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.


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…


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.


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.

Wrapping Up

Yesterday, I wrapped up the revisions on Generous Thinking, and I’m finding myself of very mixed minds about where I am today. On the one hand, I am super excited about getting the manuscript into the press’s hands, getting it moving through the process toward the next stage of its public life. The events of the last few weeks — at both the national and the institutional level — have me convinced that this project needs to be out there now.

On the other hand, I have the not-so-vague feeling that I have been running as hard as I can toward the edge of a cliff, and that one morning soon, having sent off the manuscript, I’ll look down and discover there’s nothing beneath my feet. So I’m finding myself drawn to doing bit of preemptive thinking about what’s next, hoping that the gap between the ground I’m currently running on and the next bit of ground ahead might be less wide and less deep, leading to a less painful crash.

Don’t get me wrong, I know a fair bit of what’s ahead: reviewing copyedits, indexing, and all the other many things that still have to be done on my side of the process of transforming that manuscript into a finished book. But I have never completed a major project knowing what my next project was going to be. Or — maybe this is closer to the truth — I have concluded major projects thinking I knew what the next project was going to be, but I have always, always been wrong. And it’s taken longer than I expected, every time, to find my way into another project.

So on the one hand, I know that I’m in for a bit of flailing. On the other, I’m trying to give myself as much of a path forward as I can, so that maybe I can avoid the worst of it. This time out, that path consists of a lot of reading, piles of books that I’ve stacked up over the last few months, that I’ve been looking forward to getting into. I think the key challenge is going to be letting myself explore, letting myself not-know exactly what it is I’m reading for. And probably letting myself do a bit more thinking-out-loud here.

In any case: manuscript out. And more, of some as-yet undetermined sort, to come.

On Generosity and Obligation

I am returning, at last, to the thoughts I was exploring in my recent posts on Miranda Joseph’s Against the Romance of Community (post 1 | post 2), and I’m starting to wrestle this morning with the big one: obligation. Thinking about community as a strategic rather than an idealized concept, community in its pragmatic coalition-building sense, leads me to consider the work required to create and sustain communities. If the kinds of communities that I am seeking in trying to imagine a more generous relationship not only between the university and the publics that it engages but also, crucially, within the university itself are first and foremost voluntary communities—self-organizing, self-governing collectives based in affiliation and solidarity—what exactly can we be said to owe those communities? Do those communities and our relationships to them impose obligations on us?

This question about obligation came up early on in the review process for Generous Thinking. For some readers, my suggestion that “we” (meaning, in this case, those of us involved in and committed to the life of the university) have obligations to one another and to the world evoked a sense of noblesse oblige, a condescending assumption that we bear gifts that we must bestow upon the less fortunate around us. For others, the notion of obligation seemed to erode the idea of generosity itself, undermining individual commitment with a sense of requirement. Several commenters wanted me to replace the term, but I remain convinced that it’s the right one, though I’m still working on explaining why.

Obligation as I intend it is not connected, except etymologically, to noblesse oblige. In fact, I’d argue that noblesse oblige is a particularly self-aggrandizing form of voluntarism: we may feel that we have to give to those in need because of our station or privilege, but that “have to” is one we can easily walk away from; the commitment is entirely self-selected. The obligation that I’m focused on, that I hope that we can consider in the context of generosity, is one of which we cannot absolve ourselves. As Francois Lachance pointed out in the discussion, “obligation” derives from the Latin obligare, “from ob- ‘towards’ + ligare ‘to bind’.” That is the sense of obligation that I want to explore: that which binds us together, that which we cannot walk away from without doing grave damage both to ourselves and to the fabric of the whole.

That isn’t to say that we don’t have choice, as members of voluntary communities, about whether to fulfill those obligations, or that there isn’t agency in the kinds of generosity I’m hoping to foster. But I remain convinced that we do bear actual obligations toward one another deriving from our common presence in a space, an institution, a community. We owe one another recognition as members of that community. We owe one another attention to the concerns we bring to that community.

In the course of the discussion of Generous Thinking, I started wondering where my use of “obligation” in this sense began, and so searched my notes. The term popped up in several key locations, including Anthony Appiah’s Cosmopolitanism:

So there are two strands that intertwine in the notion of cosmopolitanism. One is the idea that we have obligations to others, obligations that stretch beyond those to whom we are related by the ties of kith and kind, or even the more formal ties of a shared citizenship. The other is that we take seriously the value not just of human life but of particular human lives, which means taking an interest in the practices and beliefs that lend them significance. (25)

These two strands, for Appiah, exist in an ongoing tension: we bear obligations that bind us together; we take seriously the differences that mean we must be allowed to go our own way. That individual, agential freedom does not relieve us of our shared obligations, but nor does the nature of our obligations eliminate the agency that all of us bear in our own lives.

This tension also appeared in my notes in Lewis Hyde’s consideration of the debts that participation in a gift economy creates. Hyde cites Marcel Mauss on the “three related obligations” that mark gift economies: “the obligation to give, the obligation to accept, and the obligation to reciprocate” (xxi). Hyde winds up at moments treating the notion of obligation in a fashion much closer to the reading of my commenters—as a requirement that a gift imposes upon us, an imposition that we attempt to remove by passing on—but it’s also a relation that sustains the entirety of a community. There is, I think, something important to consider in this connection between obligation and the gift, especially if we are to seek alternatives to the neoliberal economies in which our institutional and personal lives are otherwise embedded.

Most compelling for me, however, is the use that Bill Readings makes of obligation in The University in Ruins. In attempting to define a path out of the morass that the University of Excellence has landed us in, Readings turns repeatedly to the notion of obligation and its connection to community. His goal, he notes, is “an anti-modernist rephrasing of teaching and learning as sites of obligation, as loci of ethical practices, rather than as means for the transmission of scientific knowledge. Teaching thus becomes answerable to the question of justice, rather than to the criteria of truth” (154). That connection among obligation, ethics, and justice leads to his commitment to dissensus and his sense that “the condition of pedagogical practice is, in Blanchot’s words, ‘an infinite attention to the other’” (161), an ethical obligation that cannot be discharged. And an obligation whose infinitude is created in no small part by our being-in-community; “the obligation of community,” he notes, is “one to which we are answerable but to which we cannot supply an answer” (187).

If we are going to build and sustain communities, then—not romanticized communities, but rather communities based in solidarity, communities based on non-market relations of care—we need to be able to think about our obligations to one another, about our relationships to our voluntary communities beyond voluntarism. Coming full-circle to Joseph: her association of community with the structure of the non-profit, which deploys private philanthropy as a replacement for public commitment to the common good, underscores not only the voluntarism at the heart of noblesse oblige but also the political and economic sources of it: I am generous with what I have—I choose to be generous with what I have—precisely because we are no longer committed to one another as members of a shared social structure. Instead, the shift of responsibility for the public welfare toward private entities displaces our obligations to one another in favor of individual liberties and, I think, leaves us queasy about the notion of obligation altogether.

What I’m trying to explore in considering generosity as a potential ground for rebuilding the relationship between the university and the public good, then, is in part the force of the commitments that we make to one another, but commitments that are based in an ethical obligation that endures beyond and outside individual agency. It’s a commitment that we must continually make the choice to renew, but an obligation that persists regardless of our choice.

I’m still wrestling with all of this as I revise the manuscript, but the notions of community, solidarity, and commitment to the public good with which I’m working seem defined by the unresolved tensions in the relationship between generosity and obligation. As Readings says, we are left “with an obligation to explore our obligations without believing that we will come to the end of them” (190). This is where I’m trying to linger. I’d love to hear your thoughts.