Indeed, my stronger point is simply this: no human creature survives or persists without depending on a sustaining environment, social forms of relationality, and economic forms that presume and structure interdependency.Judith Butler, ‘Can one lead a good life in a bad life’, 2012
We’ve had a burst of cold weather followed by a sudden warm wind and every living unplanned thing in the garden has sprung up. I’ve been weeding paths, and thinking about things I’ve planted or pruned as I’ve moved around this community for 25 years.
There was a dark house behind a 12 ft Cape Honeysuckle hedge that we went at with saws. There was a rental cottage by the ocean with an abandoned Blue Moon rose, that 70s icon that was as much blue rinse as blue moon. I drive past that sturdy little house that has been overtaken by oceanfront real estate values and is waiting to be demolished, and that blue rinse rose is right there, living its most unpruned life.
I’ve written before about not belonging here. I’m a seed dropped from the beak of a bird, the invasive species, the weed. But we’ve shared some history, this town and I.
When I first came here, the university crest featured the scarlet flowers of the flame trees that are named after this region—those same flame trees that “blind the weary driver”, and I loved that the university I worked at celebrated them.
But we’ve since had a brand refresh, and these elements of place now come in crisp white on a dark navy background. I’m guessing there was a view somewhere that looking more like a northern hemisphere university in heraldry terms would do us some good in the rankings.
This week at an off campus global strategy planning day, which was more or less as you’d expect, I listened to colleagues who’ve been here for 15 years, 20 years, 30 years. We looked out over the ocean at the container ships coming into port and the five small islands that define our city, and talked about not being from here.
In 2012, Gianpiero Petriglieri wrote a beautiful essay about the ways in which nomadic professionals are encouraged to see their shallow roots as a career asset. Universities are network multipliers for this effect. Look at your own university leadership: how many went to high school locally, or even in the same country? How many arrived in the last 5 years? Where do your salaried or tenured colleagues come from?
As Gianpiero puts it:
For many years now, I have spent my days in circles where careers and families like mine are the norm. The school where I work, my fourth employer to date, has campuses on three continents. My colleagues hail from 46 countries and have lived, worked and loved in many more — as have my students.Gianpiero Petriglieri, ‘Moving around without losing your roots‘, Harvard Business Review October 2012
And to understand the structural discriminations that set up this game of origins, try this test: ask your casually hired or adjunct colleagues where they went to high school. Ask the professional staff you work with where they live. Ask the people who clean your offices, fix the buildings and tend the landscaping how long they’ve lived here. Ask your students.
So it’s different for career academics, in deep and divisive ways. Thanks to rankings, universities are now like anxious communities in Westerns, scanning the horizon and waiting for strangers to ride into town and better us. We go along with the idea that a life lived in one place is less impressive, less expert, than a life spent moving fast and breaking things.
And then we accept the logic that locally-facing research should also be discounted: that publication in local journals, or research collaboration with local community organisations, or co-publication with the person sitting next to you, should go in the bargain bin. We don’t do this independently, but because rankings favour internationally minded institutions who gather esteem in international co-authorship, participation in international conferences, and the proportion of “international staff” and “international students” they attract.
This is why when we talk about academic talent, we don’t mean talent that grew here, but talent that flew here.
Aside from the breathtaking carbon impact of all this, there are human costs to global career nomadism. There’s the negotiation of dual career mobility, and the cost of moving house again, and the kids who are uprooted from their own networks and friends.
But there is also an institutional cost when the flying leader class becomes disconnected from the ground underneath our feet. Gianpiero writes:
To forego the possibility of feeling at home, or to make do with the surrogate of a dispersed cohort of fellow nomads is to give up the possibility of intimacy, of commitment, of trust. It is all that it takes to give up being human and become “human resources.” And once we do that to ourselves, it’s a short step to viewing everyone else as such.
This is really important: when universities explicitly reward transactional relationships with communities and place, we start to treat each other as disposable assets too.
Continuing my commitment to sharing practice with students who write in public, here’s how this came out.
Last week on Twitter I fell into a quick exchange with Martin Weller about the minutes of our lives passing that we give each other when we choose to write, and the value we give when to extend what we are each thinking by writing in response. (Maren Deepwell also then wrote about this.)
In this exchange Catherine Cronin shared Ursula Le Guin’s late poem ‘Hymn to Time‘, and as I’ve often found when Catherine shares a poem, it’s exactly the one that was needed. This one is such a gathering up of big ideas, and it’s written so softly, just 16 lines. Listen even to this tiny part, there’s so much in it:
Time makes room / for going and coming homeUrsula K LeGuin, Hymn to Time, from Late in the Day: Poems 2010-2014
So now I’m looking at the dirt under my nails and thinking about the coming home that writing is for me, not least because I’ve had the privilege of living safely for all of my life. Within every thought I’ve had about time passing for me and in relation to those I love, there was also always a thought about time passing here, in a place I love, “a living entity with a yesterday, today and tomorrow, with a consciousness, and a will toward life” (Albrecht 2007).
But like many of us, I’m finding coming home to writing is hard at the moment and I now think it’s not just my bullshit writing job. It’s also that the words about environmental grieving are too sharp, too big, too difficult to handle. This is what I’m reading and thinking about, all the time, and writing about it is like trying to write by throwing knives at a door.
So it turns out this piece of writing which has taken a long time is just a placeholder, some things I think and can say about living-in-place ahead of things I’m not yet able to sort out.
Writing is often like this: for all energy that seems to be lost to the drafting and cutting and rewriting and starting again, in the end you learn as much from the process of failing and failing again, as from finally getting it done.