LG3: People

Well, that was a week. Days of anxiously reloading every news outlet I could, followed by some precious hours of celebration and relief. And now… the fight continues.

This is part three in a roughly eleven-part project-in-process, collectively entitled Leading Generously. Your help in expanding my thinking is enormously appreciated! For the story thus far:

* * *

Lead people, not institutions.

In the introduction to this book, I talked a bit about why I focus on individuals as agents of change. It is without question the institutions and systems that hold sway over our lives that require transformation. These are the structures that enact and sustain privilege and oppression, that keep us ignorant of one another’s struggles, that keep us competing for resources and support. These are the structures that must be reimagined and rebuilt in order to foster the kinds of generosity, equity, and integrity we’d like to see in the world — but these structures are not going to transform themselves. If anything, the institutions and systems around us are self-reinforcing.

If we’re going to change our institutions, we — people — are going to have to plan, execute, and follow through on that transformative work. The initiative for that work needs to begin with individuals and proceed through the coalitions and communities that they form.

And that leads me to the key claim for this chapter: those coalitions and communities are far more important than institutions. The relationships they foster and represent are the source of our institutions’ humanity, and without them, even the most ostensibly mission-driven not-for-profit may as well be a soulless private equity firm. None of our structures and processes matter at all unless they are at the service of people, rather than the other way around.

People first. Relationships first. Coalitions and communities first.

The corollary to this? If you are in a leadership position, your job is to lead people, rather than the structures within which those people operate.

Don’t misunderstand me; I recognize that managing an institution is key to its survival. The institution must have appropriate budgetary processes and governance structures and so forth if it is going to survive. And of course one requirement for managing an organization is a willingness to make hard choices when they are necessary for the organization’s survival.

But the mere survival of an institutional structure is not enough, because the structure without the people is a hollow shell. And if an institution is going to become genuinely, structurally capable of generosity, of both fostering community internally and supporting rich connections to communities externally, it must put those people first. The relationships and connections with and among those people are necessary to ensuring that a mission-driven organization or institution can remain true to its mission, especially where that mission is centered around the public good.

It’s of course a bit of a commonplace in management to say things like “people are our business,” to emphasize with pride the role that “human capital” plays in the organization’s success. All without hearing the deeply dehumanizing effects of terms like that: human capital, human resources. Relegating the human to the position of adjective, used to qualify one part of an organization’s assets, is an utter failure of humanity. People are not adjectives in the service of capital. In order to lead, it’s crucial to understand who you’re leading: people, not capital, not resources. The terms need to be flipped, not just rhetorically but structurally: we must understand our organizations and institutions as existing in service to the human, the humane.

Doing so requires leading people rather than leading institutions. It requires seeking at every turn to refocus on the needs and concerns of those who contribute to the institution, and it requires working to maintain a clear vision of the humanity not just of those whom the institution serves but also of the structures through which you serve them.

The need to ensure that connections and relationships come first poses a real challenge for many in leadership roles. The org chart often reveals the problem: the higher you climb in the organization’s hierarchy, it seems, the fewer opportunities for connection with others are readily available. Too many top executives are surrounded only by their senior executive team. Some are isolated by happenstance and some by choice. And all of the members of those executive teams — like any of us — have gotten where they are through a particular kind of attention to the institution and its needs. Those senior executive teams are often hand-picked and nearly always comparatively homogenous, leading to a narrowing of perspective and a flattening of focus.

The results can be devastating. Communication between management and rank-and-file becomes a one-way transmission of announcements. Senior management filters information before it reaches the top executive. Morale and trust throughout the institution suffer, as the concerns of employees and constituents go unheard and unacted-upon, and as the announcements from above come from an increasingly remote and incomprehensible perspective.

This gulf between management and the rest of the organization becomes all the wider in moments of crisis. Expressions of care from the top ring hollow as it becomes clear to everyone that “we’re all in it together” is merely rhetorical, when there’s no sense whatsoever of the we that could conceivably be together. In 2020, astonishingly, a few university presidents have publicly expressed their willingness to sacrifice the lives of a small percentage of their students, faculty, and staff in order to “save” the institution, opening a serious question about what those leaders think their institution is for, if not those people.

I want to linger on this situation a moment longer, because it’s a far starker example of the need to remember that the object of leading is people than I ever wanted to be provided with. During the summer of 2020, calls to restart in-person instruction within institutions of higher education were frequently framed as a matter of concern for students and their futures: in order to deliver to them the high-quality educational experience they want, we must band together, take precautions, be prepared. If we don’t deliver that product, we were told, they won’t come back, and the institution will not survive.

Shining through that concern for students is thus the actual locus of concern: the future of the institution. As I hope Generous Thinking made clear, I am a deep believer in the value of institutions of higher education, especially broadly public-serving institutions of higher education, which have long functioned, if imperfectly, as an engine for social mobility and empowerment. I, like the vast majority of faculty and staff, will do a lot to ensure that those institutions survive. But institutions do not automatically deserve to survive based on that mission alone, and particularly not if they have to sacrifice the health and well-being of the people they comprise in order to do so.

I want to be clear: I understand that the executive teams at our colleges and universities have been charged with their institutions’ survival, and a signficant portion of that survival is bound up in the revenue provided by students who pay to attend. And thus getting the students on campus matters far more than their well-being once they’ve arrived, and certainly more than the well-being of those who fall on the expense side of the budget. (There’s another book to be written on this particular problem: the long-term ramifications of the neoliberal turn away from public investment in higher education and toward a market-oriented model of financing has submerged our campuses in the death cult of capitalism. But I digress.)

The bottom line — and I use the term advisedly — is that we must consider what our institutions are for if not for the people who learn in them, the people who teach in them, the people who build them and keep them operational. The relationship between institutions and those people is the entirety of the institution’s value, and if the lives of those people do not come first, the institution’s survival is moot.

Even more, caring for the lives of those people means caring for their whole lives, and not just the hours they spend on our campuses or in our offices. This requires understanding that their families and communities are not just at-times inconvenient background noise distracting them from their on-campus roles but are in fact part of the reason they fulfill those roles. It requires backing that understanding up with family- and community-friendly policies that enable students and staff to meet the full range of their obligations. It requires a kind of care that is transitive, that doesn’t just express concern for those directly connected with the campus but that supports those people in their objects of concern.

Caring for the entirety of these people also means working to understand their differences, to support them in those differences. It means hearing and valuing their perspectives, especially when they disagree, rather than requiring that they get in line. Leading people can never mean simply ordering them about, but rather must be focused on building a collective sense of purpose, and finding ways to help everyone work toward living out that purpose. And the collectivity of that purpose means that sometimes you’ll find yourself serving purposes that belong to those you lead. I’ll talk about this more much later, but this kind of solidarity — understanding that those you lead can only be with you if they are certain that you are also with them — is a crucial component of living up to the missions that our institutions espouse.

LG2: You

This is the second draft chapter of eleven-ish in Leading Generously. See the overview and the first chapter for the story thus far.

And given the focus of this chapter, and its most auspicious date, if you haven’t yet, please go vote. Vote like your future depends on it. Because it does.

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Lead where you are.

This book and the principles that it explores begins with and is addressed to you: not just because you’re the one who has picked it up, but because all transformative change must begin with you.

This statement contradicts a lot of our assumptions about change, and about leadership. When we think of leaders, we tend to focus on the people at the top of an organization. Those are leaders, we assume: they are highly publicly visible, and they have the clout and the authority to make a difference in the ways their organizations function.

Perhaps. But I tend to think, more often than not, that referring to the folks at the top of an org chart as “leadership” is a misleading euphemism. It’s true that many of those people got to where they are because they are leaders. But you’ll notice that the cause and effect in the previous sentence is reversed from what you might expect: they got the jobs because they are, at least in principle, leaders; it’s not the jobs that make them leaders.

In fact, most of what comes to us from above in our institutions and organizations is management rather than leadership. Leadership as I explore it in the pages ahead is not a role but a quality. Most importantly, it is a quality that anyone can demonstrate, regardless of where in your organization’s hierarchy you might fall.

Leadership is a willingness to bring people together to cultivate change. Leadership is a willingness to point the way toward more thoughtful, more inclusive, more just ways of working. Leadership is a commitment to bringing out the best in those around you, and to helping them become leaders, too. And that can happen anywhere in the org chart.

The trick lies in finding the things over which you have some input or even control. Within a college or university, the principle of shared governance usually delegates authority over particular spheres or processes to the faculty. For instance, the curriculum is often defined as belonging to and controlled by the faculty. Departments and other units within the institution also have governance processes through which members of the unit can propose change. There are often — wrongly — limitations on participation in those processes for people in less-empowered employment categories, such as non-tenure-track faculty, staff, or graduate students, but there are likely still means for you to make your voice heard. (And if not, that may be the area on which your mobilization for change should focus. More on this to come.) The important thing is to find those structures and processes that you can shape and improve.

Improvement is key: what we’re aiming for is building an institution that is more just, more caring, more generous. One that respects and supports the work of all of its members. One that recognizes that living up to its mission requires serving not just its clients but its own community as well. Building that kind of institution demands that we all examine the ways that we work and make sure they serve this larger good. It may sound mushy, but this kind of ongoing institutional self-examination is the first, most crucial step in transformative change.

Here’s an example — and it’s one of the more famously intractable areas of academic life: tenure and promotion standards and processes. The first requirement in approaching these standards and processes is recognizing that there is a problem. This recognition can be a challenge, given that so many of those in positions of authority over these processes have succeeded under their auspices. However, those standards as written often have not kept up with changes in the fields they address, including innovations in the means and modes of communication. They rely on forms and metrics originally designed for some fields, often in STEM, that have to be retrofitted for others like the arts. They presume that fairness emerges from treating all candidates identically, rather than understanding candidates individually. And they have often been in place long enough that they give the impression of solidity: it’s not clear who really owns them, or how they could possibly be revised.

As a result, the members of any given academic department may feel stuck with the policies they have, bound by their college or university’s authority over them. Senior faculty advising on tenure and promotion cases that contain innovative work, for instance, can be heard to say things like “personally, I’d love to give credit for that kind of publication, but The Administration will never accept that.” In a mentoring situation, this kind of statement is often accompanied by the sentiment that a friend of mine once described as “anticipatory remorse,” in which the senior colleague expresses deep regret for the damage that they would have caused to your career should they have allowed you to take this unsanctioned path.

Very often, however, the cause for this remorse isn’t there at all. Every dean or provost I have ever talked with about tenure and promotion has indicated, to some extent or another, that while they might own a portion of the process, they do not own the standards those processes employ. They do not define or maintain the list of what “counts” in these processes, in other words, but instead take their guidance from field-based experts — and usually from the departments themselves. Their role, as most deans and provosts understand it, is to uphold the standards once they’re defined, but not to define them.

What this means is that a department, and the faculty within that department, have far more power to define those standards than they usually think. If a department were to send a clear, good-faith argument to the dean and/or provost demonstrating that, in their field, these innovative forms of scholarly production or communication are now considered by experts in the field to be just as valid and provide comparable opportunities for research impact to those provided by more traditional forms, the administration would very often be guided by that argument.

My own department at Michigan State recently undertook this work. We opened up the department’s bylaws for revision, hoping to strengthen throughout the description of our governance processes the manifestations of our commitment to equity and inclusion. The voting members of the faculty were divided into subcommittees that examined and made recommendations about particular sections of the bylaws, and one such subcommittee, the one I joined, focused on our annual review and promotion and tenure review processes. Our discussions were challenging, but we expanded the departmental definition of what “counts” under the heading of research from a narrow focus on conventionally peer-reviewed books and journal articles to a much broader range of forms — including public-facing work such as exhibitions, performances, films and videos, and digital projects — and a much broader range of review processes. We maintain throughout a commitment to demonstrated excellence (what some might think of as “rigor”) but without the false assumption that only certain forms or processes can give rise to such excellence, or can allow us to recognize it. Our revisions also explicitly stipulate that even the expanded list of what counts isn’t exhaustive, and that attention must be paid to new forms and mechanisms for producing engaged and engaging scholarship that are developing around us.

By capturing such expansiveness in our bylaws, we’ve established a kind of generosity as part of our department ethos. We’re lucky to have been able to do so with the support of a dean who is similarly working to cultivate generosity and care as the foundation of the work being done across our college. It’s easy to imagine a circumstance under which a less forward-thinking dean, or a more metrics-minded provost, might find our revisions to be not just an opening up of our standards but a lowering of those standards. But we have amassed support from the national professional organizations that guide work done in our department’s fields, each of which has issued a set of guidelines for the evaluation of scholarship produced in new media forms, as well as calls for including more publicly-engaged work under the rubric of scholarship. With this field-level support, the argument for changing department standards and processes becomes all the more compelling.

Changing the form — and I mean that literally here: ours is called “Form D” — that personnel assessments employ is a slightly different endeavor. In all very large organizations, and in an increasing number of smaller ones, there is a form for everything. In recent years, many of these forms have been moved online and turned into systems. And the thing about these forms and systems is that everyone hates them, but everyone feels bound by them. Because there are no alternatives. Because it’s how things are done. This is particularly true where those forms and systems intersect with personnel processes. The owners of the forms and systems (often a human resources department) need the standardization they provide in order to ensure that everyone who uses them is being assessed in the same fashion. The problem, of course, is that providing everyone with the same boxes to fill in and then assessing them according to what they put in those boxes is a poor substitute for genuine equity and inclusiveness, not least because the people whom the forms are meant to represent almost always feel unable to boil themselves down to or fit themselves into the categories that structure the form. The form or system was almost always designed with a particular field or fields in mind — in our case, it’s engineering — and other fields struggle to cram things into the rubric they’ve created.

But the thing about forms and systems is that, at least theoretically, they can be changed. It’s no doubt an uphill battle, but a reasoned, principled argument about why the form or system is insufficient for representing the work being done in a particular field and a demonstration of how it might be improved can result in changes. I’ll dig into the alternative that we’ve been working on in the chapter on Values.

In the meantime, though, you’ll have noted that these two examples of local change have a couple of things in common: each seeks to take processes or structures that are currently restrictive and at times punitive and open them up, to make them more generous in the ways they allow for innovative, engaging work. Each focuses on a part of the process that is under relatively local control — especially in the case of department bylaws — and revises it to create the more generous environment that those who are party to that process want to create. And each emphasizes the need for clear, principled arguments on behalf of the change: why the current process or policy does not work, and how the new process or policy better aligns with the kinds of excellence the institution wishes to model.

The importance of this kind of argument can’t be understated: folks up the chain who are invested in the ways things have always been done are unlikely to let those things go without a persuasive argument. The nature of those arguments will differ, of course, from instance to instance, and from organization to organization. Sometimes there will be higher authorities to whom those arguments can appeal — national professional organizations, for instance. Sometimes those arguments will have to rely on demonstration in order to make the case.

The need for these arguments for change highlights an important set of qualifiers to the slogan “lead where you are.” You have the capacity to transform the aspects of your work processes and environments over which you have some degree of ownership and control, but that capacity may be limited by the hierarchy in which you’re embedded. Figuring out how to navigate that hierarchy and how to bring those above you on the org chart along is a key component of the work. This is no less true of a university president who needs to persuade a potentially skeptical board of trustees than it is of an office administrator who needs to persuade a supervisor.

There are of course great differences in the degree of freedom that individuals in different kinds of roles have to effect creative institutional transformation. Sometimes, for instance, a supervisor will so micromanage those who report to them that the members of their unit feel no wiggle room at all. Sometimes a board will make demands that leave little room for negotiation. These situations may require more specific forms of resistance before positive change can be enacted: outside intervention, protest, demonstration. But even within such situations, there is agency, and figuring out how to organize for change requires individuals willing to build coalitions.

It’s also important to note, as Sara Ahmed reminds us in her exploration of diversity work on university campuses, of the ways that the drive for change can be defanged. Enormous energy can be poured into bold statements and policies that are all too easily ignored. The substitution of documents for action is always a danger. The work of creating real transformative change requires not just rhetoric and promises but a real commitment to follow through. Who will ensure that the new policies and processes are employed and adhered to? Who will review the results of those new policies and processes to determine whether they’re having the desired effects?

This need for follow-through, for ensuring that an at times recalcitrant institution live up to its stated desire to be more generous, can be exhausting. Those who fight for change often find themselves demoralized, disillusioned, worn out. Continually fighting to change an organization or institution that refuses such transformation can leave you wanting to give up. To quit. This potential for exhaustion is one key reason why it’s important to understand leadership not as a solo effort, but rather as a desire to bring together and inspire others who want to work for change. That cultivation of community is the most important step you can take — and more on that in the next chapter.

LG1: Introduction

This is the first chapter of what promises to be eleven in an in-development project, tentatively entitled Leading Generously. For more on why I’m posting this, and the kinds of input I’m hoping for, see Leading Generously. And tune in next Tuesday for more!

Lead, follow, or get out of the way.

Leadership is admittedly an odd subject for a professor of literature and digital media to write about. This certainly wasn’t on the list of projects I imagined lay in my future as my career began, but then neither did I imagine any of the strange turns that career has taken: from writing conventional journal articles to exploring blogging as a scholarly form; from studying digital media to thinking about the ways networked communication might transform academic life; from being a relatively unknown professor at an isolated small liberal arts college to being the first director of scholarly communication for the largest scholarly society in the humanities. Nor did I foresee the changes that would overtake institutions of higher education — or indeed the world — in that time: deeper and deeper cuts in public funding for colleges and universities; astronomical expansion in student and family educational debt; a growing disbelief in education as a social good, beyond the individual, market-oriented credential it can provide.

Nor could I possibly have imagined that we would have found ourselves, in summer 2020, watching the leaders of colleges and universities struggle to decide whether to reopen their campuses in the midst of a deadly pandemic.

We are facing a massive crisis in leadership in higher education today — not to mention in the world beyond — and we must find new ways of understanding leadership, and of cultivating and empowering leaders, if we want the project of knowledge creation and dissemination, of research and education, to survive.

* * *

Leading Generously picks up where Generous Thinking leaves off. It’s intended to serve as a handbook, or a workshop guide, for folks who want to transform their institutions. Who want to align their actual ways of working in the day-to-day with their missions, visions, and values. Who want, in other words, to do the hands-on work of helping to build more generous institutions. As I hope was the case with Generous Thinking, while expressly focused on the context of North American colleges and universities, Leading Generously may be useful for thinking about transformation within a broader range of kinds of institutions and organizations: educational and cultural, public and private, commercial and not-for-profit. The one requirement for those institutions is that they understand themselves to be mission-driven, and that they be led by people willing to take the time, and to make the effort, to reimagine and refashion their ways of working.

As I’ll discuss further in the next chapter, however, the leaders this book seeks to support are not necessarily the people we conventionally think of as leaders — those at the top of an institutional hierarchy, those with the authority to steer the ship. Rather, at the center of Leading Generously is the conviction that everyone in an institution has the potential to be a leader, to create transformative change that can model ways of being that others might follow.

This conviction places a lot of emphasis on individuals, in ways that may seem a bit at odds with some of today’s most important ideas about the ways that power operates. Those critical ideas — including arguments about race and racism; about sex, gender, and misogyny; about class and power — understand the issues they explore to be systemic rather than individual. That is to say, they argue that real change requires social transformation. It requires building institutions, creating governments, enacting laws, transforming economies in ways that work toward equity rather than supporting privilege.

I subscribe wholly to those arguments, and I have that same end goal: building institutions that are structurally capable of supporting and facilitating the work of creating better communities and a better world. But the institutions we have today aren’t going to transform themselves.

So the question I am left with is one of where we locate agency: who has the power to make significant change in the world. If we understand power as residing in the structures and systems that govern our lives, there is little agency left to the individual.

And it’s unquestionably true that the problems we face are enormous, and one individual can’t do much to change the world.

But groups of individuals can.

And building those groups starts with individuals who decide to do more, to put what individual agency they do have to work in solidarity with others.

* * *

Over the course of the last several years, both while Generous Thinking was in press and after it was published, I had the opportunity to speak on a number of 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 university presidents and their advisors — felt a connection with the arguments being made in Generous Thinking not least because they recognized 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 exactly how I answered then. I suspect that it was some combination of “you’re completely right; that’s the real question” and “the difficulties involved in being generous in hard times are precisely 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 individual and institutional muscle memory, and by recommitting ourselves to our basic values again and again. 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 will never 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 in the academy. One tweet in particular stuck with me:

That is a pretty impolitic stance but I stand by it. I don’t think these institutions can support us or love us. And I honor the many many people who work to make them more humane. But you, alone, can not do that. And you cannot do it, ever, by killing yourself.

This is especially true for members of 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. This is how we wind up with furloughs and layoffs among contract faculty and staff at the same time as we find ourselves with a new Associate Vice-President for Shared Sacrifice.

The only way to prevent such sacrifice from rolling downhill is to build structures to channel it otherwise. And this is the deepest goal of Generous Thinking, and by extension of Leading Generously. I’m far less focused on getting individual readers to think more generously — though that’s the place I have to begin — than I am on what is required for us collectively to build a more generous environment in which we can do our work together. And I’m far less interested in building individual leaders who can rise through the administrative ranks than I am in building cohorts of leaders who can work together to transform those ranks. And so, my core question: What kinds of leadership are required for us remake the university into an institution that is 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, structurally, from position to position, from institution to institution.

I spoke in 2019 at a large midwestern public institution that had hands-down the most demoralized faculty I’d ever encountered. The reasons for that state were painfully clear: they have an activist politician-turned-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. As a result, core departments have faced decade-long hiring freezes and are housed in buildings that are literally toxic. The faculty members I talked to during my visit 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, sheer luck in the position in which I find myself — I’m not able to sit back and say, oh well then. Leading Generously 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 leadership as well.

* * *

So Leading Generously is in many ways intended to be a practical handbook for putting the ideas of Generous Thinking into action. It’s also a means of putting my optimism and my ability to maintain some form of hope to work for others: while I recognize the enormity of the transformation that higher education needs today — large enough to require a revolution — I persist in believing that local changes can begin to make a difference, and that we are capable of making those local changes. But there are some key changes in outlook that have taken root for me in the years since I wrote Generous Thinking, changes that cannot help but manifest in this text.

In the preface to that book I noted that I’d struggled as I was writing, especially over the course of 2016 and 2017, to keep the book from becoming fundamentally angry. Writing today, in 2020, I am convinced that this struggle was utterly misplaced. Having been raised a good middle-class Catholic white girl in the deep South, I was taught that my anger was unacceptable, and that it needed either to be transformed into something more productive or to be deeply internalized. I don’t think I realized until recently the degree to which that message still haunts me: given the state of the world today, and especially the United States, operating with the anger meter reading anything less than “full-on fury” feels impossible. This is true of our political scene, which degenerates by the day; it’s true of our cities and our streets, where the thin veneer of law and order has at last cracked wide-open enough to force those of us privileged enough to ignore it until now to reckon with the brutality that has always underwritten policing; and it’s true of our institutions of higher education, which throughout summer 2000 2020 (oops) gave every impression of placing institutional survival above the lives of those who work and learn on their campuses.

Given this widespread dereliction of duty in those who are meant to lead our nations and our cities and our institutions, nothing other than rage will do. I am trying to temper that rage into productive outcomes in this book, keeping in mind my hopes of guiding us all to a better place, but I feel obligated to note that such beating of emotional swords into ploughshares isn’t easy. I ask for your understanding and, I hope, your equally angry commitment to repairing the enormous damage that’s been done — slowly over a period of decades, and then with increasing speed over the last four years — to our institutions, which should always have been a model of generous thinking in action.

Leading Generously

This post is a heads-up of sorts; I’ve got a project I’ve been working on for a bit now, and I’m hoping y’all can help with it.

The project is a follow-up to Generous Thinking (which, oh by the way, will be out in paperback in January!), designed as one answer to the question yes okay but how do we start. It can be used as a workshop guide, or with a small reading group, or on your own as you think about ways to create change within your institution. It’s brief — right now a bit too brief — and approachable, I hope. And it’s directed to anyone, in any role within a mission-driven organization, who believes that there’s a better way.

There are several things I could use your help with as I continue to work on this project. Some are the standard online-peer-review issues: is the thing working, and how could it work better.

But there are more substantial issues as well. This project has been written from my own perspective, based in my own experiences, and for that reason it’s quite limited. What I am hoping is to hear about your experiences with institutional change — good and bad. I want to know about the peculiarities of your institutional type, of your local environment, of your national system. I want to include a much broader range of examples in the guide, and perhaps a few illustrative case studies. And for that I need your help.

There are currently eleven chapters in the project draft, each of which is slightly longer than the average blog post. Some of them are in better shape than others. I’m going to post the first chapter tomorrow, and my plan is to post one each Tuesday morning until the whole thing is up, which should take us through the first Tuesday in 2021.

I’d love your feedback on each chapter as it stands, but I really, really want to hear about your own experiences and questions and concerns. You’re of course welcome to leave them in the comments on each post, but if you prefer, you’re also welcome to email me at kfitz @ kfitz.info.

Huge thanks, in advance. Hope to see you back here tomorrow!

Your Institution Does Not Deserve to Survive

That is: unless you are committed to the survival of the people who make up and serve that institution first, foremost, and above all.

* * *

There’s an awful lot of “shared sacrifice” and “for the good of the institution” rhetoric circulating in higher education circles today, driven both by the collective uncertainty about returning to campus in the wake of COVID-191 and by the resulting budgetary crisis colleges and universities find themselves in. Kevin McClure does a good job of digging into that rhetoric and turning our attention from how we should work to reopen our campuses to focus instead on why.

That why, where it’s addressed, is being treated as if it were a matter of concern for students and their futures: in order to deliver to them the high-quality educational experience they want, we must band together, take precautions, be prepared. If we don’t deliver that product, we are told, they won’t come back, and the institution will not survive.

I am a believer in the value of institutions of higher education, especially broadly public-serving institutions of higher education, which have long functioned as an engine for social mobility and empowerment. I want to see those institutions survive. But they do not deserve to survive based on that mission alone, and particularly not if they have to sacrifice the health and well-being of their very publics in order to do so.

The executive management teams at our colleges and universities have been charged with their institutions’ survival. I understand that. But we need to consider carefully what the institutions are for if not for the people who learn in them, the people who teach in them, the people who build them and keep them operational. The relationship between institutions and those people is the entirety of the institution’s value, and if the lives of those people do not come first, the institution should not survive.

My life would be enormously impoverished, both literally and metaphorically, if my institution were to shut down. But it is not worth the lives of my students, my colleagues, the members of my community — not to mention the lives of their families and friends and neighbors — to protect my livelihood.



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.

We Have Never Been Social

Last week, I had the pleasure of chatting with Bryan Alexander on his Future Trends Forum. We were primarily focused on Generous Thinking, but by way of having me introduce myself, Bryan asked what I’m working on this year. I mentioned that I’m in the early research phases of what might turn out to be a new project — which is to say, I have a pretty inchoate idea and I’m doing a lot of reading this summer trying to figure out whether there’s a there there. Late in our conversation, however, the discussion turned back to that project idea, and given that I’ve now shared it on video (soon to be available on YouTube), I thought it might behoove me to commit a bit of that idea here.1

The project has as its working title We Have Never Been Social: Rethinking the Internet. It revisits the history of the Internet’s development and, in particular, the rise of the social media structures that have come to dominate so much of our experience of networked communication, arguing that a significant part of what has led us to the mess we find ourselves in today — with corporate entities tracking our every move while ignoring (or abetting) the growth of violent radical movements just under the surface, undermining not just how we interact with one another in casual ways but the very organization of our formal, public, political lives — is a desperately flawed model of sociality, one that is in fact not just un-social but anti-social. These structures allow us to talk to one another and to form connections with those who share our interests and concerns, for sure, but they are predicated on a hyperindividualism that is not just contrary to but actually corrosive of the kinds of deliberation necessary to a productive public life. (You might begin to see some of the ways in which this project grows out of ideas I developed in the course of Generous Thinking; the Internet, like the university as it exists today, is not conducive to generosity, and imagining how a more generous Internet might be developed requires thinking through its present and potential structures of reward and relation.)

I imagine that the first part of this project will focus on how it got to be this way, what got missed or ignored in some of the early warnings about what was happening online and how those warnings were swamped by the hype depicting the Internet as a space of radical democratization. But then I want to turn my attention to where we might go, whether there are possibilities for building an Internet that would be more genuinely social. Some argue that a more decentralized web — a web in which we manage the platforms through which we interact with others, or what Wired recently referred to as the soothing promise of the artisanal Internet — would allow us to control the ways that our data is used, as well as to control the terms of our engagements with the broader network. There is no small irony in the suggestion that what has been termed the IndieWeb could actually turn out to promote a deeper sociality, of course, and the vision of a distributed, self-hosted, self-controlled Internet would be a real challenge to achieve. But as I see it, the desire to pull our efforts at creative production and connection out of platforms like Facebook and Twitter and, commit to more distributed platforms like Mastodon or return to blogging and its micro-blogging relatives focus not on the goal, but instead on a means to an end. Because the problem is not that our platforms haven’t been sufficiently individualized; despite — or more truthfully because of — being under ravenous corporate control, they cater to our worst individualist instincts. Contravening that force is going to require something more than personal control, promoting something other than atomization.

That is to say: if the problem has not been the centralized, corporatized control of the individual voice, the individual’s data, but rather a deeper failure of sociality that precedes that control, then merely reclaiming ownership of our voices and our data isn’t enough. If the goal is creating more authentic, more productive forms of online sociality, we need to rethink our platforms, the ways they function, and our relationships to them from the ground up. It’s not just a matter of functionality, or privacy controls, or even of business models. It’s a matter of governance.

So this is where some older paths-not-taken, such as Ted Nelson’s original many-to-many, multidirectional model for hypertext, and some more recent potential paths, such as Herbert van de Sompel’s decentralized, distributed vision for scholarly communication, might come in. But this is also where I want to turn my attention to the arguments I raised in my plenary talk at the Spring 2019 CNI meeting about the relationship between sustainability and solidarity. Because this, as Tressie McMillan Cottom reminds us, “is not a problem for technological innovation or a market product. This requires politics” (Lower Ed 182).

That’s where I am in the project: re-reading a lot of early writers on the rise of the Internet and social media, including the techno-utopians, those who got dismissed as Luddites, and the wealth of critical thinkers that fall somewhere in-between. And I’m reading a lot of recent work that looks at the mess we’re in and how it got to be this way. And I’m reading some key texts in social theory that will help me envision potential paths forward. But what else? What are the crucial texts and ideas I should be engaging with? Where are the new movements in rethinking the Internet that I shouldn’t miss?

Summer 2019

I’m titling this post “Summer 2019” in part as a way of reminding myself, as firmly as possible, that the summer has begun, in order to get myself focused on a new set of priorities as quickly as possible.

The transition from spring into summer has always been a bit of a challenge for me. On the one hand, there has often been this sense of my calendar opening out into vast stretches of unscheduled time — freeing, but with the seeming result that I go to bed one night in late May and wake up the next morning in late August, with the stretch inbetween passing in a dream-like blur.

On the other hand — and particularly in periods like now when some significant percentage of my time is dedicated to administrative responsibilities — there is also this sense of the spring and fall terms creeping like kudzu into the summer: just one more set of meetings, one more report, some final paperwork, and then perhaps we can start taking up planning for next year.

Last year I handled the spring-to-summer transition brilliantly, if a bit by accident: we left town as soon as finals week was over and spent two weeks in a lakeshore cabin. That two weeks was designed to allow me to jumpstart the revisions of Generous Thinking that I needed to get through in short order, but it had the knock-on effect of clearing my head and jumpstarting the summer, a clean transition into a different mode of being.

This year, we’ve scheduled the summer’s travel differently, with the result that the transition into summer isn’t as clean. Last week — the first week after finals — was filled top-to-bottom with meetings. This week’s schedule is less full but still contains a few stragglers. So I’m having to bring a somewhat more purposeful attention to the transition into summer work. Hence this post.

My goals this summer include both some exciting Humanities Commons-related developments (about which more soon!) and some preliminary work toward what may or may not turn out to be a new book project.

That last is potentially the most important, but also the easiest to defer, interrupt, or otherwise sidetrack: mostly what I need to do is to Sit Still and Read Things. Lots of things. And it’s hard to convince my spring brain — jumping from one thing to the next, with a long list of tasks in hand — to slow down and take the time to focus.

In any case, a post to remind me to do so. And the promise of more posts to share how it’s all going: I’ll post on significant ideas as they develop, but I’m also going to try to post a more general weekly roundup as well, just to keep myself on track. (We’ll see how that goes.)

Happy summer, in the meantime!

Listening as Generous Thinking

(Crossposted from the Johns Hopkins University Press blog.)

Generous Thinking began for me with the nagging sense that something is off-kilter in much of scholarly life. It’s having profound effects not just on the ways that we as individual scholars are able to live out the values that we bring to our work but also on the ways that we work together, in groups, as departments, as institutions. And perhaps most importantly, it is affecting the ways that we connect and communicate with — or fail to connect and communicate with — the world off-campus. A talk I heard by David Scobey some years ago gave me the title for this book; Scobey argued that critical thinking in the humanities was completely out of balance with generous thinking, which oriented toward a form of public engagement designed to reconnect the university with the world. I was thrilled to hear someone name the thing that I’d been circling around, and yet I had two points of concern: first, was critical thinking necessarily on the opposite end of the intellectual see-saw from generous thinking? And second, if we are to engage generously with the world, do we need to begin closer to home?

The kind of generosity that I found myself hoping to foster has as its goal reconnecting the university to the communities that the institution is intended to serve. But this generosity is grounded in practices of connection that might strengthen the university itself as a community. The most fundamental of these practices is listening.

But — listening? How could something so basic be the ground for solving such a complex set of problems?

The first thing to note is that listening is indeed a most basic form of human engagement, but one that nearly all of us are pretty bad at. We may let one another speak; we may even hear one another when we do; but much of that time is spent waiting for our next turn to talk, preparing our own thoughts and ideas. Genuinely listening to what someone else has to say requires letting go, at least for a moment, of our own assumptions and perspectives. Listening requires attuning ourselves to what is being said to us, opening ourselves to the possibility that we might have something to learn from the engagement — that our own assumptions and perspectives might be wrong.

It’s not a coincidence that the ability to listen varies inversely with privilege: people who are marginalized are not just commanded to listen, but often must use listening as a tool of survival. The need to learn to listen, to displace the self in order to understand the perspectives of others, is for that reason most pressing for those of us who are most privileged. Listening is the first step in the creation of solidarity, of recognizing that our collective interests must take precedence over our individual interests.

Listening isn’t a panacea. It can’t solve the problems that the university faces today, not unless it’s accompanied by real transformative action. But listening is more than just personal, or interpersonal. It’s the ground for a critical practice that begins by thinking with rather than against our colleagues. It’s the ground for our ability to draw students and other potentially interested members of the public into the work that we do, rather than closing them out. It’s the ground for creating institutions that genuinely live out the values they claim to espouse. Listening is a basis for generous thinking, and as such is the first step toward real transformative change.