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.

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.

Retreat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.