We can do anything in order to get it done.

We can do anything in order to go on to the next thing.

And we can do anything in a way that reaches for transcendence.

I played pool today for an hour and a half, after a couple of hours yesterday as well, both days on my own. I haven’t played much lately, mostly because I’ve been writing so much but also because I lost all my partners when I moved to Vermont. There’s one poolroom in the entire state, a couple of hours away. There are a couple of people here in town whom I can persuade to play once in a while, but they don’t play for the same reasons I do.

I play pool and write fiction because they are, for me, the most reliable sources of a state that I can only describe as transcendent. Losing concern for myself and my capabilities or lack thereof. Losing concern over “correct” outcomes, and paradoxically generating better outcomes than I could ever have otherwise approached.

And although I don’t do it anymore, teaching used to be that way for me as well. I taught in the humanities, mostly, and so wasn’t responsible for ensuring that students could reliably graph x = 3y – 9. Instead, we talked about big ideas. I gave what could only plausibly be called a sermon, and then we worked our way through what some intelligent person had written.

When we imagine that education has outcomes (which it should), we attempt reliable sequences for achieving them. But when we imagine instead that education is a daily experience (which it is), we craft moments of heightened, collective attention that are their own justification.

I would like to make the case that undergraduate education, as preparation for meaningful adult lives which include but are not limited to our jobs, should focus far more fully on the connoisseurship of heightened, collective attention. Concerts, gallery exhibits, scientific experiment, great food… All things that lift us above ourselves and show us something greater. Leave the job training for another day; college is about something different. And I believe, with some evidence from personal experience and from psychological research, that focusing on the quality of the experience gets us more effectively and more reliably to skills than focusing on the skills themselves ever does.

I want a pool monastery, where the likeminded can gather to use our simple tools for greater good. I want a college that heightens the daily joys of life, without regards to the amassing of credits or the blessings of some disciplinary accrediting body. I want transcendence.

Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

Nope, not a vaudeville duo. Rather, an 1887 division of social-group types by the German proto-sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies. Gemeinschaft (more or less meaning “community”) is a group of people who work to maintain bonds with one another, who know one another well enough that a sense of belonging matters for its own sake. Gesellschaft (more or less meaning “society”) has to do with social organizations that are instrumental in nature, relating to one another more through roles (shopkeeper, customer, supervisor) within which individuals are interchangeable.

Gemeinschaft, one might imagine, places limits on the size of community that can actually sustain those bonds of affection and collegiality. The K-12 school reform leader Deborah Meier used to talk about what she called the 20/20 school—20 teachers, each with 20 students. At that scale, everybody knows everybody. Once you’re up to the size of the University of Alabama, there’s nothing to hold a sense of community together except football.

With 20 million people involved in higher ed, we’re naturally going to be employing some pretty mighty economies of scale. Even my gargantuan alma mater Berkeley, at more than 35,000 students, has got plenty of room to grow to reach the University of Minnesota (about 51,000 students on campus) or Ohio State (58,000). And once you get up to the level of a system, like SUNY (470,000 students) or Cal State (460,000), you’ve moved well into the world of gesellschaft relations. A world in which raw economic calculus demands cheap labor, with no room for intervening affection to humanize decisions.

Back in the day, my dad worked in a huge factory. One afternoon in the late 1960s, 800 men were laid off at a single stroke, two weeks before Christmas. It took him almost a year to get another job, at a little machine shop that employed a dozen men. On the day he was hired, the owner pointed to a tree in the back lot, and said, “That’s for guys who talk about starting a union.” But with twelve people and one owner, there was never any need. He made more money, and had more fun, working at Michigan Machine Tool than he ever did at Continental Motors.

How many of the problems we face in higher ed are really problems of scale? More on that to come.

A Job I Can’t Imagine Wanting

I have two good friends who have both recently become college presidents. One visited last weekend. And as part of a long and wide-ranging dinner conversation with her and her family, blessedly little of which was about higher ed, she did happen to mention that she’d discovered how much money her school spends on the athletic department. “For that kind of money, we ought to be doing better,” she said.

And that little interchange, twenty seconds or so, illuminated perfectly for me exactly why I have never wanted to be a college president. I mean, I’m not especially interested in real estate, or in negotiations with the community over contributions to the fire department and EMTs who respond to campus events. I’ve never wanted to be responsible for women’s soccer or men’s golf. I’ve never wanted to run a private police department, a health center, a sexual assault response team, a legal department, an advertising department. I’ve never wanted to manage a server farm and network, a campus bus system, an off-campus travel system, an insurance agency. I went into higher ed because I was selfish, because I wanted to be a teacher and a writer, because those things mattered to me. I can’t imagine giving all that up, really for the rest of my life, to wrangle about corporate branding and trustee relations.

And, I mean, thank god somebody’s willing to do it. Someone has to tend the machine, has to make sure that the parts are properly synchronized and lubricated, the worn or defective parts replaced. But what a job! And especially what a job for someone who was trained as a scholar, who made his or her mark through close and careful focus to their own students, to their own research, tending their own intellectual garden in rich detail.

I’d rather have a scholar running my college than a banker or a venture capitalist or a lawyer. But what a massive sacrifice it is, when you do it for the right reasons.



Wait, what?

One of the joys of being on my small community’s selectboard is that you never know what the next meeting is going to bring. Buy 440 cubic yards of gravel? No problem. The ATV club wants permission to operate four-wheelers on North Street? Sure, we’ll consider that. Property tax rates, counting votes, painting the cemetery sign, we got it all covered.

And right now, we’re looking to hire a maintenance worker for our highway crew. (Applications close Monday 8/15, get your materials in soon… Come on, you think you’re getting a faculty job? Get ready to be a plow truck driver.) And one of the applicants, under the kind of equipment he knew how to operate, included the fact that he could run a backo.

backhoeI love that. A backhoe (this thing on the right, sometimes called a bucket loader, depending on which end you’re looking at) is the ubiquitous piece of light construction equipment that every town and every landscape contractor and every utility company owns. And when you say it on a Vermont jobsite, it totally sounds like “backo.”


I work with a lot of faculty on writing instruction, and invariably someone will complain about how badly their students spell. And I always try to explain that our students have grown up with auditory media, with TV and YouTube and text spelling, and they just don’t have as much experience as we do in looking at words on a page. Whereas I have read millions and millions of words that I can define and spell but can’t pronounce.

This is the fate of the self-raised scholar (excuse me, the autodidact). We are perpetual prodigies, overachievers, always playing above our level and always knowing we could be caught out as impostors at any moment. And one of the traps we’ll catch ourselves in is mispronouncing some word in a way that labels us as rubes. We’ve read it, we know it, but we don’t hang out with people who use it in conversation, and so we may never have heard it.

So here’s a quick pronunciation quiz. Don’t look at the bottom, play it fair, and see if you’re fit for the faculty lounge.

ITEM A: The word “hegemony” is pronounced:

  1. HEDGE-a-money
  2. HEGG-a-money
  3. huh-GEM-uh-knee

ITEM B: Your college’s president is throwing a “gala.” Does that most closely rhyme with:

  1. paila? (as in, “We’re gonna need another paila joint compound up here, Larry!”)
  2. holla? (as in, “Yo, Larry, holla back when you get this!”)
  3. palla? (as in, “Yeah, Larry’s an old palla mine from way back.”)

ITEM C: Someone writes that your research is “sui generis.” When you read that to your dissertation chair, you pronounce it:

  1. swee generous
  2. soo-eye gun-AIR-is
  3. soo-ee je-NAIR-is
  4. soo-eye generous

Scoring: The last answer in each list is preferred. If you didn’t get three for three, we have an opening on the road crew. (An extra point if you know that different syllables are emphasized in hegemony and hegemonic.)

Ready to be a dandelion?

I’ve just been pointed to science fiction writer Cory Doctorow’s blog post in which he claims that the characteristics of intellectual work in the Internet age (ease of duplication and transmission, immediacy of reach, lack of reader focus and followthrough, an immense ocean of choices) means that artists of all stripes need to stop thinking like mammals and start thinking like dandelions.

My own job title is Director of Metaphor, so I’m immediately taken with the audacity of this idea.

His argument is as follows.

  1. Mammals have scarce young. Each one represents a vast investment of time and attention. If one of them doesn’t make it, it’s tragic.
  2. Dandelions have thousands and thousands of seeds, looking for any opportunity to take root and get fertilized. If one of them doesn’t make it, it’s no big deal.
  3. The modern media environment is a dandelion-friendly environment.

I shall now quote, thereby doing my part to spread Doctorow’s seedlings (eight years after the fact):

Dandelions and artists have a lot in common in the age of the Internet. This is, of course, the age of unlimited, zero-marginal-cost copying. If you blow your works into the net like a dandelion clock on the breeze, the net itself will take care of the copying costs. Your fans will paste-bomb your works into their mailing list, making 60,000 copies so fast and so cheaply that figuring out how much it cost in aggregate to make all those copies would be orders of magnitude more expensive than the copies themselves.

What’s more, the winds of the Internet will toss your works to every corner of the globe, seeking out every fertile home that they may have — given enough time and the right work, your stuff could someday find its way over the transom of every reader who would find it good and pleasing.

A lovely idea. No words about income or anything, but still, nice to be noticed. Artist Dies of Exposure, and all that…

It takes some degree of bravery to just give work away, whether through a blog or through adjunct teaching or through posting your novel online. It also takes some significant and unspoken degree of privilege, because your bank is not going to accept a big pile of “like”s and “+1″s when the mortgage is due. I “like” my bartender, too, but I still have to give her six dollars for a pint of IPA. And that requires income, income that the dandelion model is deeply shy of for its individual seedlings (or, in intellectual terms, content providers).

I’ll close with the opposing viewpoint, from the New York Times and Tim Kreider (who presumably got paid for writing this):

Thanks very much for your compliments on my [writing/illustration/whatever thing you do]. I’m flattered by your invitation to [do whatever it is they want you to do for nothing]. But [thing you do] is work, it takes time, it’s how I make my living, and in this economy I can’t afford to do it for free. I’m sorry to decline, but thanks again, sincerely, for your kind words about my work.

Feel free to amend as necessary. This I’m willing to give away.


Another Burden of Administrative Life

I have half a dozen experiences a day that convince me all over again why I’m grateful to not be an administrator in higher education any more. But a new one occurred to me today. Or rather, over the past couple of weeks but they coalesced into an idea today.

As scholars, we are rewarded for (and probably choose our paths because of) our obsessiveness. We get the methods exactly right. We run the data set a dozen times because something just feels funny about it. We search out that last reference, go through the bibliography again to make sure that we’ve italicized and dated everything correctly, craft that sentence a third time to make it musical and not merely clear. We craft the sequence of the semester to make it an aesthetic experience instead of a pile of testable ideas.

As administrators, not only do we have way too many projects to do any of them as well as we want, we also have to get them done through the proxy of colleagues who are occasionally neither as talented nor as diligent as we might hope. This is the universal fate of any manager, of course, but a particularly galling step for managers who are most comfortable as intellectual perfectionists.

One of the great learnings of any administrator—and perhaps the hardest one to master—is to let things go out the door when they’re not quite as ready as you’d hope. You can’t be the last resort, finishing everyone else’s job to your own standards, because you simultaneously make yourself crazy and hinder their growth. You either have to turn it back to them and say “this is unacceptable, here’s why, here’s what you need to do, and I have to have it back in 48 hours…” or you have to sigh and let it go.

And that’s emotionally difficult, because it’s YOUR department or YOUR school or YOUR university… and you feel the pressures of having your reputation carried at least in part on the shoulders of others.

Here’s a one-item test to see if you’re ready to be an administrator. Think of a project you have responsibility for, and say the words—out loud—”it’s good enough.” If it makes you cringe even a little bit to say that, you should avoid administrative life, as it will be a poison to your system.

Sectarian Violence

The comedian Emo Phillips performed a routine (click that link) that has been voted the greatest religious joke ever written.

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God?”

He said, “Yes.” I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?”

He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.”

I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him over.

When you go for your job interview, you will face exactly this risk. PhD in psychology? That’s exactly what we’re looking for. Developmental psychology or social psychology? Great! Social psychology in a quantitative or qualitative approach? Terrific!! Quantitative social psychology with a focus on identity or deviance? Oh… thanks for coming by.

And you can’t be Switzerland and claim neutrality, because then everybody will mistrust you. If you’re not allied, you can’t join any club. So you have to put yourself out there and fly your flag, knowing that it will draw fire from any passing members of other tribes.

Free Agent

I just saw Michael Moore’s movie Where to Invade Next with some friends on Saturday night. It’s a terrific movie, as he usually delivers, though not I think as powerful as Roger & Me or Bowling for Columbine. But one of the ideas that he hopes to “colonize” for America is control on our culture of overwork. He talked with an Italian couple who each have approximately eight weeks of paid leave per year, between vacation and public holidays. He talked with Italian factory owners who support that model of labor sanity, and manage to remain profitable within it. And he discussed another nation (I don’t remember whether it was France or Germany) in which workers are not expected to be available by phone or e-mail after working hours or on weekends.

I wholeheartedly support this concept. Our grandfathers fought in the streets for forty-hour weeks; we should honor their spirits and their goals.

But we don’t, and so salaried workers in every field regularly put in ten and twenty and more unpaid hours of work (!!!!) every week, struggle to hold a single day for themselves and their families rather than two. Honest, let’s think about this. If you’re salaried, you’re expected to essentially WORK FOR FREE for the equivalent of a quarter or more of your paid time. Sorry, that’s just nuts.

When I was a kid, my dad was in the machinist’s union at his factory. I come from union stock. I come from an era where labor was protected, and we kind of fended for ourselves as consumers. Now those roles have utterly reversed. We are demanding and easily led consumers, sucking up low-cost goods produced everywhere. And in return for that, we have made the too-often-unspoken bargain to leave ourselves to the wolves as producers. We all have those two roles, you know… we make, and we consume. And we privilege which to protect.

I’m thinking of this in respect to faculty life. The model of workforce protection we most often claim is individual, through the mode of tenure and intellectual freedom. I can say what I want, and if I do it with sufficient quality to be peer reviewed, my employer can’t retaliate against me. Awesome. Yay for that. But we do a terrible job in higher ed of looking out for one another. We abuse our graduate students, we have a massive and poorly paid contingent workforce. We academics are trained to see ourselves as free agents, working in isolation and responsible only to the grail of intellectual truth. So it’s every man (and occasionally woman) for himself out there in the academic labor world.

And when those isolated, lone scholars become administrators, do they suddenly become more community-minded? If they do, they’re swimming upstream against all of their training, against the culture that surrounds them. There are very few forces that lead us to common good in higher ed, and tons that lead us to scattered self-interest.


A colleague recently shared with me a model of triage that comes from public health management. The model posits that 80% of people with a problem will come through it just fine; 15% will need some special attention to manage their specific context; and 5% will be in real crisis.

Hold that thought.

Another colleague recently shared with me an experience of writing a grant proposal on her own area of scholarship, but including her department chair as co-author because of larger curricular ramifications of the project. The chair did virtually none of the work, but whatever, that’s the political things you have to do. The proposal was not funded. A new dean was hired for that division, that dean has put pressure on department chairs to get more proposals out the door, and so now this department chair is writing a grant proposal—on his own—that’s based on my friend’s scholarship and the earlier proposal that my friend created.

Hold that thought.

Another colleague recently shared with me her experience at a strongly unionized college of dealing with a truly unhinged faculty member, a conspiracy theorist of the fullest Alex Jones pedigree. That faculty member has now filed a grievance against my friend for requesting that any future meetings be in the presence of a third party.

Okay. Got all three? Let’s put them together.

Eighty percent of your colleagues are going to be perfectly lovely, graceful, generous people. Funny, intelligent, good to be around. You’ll forget that, because your time will be taken up in dealing with the others. Please don’t fall prey to the exhausted belief that “all of my co-workers are crazy.” Most of them are not; they’re just the quiet ones who don’t e-mail you six times a day in all-caps. You lose sight of the good ones, but they’re everywhere.

Fifteen percent of your colleagues, like my friend’s department chair, are probably reasonable and rational people who are momentarily off the rails, usually because of unseen pressures we can’t know. Whether externally rooted (a sick child, a failing marriage, a recent diagnosis) or internally rooted (the demands of a dean, an accreditor, a president), our goodwill is subject to occasional and usually temporary disability. So that 15% is a shifting cast of players… they’ll fall back into the 80% pool of reasonable colleagues soon enough, to be replaced by another temporary 15% dealing with a brief crisis of their own.

But five percent have real problems. Malicious, paranoid, narcissistic people for whom non-collegiality is the baseline mode, the default setting. These people will eat your time, will never be reasonable, will always manufacture problems where no problem ever existed. (And in a complex mathematical relationship, our dealings with them will make us into a 15-percenter, momentarily unhinged and unbalanced.)

Policy manuals are written largely in response to the 5%. Those people take on massive proportions in our psychic representation, they become malicious giants in our minds when really they’re just biting flies. Figure out strategies for identifying and avoiding them. When you can’t avoid them, bring your 80% to bear upon them.

And think deliberately about how you can manifest the joys and pleasures of being one of the 80%, to make your colleagues’ lives just a smidge better rather than a little more difficult.

The Bright Side of Office Politics

I used to work pretty hard at managing upward—saying the same thing, gently, to my provost or president enough times to eventually hear those ideas come from them as though they’d just thought them up. You can take credit for the work, or you can get the work done.

From The Office to Dilbert to Parks and Rec, the comedy of office politics has developed its stock characters:

  • a preening, oblivious manager;
  • a scheming but insecure underling always on the lookout for self-advancement;
  • half a dozen colorful eccentrics who just keep their heads down but get dragged into things anyway; and
  • the well-meaning, heart-of-gold naif who acts as the audience’s surrogate, trying to do the right thing but never certain exactly how.

Not unlike Gilligan’s Island, in fact.

So, you know, wouldn’t it be nice if we could all just go in and do our jobs and not have to deal with all of this other stuff? Well, no, I actually think it’d be pretty awful. There are a handful of things that we can do on our own with no outside influence. Woodworking, for instance. Writing. Gardening. Those are all lovely things, but if we skew too strongly to only those practices, we become hermits, unwilling and unable to enter the fray of the interpersonal world.

Most of the things we do involve collective effort; we have to work with others in order to get them done. And since we don’t have USB cords going directly between brains, we all have slightly different definitions of the problem, and slightly different goals for its resolution, and slightly different work lives that we have to fit this collective problem into, and pretty soon the team is pulling in twelve different directions at once.

If we think of office politics as a competition to be won or lost, our workplace will rapidly become bitter and secretive. If we leave someone out of the decisionmaking, they’ll find a way to subtly resist the enterprise.

But (to reach back to my Lutheran upbringing), what if we saw office politics as a vessel for grace? As an opportunity to leave aside willfulness, to exercise gratitude, to offer generosity? What if we learned to say, regularly, thank you… good idea… go for it… let me help… what do you think? What if we didn’t always have to be the smartest person in the room? What if we didn’t always have to raise the subtle, oppositional nuance?

Every day, we all have the opportunity to turn down the snark-ometer. We have the opportunity to make someone else’s life a little easier. We have the opportunity to leave our little cubby and come out to see what the larger organization is up to. Office politics is inevitable any time there’s interpersonal work to be done; the tone of those politics, though, is under our control.