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A Meditation on Change: the Radical Wears Her Administrator’s Hat

July 11, 2008, 12:49 pm

Recently I have been involved in one of those academic negotiations that involves calling on powers of persuasive argument normally reserved for one’s scholarship (sprucing up old ideas with new evidence, adding a dash of original thought culled from new reading) in an attempt to make a case for intellectual and institutional change. It is a case that I have made before, many times, sometimes to great applause from allies of various kinds. It is a case that others have made before me, and along side of me. But it is a case that, although partial results have been won over time, has never succeeded as it should. It is a change that makes sense, but it fails — over and over — to be approved. And what I want, although it seems to have puzzled some people at Zenith over close to two decades, doesn’t puzzle me — and in fact is not an unconventional feature of institutional life elsewhere. In other words, Other People Do It. Smart People. Prestigious People. Why Not Us?

As I am now fifty, and have approximately thirty years left to live (thirty-five if I am lucky and careful) a maximum of fifteen of which will be spent at Zenith, I am at the stage of life when it seems reasonable to question any expenditure of energy that seems not to be getting results. Or at least, if I am going to dedicate myself to something difficult, maybe it should be finishing final revisions on the book that got trashed during the Unfortunate Events: better yet, world peace, racial equality, universal health care, the global refugee issue, affordable higher education, world hunger, an end to illiteracy in my community, or a full-frontal attack on the standardized testing industry. All of these issues could use another set of hands, a quick wit and a big mouth.

And yet I continue to work on This Thing (not, of course to the exclusion of other things, as I write, teach my courses, and occasionally contribute my energies to stumping for a political candidate), in part because This Thing is so close to being successful. And yet it is not successful.

As the steamroller of administrative labor caught up with me this week, the scholarly work I am supposed to be doing in what is a remarkably short summer got sand kicked in its face by the institutional version of the Bully on the Beach. The Bully is not a person, but an unwelcome problem — the kind of task they pay me to do as chair, that has to be done whether I like it or not and that can crop up unexpectedly. And part of how I got dragged into this set of negotiations is not just because it is work that Must Be Done, but because it involves changing This Thing — my own personal Sisyphean task. As I considered buying myself a Charles Atlas course of some kind so that in the future my ninety-seven pound weakling of a writing self won’t be chased away from my bathing beauty scholarship by a big, strapping administrative task, my mind wandered to how difficult it is to change the system.

To say that I wish to change the whole system by doing This Thing would be going too far. I don’t have that fantasy. After all, I know the system well, I work it fairly effectively, it benefits me to some degree, and barring revolution, it is the system we have. But as I said, the rub is this: although the change being proposed has been presented in many long documents it is considered in many places not to be terribly radical. As a matter of fact, I know it isn’t even radical at Zenith, because the mode of response has shifted from resistance to avoidance. In other words, it has been acknowledged that this change is something to which no one is opposed, intellectually or practically. And yet, Change fails to occur. Why?

Now partly I am being discreet about the issue under discussion because negotiations of various kinds require discretion, and also because History Shows that people dislike being written about without permission. Temporarily, at least, I would prefer to retain my status as well-liked. But partly I am being deliberately abstract, because if I told you what the issue was you, Dear Reader, would do what all academics do, which is offer solutions for that particular problem, your sympathy, or similar tales of woe (I actually have a friend who, every time s/he writes a request that addresses a similarly long-awaited change tells me “Yeah, I sent in the tale of woe again.”) But I’m also after something grander here. Why is Change so difficult to achieve in the academy?

Oh go ahead, blame tenure. But I think we need to think more creatively than that.

One place I would start is a colleague of mine, now retired, who was a Very Famous Scholar. He was also a conservative in the grand old meaning of the term before it got highjacked by David Horowitz and Pat Buchanan. A Goldwater conservative crossed with a Buckley conservative, if you will. I would be in meetings with Dr. V.F. Scholar, and someone would propose some kind of change — say, in the sequencing of courses, or in how one might simplify the form that admitted a student to honors work. And he would smile gamely, as if on the brink of tears, and say, “I don’t think that is a good idea at all. You might be right — it could be better to do it that way. But it might be worse.” And with that, we would usually abandon whatever petty reform we had embarked on and leave things as they were.

As time moves on, however, I find that my former colleague was unique only in the sense that he was honest and open about his belief that change — in and of itself — was not necessarily a cause for optimistic anticipation. Instead, it was — well, ominous. Because if things begin to change, where would it all stop? Would untenured scholars begin to say what they really thought, and write what they really wanted to write? Would it become possible to have an idea that was worth pursuing, publishing, building a program around, without it being vetted by eight anonymous referees, six university committees, a self-study, an outside review, sending it to a seventh committee and requiring a vote of the full faculty? Might students insist, as they did during that Terrible Time we call the ‘sixties (even though a lot of it happened in the ‘seventies) that they wanted some authority over what and how they learned?

Yes, these things might happen. Alhough probably not, particularly now that students have been so completely cowed by the college admissions process that they too regard change as something unobtainable and punishable by exclusion from the Elect; and untenured scholars are so bullied by the job hunt and tenure process that they would write on the sidewalk if we assured them it was the only way to acquire health insurance and secure their livelihood as intellectuals. More and more, I think my former colleague hit the nail right on the head. When you make a change it might be better. Or it might be worse. And there is no way to know.

Except to try.

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