Monthly Archives: January 2016

Student Activism

I have a piece in Inside Higher Ed today about how faculty and administrators could harness the energy of student activism and use it to further the educational aims of our institutions.


The Limits of Autonomy

As workers faculty are an odd bunch.  They tend to be largely autonomous as they go about their workday.  They are required to be on campus to meet certain responsibilities: teaching, attending meetings, holding office hours.  But they don’t punch a clock.  You can call their offices at a particular time between 9 and 5 when you know they are not doing one of the above or related activities, but there is no guarantee–or even expectation–that they will be there.  They arrive on and depart from campus largely on their own timetable.  Theirs are tasks–grading, reading, writing lectures–that can be performed offsite.

Particularly in disciplines where the single-authored book or paper is the norm, they carry this autonomy over into their scholarship.  They perform their research and write in relative isolation.

All of this autonomy, in turn, means that their interactions with other colleagues are random, coincidental.  They’re on campus the same days that certain colleagues teach, but may not see the ones who teach on other days.  You bump into someone in the hall, on the elevator, in the parking deck and that’s where conversations take place.  Our substantive contact takes place in that most dreaded of forums: the meeting.


This autonomy has its benefits and I am not looking to dismantle it.  But I am not sure that this autonomous way of life for faculty is always a good thing.  As I have argued previously it encourages a narrowness of thinking  where faculty talk about “my course” and “my research” and aren’t prodded to think about the larger aims of their department or college.  It elides questions like “where does MY course fit into the larger departmental curricula?”  This autonomous behavior also contributes, in part, to the silo mentality on campus.  Should we be surprised that there isn’t more cross-college collaboration (my university has a generous funding program for this that goes largely untapped) when we simply don’t interact with our colleagues all that much outside of meetings?

(Note: I have painted a deliberately bleak picture of faculty separated from one another [though this *is* mostly what I see on my campus] to make my point and do acknowledge that there are departments/colleges/ universities where this is not the norm.)

Some administrator colleagues at my home institution and elsewhere have taken the stick (as opposed to carrot) approach to this lack of faculty cohesion: insisting that faculty be in their offices a certain number of hours per week, creating course schedules that bring faculty to campus 4 or 5 days a week, etc.  I don’t find much merit in these approaches.  They are interpreted as punitive and if they are intended to promote cohesion and collaboration, I suspect they will fail.  Faculty will simply punch the required clock and then leave campus.  Simply being required to be in your office does not necessarily mean that you will talk to the colleague next door about a new project.

No, instead, as I often am, I am more about the carrot than the stick.  More about quality than quantity.  While the cohesiveness of departments or units will invariably be a function of personalities, other responsibilities outside of work (childcare, for example), and personal preferences, I still maintain that it is important to create spaces and times where departments come together for more than just meetings.  Now, fear not, I’m not proposing (though I used to jokingly threaten my department with this when I was a chair) some scary team building retreat.  I’ve been in academe long enough to know how poorly that would go over.

But I have learned that the common denominator of food and drink can make an enormous difference.  A space to have a cup of coffee and cookie or a space to gather and eat lunch can have small, but remarkable, effects on a work space more generally.  When I was a department chair I instituted a weekly coffee chat (detailed here).  Senior faculty, adjuncts, and tenure-track colleagues would stop by, chat, and move on as their schedules demanded.  But it broke down barriers and encouraged casual conversations that often naturally, and without a meeting agenda guiding it, became discussions about teaching, curriculum, and research.  The kinds of conversations that you can’t artificially manufacture or script but that lead to collaborations and projects

This semester I will put my money where my mouth is and try a variation on this.  I’ve long wanted to bring together faculty from across my home college (Liberal Arts and Social Sciences) to discuss promoting the humanities.  You know how foreign language departments sponsor language tables where students and faculty gather to practice a certain language?  I want to try something similar for faculty where the “language” we are practicing is the humanities.

Past experience has taught me that two things will be important at the outset.  The first is food.  No, seriously.  We will need to meet over food and coffee.  Doing so relaxes people, creates a different atmosphere, and encourages a kind of sociability that a thing called a meeting doesn’t.  The second is the absence of a rigid agenda.  This goes against everything I’ve said previously about meetings.  But I think in this instance, the conversation should be more free-ranging.  It is okay for the meeting to have a purpose: bringing together like-minded colleagues to discuss promoting the humanities on campus.  But for at least the first few gatherings, I think there needs to be space for lower stakes conversations, getting to know one another, and just chatting.

I’ll let you know how it goes.