In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.
This one is both a confession and a thank you.
Every once in a while, the level of toxicity in this role gets high enough that I have to seek out some colleagues, close the door, and get a pep talk. There’s just no other way to stay sane.
The best pep talks manage to combine a view of the big picture with just enough credible observations of strengths to make it seem manageable. They’re about the situation, as seen from a helpful distance.
When you’re “in the weeds,” as my new favorite saying goes, it can be hard to see the point. That happens from time to time, and those of us who last learn to tough out most of them. But when the weeds are especially thick and have thorns on them, and seem to go on forever, it can be hard not to lose the path. Having someone standing on the outside telling you “it’s that way, idiot!” can make a real difference.
This is where transparency hits its useful limits.
The worst situations feature glaring gaps between what gets said in public and what’s really going on. Proxy issues and shadowboxing divert energy from the task at hand, and frequently cause issues of their own. By the time you get to the third derivative of what you were originally actually talking about, it can be a challenge not to get lost in the curlicues. The problem is that cutting through the tertiary issues too abruptly in public would simply fuel the fire. Behind closed doors, though, you can speak the actual truth. Yes, some of it will be venting, but that’s a necessary part of the process. Sometimes venting can actually help you realize that there’s more to the picture, since saying it out loud makes it harder to skip the leaps in logic. And sometimes it just helps to answer the nagging question “am I the only one who sees how ridiculous this is?”
I’ve both given and received pep talks, and can honestly say that both roles can be gratifying. Receiving a pep talk at the right time can restore needed perspective. Giving a pep talk at the right time is sort of like teaching; there’s something gratifying in watching the lightbulb go on over somebody’s head.
So this is a confession that sometimes I need the pep talk, and a thank you to the folks who provided them recently. Sometimes we all need to be reminded of our better selves.