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The Decline of Collegiality

“But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress.”
II Timothy 3:1

“And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Hebrews 10:24-25

“In vain you rise early and stay up late, toiling for food to eat--for He grants sleep to those He loves.”
Psalm 127:2

“I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.”
John 10:10b

I have a question for those faculty in their later years—how does faculty collegiality and interaction today compare to what you experienced early in your career?

If it is anything like what I’ve heard from my conversations with others, you will probably say that there is no comparison. Faculty are largely isolated from each other and the enjoyment of a relaxed conversation about various topics, both scholarly and otherwise is virtually non-existent.

Part of the idea of scholarship is the informal chatting over tea or coffee about ideas and research. This has been replaced with the ‘departmental seminar,’ where there is a few minutes for coffee and donuts and then sitting to listen to an outside speaker drone about their research for an hour with a few minutes for questions. If you are lucky, the speaker spends their day moving from office to office for a few minutes conversation, and then maybe a handful go out to dinner for more discussion, but more often than not, folks show up, get some caffeine to help fight drowsiness then back to their office to sit at a computer for a few more hours and the talk leaves the mind forever.

A large part of this transformation is the increased demands on our time for committee work, bureaucratic demands, grant proposals, etc. Also, with the move in educational institutions towards a business operation model, sitting around in a comfortable lounge to shoot the breeze is considered inefficient use of time. You don’t believe me? Look at your facilities and see if you still have some sort of a sitting room that facilitates relaxed interaction. It has been converted to a classroom or an office or administrative space—possibly to house a new “Office for Institutional Effectiveness.” Now that is an inspiring beacon of creativity.

Ideas do not occur in a vacuum. They occur when ideas are tossed around, stretched and mangled in exploratory discourse. Deadlines and productivity expectations quench creativity. Isolation kills the relational understanding of one another that facilitates deeper communication serving as the soil of innovation and inspiration. Collegial discussion and debate has been replaced with ‘meetings.’

Similarly, the increased demands on time and efficiency mean folks work longer hours and have less time for sleep, which also kills creativity.

These maladies are not unique to faculty. They have infected the whole of the working world. Efficiency and productivity are the primary rules. Sitting back to think, ponder, discuss and debate are viewed as distractions and wastes of time, even in our personal time. Thus the value of a quiet evening at home, or the family supper is viewed as a luxury that our busy-ness cannot afford.

There are no easy answers. The fundamental rule, the prime directive, in economics is the Law of Opportunity Cost—every choice that is made about how we spend our resources has consequences. If you spend the evening doing ‘z’, then you cannot do ‘a’ through ‘y.’ The problem arises when we become so focused on what happens in the next 10 minutes that we lose sight of what could result from spending that 10 minutes doing something else. Some have brilliantly labeled it the “tyranny of the urgent.”

In industry, this takes the form of productivity metrics and ‘JIT’ or just-in-time inventory control that saves short term costs by having razor thin margins on resource/material flow. There is no room for deviation, for exploration without explicit permission from management. However, sometimes the flexibility a looser framework provides results in more impact.

An example:  the US military uses state of the art automatic rifles that are accurate to incredible distance because they are built so precisely. The drawback is that if you are in a dirty environment, or wet, the mechanisms clog more quickly, meaning the soldier has to spend more time cleaning their weapon and trying to prevent gunk from getting into it. It works absolutely brilliantly…until it doesn’t.

Contrast this with the AK-47. It is a sloppily manufactured weapon with gross tolerances. But it will fire all day in all weather. It is cheap and easy to manufacture, so it is readily available. It has such sloppy tolerances that it will allow multiple calibers and types of ammunition to be successfully shot from it. If a part breaks or becomes fouled, replacement parts are everywhere. You train on the AK, and you can fight in nearly any army in the world. Drop it in the mud? Pick it up and fire away. Sandstorm? No problem. The downside—not real accurate, and a much reduced range. But you can still throw a hail of bullets downrange quickly, so unless you are doing precision firing, there isn’t much tradeoff.

Which type of weapon is used more universally? The more flexible one. It is less efficient in its use of ammo, but in many ways, it makes up for it with its robustness and flexibility.

Education and innovation are not typically known for the efficiency of their processes. Human life is known for its chaos, uncertainty and inefficiency. That is the nature of organic life. Order is needed, but too much order, structure or efficiency kills the spark of creativity and pleasure that most of us find necessary to a fulfilled life.

This is a large part of why job satisfaction is low for many people. If they are going to have to focus on productivity and efficiency at the expense of enjoyment and pride in craftsmanship and innovation, then they want to be paid more. But that is only a temporary fix, because money doesn’t buy that satisfaction when you are too busy or tired to spend it on worthwhile things and don’t have the time to enjoy them. The worst part is that it creates a vicious cycle that draws in on itself…until we wear ourselves out, wringing our spirits dry.

Scripture repeatedly warns us to avoid this kind of lifestyle, yet it is difficult to avoid getting sucked in by a culture that worships productivity over quality of life. It takes real work to change that momentum even only in one’s own life, and it will not be popular. There will likely be an opportunity cost in terms of income and reputation. But, you will have rest, peace, enjoyment, and a greater opportunity to innovate, and have satisfying human relationships with others who have made the same choice to slow down their world.

That is truly a counterculture. The Church and the University are both places where countercultures have been born repeatedly through history. It seems like we who are Christian faculty have a doubly strong heritage to shift the cultural paradigm. Who’s in?


1 comment:

  1. What you have written here is a great explanation of why I have no desire to work at a research university. The idea of working 60 hours a week to produce copious amounts of (practically irrelevant) research doesn't appeal to a single bone in my body.