From the Provost: The Challenge of Creating Margins

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:

Goal #1

We want to work with departments and curriculum committees, and challenge them to help develop incentives for the creation of margins in the curriculum. Why? Creating margins for students enhances their education experiences—it allows for them to take advantage of global education opportunities; internships, etc. And creating margins in the curriculum helps with having an overall goal of trying to get faculty to a place where the number of course preparations per semester are reduced.

So some questions to consider might be: What should incentives be for departments? How can innovative technologies help us reach this goal?  In addition, departments need to also answer the questions:  What should we stop doing? “Stop doing” lists are more important than “to do” lists (Kurz and Scannell).  And in order to make decisions on priorities, you have to be able to answer the question:  How do we know if something we are doing is effective? 

Goal #2

We want to invest in faculty development that helps our professors develop skills for managing the demands on their time, develops leadership skills, and supports development in the areas of both scholarship and pedagogy. That means several things for us (in no particular order): First, I am going to ask Faculty Development Committee to consider identifying just a single innovative pedagogy each year for faculty to explore.  Second, the college has set aside $20,000 for summer research stipends for faculty for the summer of 2013.  Third, we have already moved to support the faculty through the hiring of a new grant-writer, Hilary Sherrat.  Faculty will also be given small honoraria for each grant that is submitted, an attempt to honor their time and effort.  In addition, a grants working group will be meeting to help match opportunities with faculty interests.  Fourth, I will be offering several opportunities for faculty growth in the form of workshops, both in the area of scholarship (A 5-year plan of scholarship workshop) and institutional leadership (PTL or Post-Tenure Life retreat).  Finally, seed money will be available for interdisciplinary reading groups.  These may be tied to speakers who are already coming to campus.  This goal and its elements if about focusing attention in key area, providing resources for these areas, and offering opportunities for growth in these areas as well.

Goal #3

We want to find ways to integrate aspects of faculty lives so that spheres are a more coherent whole. We can do this through undergraduate research—which was why I sent three faculty (Justin Topp, Dwight Tshudy, Suzanne Phillips) to a Council for Undergraduate Research conference this summer. Also, we can do this by supporting integrative approaches to service, research, and learning, and by looking for synergism amongst programs, global education, experiential education like service learning and internships.

Goal #4

We want to create margins through trying to make processes clear and consistent. For instance, we will working to match practice with official policy, a two-year process of revising the faculty handbook and policies that will involve identifying areas of needed work and moving revisions all together through the government process.

We are looking at the overall way that we collect information to see if we can support the work of departments and faculty through a more coherent and integrated process which might involve for example, collecting data in a way that easily supports departmental assessment, or collecting faculty scholarly information in a manner that supports grant writing.

Goal #5

We have a goal of lavish communication. One way will be to initiate roundtable discussions around topics without agendas—lunch gatherings over the year—to talk about subjects like sustainability, service-learning, pedagogy, diversity, global education, leadership, governance. And we want to have celebrations, especially when grant applications go out.

The establishment of these goals lead me back to the question: Why do we need margins in both our personal lives and our institutional life in the first place? We need room and energy for new thoughts, for being able to follow our passions, and for growth.  I would also say that we need room and energy to addresses the challenges facing higher education.

We also need room for investing in other spheres of our lives—to create balance in one’s life as a coping mechanism for stress and stress management. People with self-complexity who are committed to roles in several areas of their lives have multiple resources to draw upon when faced with stress; resting from work to focus on other areas of one’s life can help develop a more balanced lifestyle, which in turn provides greater psychological resilience (Diddams, et al 2004, 317).

Margins create room for personal agency. It is not necessarily the stressful situation itself that creates burnout, but it’s being coupled with a lack of personal agency (Diddams, et a. 2004, 318). In some ways that is why I want faculty to CHOOSE to stay at Gordon every year.

And finally, we need margins for spiritual formation. People with mature spiritual formation tend to see themselves in active collaboration with God to solve life’s problems (Diddams et a. 2004, 318-319). Time to reflect leads to more contentment that a life that is a continual barrage of tasks and consumption (Diddams et al. 2004, 319).

But of course, we also need margins in our lives because we model the Christian life for our students. Living with margins is part of our teaching.

Diddams, Margaret, Lisa Surdyk, Denise Daniels, and Jeff Van Duzer. 2004. “Implications of Biblical Principles of Rhythm and Rest for Individual and Organizational Practices.” Christian Scholars Review 33 (3):311-332.

Fallows, James. 2004. “Organize Your Life!” The Atlantic Monthly (July/August): 171-176.

Kurz, Kathy and Jim Scannell. “Getting to Great:  Just what does Jim Collins’ Good to Great have to do with higher education?  Plenty” Scannell & Kurz, Inc (

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