Administration in the Wilderness: Academic and spiritual leadership

I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the role of spirituality in professional life, and especially in the life of an administrator.  Because I work at a faith-based institution, it might seem natural to assume that we talk a lot about the spiritual aspects of what it means to be an organizational leader, a department chair or dean, or that we are regularly conducting conversations about the role faith plays in how we organize our lives together.  In fact, like any other organization or institution of higher education it is extremely easy to be caught up in the grinding day to day, to be focused on how I’m going to get the next e-mail (or 100 e-mails, no lie) answered, or fret about how late I am to the next meeting or whether I have too many priorities for my school or too few and whether they are the right ones and whether I have any budget to have any priorities at all.

While we expect our faculty to be able to understand and articulate a cognitive relationship between faith and their disciplines, and while we have learning objectives for students that are related to character and Christian life, and while I think our educational program does a pretty good job or reaching these expectations, we don’t often pause to think about what role spirituality might have in the mundane business of meeting or cutting budgets, organizing and running meetings, setting policy, formulating workloads, and the like.  In the busy context of the day to day its very easy to imagine that spirituality is something I need, but it’s something that I get mostly after work, gassing up, so to speak, in the morning or the evening for the long road ahead where there aren’t many gas stations on the horizon.

I’ve come to doubt this. And I’m a bit bemused that I’ve come to doubt this even more seriously since my experience at the Harvard Institute for Management and Leadership in Education, Harvard having some time since lost its reputation as a bastion of the faith or faiths.

But as I discussed in my last post, I was surprised at how much of the MLE experience focused on how leaders needed to practice forms of self-care and seek to be more fully human and humane in what can easily become an inhumane job.  Beyond this,  some of that attention was on what could only be called spiritual care, spiritual care of the self to be sure, but also the spiritual care of others.  Lee Bolman, in his concluding sentences of what I found to be three outstanding two hour sessions, declared that “administrative work is God’s work.”  My caps :-).  This could only mean, to my ears, that administrative work necessarily entailed spiritual attention and spiritual work and that, whether they wanted to be or not, administrative leaders are spiritual leaders and ought to recognize and embrace and take that role seriously in thinking out who they want to be and how they imagine the work of their department, school, or institution.

I think this must have meant many different things to every person in the room at the MLE. For it to have any useful meaning to the diversity of religious and spiritual experience represented in the room and in higher education generally, Bolman’s understanding of spirituality was capacious enough to cover about everything from those of use who were Christians in a traditional sense of embracing the Apostle’s Creed to a more generic and Tillichian sense of having an Ultimate Concern that centers one’s being and sense of self in the world, however secular or divine that Ultimate Concern might be.

Regardless,  it focused me in a new way that I had and have some kind of spiritual responsibility for the health of my institution and the people in it, and that I needed to be sure my own spiritual house was in some state of repair.  Moreover, it meant to me that I have to figure out ways that spirituality is something that imbues what I do as an administrator and how I understand the issues that I and others in my school or facing, and to encourage a spiritual sense in our life together, rather than assuming we should mostly draw our spiritual life from elsewhere and deplete it during the days (and too many nights) of administrative and educational labor.

I’m still, to be frank, not exactly sure what this looks like.  One small step I’ve taken is that I’ve renewed my practice of the Daily Office for Individuals and Families found in the Book of Common Prayer, my home tradition now being among that ragtag group, the Episcopalians.  The Daily Office happens throughout the day and requires only a few minutes of prayer, meditation, and reading, leaving me almost guilt-free about the time I am taking away from the latest policy memo or the letter of evaluation I should be writing.

It’s a small thing, but the pause that it entails refocused my mind and heart, and reminds me simultaneously that email is a small thing, but that even the small things we do need to be of God.  A Buddhist colleague at another institution once told me that Buddhists believed attentive states of awareness could and should be achieved in the most mundane of settings, even in the produce aisle of the grocery store.  If that’s true, it may be possible, strange as it seems to say it, to experience and live out one’s sense of spiritual vitality in the midst of a department meeting or in the reading of a policy memo.

I am not sure, right now, where else to go with this.  To be sure, I think this kind of spiritual attentiveness is not something an administrator could mandate in others, however much it could be encouraged.  That, in itself, could become destructive and oppressive.  However, I’m increasingly convinced that in the crises that are facing higher education, and that so many of us are feeling in our workaday lives, that we actually need more of this kind of thing and not less.

Along these lines, I concluded our school meeting with a meditation on Psalm 81, the evening Psalm in today’s lectionary, a privilege afforded me in my location at a faith-based institution:

Sing aloud to God our strength
shout for joy to the God of Jacob.
Raise a song, sound the tambourine,
the sweet lyre with the harp.
Blow the trumpet at the new moon,
at the full moon, on our festal day.
For it is a statute for Israel,
an ordinance of the God of Jacob.
He made it a decree in Joseph,
when he went out over the land of Egypt.

I found this passage unusually helpful today.  The people of Israel in this poem of are told to worship, not because they felt good, not because their budgets were flush, and not because they had everything that they wanted.  Indeed, quite the opposite, they are told to worship as they leave the land of Egypt….and set out in to the wilderness for forty years as the story goes, subsisting on manna, beset by enemies, and lost to uncertainty, until most of them had died in the desert.  (I also especially like this passage because although my reading of the daily office has waxed and waned over the years, and more often waned than waxed, my spiritual life has been sustained by singing and my very deep conviction with St. Francis that he who sings prays twice.)  Although the commandment to worship in the midst of difficulty seems perverse, it rings true to my sense that in the midst of difficulty, we are sustained and healed when we understand those difficulties in relation to and connection with a reality larger than ourselves.  In pausing to remember that there is no thing beyond the care of the Creator, we are sustained in the effort to care for one another.

As I say, I think we may need more of this in higher education and not less, whatever the framework of our own spirituality may be. Along with our depleted budgets, we need to be wary of our depleted spirits, since the greatest policies and the most well-conceived programs will only live as fully as the people who live in to them.

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: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2012/08/09/businesses-pay-british-professor-teach-them-about-wordsworth#ixzz236bQaECf 
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.

The Words matter: Digital Humanities Vocabulary 101

I always know that if the hits on my blog spike it has less to do with anything I’ve said than with the fact that some good soul or souls out there have bothered to mention me on their own much more well-read and insightful blogs. This has happened several times with the far flung folks in the Digital Humanities who I mostly only know virtually through Twitter and other social media, as well as with my colleague John Fea over at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, who I acknowledge both virtually and when I pass him in the hallway. Just today, Rebecca Davis over at NITLE wrote a blog post mentioning me and some of my own floundering engagement as an administrator trying to get my mind around what was happening in this field.

Just a word about Rebecca’s post. She’s begun a very interesting project, partly in response to the floundering of folks like me, designed to provide a glossary of terms to help beginners get a grip on things and begin to navigate the thickets of the Digital Humanities. She ran an experiment at a couple of conferences to get things started:

Normally, academics getting to know a new discipline would read about it before doing it. But, the ethos of doing in digital humanities is so strong, that THATCamps ask beginners to engage in doing digital humanities (more hack, less yack). To that end, at my last workshop (at the Institute for Pedagogy in the Liberal Arts hosted by Oxford College of Emory University), I came up with a strategy to let beginners do and help the digital humanities veterans be sensitive to specialist vocabulary. I asked my workshop participants to write down on a post-it note every term they heard from me or other workshop participants that they didn’t know. Then we added them to our workshop wiki and set about defining them. We accumulated quite a few terms (35 total). Although my co-teacher Sean Lind, Digital Services Librarian at Oxford, ended up contributing most of the definitions, I think the list was still useful as an indicator of terms veterans need to be prepared to define.

I repeated the experiment at THATCamp LAC 2012 by proposing a session on a digital humanities glossary and setting up a google doc for the glossary. I think that session happened, though I didn’t make it. Certainly terms were added to the doc throughout the THATcamp, with a final total of 28 terms.

Looking at this admittedly small sample, let me share some preliminary conclusions. There were only five terms that both lists shared (one of which I had contributed by initiating each list with the acronym DH):

  • Crowdsourcing
  • DH = Digital Humanities
  • Hashtag
  • Open Access (OA)
  • TEI= Text Encoding Initiative
I love this idea, love the activity, and I hope that Rebecca’s idea for a glossary takes off. The lists she’s come up with to start seem about right. I will say I ended my first THATCamp still entirely clueless about what TEI stood for and I’m still not entirely sure I could define “XML” for anyone else, even though I think I know it when I see it. (In my defense, I actually did know what crowd sourcing, hashtag, and open access indicated, although I hadn’t the foggiest how you did any of them).
Regarding hacking and yacking, I am, so far, more of a digital humanities advocate than a digital humanities practitioner, a position necessitated both by my ignorance and my position as an administrator with too little time to read his email, much less pursue digital humanities projects. From this position as a facilitator, I feel a little reluctant to take a position, other than to say words matter. Having the word for something gives you one way to act on the world. I’ve always been deeply moved by the section of The Autobiography of Malcolm X wherein he describes learning to read by reading the dictionary. This seems right. If you want to act in a world learn its words, start to speak its language even if at first you are only stringing nouns together into something that only vaguely resembles a sentence.Words became the necessary means of action. Thus, I think that Rebecca’s project will be a boon to those who are still at the stage of the DH language game where they are mostly pointing and grunting.

I started this post thinking I was going to write about intellectual generosity. How important it is and what it looks like when you find it. That will have to wait, but I will say I have appreciated the large hearted generosity of the many folks in DH who know they are blazing a trail and are willing to lay out signposts and serve as guides to others on the path.

Hermeneutics of the stack and the list: unreading journals in print or online

The New York Times reported yesterday that The Wilson Quarterly will put out its final print issue in July ( Wilson Quarterly to End Print Publication – NYTimes.com). The editorial staff seemed sanguine.

“We’re not going on the Web per se,” Steven Lagerfeld, the magazine’s editor, said in an interview. “We already have a Web site. The magazine will simply be published in a somewhat different form as an app,” first in the iTunes store and later on the Android platform.

And, to be honest, I’m sanguine too.  Although, I noted a the demise of the University of Missouri Press with a half shudder last week, I have to admit that I don’t greet the demise of print journals with the same anxiety.  I’ve recognized lately that I mostly buy paper journals so I can have access to their online manifestations or because I feel guilty knowing that online long form journalism and feature writing has yet to find a way to monetize itself effectively. I try to do my part by littering my office and bedroom with stack and stacks of largely unopened New York Reviews, New Yorkers, Chronicles of Higher Ed, and a few other lesser known magazines and specialist journals. But most of my non-book reading, long form or not, is done on my iPad.

I will leave the question of what we will do if good journals like the Wilson Quarterly really can’t survive on iTunes distribution (WQ only survived in paper because of the indulgence of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars). I’m more interested at the moment in the fact of the stack and what it signifies in the intellectual life.  Every intellectual I know of is guilty of stockpiling books and journals that  she never reads, and can never reasonably expect to, at least not if she has a day job.  The stack is not simply a repository of knowledge and intellectual stimulation beckoning to the reader, drawing him away from other mundane tasks like reading or preparing for class with an ennobling idea of staying informed. (Side note:  academia is the one place in life where every activity of daily life can be construed as tax deductible; just make a note about it and write “possible idea for future article” at the top of the page.)

No, The stack is also a signifier.  It exists not so much to read, since most academics give up hopelessly on the idea of reading every word of the journals that they receive.  The stack exists to be observed.  Observed on the one hand by the academic him or herself, a reassuring sign of one’s own seriousness, that one reads such thing and is conversant with the big ideas, or at least the nifty hot ideas, about culture high and low.  The stack also exists to be observed by others:  the rare student who comes by during office hours, the dean who happens to drop by to say hello, the colleagues coming in to ask you out for coffee–“Oh, you already got the latest issue of PMLA!” The stack suggests you are uptodate, or intend to be.  The stack communicates your values.  Which journal do you put strategically out at the edge of the desk to be observed by others, which do you stack heedlessly on top of the file cabinet.  Even the hopelessly disheveled office can signify, as did Derrida’s constantly disheveled hair; I am too busy and thinking too many big thoughts to be concerned with neatness.

The stack, like the Wilson Quarterly, is on its way out, at least for academics.  I realized four or five years ago that e-books would signify the end of a certain form of identification since people would no longer self-consciously display their reading matter in coffee houses or on subways, every text hidden in the anonymous and private cover of the Kindle or now the iPad.  While I could connect now with other readers in Tibet or Siberia, I could not say off-handedly to the college student sitting next to me–“Oh, you’re reading Jonathan Safran Foer, I loved that book!”

The stack too is going and will soon be gone.  Replaced now by the endless and endlessly growing list of articles on Instapaper that I pretend I will get back to.  This has not yet had the effect of neatening my office, but it will remove one more chance at self-display.  I will soon be accountable only for what I know and what I can actually talk about, not what I can intimate by the stacks of unread paper sitting on my desk.

Enjoy your summer reading. Faster! Faster!: Technology, Recreation, and Being Human

A nice essay from novelist Graham Swift in the New York Times on the issues of reading, writing, speed and leisure.  A lot of what’s here is well travelled ground, though travelled well again by Swift.  I especially noted his sense in which time-saving has become the means by which we are enslaved to time.

A good novel is like a welcome pause in the flow of our existence; a great novel is forever revisitable. Novels can linger with us long after we’ve read them — even, and perhaps particularly, novels that compel us to read them, all other concerns forgotten, in a single intense sitting. We may sometimes count pages as we read, but I don’t think we look at our watches to see how time is slipping away.

That, in fact, is the position of the skeptical nonreader who says, “I have no time to read,” and who deems the pace of life no longer able to accommodate the apparently laggard process of reading books. We have developed a wealth of technologies that are supposed to save us time for leisurely pursuits, but for some this has only made such pursuits seem ponderous and archaic. ­“Saving time” has made us slaves to speed.

via The Narrative Physics of Novels – NYTimes.com.

To some degree Swift is picking up on a perpetual conundrum in the advancements of technology, a dialectic by which we pursue technological ends to make our lives easier, more convenient, less consumed by work and more open to enrichment. Making onerous tasks more efficient has been the dream of technology from indoor plumbing to the washing machine to email. In short we pursue technological means to make our lives more human.

And in some ways and places, we are able to achieve that end.  Who would want, really, to live in the Middle Ages anywhere except in Second Life.  Your expected life span at birth would have been about 30 years, compared to a global average today in the mid to upper 60s, and it would have been a 30 years far more grinding and difficult than what most of the world experiences today (with, of course, important and grievous exceptions).  You would likely have been hopelessly illiterate, cut off from even the possibility of entering a library (much less purchasing a handmade codex in a bookstore), and you would have had no means of being informed of what happened in the next valley last week, much less what happened in Beijing 10 minutes ago.  It is little wonder that  becoming a monk or a priest ranked high on the list of desirable medieval occupations.  Where else were you guaranteed a reward in heaven, as well as at least some access to those things we consider basic features of our contemporary humanity–literacy, education, art, music, a life not under the dominion of physical labor.  What we usually mean when we romanticize the ancient world (or for that matter the 1950s) is that we want all the fruits of our modern era with out the new enslavements that accompany them

At the same time, of course, our technological advances have often been promoted as a gift to humankind in general, but they have as readily been employed to advance a narrow version of human productivity in the marketplace.  Our technologies facilitate fast communication;  This mostly means that we are now expected to communicate more than ever, and they also raise expectations about just exactly what can get done.  Technology vastly expands the range or information we can thoughtfully engage, but increases the sense that we are responsible for knowing something about everything, instead of knowing everything about the few dozen books my great grandparents might have had in their possession.  One reason the vaunted yeoman farmer knew something about Shakespeare, could memorize vast expanses of the bible, and could endure sermons and speeches that lasted for hours is because he didn’t have a twitter feed. Nor did he have an Outlook Calendar that becomes an endless to do list generated by others.

I do think the novel, even in its e-book form, resists this need for speed.  On the other hand, it is worth saying that reading like this must be practiced like other things.  I find that when I take a couple of vacation days for a long weekend (like this weekend), it takes me about 2/3 of a day to slow down and relax and allow myself to pause.  Luckily, I can do this more readily with novels, even at the end of a hectic and too full day or week.  But that might be possible because I learned how to do it in another world, one without the bells and whistles that call for my attention through my multiple devices with their glowing LCDs.

Novel reading is a learned skill, and I wonder whether our students learn it well enough. Re-creation is a learned skill, one we need to be fully ourselves, and I do wonder whether we lose that capacity for pause in our speedy lives.