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Perhaps some folks noticed that I took the month of December off from blogging, something I did in order to finish the draft manuscript of my next book. This is the longest break I’ve ever taken from posting in the pages of Inside Higher Ed since I first guest blogged for the legendary Oronte Churm back in February 2012.

In another month, that means I will have been writing weekly (at least) here for 12 years. A little back-of-the-envelope math suggests that I’ve produced somewhere north of 900,000 words. Most of the time I pay little attention to the overall scope of what I have to say, as the necessity of writing every week means latching on to an idea and seeing it through, head down, until it’s done.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m going to run out of stuff to write about, but I must be one opinionated dude, because it hasn’t happened yet. That said, it’s clear I have some specific obsessions that I seem to return to over and over. Having a chance to pause for a few weeks and reflect on my output, I think a notion of what’s at the root of much of my work here became a bit clearer and is perhaps a good guide for how I want to consider writing for this space going forward.

In my view, without quite recognizing it consciously, I’ve been spending a dozen years examining and questioning the conventions of academia from the perspective of someone who, in reference to the name of this blog, is “just visiting” in these spaces.

As I think about it, academia is a culture governed by conventions, a noncodified agreement on how things are usually done.

Conventions are very useful in organizing institutions like colleges and universities where activities are diverse, authority is exercised across different domains by different people and much of what is done doesn’t lend itself to hard-and-fast rules. Those conventions provide a scaffold from which to work.

The credit hour is a convention. Tenure, a convention. The research papers I assigned for years to college freshmen were rooted in conventions. Grading, attendance policies, the semester schedule, faculty hiring, scholarly practices around scholarship and citation—all conventions.

In theory, conventions are conventions because they’re rooted in underlying values that represent some reasonable ideal of how the work of the institution or organization should be done. Unfortunately, theory is not always reality, and in some cases, perhaps even many cases, conventions established in much earlier times are at odds with the healthy operations of an institution. Higher education institutions are fundamentally conservative, in the sense that conventions are sometimes held to in the face of good sense and new evidence.

As one example, the root notion that we should understand how effectively instructors are working with their students is a good one, but the convention of student evaluations of instructors meant to inform that notion has been shown to be “racist, sexist and often useless,” and yet they persist.

That research paper I used to assign was debunked as a tool for practicing analytical writing by Richard Larson in 1982, and yet the form remains a staple of first-year writing classes across the country, purportedly in the name of helping students acquire the skills of academic analysis. Why are we doing something that demonstrably does not work other than it has become convention?

Over time, the connection between convention and meaning is lost, and what results is a form of what I call academic cosplay, the doing of academic-like work that is not actually rooted in the principles and values we claim for academia. We believe that scholars should produce original research—a good value—but this gets perverted into a relentless treadmill of publication where the quantity of what is published becomes the measurement rather than the purported goal, originality.

In my years of academia-adjacent work, I have grown considerably suspicious of many academic conventions and believe the conventions themselves are the chief barrier to institutional and individual flourishing. If there’s anything that unifies the work I’ve done here, it’s the questioning of these conventions and in that questioning trying to find new ways of doing things that dispatch the hidebound conventions in order to put us back in touch with our more deeply held values.

As a matter of individual expression, modesty aside, I think I’ve been pretty successful in articulating these ideas, be they about classroom conventions like grading, group projects, perceptions of rigor or my main focus, how we approach teaching writing, or even on bigger-picture subjects, such as tenure or the very organizing principles of our system of higher education. Anyone reading me should know where I’m coming from and why.

But as a matter of actual impact, the results have been negligible. My writing has not moved mountains. It hasn’t even disturbed any molehills.

I am unbothered by this. It was never a possibility in the first place, so something not happening that was never going to happen is not a cause for lament. I am not Sisyphus because there is not a rock to push anywhere. There is simply an impulse to wander, look and describe what one sees.

I share these sentiments as I prepare for another year of writing in this space because in my recent discussions with folks working in higher ed, there is a palpable sense of demoralization, that the problems we are facing are too large to be solved through what we are capable of doing, that we should brace for and expect only further degradation of our work.

I share these fears, but I would also like to suggest that there is some honor and solace in simply doing the work, not as a martyr or act of sacrifice, but simply because it is work worth doing. When I started blogging here, I told myself that I would try to say things that I believed to be true in as accurate and entertaining ways as possible. Spending a month looking back over the nearly one million words I’ve directed toward that goal causes me to believe I’ve been fulfilling it as well as I’m able.

The attacks against higher ed and educators coming from various corners—and that cause people working in education to feel besieged and even hopeless—are rooted in a combination of good-faith concern, bad-faith opportunism and broader misunderstanding. I don’t know how you can combat those forces on a grand scale. I don’t think they’re ever going away, even as the particular intensity of threat seems to rise and fall.

But there is always the work, and as I see it, the work is still worth doing. It’s why I’m going to get to writing another million words if Inside Higher Ed will have me. It’s why thousands of faculty, staff, students and administrators will get down to business for another semester trying to fulfill those ideals.

If things feel bad or off, my recommendation is to take a hard look at the conventions that govern your work and see if challenging some of them might not carve out a little fresh room to maneuver, to do your work even better.

For those of you doing the work, you have my respect, gratitude and good wishes for a fruitful semester.

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