Monthly Archives: October 2014

Speaking the Language

All of us in higher ed have heard some version of this exchange (oversimplified to make my point):

Trustee and/or College President: This university needs more efficiency and accountability.  We need to run it like a business.

Faculty: WHAT????   The university isn’t a business.  You can’t run it like a business!

Or maybe we can.  But it depends upon the model.  And being able to speak a certain kind of language.

In a recent article in The New Yorker James Surowiecki highlighted and explained “Benefit Corporations.”  “B Corporations are for-profit companies that pledge to achieve social goals as well as business ones.”  And they can be held accountable by their shareholders not just for financial responsibilities, but also for failing to carry out their social mission.

And the evidence suggests that these companies, despite not tying themselves to an ethic that is driven almost exclusively by profit and shareholder value, are doing well (Patagonia, Etsy, Warby Parker, and others count among the high-profile B Corps), attract and retain talented workers, and enjoy a certain appeal with some consumers (think about the success of various fair-trade movement products).

So, what if we re-imagined the university as a B Corporation?  I admit that the symmetry of this model is not seamless.  Most universities are not for-profit ventures, I really don’t want to cast students as shareholders (much less, customers!).  But I do think this mental exercise has rhetorical and strategic value.

What if the next time an administrator or trustee talked about running the university like a business, you fired back with this example and held that individual accountable for meeting the social vision of your institution?  What if the next time you are a participant at one of those interminable strategic planning meetings, you counter the relentless rhetoric of business by framing your push back in the language of a B Corp?  Simply saying that we shouldn’t run the university as a business is not going to acquire traction with those wedded to this model.  But perhaps meeting these folks on their own terms and playing a bit of their rhetorical game will be effective.  We do this all the time as faculty, right?  We play to our audience.  I don’t teach the Protestant Reformation the same way in my survey class as I might in an upper level course for majors.  A presentation to a community group on the women’s suffrage movement is going to be different from the same talk delivered to an audience of scholars.

Whether it’s the example of B Corporations or something else, my larger point here is that in the seemingly perennial debate about how to “run” (itself a strange metaphor) college and universities, we might sometimes need to embrace a different worldview and speak that language.

In the Weeds

Hello, midterm!  Most of us, I suspect, are hitting that midpoint of the academic term.  We’re grading midterm exams and papers and juggling an increasingly busy calendar of committee meetings and advising appointments.  Maybe, just maybe, you’ve managed to carve out some time for research, or at least finishing the edits on that article that was due back to the journal two weeks ago.  And then there’s that book you need to read for the review you’re supposed to write.  Wait, is that your phone ringing?  The dean’s office needs a report on how your faculty interface with community groups.

File:Weeds in Waterloo, Ontario.jpg

Among restaurant staffs, this is called being “in the weeds.”  You’re overwhelmed, you can’t keep up.  If you’re waitstaff, your finished orders are backing up and need to get out to the tables.  If you’re on the line in the kitchen, you’ve gotten behind on the orders and yet the tickets keep piling up.

The good news for those of us in the weeds in academe is that no one is going to go hungry if we’re this overwhelmed.  That said, however, we still need to find a way to manage that crushing feeling that we’ll never get caught up.  So a few thoughts:

* There is no such thing as “caught up.”  Caught up is a lot like the illusory concept of balance (I’ve written about this before here).  So cut yourself a break and acknowledge that you will not get caught up this weekend, next week, or over the holiday break.  It is the nature of academic work that there is always something else to do: book to read, report to write, papers to grade, etc.  Instead, prioritize and figure out what must get done, which deadlines can be bent, and how many of your expectations for performance are self-imposed, and perhaps not iron-clad.

* Things always seem worse at the end of the day.  At this point of midterm overwhelmed-ness the end of the day is not the best time to assess your workload or to take your emotional temperature.

* Make a list.  Sometimes the trick is to impose order–even if only superficially–on the chaos.  Lists help empty the swirling thoughts in your brain onto paper.  They also may help in setting priorities.

* Take a break.  Seriously.  Although time may feel like the one thing you don’t have, staying mired in your to-do list may only make you feel more overwhelmed.  Take a quick walk, drink a glass of water, breathe (it is amazing how much stress constricts our breath–try taking some deep breaths when you’re in the weeds and you’ll see what I mean).  Step away and clear your head.

They’re not called the weeds for nothing.  You’ll notice that the phrase isn’t “in the field of beautiful flowers.”  But try these and any other strategies you have–and you have others please share them in the comments!–and maybe being in the weeds will be at least a little less overwhelming.