"Invisibles" and Higher Ed

Is this the book that everyone on campus should read next?

July 9, 2014

Invisibles: The Power of Anonymous Work in an Age of Relentless Self-Promotion by David Zweig

Published, June 2014

Invisibles is an important and timely book.  

It is also great fun to read, as Zweig builds his case not through abstract reasoning but through telling stories (very detailed and interesting stories) about a set of amazing professionals whose work is largely invisible.  

We spend time a the U.N. with a simultaneous interpreter, in a rising Chinese skyscraper with the structural engineer, with Radiohead’s sound tech, and with the piano tuner for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.  

Not only does Zweig do a wonderful job of illustrating his thesis that invisible work is both more rewarding and usually more productive than work that is done for external recognition, we also learn a great deal about the world’s that these Invisible inhabit.

There are 2 groups on campus that would love and benefit from this fine book:

Group 1 - Our Students:  

The message that our students constantly receive from the larger culture (and maybe inadvertantly from us) is that they need stand out.  Certainly that is the message of the college application process that got them to your school in the first place.

Students feel a constant pressure to develop their personal brand, and shape their academic and future professional persona.  

The rise of social media, from Facebook to Twitter to Instagram to whatever is next, has pushed this image creation and maintenance requirement to new heights.  

If peer groups and future employers are going to connect and research you online then it must be necessary to create an impressive online version of yourself.

The problem, as Zweig beautifully elucidates, is that personal branding turns out to be mostly worthless.  The degree to which you stick out, the level to which you are Internet famous (or have tons of Facebook or Twitter followers), doesn’t matter much for those things that are most important.  These attributes include long-term work success and overall satisfaction in one’s chosen profession.

What does matter is the degree to which one takes an intrinsic satisfaction in the work.  The amount that our work can fulfill our personal goals, and the level to which we can contribute to both the work of others and to a larger cause.

Our students would be better served spending their time exploring and experimenting in areas that they may want to work in, and then developing a mastery in those areas, rather than devoting hours to tweaking and updating their social media presences.   

The best plan for our students would be to be less concerned with standing out and becoming known for a particular expertise or accomplishment, and more time actually working (heads down, anonymously) on whatever they develop an internal passion to do.

Group 2 - Us (Academic Type People):

Most people who work in and around higher ed are mostly invisible.  Too much attention gets focused on those with the biggest presence and largest profile.  The thought leaders and the academic rock stars.

The reality is that any college or university runs on the work of a large number of professionals who are not in higher ed for the external recognition.

This is true for faculty and non-faculty educators (my new name for higher ed staff - I hope that it catches on).

For every one famous professor, the academic that can deliver the charismatic performative lecture and whose books and articles and blog posts are known throughout professional and professorial circles, there are some huge multiple of higher ed people whose work is critical if our students are to be educated and if knowledge is to be created.  

This invisible work might be teaching or research.  Most teachers and researchers are in it for the intrinsic love of teaching or creating new knowledge.

This invisible work might come from those professionals who worked to make the classroom A/V work right, who setup the technologies used for teaching, or who partnered with the teaching faculty to help them figure out their learning goals and assignments.  They might be instructional designers or librarians, media professionals or technology experts.

At every stage of the academic enterprise we have professionals dedicated to the mission of the institution but who are seldom receive any public adulation or recognition.  Nor would they want this attention.  

How many people do we have working on campus whose work is central to our academic mission but whose work is not well know outside of their departments and a few other colleagues around campus?   

What are you reading?


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