Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Where do you want me to be?

Today was, sadly, the last of four meetings of the Learning Circle I took part in this semester, on Palmer and Zajonc's The heart of higher education (about which I've posted recently before)...even sadder was the fact that I'd only been able to attend two of the four meetings, other obligations taking me out of town and off campus. I've found this text eye-opening and enriching, and the conversations surrounding it even more enriching still.

I found myself thinking out loud in the circle today, wondering what our academic lives would look like if we took ourselves out of our offices and started doing more of our work more publicly. What if I started holding office an office hour or two on the quad, or in the student union, or in the glasshouse adjacent to the library? What if my colleagues joined me in this, sharing a table with me as we worked with our students, observing firsthand how we interact with them, witnessing the kind of learning that goes on in one anothers' disciplines?

Soon might fall the disciplinary boundaries we're all quick to dismiss but unconsciously eager to maintain. At a university so dedicated as mine purports to be to the liberal arts, we ought to be all about interdisciplinary exchange that blurs distinctions between this field and that. But when it comes down to it, as often as not we retreat inside our hard-shelled departmental silos. "I'm all for interdisciplinarity," we might say, but in practice we add "as long as it happens on someone else's time."

But if we started seeing more of each other on the quad, in the union, in the glasshouse, maybe we'd know more about each other. We'd each know more about other's passions and pursuits, and more about the way the other thinks. We'd be able, at least momentarily, to adopt the other's disciplinary perspectives, and when our students ask us why they're asked to take courses in that field or this, we'd be able to tell them why, honestly, earnestly, and confidently.

If we knew more about each other, perhaps we wouldn't find the sort of territorial entrenchment I'm witnessing right now in various departments' defenses of their current curricula to the Curricular Sustainability Subgroup of CRTF which I'm heading up. Sadly, though perhaps not surprisingly, many departments' chairs are convinced of the inestimable value of their own departments' offerings, and of the waste and profligacy that must go on elsewhere in the curriculum to result in such a burdensome mess. The written responses we've received from most chairs are for the most part meticulously-crafted hagiographies telling tales of the author's department's excellence. Without doubt there is good going on in every corner of campus, but equally doubtlessly I know we're all to blame for the unsustainable burden we've taken onto our own shoulders.

If we were to meet face-to-face more often, there'd be no need for polemic; we could engage in frank but warm discussions. It's hardly a coincidence that the considerable face-to-face work the Curricular Sustainability Subgroup has done this summer and fall has been done so smoothly and so amicably. After all, it's difficult to be defensive (or to go on the offense) when your interlocutor is sitting right in front of you. Face-to-face meetings encourage warmth, empathy, and honesty. The "rocking chair conversations" Parker J. Palmer talks about in Chapter 6 of his book with Arthur Zajonc are the perfect places for real and lasting change.

I'm ready to set out some rocking chairs. I'd like to try this, if just for a few hours each week. Maybe while the weather's nice, the steps of the library might do. When it starts getting colder and darker earlier in the day, I can move to the Pinnacle in the student union. Students, colleagues, let me know: where do you want me to be?

1 comment:

Jack Derbyshire said...

Well said! I'd love to see more of my professors working hard on the quad like the rest of us students. Or, perhaps, you could take a small break, pick up a disc, and throw around! Enjoy the sun while it remains, and break unnecessary boundaries while you're doing it.

I know it's been a while since you've heard from me, but I'm still reading.