Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Veep: or, can you be a netizen and move up the ladder at the same time?

We've lost Heather. You haven't seen her blogging here since last year, when she took up her post as Vice Dean, and worried about how to be in administration and on the Internet at the same time. And it turns out that that is a dance that no one has yet really mapped the steps to, Heather included. I miss her in direct proportion to the pride I feel for her in her new role.

We're recruiting new bloggers, and the response has been really wonderful, but from the field in view in front of us, Heather noted: "Aimee, you are the old lady blogger now!"

Well, shit. This old lady blogger just took on an administrative post, too.

July 1st, I became Vice President of our Faculty Association here at UW. How this happened I'm not quite sure. I remember putting my name in to be on the Board, after a friend and colleague whose service to this organization I have greatly admired and appreciated asked me to, but this veep thing snuck up on me.

I mean, I did say last year that I'm in the sweet spot to be cranky, by which I meant, having secured tenure without completely burning out or embittering myself on either academic inquiry or collegial governance, I ought to use my (however limited) powers for good. These are weird times. Exciting and full of possibilities, but also worries and scarcity. It's hard to know where universities are headed. We have a systemic, continent-wide jobs and employment crisis. We are all being asked to do more with less: more research with less granting agency funding, more teaching with fewer professors, more graduate training with fewer academic jobs, more knowledge mobilization with no less academic publishing, more enrolments with less infrastructure renewal, etc.

But here's the main challenge I'm feeling: a lot of this work is confidential. Confidentially, Internet, just between us, I've never been very good at "confidential." I've always considered "confidential" with its cousins "unsayable," "private," and "taboo" and the repercussions of decorous silence and discretion, I feel, have not been particularly empowering to lots of people. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, I say. However, I'm now receiving memos headed "confidential" and reports labelled "draft -- not for circulation" and I'm bound by those rules. And in some ways I really do understand the value of closed-door work on some issue. On other issues? I think this "discretion" is misplaced and old-fashioned.

In any case, I'm not sure what to say about issues where I know more than I'm supposed to let on. Should I preface all of my writing here by saying, "I have no real knowledge about any of this, from an administrative point of view, which means I'm allowed to write about it"? Because that seems like a good dodge, but also maybe counterproductive, in the long run. I'm pretty sure that this new role is meant to capitalize on my passions, my talents, and my mouthiness, rather than to lock them up in small committee rooms away from the people I care to talk with, but I'm not sure how to manage that. I don't think the idea now is that I should restrict myself to blog posts about academic haircuts and other such institutionally inconsequential topics.

And perhaps I've already said too much.

So where I'm sitting now, I'm feel a little bit pinched between getting what feels like a good deal more institutional agency and the feeling I might be expected to shut up a bit more on the inter tubes, to manifest the discretion and compartmentalization that's been blasted to bits by services like Twitter, for example.

This is a generational issue. Probably Heather and I are at the vanguard of a generation of academics who are either digital natives or skilled early immigrants to Weblandia, moving up the ladder, where the sorts of cultural change we're expected to deal with in our undergraduate teaching hasn't really penetrated.

The mismatch extends beyond administration and into the ranks, of course. Five years from now, how is anyone going to find a tenure referee who is both in the candidate's field, and completely arm's length? Aren't we already beginning to see the kinds of networking and interconnection that social media offer us as normative? Won't it actually mark you as an outsider if everyone who's anyone isn't on your Twitter feed? And there's the question of knowledge mobilization as well: to what extent should academics be for seeking out opportunities to break their research results out of the academy and into the bigger world, or at least out from behind the Elsevier paywall and into open access repositories. What about when a social media upstart collates retraction data to ferret out and publicize academic chicanery, in full view of the public, but the institution's processes (often for very good reason) take place over longer duration and behind closed doors?

I like blogging and tweeting and posting photos and asking hard questions and making embarrassing disclosures, all in the name of working continually to improve this great big academy we all love so much (well, sometimes ... and in some ways ...). Can I still do that? How hard should I push? When should I back off? If I am a change agent, what things am I actually trying to change as I go to more and more meetings where attendees are accompanied by their assistants?

I have no idea. But I'm going to try to work it all out here, in public, with you.

2 comments:

  1. As someone for whom the exact correspondence between mouth size and shoe size is no accident, but who eventually also ran into the need to keep confidences, I feel your pain.

    But, for what it's worth, here's how I came to terms with this quandary. First, the reason your colleagues would want you in the role of faculty association bigwig is presumably that you've shown two things: the good sense to figure out what ought to be said, and the courage to say it. To be effective, you need to keep the respect of your colleagues, those of us on the shop floor and those in the administration. But people on both sides recognize what your job is, and that it involves being willing to speak out on issues. The administration is not going to be hostile to you just because you strongly, and publicly, state positions, as long as they know that you're also willing to listen to arguments and be persuaded by good ones. And your colleagues not currently in administration will respect open-mindedness too, as long as it's clear that you're not being persuaded by bad arguments or acting out of self-interest. (Which, really, how dumb would you have to be if you were on the exec of the faculty association merely because you were trying to advance your own career? Poor investment of time there.)

    So ... keep talking. Sometimes you have to talk at a more abstract level because of something you know; sometimes you set aside issue A because something is in the works that you know and can't say much about, but there are always issues B-Z cooking on the back burner and waiting for you to stir the pot.

    The Waterloo faculty are lucky to have you, I think. All that confidentiality means that most of the good stuff you do only five or ten people will ever know you had a role in. But you can really get stuff done---not for your own career, so much, but for everyone. So, in advance, thanks!

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  2. Congrats! This is amazing news.

    My question isn't just about how to ind arms-length people to do reviews, but how to find TENURED professors to write letters, seeing as how there aren't many any more.

    Congrats again.

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