Wednesday, October 1st 2014

Ninety minutes


I’m going to share some vignettes from this week, because I am feeling disjointed. Each of them only took ninety minutes.

  1. I’m in a lunch meeting with fellow faculty who have won a prestigious campus award for our research. When we begin to discuss what we excellent researchers should do as a group, the administrator in attendance says that our job should really be to produce “grateful alumni.” He means donors, of course. And when I push him on this, and say I am uncomfortable with the idea that my research should ever be in the service of producing grateful alumni, he backtracks and claims that he meant our teaching. But this is a meeting about research, about researchers who have won awards for research excellence. This backtracking does not go unnoticed in the room. This uncomfortable lunch takes ninety minutes.
  2. I was a panelist at the Academic Freedom Forum on Monday. I am one of several people who share that, because of their identities as a woman or underrepresented minority or both, that their experience of this university and its supposed protections of academic freedom are quite different from the white men in the room. The concept that there are two (at least) Universities of Illinois starts to emerge – north and south of Green, but also the differences among male and female, black and white. Humanities versus the sciences. Tenured versus not. Of course they have always been there. But I’ve never been so clear on my place in the hierarchy as I was in the ninety minutes I was on that panel. I knew exactly where my identities and political positions put me, and I think everyone else was feeling it too. I knew who was in my posse… and who wasn’t.
  3. A mental toughness coach was scheduled to visit the University of Illinois, and I contacted him to see if he would meet with our roller derby league and offer his perspective. He gave us ninety minutes of his time, after we expected someone so famous to only be able to give us twenty to thirty. He says a lot of things that resonate with me, about leading a mission-driven life and being loyal to your own mission. He talks about finding success when letting go of an achievement-oriented perspective. Towards the end, he says (and I’m paraphrasing as closely as I can): “People say the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, but the grass is greener where you water it.” And I was swept up in that moment by a number of intense emotions.

I have been trying to water the grass, but this grass needs a lot of water. It needs a whole fucking irrigation system, and the people who have the resources to build that system are exactly the ones diverting the water. They look over the fence at our peer institutions and think their way must be better, so they mimic them, never once looking at those of us creating a human chain of buckets, desperately trying to water the grass they have been neglecting. I feel community among my bucket brigade, but I also feel faintly ridiculous. We are tending the lawn as those in power are discussing whether to re-landscape the whole thing. I wonder what it would take to tend this grass properly and help it flourish. I wonder if we could ever get those in power to see what we see.

Do we keep watering?

Do we build our own irrigation system with whatever resources we can muster?

Do we find our own patch?

I don’t know. I don’t know.


  1. Lanny Arvan said:

    Several years ago you wrote a comment on something I had written. It seems time to return the favor/commiserate/mildly disagree with some of the things you’ve said.
    I’m not sure that watering the lawn is a good metaphor for what you’re after. This year the grass was green through the summer and into fall, simply with nature taking its course. Last year, if memory serves, the lawn was already parched by the end of May and stayed that way for the remainder of the summer. If there is any benefit from the watering the lawn metaphor, maybe it is in demonstrating how difficult it can be to parse trend behavior from the latest cycle, and that we are too frequently thinking only of the very recent past and thus missing the larger pattern.
    I would frame what you said from two different perspectives. The first is a look at what is happening in the academic world, particularly at the U of I. The second is a look at what is happen with you as an individual, living in that world, but perhaps also in some other words too (family, friends outside Academia, etc.)
    My remark about trend versus cycle was meant to apply to the first perspective. For the second, where you discussed a “mission driven life,” what I say next I know applies to me, but whether it applies to you too you’ll have to ponder. I need fallow periods of, if not totally mindless activity, then less stressful and also not tied intellectually to the mission driven part. My guess is that most academics need this too. There are scheduled things called vacations, which is good. But the academic life doesn’t quite match that schedule. I believe the fallow time needs to happen more frequently. I see far too many people on campus now who seem stressed out of their gourds because they are “on” too much of the time. It leaves them very little reserve to deal with potential threats that ultimately prove to be mild experiences.
    Not that long ago I wrote a post about Vincent Van Gogh on my blog. He is a fascinating character. But he is not a role model. You might find it useful to take what the mental toughness coach said and apply it to Van Gogh. It behooves us academics to remain skeptical, even to messages that resonate with us.

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  3. Diana said:

    I read this when you first posted and meant to comment, but am just getting back to it now. Thank you for writing this, it really resonated with how I’ve been feeling lately. I have been following you for two years or so. I found you from your science writing, but it has been a wonderful surprise to be able to hear your musings on academia and being a woman blogger. I am not yet a woman blogger (though I keep thinking about it), but I have recently become introduced to working as an academic. I am a medical student, but more and more I feel like my talent and passion is for social justice, and I want to use medicine as a tool in that aim. That led me to take a year off for teaching and research in this area. Teaching and research are in themselves so exciting and fulfilling for me, but the rest of academia often seems so deflating. I wish that this system that has so much potential to generate knowledge and empower people wasn’t so focused on the things you mentioned, like generating funds, trying to be like other institutions, and overall just maintaining a hierarchy where the people actually doing the research have a voice, but a pretty small one in the grand scheme of things. I realize that generating funds and learning from other institutions have their place, but I wish the higher ups could have pride in the special thing that we are rather than always pushing to emulate something else.

    Perhaps being so mission-driven and idealistic just doesn’t work well in this environment, or only works once you’ve been there for decades and have the gray hair to prove it. It’s difficult to be so patient when you’re on the internet where things can happen so fast.

    I don’t know that my response is helpful at all, but it was comforting (if saddening) to know that my frustrations aren’t uncommon, even among people like you who have been able to do a lot of cool things. I was starting to despair, and you give me hope that I can still do meaningful things within this imperfect system.

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