Academe is one of the most institutionally conservative communities that I’ve ever encountered. I have observed to many of my academic friends that when I left a job in the federal government to pursue an academic career, I left the second slowest, second most resistant to change institution in the nation for the absolute slowest, most resistant to change institution in the country. While that quip is mostly tongue-in-cheek, it holds true to a certain extent, at least in my own experience.
It can be maddeningly difficult to initiate some types of work or change within an academic environment. Absolutely maddening.
Enter a timeworn cliché: better to ask forgiveness than permission. The source of this cliché, which speaks to some of the fundamental experiences of life in modern academe, is in dispute. I am not interested in the phrase’s origins, though, but rather its wisdom. And hoary as the saying may be, I nonetheless find some wisdom in it. Maybe not wisdom -- maybe that’s the wrong word. I find some practicality in the saying, some practicality in the idea that -- at least sometimes -- we simply must act on an idea rather than talk it to death or subject it to committee.
I’m not going to suggest here that teacher scholars should disregard, flaunt or otherwise disobey the rules of their institutions. Where your university has articulated procedures, you’re probably foolish to disregard them, even when those procedures may seem byzantine or even counterproductive.
Regulations and procedures, however, often cannot anticipate the needs of innovative ideas, new situations. Our institutional rules and practices tend to react to the past rather than anticipate the future. Nor can our established ways of doing business always accommodate urgency and situations that must be resolved quickly.
Further, the interests of individuals and the institutions that they work for sometimes conflict. Institutions are big living organisms, and like all living organisms, they want to keep on living, at almost any cost. An individual scholar may see value in taking a particular risk, where the institution that employs that very same individual may see only liabilities.
As an example, one that is not too dramatic, take the case of a friend of mine, who prefers to go unnamed in this anecdote. She had the ambition to undertake a large-scale digital humanities project. She went through the routes one might expect in order to launch a large, academically ambitious, public-facing project that would live on the Internet. She talked to her library folks, the local IT cadre, her chain of supervisors. You can already imagine the red tape. She was constantly referred to various other “stakeholders” for their permission. Nothing doing. After about a year it was obvious that various university offices were only going to obstruct, and not enable, her ambition. No institutional support, neither financial nor moral, was forthcoming.
She was not particularly worried about receiving credit for the project at her university, and so she just did the damn thing. On her own. Perhaps it was more work, but perhaps it was less work not having to coordinate the bureaucratic dysfunction of her employing institution. Her project was successfully executed and well received.
You can imagine how delicious it was for her, once the work had been done, to say “no thanks” when, once successful, constituents of her university offered to bring her project under their official auspices. She did, though, have the luxury of not needing for the project to count in a tenure case, and may have been willing to turn the project over to the university under different circumstances.
Our freedom to take such risks seems to follow the curve of a career. There is a tremendous freedom that occurs when you are a graduate student, the freedom of, careerwise, having very little to lose. Risk taking, be it in scholarship or teaching, at least feels less high stakes than it will later become. Take advantage of that time.
The probationary period of living on the tenure track, however, seems often to instill a certain conservatism wherein junior faculty members might be averse to taking risks for fear of riling their home institutions, or piquing the sensibilities of senior colleagues who see the discipline differently from their less experienced counterparts. And I have certainly heard from term faculty (lecturers and adjuncts for whom the tenure track is not currently an option) that fear of not being reappointed prevents them from seeking either forgiveness or permission, locks them into a certain inaction, for fear of being perceived as the squeaky wheel. I can only assume, at this point in my own career, that the security of tenure offers freedom once again.
Once you acquire administrative responsibilities -- and it is inevitable, even if not necessarily a permanent condition -- you begin to see another perspective. In most cases, having administrative responsibilities means becoming responsible for much more than just one’s own scholarship and teaching. You may be, as I currently am, stewarding the curriculum and conditions within which many more instructors’ classes exist. Your actions, or inactions, will have consequences for a curriculum, and possibly also for other peoples’ careers and livelihoods, and for many more students than only the ones that you teach yourself.
We must be strategic. Going rogue, if I can be forgiven that hyperbole, does not always serve us, even though it may in some special cases be necessary. Always operating around or outside of official channels is likely to alienate our colleagues, who may come to see us as purely self-serving, and not interested in the health of our departments or larger institutions.
It’s often not really an issue of permission, but of maintaining an important professional courtesy in the relationships we have with the people that we work with. If, as a junior-level administrator with more responsibilities than authority, I fail to inform my supervisor (the department chair, in my case and this example) of some new programmatic ambition or change, then I risk blindsiding my supervisor down the road, or worse. Depending on the nature of that blindsiding, I may simply be irritating my supervisor, or, at the other end of the spectrum, risking my own employment.
And yet, there are times when we simply must act. Seeking out the permission of every possible stakeholder can be courteous, but it might be equally grave to the future of an undertaking to ask the permission of superiors whose purview or jurisdiction are irrelevant, or of stakeholders who cannot (or will not) see the promise of your vision or endeavor. I’m quite certain that on our university campuses the mincing jaws of bureaucracy and petty territorialism eviscerate many of our promising ideas before we have the opportunity to enact and test those ideas. Once an initiative has been successfully launched, it is much more difficult to quash. Of course, when acting outside the blessing of officialdom, everything is on your own shoulders. We carry the risks alone.
The “forgiveness or permission” question, and whether we are willing to take the risks to innovate or are fearful of the risks of failure, is quite obviously tied to one’s position within the hierarchies that govern our employing institutions. Forgive me, reader, for generalizing, but I fear, and feel I often see, that the strict hierarchies of higher education, combined with difficult employment circumstances across most disciplines, have cowed faculty into avoiding risk taking, into always seeking permission and rarely forgiveness. I don’t believe that we should be taking risks simply for the sake of it. But I also realize that advances in teaching and research often only occur when conventional wisdom is bucked or caution is damned. Accountability to our institutions and the rules that govern those institutions of course matters, but so too does the promise of our own, sometimes unconventional, ideas.
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