enabling one’s learning and that of others

Beech Forest, Provincetown, MA, 10 November 2012

I haven’t walked in Beech Forest often since spring. Inadvertently I found my way there this morning, after finding too many hunters parked at the Fire Road. Turning the path after the marsh, I remember that this is where I took the call alerting me to my dad’s hospitalization. Reflexively looking into groves, I expect lady slippers. They were abundant in the days leading to his death, and for a time after.

Last night, walking in town, I was reminded of those days, too. These memories are of pacing in front of certain buildings and phone calls — many with my mom, but many others with colleagues. It feels impossible now to consider that it was under those circumstances that I agreed to assume (even if only temporarily) new leadership responsibilities at work. I resisted the invitation, but probably accepted because it was the most expedient way to manage the least of my problems.

I’m aware that people my age are supposed to aspire to greater authority and status within their professional lives, which makes me question my aversion to assuming positions of institutional leadership. I have spent much of the last decade trying to disassociate myself from such positions, but find that I’m called back. It’s flattering, of course, to be told that you have abilities, but strange to continually be called to hold space for the learning and work of others. It’s not that I don’t value this kind of work, but rather that I’ve done it. I’ve followed my questions about leadership and, at least for now, found my answers. It was good work, which I still value, but I’m also aware that the last twenty-four years of my professional life were largely spent with the details of a community nipping at my heels. This is wearing and diminishing. It requires one to defer one’s interests in service to the concerns of others. I’ve come to believe that assuming the responsibility that enables the creative and intellectual  practices of others within a community inevitably inhibits the advancement of one’s own.

Clearly, given the fact that I’ve said yes to leadership positions twice over the past seven years, my qualms about academic leadership is more ambivalence than outright aversion. When I’m honest with myself, I can see that my ambivalence lays with the insistent performance of knowing, certainty, and self-importance (even when critiquing those locations) that’s endemic in the academy — and the ways that navigating these poses is exhausting. i know these performances are a fiction; often, too often a subterfuge avoiding facing fears of inadequacy and nagging doubt. This feels especially true in the arts, where the bulwark of social relevance has been especially eroded. What keeps me from stepping into full aversion is my commitment to learning and my belief that the arts provide an intuitive lens through which human meaning is made evident. I understand the absolute need for vital sites of learning. I want higher education to work. I want there to be new, viable and dynamic models for supporting the learning of artists. I am not at all sure that the leadership paradigms in the academy are focused on these imperatives — or can even enable them.

Generative change within the academy rarely comes from administrators or institutional planning. It rarely comes from people invested in the structures and economies of institutions. In my experience it most often comes from the dialogue between learners and teachers — the place where concrete concerns of the world can press against the powerful equilibrium of institutional systems. This, of course, is a sideways way of saying that I think I can be more effective in prompting change from within the learning dialectic than I can be in an administrative chair. Yet, I’m also aware that this particular piece of intuition doesn’t really address my concerns about being distracted from my own learning and creative practice.

I am also aware that I’m creating an arbitrary opposition by separating my learning from the process of enabling the learning of others –whether administratively or via teaching and learning. I know that administration can be a practice, too. it’s just not my practice. It’s not categorically true that assuming leadership must avert one from learning and growing a creative practice. Yet, it can be when enabling the learning of others becomes a distraction from content and possibility, and mired in learners’ resistance to developing their own practice and systemic battles about the most mundane decisions.  Sorting through this tangle is part of my work for the next few months. In the meantime, I need to uncover from the dust of the last year what I understand my own creative practice to be.

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