Teaching and Leading as Community: “The Source of Our Hope”
One of the obstacles I have encountered as a new administrator is balancing my administrative role and my position as faculty. Going into this new role, I was aware this would be a difficult balance to achieve. Perhaps naively, though, what I didn’t understand was how deep the chasm was between faculty and administrators and how this would impact my own decisions and progress. On the faculty side, the move to administration has been described by many in Star Wars terms as going to the “dark side” (see Bell, 2013; Dowdall & Dowdall, 2005; Martinez-Saenz, 2017; McInerney & Mader, 2016; Reed, 2015). This dichotomy perpetuates the idea of an ongoing war between academics and administrators, one in which, as Martinez-Saenz (2017) noted, “administrators are seen as the enemy.” As defined by Wookiepedia, “the dark side of the Force is a pathway to many abilities some consider to be unnatural”—it’s the wrong kind of power.
What is interesting to remember, however, is that “[t]he ‘dark side’ imagery is so pervasive in higher education that we sometimes forget that it isn’t found in most industries” (Reed, 2015). The question that I’ve pondered over the past two years, then, centers on why this binary is so prevalent in higher education. One reason may be our limited, stereotypical, and outdated views of what it means to be an academic and an administrator. The Oxford English Dictionary defined “academic” as “reading, thinking, and study as opposed to technical or practical work,” while “administrator” is described as “any person engaged in carrying out or overseeing the tasks necessary to run an organization, enterprise, etc.” In their very definitions, these roles are pitted against one another, with one based in practice and the other rooted in the habits of the mind. Neither, perhaps, is adequate or accurate, as these outdated definitions have come to be replaced by blended roles. I want to be a faculty member who thinks, studies, and reads while I also show my students how to apply this knowledge, and I want to be an administrator who thinks, studies, and reads to inform decisions. Anything less seems inadequate and quite frankly, a little scary. Yet these roles are not one and the same. Both faculty and administrators should strive to merge the practical and theoretical, yet the role of an administrator, to me, involves providing the platform on which this reconciliation happens.
Whereas initially I felt I was straddling a growing gap and struggling to maintain balance on both sides, I’ve decided that it’s up to me to create my own definition (and then convince others to meet me there). As Reed (2015) reminded us, “[t]he point of academic administration is to set the background conditions against which faculty and students can do their best work.” My job is to help cultivate such an environment for my colleagues, myself, and, importantly, for the students with whom we work. How can we succeed in meeting our students’ need when we are engaged in a battle of good versus evil? The role of an administrator, I’ve come to understand, should be about creating the foundation for community. Conversations change once a former faculty member becomes an academic administrator (Reed, 2015). Trust can become an issue and depending on one’s institution, conversations may become difficult, as well, because the weight of institutional and state politics can interfere with an administrator’s sense of agency or with the faculty’s perception of an administrator.
It is important, though, that we try to resist these stereotypical silos—resist the dark side of the force. Of course, there are sensitive issues or parts of our work that we might not be able to discuss, but our goals should be to build and maintain the trust with faculty, staff, and other administrators and to work together to create community. After all, how successful can an institution really be without a strong sense of community amongst all stakeholders? Although somewhat dated now, we might do well to return to bell hooks’ Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope to define our common goals. “Progressive education,” she wrote, “education as the practice of freedom, enables us to confront feelings of loss and restore our sense of connection. It teaches us how to create community” (p. xv). She was referring particular to the collaboration between teachers and their students, but my desire is to help build that foundation on which such collaboration can occur for all stakeholders—this is, hooks argued, “the source of our hope” (p. xvi).