Yesterday, I participated in my university’s Best Practices Forum. My colleague and I presented at a session, I drank coffee and ate lunch with a mix of new and familiar faces, and folks far more powerful than us spoke to us about the importance of why we were there and what we might achieve. The tenor of the day was little different from that of many events at this time on the academic calendar. Folks come together over food and drink to celebrate past achievements and dream of future glory. In short, the Best Practices Forum felt quite a bit like a staff commencement ceremony. I even got a certificate and my photo with our provost at the end of the day.
One of our deans likes to say that community is something we “do.” I would argue that like playing the piano or learning a language, it takes practice. The season of awards, graduations, and retirement ceremonies always reminds me that such gatherings constitute a “best practice,” because we practice our best behavior when gathered for moments of mutual reflection and celebration.
The sessions at yesterday’s forum were informative, but the practice we each garnered of explaining ourselves to folks we rarely see or those we had never previously met gave us an opportunity to build community. We save such occasions for the beginning and end of the academic year with a brief nod towards communal spirit at the close of the calendar year. In between, we get out of practice.
I have not followed the debate over the value of academic conferences. Such affairs come at a far greater cost in time and money than those to which I refer. Walking across campus seems a herculean task during the brutal depths of a Chicago winter, but a pleasant exercise in the fall or spring. Even when traversing a snow bank, no one charges me a registration fee to attend another office’s holiday party. Indeed, they repay any calories burned in the cold many times over in food and drink.
Last month, I wrote about the virtues of simply showing up to participate in the things that matter to us, whatever they may be. The fine distinction with this month’s screed exists in whether or not we think such institutional gatherings matter. As I have written here before, I think the tenure system tends to mitigate against academic’s commitment to the institutions that employ them. Scholars will do anything for tenure; they will live in places they loathe. They may not think their current community matters as they toil towards opportunities somewhere else. However, if we practice community, we might find our current communities more to our liking than we imagined.
At our Best Practices Forum, the opening speaker commented on how many staff members stay at our university for decades, if not the duration of their working lives. As someone who has thoroughly imbedded herself in both the town and gown communities where I live and work, I wonder if anyone has done a systematic study of staff versus tenure-line faculty’s commitment to their institutions. No doubt it varies across institutional types and locations. I would like to read the results nonetheless.
The closing speaker mentioned that some faculty have greater ties to those scholars of the same subject at other institutions that to their colleagues down the hall. As a result, a portion of the faculty find it easier to fly around the globe than to walk across the street. We trust pilots to practice their take-offs and landings. We each have to practice walking down the street and taking time to talk to someone who may have entirely different interests from our own - scholarly or otherwise - if we want our colleges and universities to be communities worthy of hosting the students we serve.
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