In a zoom chat with my Wyrd sisters, collaborators, co-conspirators, mentors, friends, Shannon Murray and Jessica Riddell, the question arose: How can we be helpful?
Like all really powerful questions, this one seems quite simple at first and becomes increasingly thorny the more you think about it.
On July 1, 2020, I will be promoted to Full Professor.
Until last year, I had resigned myself to the fact that this would never happen for me, not because I am not a strong contributor to my institution and my discipline, but because my chosen path through my career has been one that focuses on teaching.
I love teaching. I do good research, but writing academicspeak sucks the life out of me. I cannot tell you how many jokes editors have asked me to remove from my published articles. It makes me sadder and sadder every time it happens. Teaching, on the other hand, fills me with joy. It is, in Frederick Buechner’s words, “the place where [my] deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” (qtd. in Palmer, Courage, 31).
In choosing teaching as my vocation, in choosing to follow my “deep gladness,” I resigned myself to career path stagnation. My soul would grow; my retirement savings, not so much. I had reached the ceiling of my rank. I wasn’t going any higher. And I was really, really okay with that. In the calculus of soul versus rank, soul won.
I had chosen my way to helpful.
And there were costs. My educational leadership activities have put me in a strong headwind for most of my career. I have left a lot of rooms in tears after being told that my carefully crafted tools for reflection and pedagogical planning were a waste of everyone’s time. I have literally stood two feet away from someone who, in a speech at a colleague’s retirement party, made cutting jokes about the futility and ridiculousness of my efforts. I have been angry and I have despaired. I have been polite in the face of obstinance and rudeness and I’ve ranted in my car.
But I’ve also found a beautiful community of fellow-travelers. I have seen the needle shift in almost imperceptible increments toward greater appreciation of pedagogy in our institution. People in high places are paying attention (even more so now in the middle of pandemic that has made pedagogy a hot topic), allocating some resources, rethinking the language of job ads and committee membership. And I’ve found a brilliant community in the 3M National Teaching Fellowship. Most of all, because of the examples of courage around me, I’ve brought my convictions explicitly into the classroom and found a community of students eager to come with me as we work together to reshape what learning can look like in our environment. These communities have given me examples to follow, support, encouragement, critical engagement, stress-testing, and jet fuel to launch me from thinking to doing.
My soul was calloused from a lot of dragging over rough ground, but it was more robust and healthy than I could have hoped when I began down this path. And I had no expectation, in the publish-or-perish metric of academic productivity, that this work would win me a promotion.
Enter Shannon and Jessica who practically frog-marched me into the promotion process, berated me and wore me down with their cheerful, relentless harping on their faith in me and my work. What’s more, they showed me that I could do more as a Full Professor to advance the story of a vocation in teaching. I could claim a bit more room for my voice, but most importantly, I could climb over a big rock and use my position to help those who were climbing after me. If I could make a case for my worth on the basis of my teaching, then others could make that case, too. If I could scramble up that crooked path cut by brave souls who went before me, I could cut that path deeper, lay out some trail markers. If I could write a 300-page promotion dossier that asserted that pedagogy is indeed a discipline, I could help to shift the discourse in the rooms where decisions about promotion and allocation of resources are made. I couldn’t change the world alone, but capacity-building has got to start somewhere.
If I could put myself in a position to help, then I needed to try.
And I did. And in a few days I will be a Full Professor.
Which brings me back to that question: How can I be helpful?
I am what my aunt used to call “a baby on a stick.” I’m the non-threatening thing one advances into hostile territory to put people at ease. I’m the friendly one. I smile a lot. I really love the sparky brains of the people around me and I like to gather them into teams. My meetings generally end on time. I make flow-charts and graphs that settle the mind. I have worked to hone my own cheerful relentlessness, and my many times round the cycle of proposal-rejection-reconsideration-acceptance have taught me the strategic value of “waiting for the wheel.” I write kick-ass reports that sometimes people read. I give workshops and do mentoring. Occasionally people ask me for advice.
So, I’m going to keep on keeping on.
I’m currently wrestling with the question of how to be now that I’m technically a senior academic.
I find that, here, now, in a crisis that is wailing for the courage of citizens, that is revealing the best and worst of us, I am very, very tired of being afraid. And that realization is doing a number on my brain, my body and my soul. And I am wondering how I can best be helpful. I find myself cycling rapidly through multiple modalities: I am by nature conciliatory and feel happiest in collegial, supportive, empathetic spaces; I am finding myself feeling bellicose; I want to be a generous and welcoming host in difficult conversations; I am finding myself impatient with resistance to having those conversations. I feel a little bit like I’m in full armor waiting for a bus that won’t come.
(I think of Hamlet, who is so mad that nobody will “pluck off [his] beard and blow it in [his] face.”)
I feel a tremendous need to be a pain in the ass, to speak a truth, to defend a traditionally unheeded call for an ethic of care. At the same time I worry about alienating the very people I want to reach. I know that, as a woman, I have a very well-conditioned fear of my own anger, my own passion. I have learned very well that it is in my best interests to be the cheerful non-threatening one, which sometimes means ceding the field and crying in my car.
Now I’m wondering if I need to start crying in public. I’m wondering what the best act of empathy is. I wondering if I need to rethink hospitality and empathy in a way that makes space for my own convictions and my own anger at the persistence of institutional practices and ideas that dehumanize us. I wonder if it can be empathetic to jab someone with a hard question, to tent them to the quick, knock them sideways a little bit. I’m wondering how I can practice an ethic of care that does not mean retreating to my safe space of niceness.
I’m wondering how to be helpful. I’m wondering how best to push forward the ethic of care, to shout it so it can be heard through the clamouring for “tips, tricks and tools.” Am I the trickling water or the tidal wave? Both? Neither?
I’m wondering how to be me, now, in this time, in my new place as Full Professor, as critic, as pain in the ass, as someone who thinks hope is a value worth fighting for in the midst of a crisis that is tearing us down and building us up in ways that are new and wonderful and terrible (in the ancient sense of the word).
I know what my “deep gladness” is. I don’t know yet how to feed “the world’s deep hunger.”