GenX women in higher ed from around the globe

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The Classroom as Oasis

In Uncategorized on 2014/01/28 at 00:28

The last few weeks at my university have seen the usual busyness that comes with the end of the semester amplified by a lot of change. We’ll be having a change in leadership in my college in the near future. The close of the spring semester brings elections for new committee members and chairs, but with those groups working on some fairly high-stakes projects, the expected elections are raising questions and anxieties more than is typical.

And this roiling doesn’t even begin to take into account the conversations we’re having that engage the bigger changes and trends in higher education which are themselves raising questions and anxieties:  how do we create a sustainable model for affordable college education that provides students with individualized opportunities for learning and growth?  how do we weigh the benefits and dangers of online education?  how do we manage the imbalance and inequality in faculty labor?

In other words, we’re living in interesting times.  It can be hard not to take all of this into the classroom, but at the same time I sometimes think of that space as a refuge.

It might seem a bit odd to think of the classroom as an oasis of any kind.  There are deadlines, demanding assignments, fear of failure, the occasional struggle to convince people (not just students, anyone) that your idea of a good read isn’t as crackpotted as it might seem (come on, you know you liked Tristram Shandy more than you thought you would, right?).  There are those of us who fall behind on scheduled discussions and readings and revise our syllabi several times over the course of the semester (so, wait, what’s due on Monday?).  There are assignments that seemed like a good idea at the time of conception only to reveal themselves to be utterly unworkable in execution.  For better or worse, classroom life and practice can be a nonstop series of quick time events.

If you were to look at my GCal, you’d see lots of red.  Red is the color code I use for “meetings and colleagues.”  Especially now, as we’re wrapping up a number of initiatives related to assessment, curricular change, plus the conversations about future planning that need to happen so we can hit the ground running in the fall — well, there’s a lot of hard landscape.  Hard landscape is how landscape architects refer to construction materials:  the necessary elements that build and structure the space.  If we compare meetings and planning events and scheduled time to hard landscape (as is done in that article I link out to above), we can see we need these elements to manage our work and move it forward.

Soft landscape, on the other hand, consists of the actual stuff that grows in a landscape:  plants, flowers, trees, lawn.  The stuff that makes it beautiful, that makes that garden someplace you want to sit and think and daydream.  The stuff that makes it an oasis.  People who talk about leadership say you need soft landscape in your calendar, too:  those loose, informal, visioning-type moments where you can be creative and forward-thinking.  But if I’m looking at my day, and seeing the places where I can breathe and think freely and engage in unexpected and imaginative ways, a lot of the time those places are the rooms and hours where I’m teaching.

The soft landscape of teaching is an oasis, a place where things grow and are beautiful and vibrant.  It’s a place where the design isn’t always immediately apparent, but it’s there.  There might be meandering, but there is definitely a path, and that path might lead you to a vista or a quiet space for reflection.  Before I sound too touchy-feely and in love with my own metaphor, I’ll remind myself that this also takes work:  digginguntil the muscles hurt, emerging from the work filthy, doing battle with bugs and weeds, responding to temperature and weather.  I’m sure you can think of moments in your own teaching over the last few weeks where it felt less like wandering through lush flowerbeds and more like digging in the muck, rushing to save something delicate just hit by frost, swatting at midges.

I think that harder work is worth it, though, to keep that oasis and keep it growing.  I had one of these moments this past week, teaching Virginia Woolf’s “A Mark on the Wall,” something the students and I always struggle with.  This time it worked, and we made a generative, exciting conversation out of the text.  So I’m going to give Woolf the last word:  her imagining in the short piece “Kew Gardens” of a landscape imbued with vision:  “Thus one couple after another with much the same irregular and aimless movement passed the flower-bed and were enveloped in layer after layer of green blue vapour, in which at first their bodies had substance and a dash of colour, but later both substance and colour dissolved in the green-blue atmosphere…Voices. Yes, voices. Wordless voices, breaking the silence suddenly with such depth of contentment, such passion of desire, or, in the voices of children, such freshness of surprise.”

Chester, Pennsylvania in the US.

Janine Utell is Chair and Associate Professor of English at Widener University and a regular contributor at University of Venus. She can be reached by email; follow her on Twitter @janineutell.

What the Food Network Can Teach Us about Feedback

In Janine's Posts on 2013/01/26 at 08:26
Janine Utell, writing from Chester, Pennsylvania in the US.

I’m not a big television watcher, especially when baseball is in the off-season, but I am a Food Network junkie. This semester, my rethinking feedback (how to give it, what it should focus on, how it contributes to the conversation of a course) while also watching “Chopped” and “Next Iron Chef: Redemption” got me noticing how the programming on the channel is actually focused a lot on giving feedback. We think of cooking channels as providing opportunities for teaching — most of what fills out the daytime schedule, with attractive people in even more attractive kitchens preparing meals that even YOU can make at home with a $5 budget and a $5,000 set of appliances — but the Food Network has shows — especially in prime-time, where the competitive edge comes out — that actually take grading as their emphasis.

My conclusion after much Food Network watching is this:  There are two types of feedback available to chefs, and possibly also ordinary people like students and faculty:  failure-based, with an eye towards exposing weakness and asserting authority; and facilitative, with an eye towards building skills and creating opportunities for growth.

The first  category, failure-based, might be seen in shows like “Chopped” and “Iron Chef.”  Here the work takes place in a cutthroat and competitive environment:  “Iron Chef” is even set in a place called “Kitchen Stadium.”  Chefs who do not complete their timed tasks with weird ingredients (example:  make an entree out of gummy worms, venison, savoy cabbage, and instant grits) will be “chopped,” finding their pathetic attempts at originality, even edibility, rejected by judges who consider with a cold eye “whether they have what it takes.”  The public critique on these shows features fault-finding with the ultimate goal being elimination.

The second category, facilitative, might be seen in shows like “Worst Cooks in America” and “Next Food Network Star.”  Here, chefs work with contenders in a teacher-student mentoring relationship, often in a one-on-one setting targeting individual strengths and weaknesses. Contenders are given challenges, again involving timed tasks and weird ingredients, and are given feedback as part of the same kind of  public critique.  Along with this, however, are extensive conversations with chefs as teachers/mentors suggesting ways to improve and highlighting potential.

It is interesting to note that  “Next Food Network Star” did not used to follow this teaching model.  In its original incarnations, it operated more in the failure-based category; but last season, the format was changed wherein a “star” currently working on the network was paired with a contender as his/her “producer,” and was responsible for mentoring said contender into a finalist position.  Not only is the growth and improvement of the contender at stake; the producer/mentor celebrity chef is held accountable for the extent to which her contender succeeds.  It’s not just the wannabe chef who gets judged:  the celebrity chef is judged equally on whether or not she is a good teacher.  Even “Worst Cooks in America,” which sounds judgmental on the face of it, takes as its starting point the belief that everyone is teachable with the right teacher:  you might have accidentally given your family food poisoning with your tuna noodle casserole, but with the right feedback, guidance, and practice you can do better, possibly even well.

In both cases the standards and expectations are high, but facilitating learning and constructive work means giving the feedback that might enable someone to meet them.  I’m struck by the tension between these two impulses, because it strikes me as not unlike my own work.  Is our job in giving feedback to reward the excellent and punish the weak?  Do I approach the giving of feedback from a failure-based standpoint, or from a commitment to be facilitative?  In higher ed teaching in general, and in the work we might do as faculty and administrators, what seems to be the dominant mode of thinking about student and faculty work?

At the conclusion of this semester, I made a commitment to be more facilitative up until the very end, sort of like the adjustment described in this ProfHacker post:  not just judging the final product of a course but thinking about where that student might be in a few weeks at the start of the spring semester and beyond.  The “mind hack” described by Lincoln Mullen is about keeping that process-oriented approach up to the end of the semester and beyond; facilitation doesn’t end with a paper deadline.  At the end of it all, students might not be celebrity chef quality, but hopefully, I taught them how to create a few new and exciting dishes that won’t poison anyone.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Being Present, Taking Time

In Janine's Posts on 2013/01/08 at 03:42

Janine Utell, writing from Chester, Pennsylvania in the US.

One chilly day in November, with a few morning hours surprisingly free of meetings or classes, I decided to stay home later into the day than usual due to what felt like an impending sinus infection (thereby putting the lie to all my fantasies of omnipotence). I lead a book discussion group on women’s life writing at a local public library, and in honor of election season our selection this month was Janny Scott’s A Singular Woman, the biography of Barack Obama’s mother Stanley Ann Dunham. I was inspired by her story, the life of an iconoclastic woman who was able to balance academia and activism, who began her days writing before dawn and kept a bustling household full of intellectuals in Indonesia.

Despite my appreciation for this unconventional woman, when I got to feeling antsy after several hours of reading, I decided to take advantage of the unusual hours at home to do something pretty conventional: some light housekeeping. I don’t know about you, but housekeeping is not high on my list of priorities; I do what needs to be done to keep total squalor at bay and not much else, especially in the middle of the fall semester. So I washed the kitchen floor, de-toxed the bathroom, watered the plants, and thought about Stanley Ann Dunham and what I might say about her.

Over the course of my chores, I thought less about my reading and started to realize there was something kind of satisfying about making sure things were tidy. Now, have no fear — my installments for University of Venus are not going to turn into “Hints from Heloise” (useful as they are: the seltzer and Tide stick I keep in my desk drawer for sudden laundry emergencies have benefited students and colleagues as much as myself, and for a last resort there’s always the extra scarf to cover up the coffee stain that mysteriously appears on the shoulder of your ivory sweater). What came to mind in the hour or so I snatched to order my apartment was that making sure your space is livable is a way of being present. And it’s this reminder of the necessity of being present that we (I) might need at this point in the semester.

Kathleen Norris writes in Acedia and Me: A Marriage, Monks, and A Writer’s Life that sometimes our inability to be present fills our lives with torpor, plunging us into a depressed state and rendering us incapable of doing anything fulfilling, or even appreciating the ordinary beauty that surrounds us. Acedia means in Greek “the lack of care,” but it is hard to really capture the nuances in English: torpor, lassitude, apathy, sloth, melancholia. In a state of acedia, a person might feel that the simplest rituals of everyday life are meaningless: why make my bed if I’m just going to get into it again and mess it up? Instead of seeing ordinary order-keeping as a gift to the self that makes life livable, she might see these as insufferably meaningless, Sisyphean tasks that only serve to exemplify the pointlessness of day to day existence and its routines. Instead of finding rhythm and ritual and structure — even beauty — in ordinary time, she finds herself wanting to leave time, incapable of moving forward or back while finding the present intolerably stultifying.

In the crush of the semester, especially (for many of us) with only a month or so to go, it can feel natural to experience the sensation of acedia: rounds of grading and troubleshooting, noticing that on yet another set of papers one has to make yet again the same comments. This is when I am actually most keen to get students into my office. My writing of this post comes at the end of a week of student conferences devoted to brainstorming topics for a final paper; the deadline is a month away, but everyone is already feeling a crunch — why should they think about something so far off when there are more pressing tasks at hand? Of course I want to nudge towards some early mindfulness of the work: I say, you’ll be more effective if you don’t wait till the last minute! Do your reading with an eye towards an interesting paper! Go back over your notes so far!

But these conferences are for me, too. Like a bright morning taken to make sure the floors are clean and the plants will live to see another day, the conferences, while forward-looking, are a time set aside to be present — to reflect on what we’ve done with an eye to the future. And like that found morning, the conferences are in some ways a gift to myself and my students, a moment to check in but also surprising in what those appointments reveal and how meaningful they can be. The students too have to pause and reflect on what they have learned, at a moment before they are (justifiably) too swamped to be thoughtful and intentional about it. They are surprised at their own insightfulness and creativity, and I have the opportunity to stop everything and do nothing but focus on that bright spot.

It can be hard to be present all the time, in the demands of the everyday and with many people to attend to; whether we build the time into our calendars or take it, embrace it, when it offers itself unexpectedly, it is necessary and its rewards are great. And even as I start to look back over a semester that is almost finished and see where I might have fallen short, and look ahead to projects for the break and courses to come, I value opportunities to be present in where I am now, and mindful of the students for whom I responsible. It is a kind of housekeeping of the mind and spirit that I am happy to make a priority.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.

Leadership Lessons from Mudwoman

In Janine's Posts on 2012/09/25 at 04:23
Janine Utell, writing from Chester, Pennsylvania in the US.

As we begin a new school year, I’m sure many of us are prompted to reflect on the challenges and opportunities ahead.  Perhaps you are taking on a new leadership role or confronting some other professional change which brings both anticipation and apprehension.  For those of you looking for answers or inspiration, might I suggest you turn to Joyce Carol Oates’ most recent novel Mudwoman?

Mudwoman tells the story of M.R. Neukirchen, a woman who has ascended the ranks of academia, overcoming tremendous personal obstacles, culminating in her being named the first female president of an unnamed Ivy League university, probably Princeton (long-renowned for its history of supporting and empowering women).  The novel has been reviewed by my University of Venus colleague Lee Skallerup over at her blog College Ready Writing, and in reading Lee’s piece, I was compelled to distill what I hope will be a few useful leadership lessons that resonated with me, especially as I reflect on my own first year as a department chair.
1.  Leadership requires you to look the part.  Invest in stylish shoes and a good haircut.

M.R., a philosopher, spent the earlier part of her academic career in braids.  Such frumpiness is not appropriate for a woman in her position of leadership, which seems to necessitate uncomfortable Italian shoes and expensive Manhattan haircuts.  Fortunately, M.R. has a peppy young woman assistant who knows about such things and is able to help her.  You might not have such a useful person in your life, but happily the Chronicle of Higher Education has devoted plenty of space to helping women leaders figure out how to dress (see here and here).

2.  To attain positions of leadership, you must be liked.

You might have a certain amount of willfulness, but learning to suppress it in favor of likability is a valuable strategy.  As Oates’ narrator (who seems to have a bit more insight into M.R. than the protagonist has herself, as well as a healthy sense of irony) says, “M.R. couldn’t bear for any employee–any member of her staff to feel uncomfortable in her presence…Her power over others was that they liked her.”  Be careful, though, because this strategy does have the potential to backfire; you might, for instance, go so far towards suppressing your willfulness in favor of likability that you hallucinate murdering one of your colleagues in your basement and dismembering his body.

3.  Always be someone that others can rely on both personally and professionally.

Make sure that people always know how to find you; it helps if you are never really anywhere other than your office or your sparsely furnished home, and even there if you spend most of your time in your bedroom or study hunched over a computer not eating or sleeping then you will always be available.  This availability extends to emotional availability as well:  “It was difficult for M.R. to betray weaknesses to her friends who looked to her for–uplift, encouragement, good cheer, optimism…”.   Always be strong, always be smiling, and if your stress starts to manifest itself in disturbing and itchy skin conditions, there’s always makeup.

4.  To reach the top of your profession, some personal sacrifices are necessary.

You might find yourself in the difficult position of telling your family that you don’t have time for them, or perhaps forgetting they exist altogether.  (This goes for your schizophrenic mother who tried to kill you by drowning you in mud when you were three years old as well as your perfectly pleasant adoptive parents who deep down really just wanted you to go to the local teacher’s college and stay in their podunk town forever but instead you had to act like you were better than everyone else and go to Cornell.)  You will definitely find yourself in the difficult position of turning down an assortment of unsuitable marriage proposals so you can remain in a dysfunctional long-distance affair for decades with an emotionally retarded astronomer who makes you feel like a wimp every time you think you might like to express some feelings.

5.  Women in leadership positions always have to work harder and better than anyone else, but it’s also good to just try to ignore the fact that you’re a woman altogether.

If you try to take controversial stances on issues facing our society, like war or the changing landscape of higher education, you might be considered naïve.  However, if you devote yourself to outdoing everyone in the kinds of invisible, unacknowledged, and usually unpaid service that allows universities to function and is often performed by women, you should be fine:  “M.R. exhibited a naïve willingness to be a good citizen…and so she was asked to chair committees, and to help organize conferences, and to advise students…Of course she was a workhorse—but an uncomplaining workhorse.”  Better to keep your head down, nose to the grindstone, etc.  Pretty soon you’ll forget you’re a woman at all, until you start having bizarre rape fantasies as punishment for your own nervous breakdown.  After all, “Not that femaleness was an issue, it was not.”

Finally, when all this better-faster-more completely devastates your emotional and mental well-being, you can always go home and be a caretaker to your aged father until you feel well enough to go back to your job at the start of the school year as though nothing had happened—after, of course, you narrowly escape an assault as you’re wandering around alone in an isolated state park.  Happy new semester.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Humanism and the Humanities: What It Means to be a Mentor

In Janine's Posts on 2012/06/07 at 00:07

Janine Utell, writing from Chester, Pennsylvania in the US.

My dissertation director died recently, and thanks to my proximity to New York I was able to attend his memorial service. A series of moving tributes from family and colleagues amplified what I already knew to be true about him: he was a committed teacher, an immensely learned and generous scholar, and he was always and constantly those things, whether lecturing at the local public library on the classics or leading graduate students through the labyrinth of Finnegans Wake.

In fact, the program for the service included an excerpt from his last book, an analysis of the Wake, Joyce’s own final work.  This struck me as remarkable, even more so than the stories and memories stretching back decades (some of them hilarious).  It was remarkable to me because it was the perfect illustration of who he was, and he was that person — scholar, teacher, generous sage — no matter what room or whose company he was in.  What better way to remember someone like that than to share his life’s work.

It got me thinking about what constitutes a life, and a life’s work.  My own research explores this question, but this was personal, and prompted by thinking about how this person set me on this path.  (Liana Silva has recently written eloquently about finishing her doctorate, so I’m glad to share what it looks like from the perspective of almost ten years out.)  We talk quite a bit about mentoring here, both on the University of Venus blog and in our #femleadchat, but I don’t think I would say my director was a mentor in the way we sometimes define it.  He didn’t really introduce me to anyone.  He didn’t help me particularly with networking.  I think he would have found the idea strange, and it never occurred to me to ask for anything like that.  There was no polishing of the CV.  I would send him dissertation chapters, and they would come back with some encouraging note scrawled across the top in red, and possibly a recommendation to read Muriel Spark or A. E. Housman.

But there was: singing during lectures whenever we came across a musical allusion in Joyce’s work.  A genuine delight in the news I got a job, and an excitement about the teaching I would be doing.  A calming of pre-defense freakout with the memorable “You know things. We’re just going to talk about what you know,” and a conviction that “things” was actually the deepest seeing into the heart of the human condition as well as a pretty good grasp of my field (or as good as could be expected from a 27-year-old, but hey, I’d get there).  An unshakeable belief that I knew what I was doing, that I knew my stuff, and someday I would share that with students in my classroom and other like-minded thinkers in my writing.

I did get a job, a job I love.  And I got something I now think is just as valuable.  (Disclaimer: I wouldn’t ever say having a job isn’t valuable, and I know I’m really lucky, and I am really, really grateful.)  It’s especially valuable — to me — in the context of rancorous discussion about whether the humanities are relevant or viable.

What I got from him was mentoring as a humanist.  He taught me how to be not a humanities Ph.D. but a humanist, and he showed me the worth and fulfillment of thinking of myself as part of a genealogy of humanists, in a tradition committed to asking big, meaningful questions and sharing and creating knowledge that shapes our world and ourselves.

This doesn’t mean the humanities Ph.D. doesn’t need fixing; it doesn’t mean these big questions can’t be asked and answered in new ways as the field changes and grows.  It does mean that, at least for me, sharing this lineage of humanistic endeavor in whatever form it might take is part of my commitment as a teacher and scholar.  It means as long as there are big questions to be asked and literature and art and history and philosophy to consider anew, we have to fight to keep those opportunities alive in our classrooms and in the public square.

My director mentored me in ways that matter deeply, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.  He taught me to be generous with ideas and knowledge, to offer confidence in the emerging thinking of young people ready and willing to be challenged by the search for meaning, to work always to share and build on what has come before.  He taught me there is always more to know and more to learn, but it means less if you don’t share it.  He taught me that sometimes it’s the quirks in the teacher that mean the most:  they come out when you’re most in love with what you’re doing, and that’s what it means to be human.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Tuning Out the Noise

In Janine's Posts on 2012/04/05 at 00:16

Janine Utell, writing from Chester, Pennsylvania in the US.

These days I’m a little obsessed with Moneyball, the book and the film. Michael Lewis’s story of the transformation of the Oakland A’s through data-driven decision-making and a commitment to rethinking the game even in the face of resistance from old-school scouts isn’t inspiring in the way we think of come-from-behind, underdog sports stories. The film nudges up against this trope a bit — Brad Pitt driving broodingly through a depressed Oakland that clearly needs a lift from the hometown team, scenes of late-inning home runs soaring through a night sky, fist pumps and embraces on the field — but it also captures the tension between those who seek to adapt in creative ways and those who want to cling to old methods and old myths.

Given my obsession (and a touch of hero-worship when it comes to Billy Beane), I was delighted to have a chance to attend a symposium held recently at the Villanova University School of Law (@VillanovaSELJ) with Beane, Omar Minaya and Jeffrey Moorad from the Padres, Phil Griffin of MSNBC, and former Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell (my livetweeting here; video from the School of Law here).  I learned about the inner workings of baseball management, but I also got some insight into the core values to be gleaned from Moneyball and how they might be applied to my approach to work.

According to Phil Griffin, these core values — what he learned from Moneyball and how he implemented them in his overhaul of MSNBC — are challenging authority while understanding your purpose and goals, and working with talented and experienced people who are willing to participate.  Discipline in following your philosophy is key.  I would say that collaborating in the work of formulating the philosophy, as well as sharing the discipline, are also important, but the point is to stay focused based on good information and adjust in the face of bad (or no) information.

Beane, in his comments, offered a caveat.  The problem with trying to stay focused on goals and purpose is noise.  Too much noise.  Baseball, Beane says, is a game full of noise.  Journalists telling you you’re doing it wrong.  Fans telling you you’re doing it wrong.  Scouts, managers, guys who believe in heart not numbers:  all telling you you’re doing it wrong.  Maybe you are doing it wrong.

Until you win some games.

If we can start to tune out some of the noise, we might be able to stay focused more effectively on our purpose.  We can concentrate on good information and the results and opportunities they can offer, rather than giving in to emotional responses or short-term stresses. (Anamaria Dutceac in her “Get Smarter” post here has great things to say along these lines.) David Rock in his Your Brain at Work talks about something similar, and gives some specific strategies for clearing out the static.  Imagine your brain as a stage, with you as the director.  All your worries and issues and uncertainties and problems—as well as your goals and hopes—are actors, and they reeaallly want their turn on stage.  They jostle and crowd for their turn.  They yell their lines and nudge and pester for a better spot.  As the director, you get to tell them what to do, and to be most effective you have to tell them that only one of them gets to be on stage at a time.  Everyone else has to clear off.  They have to shut up and let you get back to work.

I’m not talking about a hard-headed refusal to listen to reason, good sense, and helpful feedback offered in a spirit of generosity and collegiality.  These are necessary, and I value the people in my life who provide these things.  I hope I provide them for others.  I’m talking about the people and things, external forces and our own fears, worries, and distractions, that keep us from sticking to our plan.  Sometimes we really are doing it wrong, and hopefully someone wiser will step in to guide us.  But sometimes, too much noise in the short term—and paying too much attention to it—can keep us from achieving what we know will be good—for us, for our students, for our institutions—in the long term.

And sometimes, well, maybe sometimes whatever is making all that noise might need to be shouted down.

What are your noisemakers, and how do you tune them out?

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed

Teacher as Team Leader? Maybe

In Janine's Posts on 2012/01/23 at 08:28

Janine Utell, writing from Chester, Pennsylvania in the US.

In response to my last post, I received a thoughtful email from a colleague (an administrator) reflecting on the difference between managing and leading. This has been a theme for a lot of our on-campus professional development directed at faculty moving into administrative roles.

Managing is keeping things moving smoothly: scheduling meetings, making sure everyone has the agenda, generating reports that accurately reflect in a timely fashion the work of the unit.  These are tasks that help people feel like their ship has a rudder.  Managers structure people’s work lives by maintaining systems and rules.  Leading demands a more dynamic approach. Leading requires a vision that can be clearly and meaningfully articulated–a vision that other people can get behind because it is inspiring, forward-thinking, and in some way resonates with what they themselves have defined as their purpose or passion.  (You can read more about how this breaks down in business-speak/management theory here and here, and here as the distinction is applied to the work of chairs in community colleges from my trusty Women in Higher Ed.)

Of course I have some ambivalence about this. (I always have some ambivalence about this. I should have a T-shirt made.)  I’m an English professor and an advocate for the humanities: the corporatization of the university and the wholesale importation of managerial models and audit culture into higher education is, from my perspective, one of the most potent threats to what I do.   But as I’m thinking about the tasks confronting my department–a new assessment plan, a curricular review, a general sustaining of intellectual and professional well-being–I can see the need for balancing a get-it-done approach with a vision for why it should matter, even as the corporate-speak goes against my sense of professional identity and purpose and chafes my sensibilities.  It’s not enough to be able to schedule meetings and keep us all organized: a shared vision that makes sense and might possibly be inspiring–even on a day to day basis–is also necessary.

I’m thinking about what this means for me as a teacher, too.  And while I believe the humanities classroom should be a place where we focus on the big questions, the life-changing, mind-bending questions that matter, I also think part of my job is helping students get things done. I’d like them to see how they owe it to the amazing insights they’re having every day to figure out how to manage projects and time and energy, so those ideas can emerge and be shared. I think part of my work is to facilitate and model such a process.

So this past semester I thought a lot about how to translate some of what I’ve been learning as an “administrator” to my practice as a teacher, particularly in my work with two groups of students. One was a first-year writing course populated by humanities majors (English, fine arts, modern languages, history); the second was our senior seminar for English majors in their last year of coursework. (Pretty neat to work with students on both ends of the spectrum at the same time!) Both courses culminate in a major research project, so they require a continuously fine-tuned balance of independent work on the part of the student and intense hands-on guidance on the part of me, all designed around each individual writer in conjunction with the needs and direction of the group. (Heather Alderfer has a good U of Venus post here on how student research is being redefined.)

After the first set of conferences around midterm, several rounds of feedback on early drafts, and my request to the students for a mid-semester evaluation of my teaching, I was trying to figure out how to pull it all together. I knew from my evals that the students were happy with the feedback they were getting as they moved through the research and writing process, but I also knew that as we went on it would be difficult to synthesize all the comments, all the drafts, and really shape the work into a finished project. I started creating individual project reports for each writer, and then delivered the reports in class with a discussion of what we all thought the vision for the course as a whole might be in tandem with their specific work. With each round of comments, and each outbreak of writer’s block or performance anxiety or uncertainty about the direction of the project, I gave the detailed and concrete feedback that would move the project forward and address mental and logistical issues, but I also had numerous conversations individually and in groups about the purpose, the bigger picture of the work:  what does it mean to do research in the humanities?  what does it mean to ask big questions?  what place do these big questions have in our lives? what does it mean for you to imagine yourself as a thinker, a writer, a member of an intellectual community? (Another U of Venus writer, Juliann Emmons Allison, has a lovely post here on intense mentoring.)

I realized that if I think of myself as a project manager, or a team leader, then the students in the course become contributors to getting the work done, as well as to the overall vision of what we’re trying to do. It’s something we share, but it means we’re all responsible for fulfilling that vision, with all its manifold moving parts. My role is to manage, but it’s also to lead. Management theory types seem to suggest that managing vs. leading is a binary, with one a more desirable trait than the other.  In most areas of my work life, however, I’m finding a blend to be pretty productive.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed .

So it’s Sunday evening and I’m in my office on campus.

In Janine's Posts on 2011/10/24 at 00:09

Janine Utell, writing from Chester, Pennsylvania in the US.

I like being here when it’s unnervingly deserted. It’s a great time to make sure I’m up to speed on everything, and plan for the week ahead. I especially needed this time to regroup and catch up because of the way the previous week ended.

Not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with an obnoxious flurry of emails for which I would like to right now offer a public apology to all my colleagues. They are generous, patient, and I enjoy working with them. I don’t want them to dread seeing me in their inbox.

Why so many emails, you ask? Well, you don’t ask, really, because you know. It’s because I had to schedule meetings. As chair of both a department and a pretty active committee, I have to schedule meetings. I’m really bad at it. When my dean suggests that I have a future in administration (a topic for a later post), part of why I scoff is because someone as bad at scheduling meetings as I am should not be allowed to run anything.

A combination of frustration at my own utter failure to fulfill this most basic of obligations, and a week reading The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why it Matters by Benjamin Ginsberg, got me thinking about the ways I am potentially torturing my colleagues with tasks that take them away from what they think they should be doing as teachers and scholars, as well as their own heavy service obligations.

According to Ginsberg, part of the problem with higher ed today is a disconnect between how faculty and administrators perceive their respective missions. For professors, their primary purpose is research and teaching: the creation and dissemination of knowledge essential and enriching to the human endeavor and condition. For administrators, their primary purpose is to create an ever-expanding bureaucracy that encroaches on all areas of university work and life. Again, according to Ginsberg (who seems to have had some unpleasant workplace experiences in the past few years, and strikes me as something of a crank – but not completely incorrect in his assessments), administrators are more concerned with imagining new positions and titles for themselves, then demonstrating their necessity by coming up with retreats, task forces, strategic plans, and meetings, ever more meetings.

If this is what it means to be an administrator, then I’m afraid I’m not interested. (For more on what it means to be an “academic,” see this great U of Venus post by Liana Silva.) Barry Schwartz and Kenneth Sharpe in their book Practical Wisdom (which I wrote about for ProfHacker) talk about how meaningful work has to have purpose. For me, my purpose, my mission, is to find new ways of thinking about the human experience, and then find new ways of sharing that work: online forums; articles and books; and good, responsive, exciting teaching. I feel a strong connection with my discipline, and a bond with people at my institution and beyond who share that mission and that connection (even if they are in disciplines other than my own).

So I want to rethink the way I work in my administrative and governance capacities, perhaps thinking of what we’re doing in terms of being a “maker” rather than a “manager,” in Paul Graham’s terms. I started by asking colleagues for a wish list of questions people might ask before they schedule a meeting:

  • What is the point of the meeting? Is the agenda clear and reasonable?
  • Where is the agenda coming from? Do we own the work of the meeting?
  • Is this facilitating either the greater purpose of the department/committee, individual colleagues, or both?
  • Would it be quicker/more efficient/less painful to have a shorter meeting/one-on-one conversation/email exchange?
  • Does the potential for hostility/anger/resentment exist and how can I head it off?

And my favorite, from Twitter colleague Stephen Ross (@GhostProf): “Am I the problem?” Part of why I love this is there are so many ways to answer it; it doesn’t hurt to be mindful of at least a few of them.

None of this is to say we don’t have important work, and sometimes the best way to do it is to get a bunch of smart and focused people in a room to do something productive. I just want to make sure that’s actually what we’re doing.

Related posts at University of Venus:

This post was also published at Inside Higher Ed.

Lessons From Bossypants: Women and Leadership

In Janine's Posts on 2011/08/15 at 08:48

Janine Utell, writing from Chester, Pennsylvania in the US.

Whatever the problem, be part of the solution. Don’t just sit around raising questions and pointing out obstacles. We’ve all worked with that person. That person is a drag….In improv there are no mistakes, only beautiful accidents. — Tina Fey, Bossypants

When I was elected chair of my department this past semester, I did two things immediately. First, I sent out a tweet asking for resources, suggestions, and advice. Second, I bought Tina Fey’s Bossypants — on audiobook, of course, so I could listen to her reading it.

The first resulted in the generosity I have come to appreciate and rely on in the good folks I know from the Twittersphere: a link to a free trial of the Women in Higher Education newsletter, this post by Jeffrey McClurken for new chairs, as well as words of wisdom and support. I’ve also learned a great deal from the other writers at University of Venus (especially this article on women in administration from Mary Churchill), in particular those with whom I had the privilege of serving on a live chat at the Guardian UK website looking at women and leadership in higher ed (here; also a follow-up by Anamaria Dutceac Segesten here).

The second step resulted in full-fledged Tina Fey worship and a new perspective on how an administrative gig could be a vehicle for positive change.

(Yes, I can feel your skepticism from here; bear with me. This is my first post for University of Venus as a regular contributor, and the first of several dispatches from the land of new chairs: they might not always be this sunny, but I believe there is something productive in thinking about this work as potentially transformative, so I’m just going to insist on that for now, if that’s okay.)

In Bossypants, Tina Fey talks about how doing improv at Second City in Chicago taught her how to be effective as “the boss” on the television show, 30 Rock. The key, she says, is to be a yes, and type person. In improv, if someone throws out an idea, to keep the bit going you should say, Yes, and… So, if I say, If only we hadn’t used up all the marshmallows! Remember what happened the last time we had grandma over –, you should say, Yes, and…: Yes, and it just made that whole situation with her teeth even worse, especially after the parakeet got loose. If you say No, but, if you ask too many questions, if you stop the bit and say, Wait, where are we going to get a parakeet, the whole thing dies. (By the way, this is not an example from the book; I made it up, which might be why I do what I do and not improv.)

yes, and person doesn’t find ways to cut down something potentially good before it really has a chance to get going. Being a yes, and person means you are flexible. You are open to collaboration, to possibility, to joining in on someone else’s vision and helping to make it part of the work of the group. What Tina Fey learned through improv is generosity, creativity, openness, a willingness to be inspired by others, an appreciation of collaboration rather than competition, and a sense that the vision of a group is only as good as what each person brings to it.

At least, that’s my takeaway. And while Tina Fey-ness might be a pretty high standard to reach, I’m hearing from other people that this is a model of leadership they can get behind. A recent piece in theChronicle of Higher Education (thanks to Stacey Donohue for sharing) observes that academics committed to research and teaching who move into chairing a department don’t always get the training they need. I was lucky to have opportunities on my own campus in this area, and what I learned was that helping people think about their own vision and personal strategic plan is the best way to foster transformative thinking and action in a group. Is there room for skepticism here? Sure — but a department open to building on everyone’s strengths, creating moments for people to do good work independently and collaboratively to make the best program possible: that’s a department I’d want to be part of.

In future posts, I’d like to take up what it means to be a GenX woman taking on a leadership role in academia, how to balance such a position with the first loves of research and teaching, and concerns specific to women in higher ed. In the meantime, I’m grateful for the smart, funny, high-powered women I turn to in thinking about this new role — I know I can count on for them mentoring whether I’m popping into a colleague’s office for a quick chat and some advice, or zipping to work laughing at the woman who taught me that girls can be funny and in charge…sometimes even at the same time.

Modeling the Life of the Mind

In Uncategorized on 2010/11/01 at 21:46

Guest blogger, Janine Utell, writing from Chester, Pennsylvania in the USA.

Teaching is at the heart of what I do in the humanities, both in my self-conception as “teacher-scholar” and in my affiliation with my institution—a small regional private university that prides itself on its individualized engagement with student learning. Bringing my research into the classroom where it might supplement the pedagogical experience of my students helps me to model the life of the mind to which I am committed. It allows my students to see that the humanities are a living thing, constantly changing and demanding we confront new challenges to our habits of thought.

This is why recent calls to stunt the teaching and research of the field are so damaging. In their new book Higher Education?: How Colleges Are Wasting Our Money and Failing Our Kids, Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus argue that anything unrelated to the teaching of undergraduates is a perquisite lavished upon a professoriate bloated with privilege. (Of course, they formulated this assessment by focusing on a select group of institutions.) Elsewhere, Frank Donoghue in The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities and Martha Nussbaum in Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities describe the threats facing the humanities. Among these is an impulse to professionalize students, especially first-generation students, students very much like those I teach. I will not rehearse here the arguments for why the humanities are essential. Instead, I claim that commentators miss the point and the potentialities of higher education when they suggest that research is a pointless perquisite, and that time spent widening the field of enquiry around subjects in the humanities is time wasted. Even teacher-scholars who spend their professional lives at teaching institutions should have a space for research should they so choose. Here’s why: students respond to passion. Through our own passion for our work, we can model the life of the mind. The idea that ideas matter, that good questions do not always get answered, that the world of knowledge can be constantly reappraised, can be profoundly powerful.

I recently taught the Thomas Hardy story “A Tragedy of Two Ambitions,” in which two brothers seek a university education in order to enter the clergy, a career move they hope will facilitate their rise in society. Because they lack the funds, the brothers are stuck at a second-rate seminary and will thus never get “the good job.” My students saw deep resonances between their own lives and this story: caught between a myth of prestige and a mountain of debt, they are beginning to wonder if this college thing is all it’s cracked up to be. Our working intellectual lives are not happening at one of Hacker and Dreifus’ “Golden Dozen” schools; some of my students struggle for their seat in my class, many of them are the first in their families to attain such a seat, and they want to make the most of it. But they also see what happens when that struggle has as its only goal “the good job.” In reading, they rejected the ambition of those brothers plodding through their education with no passion, no imagination. They recognize the moments when that is what is being asked of them, and they reject it.

Witnessing the excitement of the life of the mind, sharing deep and sustained enquiry in a collaborative environment, is what gives students the equipment to make that choice. It is the same life of the mind that drew Carolyn Heilbrun to the study of literature—and which then drew her to remake that life through a feminist lens. Providing such an intellectual role model is especially crucial for young women undergraduates. For some of my students, the option has never before been presented as a viable or even an attractive one. Heilbrun describes her own education in When Men Were the Only Models We Had: the intellectual passion and work she saw among her male teachers was tantalizing, but she felt excluded from their world. She had to make her own way, with no strong women teachers or scholars (or both) to guide her. My students live in a different world even from Heilbrun, and they have the advantage of many role models to choose from. I do not want them told by the people charged with their education that the model I might have to offer no longer matters.

This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.