Higher Ed and the Small-Big Life

Why do we choose to work in higher ed?

February 9, 2016

A career in higher ed provides what I’ve come to think of as a small-big life. This is the best kind of life to have.

Small Life: Higher ed life is small because it is built on relationships. We build relationships with our students and with our colleagues. Our success as educators - whether we are working in a teaching or research or staff role (or all 3) - is built on the quality of our relationships. The number of faculty and staff that I work with on a day-to-day basis is probably less than 100. The fact that I know my colleagues as whole people - that I know about their family lives and interests outside of work - makes our shared campus work more effective and gratifying.

Big Life:  A higher ed life is a big life because we get to grapple with big ideas. What could be bigger than thinking about, and having an impact on, what a college education should look like in the 21st century? We get to take in everything that we are understanding about how the brain learns, combine this research with the capabilities of new technologies, and then work to help create the best teaching and learning environments for our educators and our students. There is no more exciting question than that of figuring out what higher education will look like in the future - and we get to contribute to inventing that future.

Small Life: The rhythms of a higher ed life are - for the most part - lived at a human scale. Even our largest campuses are no bigger than a small city. Many of us work at small institutions and on walkable campuses. Our built environment is, for the most part, designed around the needs of the people who learn, teach, and create. We don’t work (at least most of us don’t) in giant skyscrapers.

Big Life: Higher education is a networked profession. We have strong ties to those in our disciplines and our professions. In the past, these cross-campus ties were maintained at conferences and by collaborating on joint research projects. Today, social media and digital communications platforms have tied us all closely together. We meet at conferences, and then follow each other on Twitter (or vice versa). We read what our colleagues think on blogs and through digital publications. We are tied into a global network of colleagues and collaborators.

Small Life: People who choose to spend their lives working at a college or university do so because they believe in the bigger goals of their disciplines and their institutions. We all see higher education as the best mechanism available to create both opportunity and new knowledge.  We develop very strong loyalties to our colleges and universities.  We tend to stick around - having careers that may have less upward mobility but perhaps high measures of personal satisfaction.

Big Life: Anyone who chooses a mission driven life is living a big life. To work for something bigger than yourself, bigger than your own career, is a recipe for long-term happiness. The people that I know who work at colleges and universities see themselves first and foremost as educators. This is true of faculty that I know, and it is also true of my colleagues in educational technology, academic libraries, and teaching and learning centers. This mission driven orientation is consistent, I think, across most folks who work in higher education.

In writing this post I hope to engage in a larger conversation with the world. Almost all of my day, however, will be spent in a series of conversations with colleagues on campus whom I know well and have great affection for. 

I’ll interact with the big world digitally, and with my local world both digitally and physically. This seems like a good and lucky balance.

How are you simultaneously leading a small and a big higher ed life?



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