in academia

Hey, Why the Silence?

So, you may have noticed that there’s a significant gap in the archives here, roughly corresponding with the summer. And you may have asked yourself, gee, is kfitz on vacation?

Not exactly.

The period of my absence roughly corresponds to the period during which:

1. I flew from New York to California, and began the process of weeding out my stuff, getting rid of about half of it, packing up the other half, and shipping it to New York, while also figuring out how to get two cats moved, selling my car, and preparing my condo to be rented out. And then flying back to New York and packing up my sabbatical studio and moving that stuff into my new apartment, and then waiting for the California stuff to arrive and unpacking and settling in.

And then:

2. I started a new job, at the Modern Language Association, leading the new office of scholarly communication.

Anyone who has started a new job recently, much less one that’s actually a pretty serious change of career path in disguise, will recognize that though item 1 sounds more exhausting, item 2 has been much bigger and more stressful. The vast majority of that stress has been of a very positive sort: I’m in a fantastic new environment, learning amazing new things and getting to work in really productive, collaborative ways with wonderfully supportive colleagues. Nonetheless, I go home at the end of the day with my brain stuffed to bursting with new thoughts and possibilities, daunted by the need to figure out what’s been going on in the organization for the last 40 years (and why) and by the enormous, exciting, important charge I’ve been given in thinking about its future.

Part of what’s kept me so quiet, both here and (to some extent) on Twitter has, in other words, been a little bit of exhaustion; most of the time when I haven’t been actively working, I’ve found myself lying on my sofa, recharging in preparation for the next day’s work. It’s fantastic work, but this much learning takes a lot of energy. And while it’s true that I probably spend fewer total hours working than I did as a professor, almost all of those hours are spent in my office, dressed like a grownup, at minimum available to talk with other dressed-like-grownups people and a seriously high percentage of the time in actual meetings with them. The change from spending a huge number of my working hours alone in my home, not having to talk to anyone, cannot be underestimated. All that learning, and all that collaboration, has left me feeling as though I’ve done all the communicating I need to do.

But there’s been another change, one that’s more subtle but perhaps more important, one that I’m still trying to sort out how to manage. As a tenured professor, I operated wholly protected by principles of academic freedom. Not only was I able to speak my mind, but I was expected to do so. And the costs of expressing a controversial or — heaven forfend — incorrect opinion were fairly low: somebody would pipe up in the comments and tell me I’m full of beans; I would either agree or not; life would march on. Because, as a faculty member, it was understood that I never spoke for anyone other than myself.

Now, however, that line is blurred. When I write here, or post on Twitter, or speak at a conference, am I writing or posting or speaking for myself, or for the MLA? Even if I issue a disclaimer, can my own position ever be fully separated from that of the organization? The risks involved in my expressing an obnoxious or wrong opinion are just that much higher: someone, somewhere, will note my title and will pass on that the MLA has taken that position.

It’s an extraordinary benefit and a huge responsibility: when I speak, I am supported by the weight of an enormous and important organization. But I also carry that weight, and every time I open my mouth, it has seemed to me, I run the risk of creating trouble for the organization. I am, in ways I have not previously had to be, responsible for something larger than myself.

After having given it a lot of thought, however, I’ve decided that I need to relaunch my public presence; the benefits to the MLA of having my voice out here, arguing on behalf of change in scholarly communication, are far too important to let slip — even when I’m wrong; even when I float an idea that everyone hates. Maybe even especially then, because I need to hear back why I’m wrong, why everyone hates my idea, what alternative directions I should consider.

So, with the blessings of my awesome boss (hi, rgfeal!), I’m starting back up here again. And I hope that I’ll be able to post (way) more frequently than I have lately, to think through some of the things that I’m learning and the questions that the organization is facing as we move increasingly into the digital.

So that it’s been said: Opinions expressed on this blog are my own, and no one else’s but my own. I’m entirely responsible for them, for better or for worse.

That having been said: the move is done, and the transition has settled down. Let the communication resume.

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  1. I’m sympathetic to the mixed blessing of working for a known organization and how that’s different than speaking as a faculty member. I’m always shocked at how often I get referred to as being OF my own institution. And because of that, I’m very glad to see you speaking up here again. Public debate is good, sometimes especially for institutions, when you’re able to speak as yourself testing out ideas rather than declaring by fiat a new policy. So welcome back! And kudos to rgfeal for recognizing what an advantage it is to have you continuing to be yourself!

  2. I look forward to many engaging conversations and ideas on here in the near future. As a new professional in Scholarly Communication, seeing/reading your challenges will be invaluable to my development as we all work toward the same goal… whatever that will be. Lead on!