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Three Top Ways to Make Institutional Waves (Without Losing Your Job)

Three Top Ways to Make Institutional Waves (Without Losing Your Job)

Recently I gave a talk at POD (Professinal Organization and Development) Network and was asked what advice I had for pedagogical innovators who were junior, powerless, and fearful.   I gave my usual advice: namely, that the riskiest thing you can do in a career is be fearful, overly cautious, self-censoring.  Those things are bad for the soul and nothing kills a career faster than being depressed and cynical about that career.


However, I also said, in addition to that basic truth of human nature (i.e. Be true to yourself!), that two more things had to be kept in mind, both of which come under the heading:  Be Strategic.   When asked a follow up question about what it meant to be strategic, I gave two pieces of very pragmatic advice:  (1)  Make allies, including those more powerful than you are, and make sure that you name what you are doing in the most respectable, responsible terms possible.   That way, no matter what happens with the great ideas you propose, you can put this wonderful-sounding committee on your CV and already win by branding yourself the kind of person who would join something like (I'm making this up):  The Committee for Innovative, Responsive, and Responsible New Pedagogies.   Also, if you like the administrator to whom you report, this allows him or her to push your suggestions further up the line because, of course, you will be authoring or, better, co-authoring a White Paper from the Committee for . . .      You get the drift.  This is how you make institutional change from below (to paraphrase Walter Mignolo's de-colonialist "theory from below").    Do I think this is cynical?  Actually, I don't.  As I said, when one has a child, one spends a lot of time figuring out a name because one scripts a different future (or future rebellion!) by naming a child, say, "Fluffy" versus, say, "Hildegarde."  


The second piece of advice for those feeling fearful comes from a piece of advice often quoted by Duke's former President, and my mentor in all things administrative, Nannerl Keohane:  "You can get a lot done if you don't worry about who takes the credit."   This quote may have been originally said by President Truman.  Or perhaps by Ann Richards.   This is not to say you always give away credit (as someone paraphrased me badly on Twitter).  It is to say that, in some situations, if you are fearful, let your administrative head take the credit.  You can still put your participation on your CV.  You can still build it into a career.  But if there is going to be a "fall," let someone more powerful than you take it--and that means you also have to let that person take the credit too.   If you are truly junior and powerless, you probably can only push your ideas so far anyway.  Most university change happens in a chain of command--line administration, it is often called.  You take credit, as much as you want, on your level, but also give enough credit to the administrator above you that they  can feel comfortable and proud pushing it up to the next level. 


That is strategic and, basically, how change happens within institutions.  It is intended for those in higher ed, presumably those who do not have tenure.  But it is adaptable to just about any situation where you have the possibility of influencing change but not the power to make that change happen all by yourself.   You can, of course, always try to do things more radically --and good for you if you succeed.   But the question posed to me was about the fearful junior colleague and, if you find yourself in that category find your allies and learn how to both take credit and give credit.  Being generous has never hurt anyone in the long run.  That's good advice for change.  It's also good advice to live by, imho. 


And, in the end, be true to yourself.  Being strategic and being brave are not opposites but complementary. Both are necessary components of successful activism and a satisfying career.  Luck helps too.  So here's wishing the best of luck to you!





The photo is of the Futures Initiative and HASTAC@CUNY office, presided over by the bold and fearsome figure by artist Swoon.


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