program and two centers, if I weren’t building the Commons. But I think I’d feel less satisfied with a portfolio that focused mostly inward — a deep irony for a committed introvert, but true nonetheless. It’s much too important to me to work on projects that have the potential for building community, and for changing the ways that all of us work.

File this under “things that are perfectly obvious as soon as I say them, but of which I nonetheless have to remind myself repeatedly.” The great news, I guess, is that these reminders present an epiphany every time: light dawning over Marblehead may come as sudden wonder at the glaringly obvious, but it’s awe-inspiring nonetheless. The internal effects of the competitive structures of institutional reward that I described in Generous Thinking are pernicious, and rooting them out may well be the work of a lifetime.

The Interface

Yesterday afternoon, I taught my first new class in almost nine years.

Seriously, nine years. At the end of the Spring 2010 semester, I went on sabbatical, and then I joined the staff of the MLA. And while I did teach here at MSU last spring, it was a very different experience; I co-organized a proseminar that brought in a lot of colleagues from around campus to help guide a group of graduate students in thinking about the potential role of digital technologies in their research.

This semester, it’s just me and my students, with my syllabus — the first new syllabus I’ve put together in almost nine years! — to guide us.

I’m pleased with the syllabus, and excited by the students, and looking forward to seeing where it all leads us. But it’s funny to arrive at this point in my career feeling like a novice again.

Not least in thinking about how to structure our in-class engagements. We meet once a week for three hours — a format I never felt terribly good at, even when I was teaching consistently. It’s an enormous stretch of time, one that has to be broken up into smaller chunks in order to keep us present and invested and on-task. But at the same time, with the book-a-week structure of the semester, it’s important to ensure that we give each text the full range of attention it requires.

If you have strategies for ways to structure sessions of three-hour seminars, I’d be most grateful to hear them. In the meantime, I’m pondering ways of maintaining the excitement of the semester-long narrative within the close-up work of each week’s conversation…

Focus

I’ve been having some difficulty getting myself to focus lately. Some of the scatteredness I feel is undoubtedly situational: I have traveled four of the last six weeks, and on the two I haven’t traveled, I’ve been in at least one day-long local meeting, all of which has cumulatively left me feeling uncentered and behind on everything I need to be doing. Some of it’s where I am in my various large-scale projects right now: wrapping up all the final details on the book in production and preparing a bunch of talks about various aspects of that book but not yet settling into thinking about the thing that I think I want to work on next. Some of it’s the world, which provides no end of rage- and/or despair-inducing fodder these days, making it hard to think about much else. And some of it’s personal, physical, chemical: I’m of an age, as they say, and the side effects of that age (including intense insomnia and associated issues) are requiring medical support, but that support is itself producing a range of side effects that leave me… unfocused.

I’m writing this both as a way of cutting myself a bit of slack — who could think creatively and productively under such circumstances? — and as a way of attempting to jumpstart my brain again, to see if I can get myself to zero in on an idea for a few minutes and even perhaps come up with some strategies for more such re-focusing. Because this absence of focus is not just increasing my stress levels (as I feel decreasingly on top of what needs doing), but it’s also pretty demoralizing, leaving me wondering how I ever thought clearly enough to have any good ideas in the first place.

Part of what I need, I think, is to unplug a bit — to shut down the channels and devices that are fraying my attention and see if I can get back to some good old single-tasking. That requires a couple of things, though: first, finding ways to remain present with whatever it is I’m trying to pay attention to (and to notice when I’ve wandered off and bring myself back), and second, and perhaps most importantly, finding ways to slow down enough to feel as though I can take the time to pay attention to exactly the thing I’m doing right now. And that’s a serious challenge. Because there’s always something else clamoring for attention, at least in my head, something that is convinced that it’s more urgent or important than whatever is in front of me.

I need, as my friend Alan Jacobs is currently exploring, to find ways to increase my temporal bandwidth. Perhaps, though, I mean this phrase to resonate a bit less in the way that I think Alan is using it — to describe the expansion of one’s awareness beyond the relentless immediacy of the Now and into an understanding of and care for the past and the future — than in the slightly more esoteric, even mystical, sense that I always took from Pynchon, a sort of dilation of the Now itself. I care deeply about what has happened, and what will happen, but I want to slow down enough to keep what is happening from simply whooshing by. To keep the present from being something I feel like I have to rush to keep up with, and instead expand the moment to be able to encompass something like thought again.

It feels more than a little self-absorbed, today of all days, to be worrying about what’s happening inside my head rather than what’s happening in the world. And perhaps I should be clear that this isn’t about disengaging. I’ve voted, I’ve donated, I’ve written and called and will continue doing so. But it’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that I can’t do any good out there if I’m not doing any good in here. Insofar as I need to disengage, it’s in the service of a deeper engagement. And creating the conditions of possibility for that deeper engagement is going to require some serious effort, I suspect, and no small discipline, to retrain my attention and regather my focus, especially because the world isn’t going to help. But it feels increasingly important for me to try.

Looking Forward

Today started with a bang: two back-to-back meetings over coffee, each of which was filled with possibilities for extending some of the projects I’ve been working on here. I left each meeting profoundly excited, and I don’t think it was just the caffeine.

I’m prone toward optimism, generally speaking, even when things are a little hard. But I worry at times that my optimism is little more than a defense against complete disintegration, because when it begins to slide, it can feel awfully hard to figure out how to move on. And of course the last two years have seriously challenged that optimism; at moments it’s been hard to stave off the certainty that everything is terrible, in fact, as the evidence seems determined to prove.

So the disappointments (multiple disappointments, in fact) of the last couple of weeks were proving harder to bounce back from than I wanted. How do you move forward when it seems like the paths forward are being closed off?

Today, I think I found a new path, with the help of two enthusiastic colleagues. I shouldn’t be surprised, I think, that the thing I most needed was connection with some folks as committed to our common project as I am. But it was pretty astonishing to recognize how much brighter my outlook became after those two meetings. Because I think that’s the deal with my optimism: it’s not that I assume that everything is or is going to be good, but that I see a means of making it better. It’s not a matter of looking up, but instead of looking forward.

Sustainability and Solidarity

I’ve been thinking a fair bit about sustainability of late. To a significant extent, this thinking has been encouraged by my recent attempts to ensure that a non-profit scholarly network to which I’m deeply committed might be able to thrive. And those attempts have in turn been encouraged by the funders and other organizations that have supported that network’s development to this point; they too would like to see the network thrive, but they cannot support it indefinitely. We need, they reasonably suggest, a plan for demonstrating that the network will, at some point in the future, support itself.

Sustainability, in this line of thinking, is thus tied up in revenue models, in business plans, in cost recovery. Sustainability is for a non-profit entity forever financialized and, as a result, forever precarious. One small miscalculation can make the difference between survival and collapse.

And of course sustainability extends to realms other than the economic: there’s environmental sustainability, in which we attempt to ensure that more resources aren’t consumed — or more waste produced — than can be developed or managed in the near term. There’s technical sustainability, in which we attempt to ensure that projects conform to commonly accepted standards that will enable those projects’ future stability and growth.

All of these forms of sustainability are important, to varying degrees, to providing for the future of a non-profit network. But there’s another form that gets a good bit less attention, and that I increasingly think precedes economic or environmental or technical sustainability: social sustainability. The social aspect points not just to the determination of a group of people to support the network, but to the determination of those people to support their groupness; not just to their commitment to the thing they’re doing together, but to their commitment to the notion of “together” in the first place. Ensuring that these commitments are sustained is, I increasingly think, a necessary precondition of the other kinds of sustainability that we’re hoping to work toward.

My particular interests in this question derive from some challenges that have repeatedly surfaced in digital scholarly communication and digital humanities as tools and platforms age. There’s often lots of support available for building and, increasingly, implementing free and open-source tools, but there aren’t funding programs designed to ensure that they can be maintained. And as a result, the tools and platforms often accrue technical debt that becomes increasingly difficult to manage, rapidly making the projects appear unsustainable.

Brett Bobley recently tweeted a question about ways of sustaining such projects:

There are numerous discussions and threads resulting from that question that are worth reading, but one that caught my attention in particular stems from this reply by Hugh Cayless:

There is absolutely an institutional responsibility involved in sustaining these projects, but, as I argue in Generous Thinking, individual institutions cannot manage such responsibilities on their own. Cross-institutional collaborations are required in order to keep open-source software projects sustainable, and those collaborations demand that the staff participating in them be supported in dedicating some portion of their time to the collective good, rather than strictly to local requirements.

Sustainability in open-source development thus increasingly seems to me to have solidarity as a prerequisite, a recognition that the interests of the group require commitment from its members to that group, at times over and above their own individual interests. What I’m interested in thinking about is how we foster that commitment: how, in fact, we understand that commitment itself as a crucial form of social sustainability.

Insomnia

There are few complaints that make me feel whinier than does insomnia, but there’s at least a little bit of pleasure in the whining, because there are also few complaints that produce more immediate, genuine sympathy. Not being able to sleep is no fun, and everyone who’s been there gets it. It’s not for nothing that there are so many compelling critical books out there about insomnia. (Here’s one particularly good one.)

I’ve had pretty serious bouts of insomnia since I was a kid. My childhood insomnia, though, was always of the can’t-go-to-sleep variety. I’d get sent to bed at whatever time seemed appropriate to my mother, and I’d lie there for hours trying to fall asleep, but it never worked. And so of course it was hard to drag me out of bed in the morning. It was miserable, all the way around.

I still have trouble getting to sleep, but since I became a grown-up with my own bedside lamp and reading material and no one telling me I can’t use them, I at least know how to manage times when that difficulty surfaces. And weirdly, I’ve become a super-early morning person; I go to bed at what my mother now thinks is a ridiculously early hour and get up before the sun and spend the first few hours of the day doing stuff just for me. It took a little bit of adjustment, but when I’m working on something I’m excited about, I actually kinda dig waking up at 4.30 and having some coffee and getting to it.

The far less awesome bit of this, which has definitely worsened with age, is the development of the can’t-stay-asleep variety of insomnia. Not waking up at 4.30, but waking up at 1.30 and being unable to get back to sleep for at least a couple of hours, if at all. It not only threatens my best morning working time, but it leaves me fuzzy and grouchy and often nauseated all day.

The first time I remember this mode of insomnia striking with any regularity was during the process of writing my dissertation. I’d wake up just enough to realize I was uncomfortable and needed to roll over or something, and my brain would pop up and say “Oh good. You’re awake. We need to talk.” And that was it: every bit of anxiety I had about the project, money, the job market, and so on and so on would all start bubbling to the surface. At some point, I’d just give up and go to work.

That level of anxiety diminished a bit while I was an assistant professor, though for all the obvious reasons it didn’t exactly go away. It just became a familiar pattern: if I woke up enough for my brain to engage, I’d start thinking about everything I needed to do that I was afraid I was either going to forget or somehow let drop, and I’d be awake for the duration. This was the period when I developed the majority of my getting-things-done habits, as I discovered at some point that the things I’d start worrying about were things that weren’t on my to-do list. As soon as I wrote them down, they’d leave me alone. So I tried to write EVERYTHING down. And it mostly worked.

Now… what to say. I am of an age, and while parts of that age are awesome, other bits are the worst. I have chronic tendonitis in both shoulders, and when it flares up there is no lying-down position that is comfortable for more than a couple of hours. And add to that the various indignities that shifting hormone levels produce, and the result is that I sleep terribly at least a couple of nights a week. Sleepytime tea (the EXTRA kind, with the valerian) sometimes helps. Melatonin sometimes helps (though the resulting hyper-vivid dreams often leave me waking up tired). Serious pharmaceuticals definitely help, but only on the night I take them; most of them produce a killer kickback the following night, undoing the good of the night of sleep I got.

Anyhow. I’ve been writing along hoping I’d get to some kind of conclusion, but I don’t think there is one. Except, frankly, getting even older: I watched my grandparents, my aunts and uncles, and my parents go through this mid-life set of sleep disturbances, and each and every one of them hit a point at which they suddenly started sleeping like a baby again. Seriously: my parents, who used to get up in the 5.30 vicinity every day of their lives, whether they wanted to or not, can now sleep until 8.00 or even beyond with no trouble whatsoever.

So, something to look forward to. In the meantime, I have whining, and I’m apparently not afraid to use it.