Editor’s note: Gordon’s new provost Janel Curry offered the following thoughts and goals at the 2012-2013 faculty workshop:
The Challenge of Creating Margins
By Janel Curry, August 21, 2012
The frame for my comments today is “The Challenge of Creating Margins.” But before I specifically define what I mean by margins—not marginal costs, and not being “on the margins”—I want to talk about living an academic life.
The phrase I use to best describe the Academic Life is this: It is the best of lives and the worst of lives. It allows for the development of a rich life, which integrates all aspects of our existence—service, intellectual thought, spiritual growth, and family life.
For instance, when I was traveling back from New Zealand with my daughters after a semester long sabbatical, one of them asked me, “Where are we going on our next sabbatical?” As a geographer who does cross cultural comparisons in research as well as teaches about other cultures, my work has involved travel, and often my daughters. I have to admit that when they were young they complained about our spring break trips always being “educational.” But we have become who we are as a family because of the cross-cultural experiences we shared together. This is the rich benefit of the academic life.
But the nature of the rich integration of spheres of life that come with an academic career also lead to the challenge of balancing roles and tasks. Your job is never done. I once had an 8-5 job and it was the only time in my life where I could leave it all behind at 5 and know I was finished.
In higher education, you have never done enough, read enough, prepared enough, written enough, know enough. There is always more that you COULD do. So it is the best of lives and it is the worst of lives!
What’s more, there are numerous additional changes that add to the richness and the challenge of an academic life. Pressures from outside have grown, leading to accountability for defined learning outcomes, external program reviews, greater competition for students and continual technological change. Students are engaged in inquiry-based learning—this is the most effective way of learning. But inquiry-based learning involves changes in pedagogy, and is often more time-intensive.
Obviously, Gordon has a goal of becoming a more diverse place. But our faculty then must take into account increasingly diverse student learning styles and backgrounds—it is no longer one size fits all. Our faculty carry out university-level research with undergraduates, but they do this alongside comparatively heavy teaching loads and a strong commitment to teaching.
In the past, people could tell what they had to do and whether it was complete, but presently we live in a fog of accumulating open-ended obligations with the boundary between personal and professional becoming even fuzzier, and a growing ambiguity between what is done and what remains undone (Fallows 2004, 171). I describe this as trying to walk forward while juggling, trying to decide which balls are worth keeping in the air, which in my back pocket, and which I should just let drop.
Given all this, as well as the increasing challenges and changes in higher education, the Provost’s office theme for the year is: Creating Margins. We want to construct institutional practices and curricula that build margins into our lives to aid student learning and to help us serve as models for students.
Richard Swenson’s book Margin provides the definition for what we are working toward: “Margin is the space that once existed between ourselves and our limits. It’s something held in reserve for contingencies or unanticipated situations. It’s the gap between rest and exhaustion, between breathing freely and suffocating.”
In light of this, I want to share with you five goals that the Provost’s office identified in our planning retreat: Continue reading