Wednesday, December 25, 2013

For the Season

“People are at their best when they are able to use their talents and abilities — the traits and behaviors at which they naturally excel. Empowering your people to discover and develop their strengths will position them to do what they do best every day.” — Gallup Strengths Center

I want to continue my seasonal rumination with a point made earlier: that what we might be giving up in the quest for a “utilitarian’s paradise” are those things found in the critiques of modernity made by Aldous Huxley and C. S. Lewis, i.e. (quoting Ross Douthat) that “the entire vertical dimension in human life, the quest for the sublime and the transcendent, for romance and honor, beauty and truth” is missing or being ripped from our lives. In a recent post I brought this missing dimension closer to home while reviewing current academic employment opportunities in archives and special collections:

In my more caustic moments while reading the position descriptions I concluded that what most institutions are looking for are leaders, coordinators, collaborators, designers, overseers, and managers—not thinkers or writers who know something about the stuff to be cared for. These are positions, for the most part, more about providing access to the stuff, not a context for the stuff. We seem happy to leave the contextualizing to faculty, graduate students, and external scholars. We have dumbed down our collections by dumbing down the staff left to attend them.

One of my friends on a far coast, having read my post, picked out these sentences and offered a comment: “This has been going on in academia for a long time now. Schools are places for intellectual workers (as Josef Pieper called them), rather than scholars.” Her comment included a link to Pieper’s book, Leisure—The Basis of Culture, which I quickly checked out from the library and read this week.

Pieper’s book is very accessible, even to someone like me who is not accustomed to reading philosophical texts on a daily basis. In his essay on “The Philosophical Act” I was taken by the following passage:

Therefore, it is all the same whether I say that the philosophical act transcends the working world, or whether I say, philosophical knowing is useless or whether I say, philosophy is a “liberal art.” This freedom belongs to the particular sciences only to the extent that they are pursued in a philosophical manner. Here likewise is to be found—both historically and actually—the real meaning of “academic freedom” (since “academic” means “philosophical” if it means anything!); strictly speaking, a claim for academic freedom can only exist when the “academic” itself is realized in a “philosophical” way. And this is historically the reason: academic freedom has been lost, exactly to the extent that the philosophic character of academic study has been lost, or, to put it another way, to the extent that the totalitarian demands of the working world have conquered the realm of the university…. (emphasis mine)

Now, lest you think this is just a bit of philosophically charged hot air, consider recent accounts in the news (or evident on campuses across the country) of charges against higher education: that it is expensive and increasingly irrelevant to jobs or corporate interests (or, from the business perspective—that they cannot find enough “educated” candidates for currently open and available jobs); that it suffers from “administrative bloat”; that student debt is reaching untenable levels; (A colleague told me this week of reading a scholarship application from a graduate student who carried a current debt load of $120,000!); or that athletics (at the Division 1 level, at least) is an “arms race.” Purdue’s new president, Mitch Daniels, offered his own list of criticisms. Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal had more to say on bloat; my own institution was in their journalistic crosshairs. A search through the Internet will turn up more articles and essays on the current state of higher education. The critiques have even spawned a new area of study within (and without) the university: “critical university studies.”

I do not doubt that American public and private higher education—I have no sense of what’s going on in other places of the world—is in the midst of “a period of profound and possibly traumatic change” (quoting the article from “Inside Higher Ed”). I would lean a bit to the traumatic side in this characterization. What we may be witnessing is a struggle (dare I say war) for the “soul” of higher education. It is a question of whether or not the victor in this struggle will accommodate—or attempt to obliterate—the vertical dimension in human life. (For another perspective, one that touches on some of the vertical aspects, read the recent commentary piece by Ali Mohammad Al-Hussein Ali Al-Adeeb, Iraq's minister of higher education and scientific research.)

With these observations as preface, I find myself in a curious (and ironic/comic?) spot. My university, also known as my employer—stung by the comments about bloat (and hiring outside consultants to study the matter)—seems very interested in putting a lot of its staff through “StrengthsFinder©” training. The purpose of this training is clearly stated in the workbook I received at my session this last Tuesday: to increase employee engagement. As engaged employees (so we were told), we are loyal, productive, and less likely to have accidents or to steal. The Gallup folks (owners of StrengthsFinder©) claim that “research in business and industry showed a Strengths focus increased engagement, which lead to increased productivity, retention, employee satisfaction, and customer satisfaction” (quoting from the workbook, emphasis theirs). I find it interesting (and perhaps emblematic/symptomatic) that these findings in business and industry are wheedling their way into higher education. I might argue that I find my engagement through those vertical dimensions of my work. I’m not sure the Gallup folks would understand. The training (and its justification) smacks a bit of Pieper’s “intellectual workers” characterization.

What is comedic or ironic is that StrengthsFinder© —regardless of how it is employed in my work—may have accurately pegged me. One of my strengths—my “signature themes”—identified by the Gallup assessment was “Connectedness.” Descriptive phrases for this theme include a sense of being “part of something larger…Sensitive to the invisible hand, you can give others comfort that there is a purpose beyond our humdrum lives.” Another “signature theme” was “Intellection,” describing me, in part, as “the kind of person who enjoys your time alone because it is your time for musing and reflection. You are introspective…This introspection may lead you to a slight sense of discontent as you compare what you are actually doing with all the thoughts and ideas that your mind conceives…Wherever it leads you, this mental hum is one of the constants of your life.” Other strengths (or talents) identified by this assessment included “Learner,” “Context,” and “Deliberative,” but I’ll save you from a description of those themes.

Pieper, in concluding his thoughts on “the philosophical act,” makes these comments:

This is the path along which the self-destruction of philosophy has traveled: through the destruction of its theoretical character, a destruction which in turn rests upon habitually seeing the world as the raw material of human activity. When the world is no longer looked upon as creation, there can no longer be theoria in the full sense [i.e. the purely receptive stance toward reality, undisturbed by any interruption by the will]. And with the fall of theoria, the freedom of philosophy falls as well, and what comes in its place is the functionalizing, the making it into something “practical,” oriented toward a legitimation by its social function; what comes to the fore is the working character of philosophy, or of philosophy so-called. Meanwhile, our thesis…maintains that it is of the nature of the philosophical act, to transcend the world of work. This thesis, which comprehends both the freedom and theoretical character of philosophy, does not deny the world of work (in fact, it expressly presumes it as something necessary), but it maintains that true philosophy rests upon the belief that the real wealth of man lies not in the satisfaction of his necessities, nor, again, in “becoming lords and masters of nature,” but rather in being able to understand what is—the whole of what is. (emphasis his) Ancient philosophy says that this is the utmost fulfillment to which we can attain: that the whole order of real things be registered in our soul—a conception which in the Christian tradition was taken up into the concept of the beatific vision: “What do they not see, who look upon Him, Who sees all?”

The understanding of “what is—the whole of what is”—this is the vertical dimension, the wonder, that I seek in my work and my life, an echo of something said long ago in the Magnificat.

Some may not identify with the Magnificat; it is not a part of their faith—if they have a faith—or what defines them. So be it. Questions of faith or being may be far, far away from what concerns us in our work. I would argue that they are integral to our work. Whatever the case might be for you, at this time of year, I hope it might still be fitting and proper to point to something beyond ourselves: to wish for peace on Earth, goodwill to all. Or, as my Dickensian namesake would say: “God bless us, everyone!”

Thursday, December 19, 2013

An End of Semester Contemplation

“They died in their homes, not from an assassin’s bullet, and in their 60s, not in their prime. When C. S. Lewis collapsed in his Oxford bedroom, the presidential motorcade was leaving Love Field. When Aldous Huxley requested a final shot of LSD, a TV set in the next room had just blared the news that the president had been shot. And then the coincidence of two of modernity’s keenest critics dying on the same November day was lost in a storm of headlines and public grief.” — Ross Douthat, “Puddleglum And The Savage,” New York Times, 11/23/13

Thanks to a dear colleague for sending me a copy of Douthat’s piece in the New York Times. I missed this when it came out in the paper, but commend it to you now. A number of things happened between the publication of Douthat’s piece and today, notably the passing of Nelson Mandela, that are worth comment. But before doing so, let me return to Douthat’s piece; it sets up a string of thoughts percolating in my head (perking, but not necessarily clear, as you’ll see further on in this missive).

Douthat identifies Lewis and Huxley as “two of modernity’s keenest critics.” This raises the question: what were their critiques? Douthat answers the question:

Huxley and Lewis did not share a worldview — one was a seeker drawn to spiritualism, Eastern religion and psychedelics; the other was (and remains) the most famous Christian apologist in the modern English-speaking world. But they shared a critique of contemporary civilization, and offered a similar warning about where its logic might end up taking us.

For Huxley, this critique took full shape in “Brave New World,” his famous portrait of a dystopia in which the goals of pleasure and stability have crowded out every other human good, burying discontent under antidepressants, genetic engineering and virtual-reality escapes.

For Lewis, the critique was distilled in “The Abolition of Man,” which imagined a society of “men without chests,” purged of any motivation higher than appetite, with no “chatter of truth and mercy and beauty” to disturb or destabilize.

In effect, both Huxley and Lewis looked at a utilitarian’s paradise — a world where all material needs are met, pleasure is maximized and pain eliminated — and pointed out what we might be giving up to get there: the entire vertical dimension in human life, the quest for the sublime and the transcendent, for romance and honor, beauty and truth.
(emphasis mine)

Douthat makes other observations about the relationship of Huxley, Lewis, and Kennedy over the arc of history, but what I want to focus on is the critique of a “utilitarian’s paradise,” “what we might be giving up to get there,” and how this might touch on Mandela’s passing (or, for that matter, the Pope being named “Person of the Year.”) These things seem appropriate items for an end of semester contemplation.

I note this in part because recently I have had a distinct sense that my own work is being robbed of those vertical dimensions. This is not to fault anyone with whom I work. It is simply a statement of condition, one that has been building for decades and symptomatic of much in higher education (and other realms of work). My job—or how others perceive my job—now seems much more tied to managing, counting, or commodifying the items under my care. A sense of transcendence is being lost. (I commented—or at least hinted at this—in my last post.) For all the wonders that surround me in my work, I do not have a strong sense from colleagues or others that a library or archive is a place appreciated as a locus for mystery and wonder, i.e. transcendent or sublime.

Somewhat tangentially, but still relevant to this thread of thought, consider what Time gave as reasons for naming the Pope “Person of the Year”:

For pulling the papacy out of the palace and into the streets, for committing the world's largest faith to confronting its deepest needs and for balancing judgment with mercy…. What makes this pope so important is the speed with which he has captured the imaginations of millions who had given up on hoping for the church at all. People weary of the endless parsing of sexual ethics, the buck-passing infighting over lines of authority when all the while (to borrow from Milton), ‘the hungry Sheep look up, and are not fed.’ In a matter of months, Francis has elevated the healing mission of the church—the church as servant and comforter of hurting people in an often harsh world—above the doctrinal police work so important to his recent predecessors. John Paul II and Benedict XVI were professors of theology. Francis is a former janitor, nightclub bouncer, chemical technician and literature teacher.

I’m related to (and sometimes part of) the professorial class, so I cringe a bit at those last words. What may be one tiny thread connecting my own work with the Pope’s is a sense of “hands-on.” I like to get my hands on “the stuff.” It is one of the best ways I know for getting an intimate knowledge and feel for a collection. It is a sublime and transcendent mode of communication and one that is less available to me these days. Granted, this is not like feeding or clothing the poor. Higher education is still, in the eyes of a majority of the world’s population, a luxury. I need to keep reminding myself of this as I work through boxes, folders, or volumes of what the world might consider ephemera.

I don’t know if this makes sense; it still feels muddled to me. Mandela’s passing—or at least how his life and passing is interpreted by others—confuses that matter even more (at least in my mind). Consider, for example, the ending of President Obama’s eulogy:

We will never see the likes of Nelson Mandela again. But let me say to the young people of Africa, and young people around the world—you can make his life’s work your own…. He speaks to what is best inside us. After this great liberator is laid to rest; when we have returned to our cities and villages, and rejoined our daily routines, let us search then for his strength—for his largeness of spirit—somewhere inside ourselves. And when the night grows dark, when injustice weighs heavy on our hearts, or our best laid plans seem beyond our reach—think of Madiba, and the words that brought him comfort within the four walls of a cell:

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.

What a great soul it was. We will miss him deeply.

His, was, indeed a great soul, a transcendent soul. But was he, really, the master of his fate and captain of his soul? Or did a little child lead him?

Monday, December 9, 2013

An End to the Curator-Scholar?

“Simply holding up three or four objects—virtual or otherwise—is no more telling a story than dumping flour, sugar, and eggs onto a table is baking a cake. You have to do the work of contextualization if you want the objects to signify.” — Erin Kissane, “The Scholar-Curator as Storyteller

Kissane’s essay, which I stumbled across on the Web, gets right to the heart of something gnawing me at the moment—a sense that an era of the resident scholar-curator (or curator-scholar) is passing away before my eyes. What gives me this impression? Am I correct in believing this is the case? Or am I unduly influenced by what I observe in my own surroundings or hear through the professional grapevine? Or did any such academic creature ever truly exist?

A first impression comes from my work. I no longer have the time (some might say the luxury) that I did in the beginning of my residency in archives and special collections to carve out moments during the workday to study a volume or body of work, become familiar with contents, illustrators, authors, paper, binding, typography, or the other accoutrements of a curatorial vocation. The only time I now feel justified spending in scholarly pursuit during a portion of the day are those moments associated with preparing a presentation (more often than not to a group external to the university)…or perhaps writing this blog. What is more often the case is that occasions for study, reading, contemplation, or writing are stolen from early morning, lunchtime, or late evening hours. It is difficult, however, during those wee hours of the day to examine a book, binding, or manuscript when the thing itself is safely nestled in the vault, far from whatever home workspace or bus seat I might occupy. It is less an issue when all that concerns me is text. Such can be retrieved and consulted almost anywhere, time, or place. But, if I need to examine an artifact as a part of my study, those moments are fewer and farther between.

Such was not always the case. By saying so, I acknowledge (or assert) that a sliding scale of expectations are placed on staff at certain points of a career trajectory. These expectations may differ among institutions, but my general impression is that professionals early in their careers are given more latitude, opportunities, time, and money—within their regular schedules—to apply themselves to scholarship, presentations, professional engagement or development. We want them to succeed in their work, bring notice to our institution, engage in the institutional mission, and attain tenure or continuous appointment (for those institutions still offering it). The expectations for productivity remain (and increase) after a certain career point is reached, e.g. tenure, but the latitude, opportunities, time, and money offered by the institution dwindle or disappear entirely. This void is filled by a new expectation: matured professionals will find their own creative ways to fill the vacuum left by a departure of institutional support. Their desire to study, write, think, or engage professionally is now on their own dime and time—unless they are very good grant writers.

A second impression comes from what I read in current job postings. For example, as of this writing, twenty-six positions in academic libraries with a focus on special collections or archives are present on the online job list of the American Library Association. Titles for these twenty-six positions include: research library fellow; instructor; special collections librarian; project archivist (temporary two year position); processing archivist (3); assistant department head; digital collections librarian; associate director for creation and curation services; head of special collections and archives (2); assistant archivist; cartographic reference and digital projects librarian; processing and public services archivist; librarian/curator of print materials; head of special collections; public service coordinator; archives and special collections librarian; catalog librarian; associate director/special collections; chair; department of special and area studies collections; public policy papers project archivist (say that one fast five times); rare books curator; curator…and librarian for East Asian Studies; research informationist and science informationist. Given this daunting list, how many positions include expectations we might expect of a curator-scholar, i.e. someone who is expected to read, write, and publish scholarly, peer-reviewed material (or even popular essays, for that matter) as part of their job?

I read each of the job postings and—given a loose or forgiving hermeneutic—came to a result of seven positions that met my somewhat nebulous criteria, slightly under a third of the list (and frankly, better than I expected): research library fellow; instructor; librarian/curator of print materials; archives and special collections librarian; associate director/special collections; rare books curator; curator…and librarian for East Asian Studies. My favorite line of text from one of these postings, the one that came closest to what I sought, was this: “to provide access to this dynamic special collection…by teaching, writing and speaking about this expansive resource.” (emphasis mine)

In my more caustic moments while reading the position descriptions I concluded that what most institutions are looking for are leaders, coordinators, collaborators, designers, overseers, and managers—not thinkers or writers who know something about the stuff to be cared for. These are positions, for the most part, more about providing access to the stuff, not a context for the stuff. We seem happy to leave the contextualizing to faculty, graduate students, and external scholars. We have dumbed down our collections by dumbing down the staff left to attend them.

Or perhaps dumbing down is not the correct phrase. It is unkind to many I hold dear. Instead, let me tone down my criticism by politely saying we have shifted our emphasis away from knowledge of collections and towards access to collections. We are successfully dealing with our backlogs. We can congratulate ourselves (and the substantial funding from generous grantors) for accomplishing this work. But I still think we have neglected our subject expertise in the process.

Kissane begins her essay by noting a quote from Washington Matthews, offered by Henry Wessells on his blog The Endless Bookshelf. Matthews wrote:

Someone has said that a first-class museum would consist of a series of satisfactory labels with specimens attached. This saying might be rendered: “The label is more important than the specimen.” When I have finished reading this paper, you may admit that this is true in the case of the little museum which I have here to show: a basket, a fascicle of plant fibres, a few rudely painted sticks, some beads and feathers put together as if by children in their meaningless play, form the totality of the collection. You would scarcely pick these trifles up if you saw them lying in the gutter, yet when I have told you all I have to tell about them, I trust they may seem of greater importance, and that some among you would be as glad to possess them as I am. I might have added largely to this collection had I time to discourse about them, for I possess many more of their kind. It is not a question of things, but of time. I shall do scant justice to this little pile within an hour. An hour it will be to you, and a tiresome hour, no doubt, but you may pass it with greater patience when you learn that this hour’s monologue represents to me twelve years of hard and oft-baffled investigation. (emphasis mine)

— Washington Matthews. “Some Sacred Objects of the Navajo Rites,” Archives of the International Folklore Association I (1898); scanned version available via Google Books.

It is the “twelve years of hard and oft-baffled investigation” that I value, which I believe brings a “value added” to the collections under our care as curators. I feel we are losing, or have lost, this value.

Last Friday I delivered a short informal talk about Dr. Philip S. Hench and his discovery of the “true” location of the encounter between Sherlock Holmes and Professor James Moriarty. It was a talk derived from experiences I had this last year in developing an exhibit. But it was also a talk that stemmed, in part, from research and reading done two years earlier about Dr. Hench and his trips to Switzerland. And it was a talk that ultimately arose from a long acquaintance with the Sherlock Holmes stories and the collections in my stewardship. Last Friday’s talk could not have been conceived or delivered without those long years “of hard and oft-baffled investigation.” My little presentation was a mere essay in the master’s craft I’m sure was present in Washington Matthews hour-long presentation on sacred objects of the Navajo rites.

My third impression, which I’ll not go into detail with here, comes from reading obituaries or tributes to those deceased or long retired from the curatorial world. (I am, after all, of a certain age when the reading of obituaries becomes a more frequent activity.) I am struck in those readings by the combination of scholarship, administration, and collection knowledge present in their world and absent from ours. Is this, indeed, a passing (or past) era? Or might we still have the opportunity, as Matthews did, of a certain “luxury” in the course of our work? “It is,” as Matthew noted, “not a question of things, but of time.”