The landscape of higher ed these days can be pretty despair-inspiring. Admissions scandals, badly-behaved administrators, shrinking budgets and the like do much to demoralize. As these challenges and crises play out on individual campuses, anxieties mount, tensions flare, and we are often not our best selves. And curiously, the structural patterns and organizing principles of higher ed do much to exacerbate this.
Perhaps ironically, given its origin story as an institution that evolved from corporations of students and teachers, the post-modern university has become a highly atomized environment. We speak of and suffer from the compartmentalization of silo-ed departments and colleges. And this fragmentation reaches all the way down to the faculty and shapes their behavior as well. A 2014 study found that faculty spent an average of 57% of their time working alone. Some of this isolation derives from where and how we work—on weekends, in coffee shops. Some of it derives from our academic disciplines: my own, history, is driven by the model of the solo researcher (though that is slowly changing). And further, as a system, higher ed encourages faculty to think in highly individualized terms. Faculty talk in terms of “my course” and “my syllabus” and “my research.” I am currently reading Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking and part of her thesis is how the competitive funding structure and tenure and promotion processes of academe pit us against one another in potentially unproductive ways.
Some of this independence or separation has its place and serves worthy functions. But I do believe that in times of crisis it doesn’t always serve us well. If anything, I think that those who would undermine or subvert the nobler aims of higher education (educating and empowering students, creating knowledge, faculty governance, etc) benefit from, and perhaps sometimes even capitalize on, our atomization and separation from one another. It is easier to drive a wedge when there is space between people or units where that wedge can fit.
With that in mind, I believe there are small steps we can take to push back against a system that would isolate us and turn us into competitors with each other. I am going to put aside—for the moment—large-scale ideas about big projects where we can and should cooperate and collaborate and systemic changes that would work against a competitive rewards system. Instead, I am going to say that we should just show up and be there for one another.
Obvious, right? Not necessarily. I read this article about supporting the emotional needs of junior faculty with a combination of head-nodding (“yes, yes, we should do this”) and head-shaking (“what the hell? Why aren’t we already doing this?”).
And I mean being here and showing up for each other in its most basic sense. Go to your colleague’s presentation at the local library. Throw someone a little party when their book gets published. Thank a staff member in a department outside your own for something they’ve done that makes your life easier. Create community where there was none before. A few years ago I started a very small online writing group with some colleagues who lived all over the country. I had some self-serving reasons: I had a writing project I needed to finish and I knew I needed accountability. But I also drew together this group of friends because I suspected they would be good for one another and benefit from the opportunity. Two and a half years later, we’re still going strong. Sometimes we touch base about writing projects, but we have also morphed into a group that offers all other kinds of professional and personal support.
And I also believe strongly that we have to extend these efforts beyond the obvious beneficiaries like the friends we already have at our institutions. Go to the retirement party of the colleague you didn’t always agree with. Send an email to congratulate the colleague you don’t know terribly well who just won an award. Treat your co-workers as people who, just like you, have complicated lives. Examine long-standing practices and traditions that may, in fact, work to the disadvantage of those on the vulnerable side of a power differential. For example, the Psychology Department at UCLA recently discontinued the unspoken expectation that PhD students bring refreshments to their dissertation defense. Build connective tissue between you and your peers. A few years ago two of my fellow deans created an opportunity for all of the deans to get together on a monthly basis. We are a group that, given the funding models and other circumstances at our institution, should be fighting with one another over resources. Instead, these gatherings have made us more collaborative and collegial. We still represent and protect our respective units, but we do so with more care and concern for each other than we might have otherwise.
Even as I write these words, I worry that they are painfully obvious. Or that you’ll think I’m being a Pollyanna. And certainly big structural change is necessary to make higher ed a better place for all of us. But, as readers of this blog will know, I also try to think about what we can do in the moment, while we fight these larger battles. And certainly, I am more inclined to slay those dragons if someone’s worked alongside me collaboratively, noticed my efforts, or just said a kind word to me.