In Search of a Landing Pad

The other day, I wrote a post about a day in the life of my division at UMW, DTLT. It documents what was a fairly cool, remarkable day because of the number of students who wandered into our offices wanting to do something innovative, creative, and interesting with technology.

Tom left this comment:

That really makes me cry it’s so pretty. You have no idea. You all better be enjoying yourselves.

His comment gave me pause because it actually came on a day when I was feeling pretty discouraged and frustrated. It’s hard to explain how I could feel that way when stuff like what I described in the post is happening pretty regularly at UMW and in DTLT.

I started to wonder if the problem was just me. Am I focusing on the wrong things? Am I wanting the wrong things? Should I be happier and more content with what’s already happening? And, ultimately, the hardest question of all: Do I just feel and care too much about what I do?

These aren’t new questions for me. I’ve spent years trying to unravel them. I’ve lost many, many hours of sleep. I’ve shed tears about them. Two years ago, I went from full-time to part-time, in part, because I needed to distance myself from the rawness of what these questions made me feel.

So, before I go on, let me say a few things: I absolutely love the place I work. And by “place” I mean both the division in which I spend my days and the University in which that division lives. I have a fantastic group of colleagues (both my colleagues in DTLT and the faculty, students, and staff whom I get to partner with). We have a pretty amazing body of students here, too. They are smart and resilient and creative.

I have a job thinking about learning, teaching, education, school, technology, culture, communication, community, and innovation. I get paid to consider the implications of all of this on the work that’s happening in the sector I care most about: public higher education.

I’m also a graduate of this school. It’s the place where I came into my own, intellectually and emotionally.

I love this place so much, I’ve come to work here twice.

The success and future of this institution is absolutely paramount to me.

All of this said, I regularly feel frustrated about my role in this institution.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to pin down the reason why. Here are a few I’ve come up with:

  • I am classified at the University as “administrative faculty.” Basically, this means I’m an administrator, but, to be clear, my job is really more a staff job. Being staff (or non-faculty, middle-management administrator) at a University is a weird place to be. It’s particularly hard when you have developed a deep interest in the future of the place where you work. There isn’t a whole lot of agency assigned to staff at the University. We’re not really consulted about the core, academic mission of the University. In fact, a lot of people would probably question why we would have an opinion (at least one that counted) about the future of the University. That’s really hard for me to swallow.
  • The sector in which I work is, I believe, increasingly becoming the place where the most important and interesting questions about the future of higher education are being asked. It’s in the academic fringes that people are grappling with the fundamental, often very difficult, questions about what our core mission is. Digital communications and technologies have transformed the ways in which we share and create information and knowledge. The sharing and creation of information and knowledge are sort of at the center of higher education’s mission, right? So, how can we not be grappling with these big issues. That said, because we are on the fringe, we’re in a safer place to question the traditional trajectories of our institutions. That could be perceived a pretty threatening space from those sitting within. Couple that with the fact that we’re not traditional academics, and it’s easy to see why we sometimes feel like our voices aren’t heard.
  • I may just care too much. Actually, I think every adult in my family has accused me of this at one point or another. I guess I have the heart of a missionary or advocate, and I’ve spent a lot of my life trying to figure out what my mission is. I’ve tried to teach myself to care less, and I have gotten better at compartmentalizing my feelings. But, honestly, I don’t WANT to numb myself to the caring. The caring is why I do what I do.

The bottom line is that I spend much of my time imagining amazing futures and possibilities for the place at which I work and which I love. And, then, it often feels like I have no place to put those hopes and dreams. They spin around my head; they spin around in conversations here or elsewhere on the Web; they spin around the offices of DTLT. But they just spin and flutter. They have no where to land.