Monthly Archives: August 2012

On being human: Lessons from Harvard Institute for Management and Leadership in Higher Education

In a specific sense I am an unabashed advocate of what has come to be called the applied humanities, roughly and broadly speaking the effort to connect the study of the humanities to identifiable and practical social goods.  For me, in addition it includes the effort to develop humanities programs that take seriously that we are responsible (at least in significant part) for preparing our students for productive lives after college, preparation that I think really should be embedded within humanities curricula, advising, cocurricular programming, and the general ethos and rhetoric that we use to inculcate in our students what it means to be a humanist.

In several respects this conviction lies at the root of my advocacy for both digital humanities programs and for career planning and programming for liberal arts students, as different as these two areas seem to be on the surface.  I have little room left any more for the idea that “real learning” or intellectual work pulls up its skirts to avoid the taint of the marketplace or the hurly-burly of political arenas and that we demonstrate the transcendent value of what we do over and above professional programs by repeatedly demonstrating our irrelevance.  Far from diminishing the humanities, an insistence that what we do has direct and indirect, obvious and not so obvious connections to social value enhances the humanities.  It’s not just a selling point to a doubting public.  As I said yesterday, the only good idea is the idea that can be implemented.  We ought to be proud of the fact that we can show directly how our students succeed in life, how they apply the things they’ve learned, how they find practical ways of making meaningful connections between their academic study and the world of work.

At the same time, I will admit that some versions of this argument leave me cold.  It risks saying that the only thing that is really valuable about the humanities is what is practically relevant to the marketplace. I greet this effort to make Wordsworth a useful version of a management seminar with a queasy stomach.

It may sound like a nice day out in beautiful surroundings, but can walking around Lake District sites synonymous with Romantic poet William Wordsworth really offer business leaders and local entrepreneurs the crucial insights they need?

That is precisely the claim of Wordsworth expert Simon Bainbridge, professor of Romantic studies at Lancaster University, who believes the writer can be viewed as a “management guru” for the 21st century.

Since 2007, the scholar has taken students down into caves and out on canoes to the island on Grasmere once visited by Wordsworth and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and to places where many of the former’s greatest works were written, for what he called “practical exercises linked to the themes of Wordsworth’s poetry.”

Such walks, which also have been incorporated into development days for individual firms, are now being offered as a stand-alone option for local and social entrepreneurs at a rate of £175 ($274) a day.

Read more: 
Inside Higher Ed 

I do not find the insight here wrong so much as sad.  If the only reason we can get people to read Wordsworth is because he will enhance their management skills, we have somehow misplaced a priority, and misunderstood the role that being a manager ought to play in our lives and in the social and economic life of our society.  It is the apparent reduction of all things and all meaning to the marketplace that is to be objected to and which every educational institution worthy of the name ought to furiously resist, not the fact of marketplaces themselves.

I was lucky enough this summer to attend the Harvard Institute for Management and Leadership in Education.  To be honest, I went thinking I was going to get all kinds of advice on things like how to organize projects, how to manage budgets, how to promote programs, how to supervise personnel.  There was some of that to be sure, but what struck me most was that the Institute, under the leadership of Bob Kegan, put a high, even principal, priority on the notion that managers have to first take care of who they are as human beings if they are to be the best people they can be for their colleagues and their institutions.  You have to know your own faults and weakness, your own strengths, your dreams, and you have to have the imagination and strength of mind and heart (and body) to learn to attend to the gifts, and faults and dreams and nightmares of others before or at least simultaneously with your own.  In other words, being a better manager is first and foremost about becoming a healthier, more humane, fuller human being.

The tendency of some applied humanities programs to show the relevance of poetry by showing that it has insights in to management techniques, or the relevance of philosophy because it will help you write a better project proposal, is to misplace causes and to turn the human work of another imagination (in this case Wordsworth) into an instrumental opportunity.  The reason for reading Wordsworth, first and foremost, is because Wordsworth is worth reading, and simultaneously because the encounter with Wordsworth will give you the opportunity to be a fuller, more imaginative, more thoughtful human being than you were before.

If you become that, you will have a chance to be a better manager.  But even if you don’t become a better manager, or if you lose your job because your company is overtaken by Bain capital or because students no longer choose to afford your pricey education, you will, nonetheless, be richer.

The Gladwell Effect: A brief review of Outliers

One of my least attractive features as I grow older, I am sure, is that I have an increasingly jaundiced view of intellectual and academic celebrity in American life.  Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers did little to cure me of this vice.  While on vacation in Burlington Vermont, I picked up Outliers in a bookstore and read the first 10 or 20 pages. I wasn’t exactly hooked, but I had heard of Gladwell’s work, had read the requisite New Yorker articles, and thought I’d give it a try. I’ve been interested for a while in how and why creative ideas happen, why some great ideas evolve and flourish and have staying power while other ideas that seem important at the moment later look ridiculous, or even worse still really look good many years later and yet never seem to have really taken hold and made a difference.  (All of my ideas fall in to one of these latter two categories).  Admittedly there was some degree of autobiographical intention here since as an administrator I’ve been concerned with how to foster good ideas and innovation in my school, but even more importantly, how to get some of those good ideas to take hold and make a difference for the long haul.  The only really good idea is the idea that can be implemented.

Gladwell’s book isn’t exactly about that, but it’s in the general territory.  He’s examining how and why some people achieve extraordinary success in life while some others, who appear equally talented, do not achieve the same level of unusual accomplishment.  Gladwell calls the extraordinarily successful–the Steve Jobs, the Michael Jordans, the Bill Gates, the Warren Buffetts–outliers.  According to Gladwell’s website, outliers are “men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August.”

It is probably not a great sign that, given this definition, Gladwell’s last chapter is focused on…Gladwell.  Gladwell is certainly a success, but is he so accomplished, so extraordinary, and so outside my ordinary experience that I find him puzzling?  Alas, no.  And the suggestion that he might be suggests a level of venality that is startling even for writers.  Indeed, what is striking about Outliers is its utter ordinariness.  In saying this I don’t mean to suggest that it is dreadfully bad;  it simply doesn’t doesn’t live up to the Entertainment Weekly blurb which describes it as “Explosively entertaining….riveting science, self-help, and entertainment, all in one book.”  (Why one might think this is a recommendation is another story).

There is one basic idea in this book.  Americans believe extraordinarily successful people are successful because they are extraordinary individuals, gifted beyond measure.  In fact, their extraordinary success depends upon a combination of hard work and a series of fortuitous events including their family heritage, the particular period into which they were born, their geographical location, teachers they had in college, mentors they met along the way.

One must pause for several seconds to let this sink in.  And not much longer.  Once it has sunk in one must also pause and ask how it is that Gladwell got paid so handsomely for stating an idea that he hardly originated, and he did not even bother to state it with a prose that sparks and leaps from the page.  This, finally, was the disappointment of the book.  Not that what he said was not worth saying; its just that this idea alone and the rather ordinary prose that Gladwell uses to pursue is not worth the 285 pages he decided to expend on the effort.  There are enough good ideas and enough good examples of those ideas in the book to justify a lengthy New Yorker article, which, as one pauses to think about it, is where much of this book actually originated.

In turning an article’s worth of ideas and insights in to a nearly 300 page book, Gladwell exemplifies at a distance what too often happens in the pursuit of intellectual insight within academe, and so perhaps it is just a feature of American intellectual life generally:  the average dissertation is one good idea bloated to a size that seems to justify a reasonably good job at a college or university.  Even worse, its also characteristic of too many intellectual and academic celebrities who seem to churn out the same idea under different cover art, under the grand name of producing knowledge; one wonders a little too quickly whether it isn’t partially about reproducing themselves. (Remember, I began this blog post with an understanding that I am becoming old, jaundiced and cranky)

One begins to wonder, just a bit, whether or not a game is afoot, and whether something about a book that purports to be an act of intelligence but gets its most ravishing blurb from Entertainment Weekly isn’t maybe just a little bit akin to that other great American type, the carny salesman, the PT Barnums, Melville’s confidence man, the Wizard of Oz.  There’s not much there there, but I paid my 16.99 and kept reading to the end, like the sucker throwing good money after bad.

A word of advice, the New Yorker articles are more finely wrought, and shorter.  And they are all online.  You can get all the Gladwell you need for free.  Then if you feel guilty go buy the book and put it on your shelf.  It will make a good conversation starter at cocktail parties, conversations you will be able to command because you read the website.

The Blog Apology: A Genre

Having been away from this blog for awhile, I am struck by my vaguely perceived need to offer explanations, as if I needed excuses for beginning again or for stopping in the first place.  And it was also evident to me that I found this impulse, unresisted, littering blogs across the web.  The blog of my friend and former student, Carmen McCain, is rife with repeated apologies for her inconsistent blogging.  Another friend and former student, Liz Laribee, also seems to apologize for not blogging about as often as she does blog.  I know that in the past when I’ve gone on unexplained hiatus, I’ve begun again with an apology.  Just for grins I did a quick Google search for “apologize for not blogging more” and got 16,600 hits for that exact combination.  Apparently we are legion and we are a sorry lot.

There seem to be several versions of this particular literary genre.  In one variety the blogger abjectly denounces herself for moral turpitude, admitting to various venal weaknesses like preferring Facebook or watching television rather than keeping to the rough moral discipline of the keyboard.  Others beg busyness, or grovel repentantly in admitting they were only sick and surely could have opened up the lap top.  Some seek remission of their sins by requesting the reader’s empathy, including long and engrossing lists of ills and misfortunes that make the travails of the biblical Job look like a trip to the gym with a particularly rigorous drill instructor.  My particular favorite is the blogger who apologizes but lets the reader know that he was really up to much more important or much more interesting things and that we are lucky he is back at all.  In some instances it seems that people spend a good deal of their blogging time ruminating about how they should be blogging more, much as I talk about how little time I have for exercise while I am sitting on my couch in the evening.

Many such blog posts recognize that they are enacting an internet cliche by apologizing, but do so anyway.  I’m intrigued.  What does this apology signify about blogging as a form of writing, about the kind of audience the author imagines, about the relationship with that audience.  Novelists do not apologize for the years or decades between novels, nor for that matter do essayists, short story writers, or poets.  It seems more important to have something worth saying than to say something with great regularity. While such writers may flog themselves for not writing, they do so privately or to their editors and fellow writers–readers be damned. Newspaper columnists will announce their absence for a sabbatical, without apology I might add, but mostly they go on vacation without comment other than the dry, italicized editorial note that “[Insert opinionated name here] will return in September after his vacation to the Bahamas where he is working on a book and enjoying his family.”

Only bloggers bother to apologize for not writing.

As if their readers really cared.

I suspect this has something to do with the illusion of intimacy that is made possible by interactivity.  I have come to “know” a number of people through my blog or through twitter and Facebook, and since this electronic transmission is the sum total of our human experience together it is a little bit akin to having kept up a loose friendship by phone and then having not phoned for a good long time.  On the other hand, I suspect too that it has something to do with the fact that bloggers suffer from the anxiety of silence.  The writer who publishes in the New York Times knows that her work will have readers.  The writer for the Podunk Times knows they had at least one reader who thought their work was worthwhile since an editor decided to publish it.

The blogger, on the other hand, flings words into space like dust.

The apology has the appearance of a statement intended to right a wrong I the blogger have done to you the reader by not blessing you with my words and wisdom these last two some odd months and days.

In fact, the apology is a bloggers plea. Hear me now.  Confirm my existence as a writer of some sort or another by clicking on my blog anew.  While I may truly have ignored you if I know you or, more likely, while I may truly have no idea on earth who you are, I need you nonetheless.  To drive up my blog stats.  To share me on Facebook.  To “like” my post and so like me.  To “follow” my blog to the ends of the earth even when there is nothing there to follow. Though I am bloggus absconditus, wait for me like the ancients waited for the gods.  Make me matter.

And so I am back.  For today, with no promise for tomorrow.  Without apology.