• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    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.


On Creativity

“Yes, and” to Deborah Cohan’s column.

September 26, 2022

Deborah Cohan has a thoughtful piece in Inside Higher Ed on trying to maintain and even encourage creativity while doing full-time academic work.

Yes, and.

It’s even harder on the administrative side, given how little direct control individual administrators have over outcomes. At least with teaching, I could take satisfaction in a really good class discussion. I could pour creative energy into engaging classroom exercises, where I had enough control to have a real shot at making them happen. In administration, triumphs are slower, more collaborative and less controllable. They’re important, but if you rely on them for job satisfaction, you may be in for a rough ride. That’s all the more true in environments of budget-cutting. Administrators also tend to work with narrower strike zones when it comes to humor. Upon moving from faculty to administration, I quickly discovered that clever/snarky asides that elicited smirks or chuckles when I was on the faculty elicited looks of horror or shock coming from an administrator. I had to lean even more into my unintentional Bob Newhart impression just to avoid giving offense.

Cohan suggests drawing inspiration from other creative fields, and I couldn’t agree more. (This may be another argument for a liberal arts education, come to think of it.) Even if the content is different, many of the habits apply.

For example, when I was a graduate student in the ’90s, I had the chance to interview the sociologist Richard Sennett. In the course of the conversation, I mentioned that he published a slew of books while in his 20s and early 30s, some of which are classics, and I asked how he managed to do that. He replied that he had been trained as a cellist, and as a cellist, he practiced every day. When he hurt his hand and moved from cello to sociology, he applied the same logic to writing as he had to practicing: he wrote every day. It stuck with me, although I can only manage up to five days a week. His point was that if you wait for inspiration, you won’t get much done. You have to keep plugging away. I couldn’t argue.

In retrospect, there were earlier inspirations. If you had asked me in high school whose career I would want, I might have said Ellen Goodman. She was a syndicated opinion columnist who wrote for The Boston Globe, but I read her in the Rochester papers. She had a way of stitching together personal narrative with political insights that made the latter accessible. I still think of my blog as being in that tradition, only published on screens instead of newsprint and focused more on higher education than politics.

I don’t think many teens in the mid-’80s had favorite opinion columnists. That may explain some of my early challenges with dating. Alas.

Comedy has been a great source of inspiration, too. I admire great comedians because I’ve seen enough terrible ones to have a sense of how difficult it must be. In his memoir Born Standing Up, Steve Martin—whom I consider a genius—mentioned one of the challenges of being a comedian on tour is being at least pretty good day after day. As he put it, the occasional great night is like the occasional great hand in poker: over time, it’s statistically likely that one will happen at some point. The real challenge is being consistently good, even when circumstances aren’t in your favor. That resonated, too. Great moments are rare and serendipitous, but the serendipity only happens when you’re doing the work. You have to do the work.

At least in my own case, frequent writing helps me figure out what I think about various issues by forcing me to put them into a defensible context. That enables a certain consistency over time. More than once, I’ve had conversations that go like this:

Colleague: Do you remember you said x?

Me: No, but that sounds like something I’d say.

Colleague: So we’re still okay with that?

Me: Of course!

It’s a variation on Mark Twain’s line that the truth is easier to remember. I take it as a compliment when my direct reports say something like, “I knew how you’d see this, and sure enough …” In administration, a certain predictability is a virtue. Thinking issues through by writing about them helps me be reasonably consistent over time.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you do to keep creativity alive while working the day job? (As always, I can be reached via email at deandad at gmail dot com, or on Twitter at deandad.)

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Matt Reed

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