Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Academic Juggling -- again

It's that time of the academic year when student papers are due and a whole host of institutional and external deadlines come crashing in.  Students look exhausted.  Faculty tempers are threatening to flare.  By week five of the term, things start to unravel.  It pays to take a moment and recalibrate.  Or at least try to take a deep breath before the next go-round.  Sometimes that breath is raspy and painful.

Some faculty decide that the easier way to adjust to the demands is to pull away from some portion of the work:  they concentrate on their own discipline, their own projects and withdraw from any discussions of long-time worries or complaints.  The responsibilities of teaching (and a long list that is) remain in place (for most, though not for all), but many demands, even those related to the long-term stability of the faculty as a whole -- issues related to review, tenure, promotion, institutional planning -- become targets for quick cynicism and even quicker rants.  There is something disheartening about professionals who prefer self-interest over a commitment to inter-generational fairness, who look at their place as safe and do not consider the needs of faculty members who have still 30 years of service ahead.  Committee work takes on darker tones and the most senior people decide that issues that might make a difference in junior faculty lives just don't deserve their time and attention.  Things will never change, they say, and they embrace the status quo, even when that means everyone suffers.  Academics, it seems to me, are innately conservative:  even when their long-term growth is threatened, they remain stuck in a single thought and are unwilling to try anything different. 

Of course, it's both faculty members and administrators at the heart of this impasse.  If faculty are unable to break out of their mindset, administrators are often more than willing to take advantage of the static condition of the faculty to drive a completely separate and perhaps even less academically profitable agenda.  Programs that can be changed continue to live in academic limbo because of an unwillingness to admit the failure of an idea or an inability to articulate an alternative vision that takes academic content and resources into account.  Planning suffers because we live in a community that has learned only to react (and often badly) and not to seek new ideas; and the overall academic program suffers because we live in a community that has become fossilized within a pre-modern ideal of curriculum and a mid-twentieth century management model.

Tar babies and tar pits.  We seem attracted to conditions, behaviors, and thoughts that hold us fast in the glop of our worst selves.

Or maybe it's just a bad, rainy, arthritic day.

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