• 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.

Title

The Not-Yet File

Ideas for some day ....

September 13, 2017
 
 

This week I had a chance to open up the not-yet file and pull something out. You’ve probably done it, too.

The not-yet file is my shorthand for the mental spot that I put ideas that I’m pretty sure will come in handy at some point, but for which the stars haven’t aligned yet. Like any good file, it has multiple subfiles:

  • “I know when it will be useful.” This is the easiest case. “Once we get approval for x, then we can move forward with y.”  
  • “I know what needs to happen for this to be useful.”  This is the conditional-tense version of the first one. It’s a variation on contingency planning.  Whether it’s worth keeping these ideas depends on the guesstimated likelihood of the right conditions coming around. Grant applications that haven’t been answered yet are an obvious case. “If we get the grant, then we can…”  
  • “This will be great if we can persuade so-and-so.” This is similar to the second one, but with a much more difficult task of guesstimation. Other people’s minds can be hard to predict, especially with unknowable changes in circumstance between now and then.  

Then, there are the trickier cases:

  • “I don’t know if this is a good idea or not, but I can’t stop thinking about it.” Most of us have some of these. The key here is being able to get some sort of low-cost reality check. For example, I remain convinced that no state, legislature, governor, or other politician is allowed to say one single word about developmental math until they are willing to mandate four years of math in high school. Most states haven’t, for reasons that passeth understanding. I don’t trot this one out very often, because the tangents and blowback it generates aren’t helpful. But I’ve never seen or heard a convincing counterargument.
  • “I can’t do this right now, but it’s too good to discard.” These come up frequently. Sometimes the barriers are financial, sometimes logistical, sometimes political.  In rare cases, the stars eventually align and all is well. That happened to me once at Holyoke: the dean for nursing came to me in the midst of the recession and said she needed a new building. I smiled politely, sighed, and sent her on her way.  A few months later, the director of the foundation announced that someone had offered to sell the college a building for cheap, but she wasn’t sure what we should do with it.  I had an answer at the ready; now, the new nursing building is up and running. More often, though, these ideas become the origin stories for other, more practical versions that later come to fruition. They function as ideals, rather than ideas; they give direction to other ideas.  At best, they’re asymptotic; we can get closer to them, but never really touch them. That’s okay; there’s often real value in getting closer.
  • “I can’t put my finger on it, but there’s something here…” These have been known to drive me, and colleagues, mildly crazy. It’s sort of like in the barbaric days before Shazam, when you heard a snippet of a song that you sort of recognized but couldn’t place; it would wind up taking up far more brainspace than it should. These typically happen in discussions with folks in other lines of work, whether as prospective partners or as interested citizens. They’ll mention something that springs from a different frame of reference. It won’t quite work as stated, but there’s something in it that won’t let you dismiss it.  You just can’t quite place it.  I’ve been known to obsess over these, sometimes to the palpable irritation of those around me. The process with these tends to consist of an undefined period of noodling, followed by a breakthrough. The noodling step, tragically, cannot be skipped.
  • “Something’s not right…” Some people use the phrase “gut feeling” to refer to powerful certainty that they can’t explain. But for me, often, gut feelings don’t come with narration. There’s a vague, but palpable, sense that something isn’t right; figuring out what that is can take a while.  Still, that ineffable sense of something being wrong can be a powerful motivator. These are the topics for which solutions sometimes appear while driving, or in the shower. My theory is that different parts of the brain work at different speeds, and sometimes it takes a while for the verbal part to catch up to whatever instinct is sending distress vibes.  

I’m sure there are more.  Wise and worldly readers, what does your not-yet file look like?

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