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Generosity in Hard Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

— Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) February 10, 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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