21 March 2008

First Lasts

Today feels like the first big last thing here: I chaired my last "apartment meeting," to use Curious Girl's term for it. I suppose teaching my last class here, back in December, was truly the first big last, but at the time, I wasn't so closely tied to the leaving. Now, with our house for sale, I'm beginning to leave.

These are, with slight edits, the remarks I presented to my department today. I'm not sure why I'm putting them up here, but I've got leaving on my mind tonight, and thought I'd start writing some about moving. So here's a piece of getting ready to leave my current position:

Jane Jacobs, in the final chapter of The Death and Life of Great American Cities, notes
Cities happen to be problems in organized complexity, like the life sciences. They present situations in which a half-dozen or even several dozen quantities are all varying simultaneously and interacting in subtly interconnected ways (433)
and later,
Being human is itself difficult, and therefore all kinds of settlements (except dream cities) have problems. Big cities have difficulties in abundance, because they have people in abundance. But vital cities are not helpless to combat even the most difficult of problems. They are not passive victims of chains of circumstances….Vital cities have marvelous innate abilities for understanding, communicating, contriving and inventing what is required to combat their difficulties… Surplus wealth, productivity, the close-grained juxtaposition of talents that permit society to support [technological] advances…are themselves products of our organization into cities, and especially dense cities…dull, inert cities, it is true, do contain the seeds of their own destruction and little else. But lively, diverse, intense cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, with energy enough to carry over for problems and needs outside themselves (447-448).
Jacobs speaks to me because I’ve spent a lot of time over the past 2 years pondering the size of our department, which we often construe to be a problem: we’re too big to socialize easily, too big to fit on one floor, too big to review each other quickly, too big to keep track of what goes on. Our size can be a problem—but reading Jacobs, I’m challenged to see the size a little differently. What if we considered our size to make us a dense city, in which our size becomes a virtue, in which the juxtaposition of programs and talents creates energy and sustainable life? City neighborhoods, after all, flourish only when there are safe public sidewalks, mixes of business and residences, mixes of day and evening activities, streets providing access to parks and varied schedules permitting good use of neighborhood resources.

I have cities on my mind today, as the Steering Committee’s draft strategic plan suggests that we shape a vision for ourselves of an urban English department, an English department located here, in this city. Whatever comes of the strategic planning process, I hope that we will be able to conceive of our large size as a strength. As I finish the performance review process, I’m struck by the variety of talents housed within our department. Our interests are broad, yet we are drawn together by an interest in how English functions in the world—as a literary pursuit, as a matter of personal expression, professional transactions, cinematic productions, in translation or interpretation. We’ll likely never rename ourselves the City of English, but if we could, it might inspire us to see a lively mixed use neighborhood reviving and connecting with those across its borders as a good metaphor for the work ahead.

Over the past two years, we’ve gotten organized. While I expect that some of our processes will come up for review and perhaps revision over the next year or two, the promotion and tenure processes and the performance review processes are logistically smooth. More importantly, we have good criteria for annual reviews, so our conversations about what we expect of each other have a common basis. There are good P&T matters to report: More associate professors are talking about promotion, and we have more models for promotion in our nontenured full time ranks.

So what’s left, now that things are organized: The Steering Committee has done wonderful work in jumpstarting a strategic planning process. The draft strategic plan before us today is just a beginning, and all of us on the Steering Committee fully expect there to be major changes in this document before it is adopted. A strategic plan that permits us to conceive of ourselves as a healthy, vibrant city, in which many different activities interact to create a vibrant core: that will be a document guiding the transition to the department as an organization that is truly at home with itself. I will be sorry not to be here when that plan is adopted—I would hope in late 2008—but I am pleased to be part of the group that has brought this planning process to this point.

This meeting marks the first of many lasts for me: it’s my last department meeting, although it seems too early in the year for that, and I struggled to decide what to say in my remarks today. While it may be my last department meeting, it’s not even close to my last day as chair, so it’s hardly time to say good bye. But it is time to say thank you: to the clerical staff, whose work enables each of us to connect more easily with the bureaucracies that govern our working lives, and whose willingness to reinvent job responsibilities has stretched our clerical talent and resources in amazing ways; to the Steering Committee, which has persevered through conflicting schedules to produce some very interesting work this year; to everyone who has said yes to my requests for help with one-off requests (scholarship committees, student awards days, just to name a few); to everyone who’s served on a standing committee; to everyone who’s been involved with public events for the department; the area coordinators and full professors, who have been generous with advice and perspectives when I needed help. You’ll notice I’m not naming names here, in part for fear of forgetting anyone, in part to save time. But I do want to thank two people in particular: J and R, who, in their different ways, have helped me be a better chair. They share an ability to look past how things are to see how they might be. J’s work on student affairs and R’s project-based work have helped me keep a focus on getting things done. My failings are my own, but I know I have fewer for having had two such wonderful associate chairs. So thanks to you two.

I’ve joked this year that in leaving unexpectedly early in term as chair, I instantly became the best chair the department would ever have, since surprise about my early resignation might obscure my shortcomings. Institutional memory is short around here—in a department and school that sometimes seems to forget more than it remembers, perhaps the best judge of success is not legacy but life in the moment. Almost every day I’ve come to work, I’ve walked into the building looking forward to the day ahead. Not just because I finally had windows—but because every day, I got to go to work, help someone solve some kind of problem, and have at least one kind of conversation about some dimension of our common mission to change the way people use language. I’m glad to have this job, and I look forward to my remaining months here. Thank you.


Bardiac said...

Nice closing comments.

Department size is a problem no matter what the size, it seems. There's too small for this, too big for that, no? It's difficult.

Rev Dr Mom said...

How very graceful!