Niether For Nor Against: Notes on the Institution

Working as a department chair for seven out of the past ten years I have heard my share of faculty who appear to think that the administration is an “other” and that the only viable position to take as a member of the faculty is to oppose what “those people” are doing.

Last night, sitting with a group of students working our way through Walt Whitman’s “Calamus” sequence, one of them called attention to the poem, “I Hear It was Charged Against Me.” We had spent the good part of the past week working through Whitman’s late (and great) essay “Democratic Vistas,” and we had talked about his approach to social and cultural change. “I hear it was charged against me that I sought to destroy institutions,” Whitman begins his poem. “But really I am neither for nor against them.”

Might Whitman’s response to the charges against him– neither for nor against–be a useful position from which to think about the institution and the positions we occupy within them? In fact, the institution (and our relationship to them) was among the most engaging to John and me when we began talking about these issues seriously. And clarifying just what we are talking about when we talk about institutions (and our relationship to them) has proved to be among the most useful for participants in our Staying Alive workshops.

Here is how John and I describe the academic institution:

1) as a business

  • Consists of workers, management, means of production, product, customers, stakeholders
  • Runs on money, part of the economy
  • Produces education, evaluation/sorting, and research
  • A feudal organization (hierarchical, not a democracy, nobility vs. serfs)

2) as conservative, immobile

  • A reptilian brain
  • Motivated only to survive & grow
  • To it you are skilled labor, a function not a person
  • Does not care about your personal growth

We can talk about humane values and community until its time to harvest the garlic and potatoes and cabbage. And we should all be deeply engaged in those day-to-day acts that can make our work more humane–in good part by recognizing and valuing every member of the institution. But as we go about our days, we should remember the nature of institutions. That is, when we are working as members of an institution (“both in and out of the game”) we must have a much more informed sense of where we are (“and watching and wondering at it”).

Such was my point in arguing for shared governance: taking part in improving the condition of the institution but not proceeding as if the institution has your (or anyone’s) best interests in mind.

This entry was posted in Basic Concepts, Citizen phase, Institution, Tool Box and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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