Curiosity and the Ideal (Academic) Workplace

Transforming institutions.


January 14, 2015

At the start of every semester, I have what I hope is an honest conversation with myself about whether or not I want to keep doing the professor thing for the rest of my life. Am I still doing good in the lives of my students and colleagues?  (Or at least am I doing no harm?)  Am I burned out?  Do I want a new challenge?  One year I went so far as to make a pro/con list in the Moleskine I keep with me at all times. I still have the list, and the pros have not changed:  engaging with ideas and books, having time to write and a certain amount of autonomy, participating in the good I think higher education is still capable of achieving. Not to say academia, or professoring specifically, is the only kind of work in which these things can happen -- and definitely not to say that academia always allows for these things -- but generally so far these are positives I get to experience more often than not (and more often than a lot of people).

If I think about other kinds of work I could be doing, or other kinds of workplaces I could be part of, I always come back to one quality I believe would be completely necessary for me to be happy, to feel like I'm doing something worthwhile: That there be a value placed on curiosity, that the pursuit of paths and projects emerging from a deep curiosity be supported and encouraged, that curiosity be recognized as an end in and of itself, even if the results of that drive come about in a way that is less than efficient, or manifest themselves in a form that might look like failure.  

The qualities I appreciate regarding work in academe all come back to the high value I place on curiosity as a habit of mind, a disposition, and the way I see being able to pursue what emerges from that curiosity as necessary for fulfillment. I seek to engage with books and ideas, either in solitude or in conversation with colleagues and students, because of curiosity. I want time to write so I can more fully explore what sparks that curiosity, and so that I can produce work that answers the questions I have and perhaps generates curiosity in others. I desire autonomy so that I can follow the impulse of curiosity wherever it might go, even if it takes more time than I would like and seems a bit inefficient on occasion; I need this so that I can have the freedom to change my mind and be wrong.

And the good I believe is still possible in higher education comes from valuing curiosity. Colleges and universities at their best exist as spaces wherein individuals and colleagues, students and faculty, can be curious together.  They are wholly invented spaces created via the messy process of not knowing as a means of making knowledge. We take what our students do not know as a starting point and bring them into a space where not only might they learn what they need to know, they also learn what they do not know, as well as the infinite possibility generated by not knowing. As members of disciplines -- or reaching across disciplines -- we learn the ever-shifting contours of a field only to see how much they contain that we do not know, and how expanding what we know through curiosity stretches those contours.  

Yet I also think that for higher education to achieve what it is capable of, to be the good it is capable of being, that valuing of curiosity -- the recognition that curiosity is essential -- has to go further than fields of knowledge and disciplinary enquiry.  I've written before about what we lose when we think of higher education and the liberal arts purely in terms of "worth":  how much is a degree worth, how do we define ROI (and do we have to), what do we mean by value and can we talk about these things in ways that go beyond instrumentalism.  One way we might do this is to consider colleges and universities as places dedicated to human flourishing, to the well-being, the eudaimonia (to get fancy), of each student who enters.  This might mean a continuum of services focusing not only on career planning but on facilitating students' development towards meaningful work and lives.  It might mean an array of emotional and social support to assist students arriving unused to the kinds of networks and communities one finds on a college campus.  It might mean individualized responses to student learning, finding the human in the lecture hall or the chat room.

These are all moves we see in colleges and universities across the country, inspired by people like Andy Chan or Jose Bowen.  But I think they all have the potential to be relegated to the dustbin of higher ed trends if they do not sustain at their core a value fundamental to the work of academia:  curiosity.  I mean being deeply curious about the lives and minds and realities of our students (and possibly our colleagues, too).  I don’t mean prying.  I mean cultivating the imagination, the curiosity, that allows for empathy and engagement with others.    I should be as curious about what is going on inside a student’s thinking and responding as I am about what is going on inside a modernist poem or a pamphlet from the suffrage movement.  I should be as curious about the reality of a student as I am about the reality of a fictional character -- and I should approach my work as a teacher and faculty member accordingly.  

Perhaps this stance could even extend to the work of assessment:  I should be as curious about whether my teaching is working as I am about the texts I am teaching.  I wonder if it could even extend to the work of administration:  what if our deans and provosts were more curious about the lives and realities of adjunct/contingent faculty members?  Would that curiosity prompt a desire to enter into those realities in an empathetic way?  Would it prompt different questions about how we should be doing things?  Would it prompt change?

I came to this job out of a deep sense of curiosity. I'm pretty sure that sustaining this sense of curiosity is the only way doing the job is going to continue to be worthwhile -- and I wonder if that sense of curiosity must be one of the things that helps make academia the kind of workplace it can and should be, by being present in and transforming what we do.


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