There’s too much to do in too little time with too little money to be world-class in everything we do. What we can and should do is recognise the limits of what’s possible and encourage people to do their best – and I don’t just mean that managers need to do better. We all need a little more humanity.
The Plashing Vole, Good enough
Here’s a tale. When I first started thinking about how to write in public about the experience of working in a university, I looked around for models that seemed to me to do it well. I found Dean Dad and Ferdinand von Prondzynski, and from both of them learned a lot about writing about college leadership. But I wanted to find people who were figuring out how to write higher education from below. And because I’m generally a lucky type, I stumbled in short order on Bon Stewart, Jonathan Rees and the Plashing Vole.
I was really struck by how prolific, gifted and funny these writers were, and how they used their online writing as a way of reaching beyond the everyday of where they were to struggle with issues that were recognisable to me, all the way down here in Australia. But I also learned new things: refrigerators! fencing! NUFC! credit transfer! And all five of them made space in their comments for others to learn how to write publicly. For me, this was essential as I was still writing anonymously and worrying whether critique of my own employer’s business culture crossed some kind of line in terms of professional conduct.
So the first important lesson I learned from these five is that online writing is a practice of scholarly hospitality. In these hands, writing handled itself differently from the slugfest of competitive self-advancement that I had seen writing become in universities, a chronic depletion of purpose for most people sucked into it.
In these hands, writing showed itself as a gesture of welcoming curiosity. Online writing in particular offered a new way of handling lightly the big tickets: citation, evidence, reputation, impact. Online public writing allowed itself to be tentative, to let unfinished thoughts hang, to engage with difficult issues without fixing prematurely on solutions. Scholarly writers shepherding their ideas in public without benefit of editors and peer reviewers, and without the protection of a ten metre paywall, turned out to be intelligent, capable and accountable managers of their own intelligence: who knew?
And so writing for me was gently rescued from its service role in generating outputs for measuring, and returned to a closer relationship to enquiry. I learned how to write in order to think. Here were scholars producing a couple of thousand words a week without distress, contributing timely, relevant expertise to the history of human thought and if you had a question or objection, you could just bowl up and ask them, and they replied.
Isn’t this what we all think the academy is supposed to do in the world?
From this small group, who didn’t necessarily all cross paths with each other, I grew an online network that has been a rich and sustaining professional culture for me. Their links and citations have led me forwards and outwards into other conversations where new evidence is continually turning up, new ideas are continually in the act of forming, and critical reflection is the (mostly) welcomed response. This week one of the radiating circuits of this network in action brought me a question about how to frame academic event management with a rigorous commitment to postcolonial theories of self and subjectivity; another asked how kindness and diversity co-habit in academic teams and organisations. All of these questions develop me as a thinker and a teacher.
So I want to take a moment and thank the Plashing Vole for his beautiful and widely circulated post on kindness, struggle and modesty. His championing of ethical mediocrity is a heretical proposition in higher education at the moment, but like all his writing, it’s a disarming bit of very smart thinking disguised as a chat. PV tells a story about an everyday logistical failure (a room not booked, a class underprepared) and he does it with such generosity and detail that I can still easily picture his students trudging from campus to campus with him, trying not to think about the Duchess of Malfi. We’ve all been there.
But his larger point is that all organisations need to cultivate a culture of kindness if these errors are to be bearable, and to do this we need to accept that rhetorical focus on 4* publications and the stellar careers of the few won’t sustain the culture that actually supports both. To keep universities operating, not only those universities with convictions about educational equity, we need to accept, and model, failure as a fundamental part of the innovation curve. We need to learn, and model, the kindest way of giving feedback if something seems awry.
And to do this, we need to create and then militantly protect practices of interpersonal safety and care across the higher education system. This means that we do need to ask our institutions to mind their language as they describe our thrilling futures, and we need to be especially vigilant during times of “change management”, whose very language is now doing harm to many. But PV is very specific—and I agree—that this isn’t just a problem that managers can fix.
We all need a little more humanity.
So I don’t think it’s just because I’m off to Mary Freer’s gathering of kindness for healthcare reform, but because I’m watching an extraordinary response to PV’s post, and to the ones that others wrote just before it, especially Liz Morrish. There is a will to value kindness in higher education at the moment, as a better culture for generating ideas, proposals and critical thought for the world we’re in.
I’m watching events and collaborations developing all over the place (looking at you #digpedlab and #indieedtech), and while I’m not sure any longer that we can or should try to fix higher education, I’m really optimistic that by working together, educators and learners at every level, we can develop a sense of purpose about how to care for this planet.
In a hundred years, we won’t be here, but we are all here now.
Plashing Vole, this one’s for you.