Generous Thinking cover

Thinking About Generous Thinking

Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking helps anyone involved in education think about priorities and assumptions, about how we approach the work that we do. It is not a nuts and bolts book; it is a book that zooms out more than it zooms in. We need such books, because some of our best and most practical practices may easily be undermined by the bigger context when we try to put them to use.

Fitzpatrick defines “generous thinking” as “a mode of engagement that emphasizes listening over speaking, community over individualism, collaboration over competition, and lingering with the ideas that are in front of us rather than continually pressing forward to where we want to go” (4). Hers is a vision for the university as a public good, and she is interesting in thinking both about how individual institutions can be stronger communities than they currently are, and about how individual institutions can interact more effectively (and more generously) with the communities beyond their ivy-covered walls.

She wonders what if “the university’s values and commitments made it possible for those of us who work on campus to develop a new understanding of how expertise is structured and how it functions, an understanding focused just a bit less on individual achievement, on invidious distinction? What if the expertise the university cultivated were at its root connected to building forms of collectivity, solidarity, and community at its root?” This goes to the core mission of the institution itself: “What new purposes for the university might we imagine if we understand its role to be not inculcating state citizens, nor training corporate citizens, but instead facilitating the development of diverse, open communities — both on their campuses and across their borders — encouraged to think together, to be involved in the ongoing project of how we understand and shape our world?” (44-45).

US universities are, generally speaking, not built on premises of generosity, but rather on premises of competition. At their very basic level, almost all are designed to let certain people in and keep others out. The rapid advance of privatization in public universities has led to a diminishment of the idea of universities as a public good — as institutions that bring value not just to the individuals who work and learn there, but to the community such an institution is part of, and to society as a whole. This diminishment is addressed by Fitzpatrick, who makes reference to a book that chronicles it particularly well, Christopher Newfield’s The Great Mistake. Perhaps, Fitzpatrick suggests, by rethinking the university toward generosity rather than competition we can recover a sense of higher education’s best purpose.

Toward that goal, she returns repeatedly to basic strategies and values: listening, collaborating, working in public, working to break down borders, trying to find solidarity, trying to build coalitions and communities.

Fitzpatrick is not a woo-woo idealist. She is aware of the ways that different circumstances, differing levels of power, and different types of privilege affect her ideas. As much as she advocates for conversation based on careful, deliberate listening, she knows that “listening as a ground for generosity, as a means of working through disagreement, must be mutual, or at least have the potential for mutuality” (77). Without such potential, listening becomes a hollow exercise, one with real dangers, especially for marginalized people. What you can listen to, what you can put up with, depends on your own circumstances. If you’re trying to build a coalition, you’re going to need to listen to people who disagree with you, people who perhaps even think of you as lesser than themselves. That requires some strength and confidence; until you’ve built up that strength and confidence, you may need the listening of sympathetic ears more than you need a coalition.

I want to think about the practical implications of Fitzpatrick’s ideas. How might they change our practice, and how might we use our practice to change our institutions? I don’t have answers, only perhaps some possibilities, plus lots of questions. I suspect the practical implications are difficult to specify because they will be different in various environments and situations. The generous thinking my school needs may be quite different from the generous thinking your school needs.

What I like about Generous Thinking is that is suggests some bedrock values we might work from. Generosity as opposed to competition. Community as opposed to hierarchical domination. Solidarity as opposed to elitism. Openness.

Fitzpatrick points to two broad types of university community: inside the institution and outside of it. These communities overlap and ought to interact, but if we’re thinking about how to adjust the institution, we might gain from thinking about the two broad communities separately at first. While much can be said about how a university interacts with communities beyond its borders, here I want to think about the community inside the institution’s bounds.

Community: Inside

What does it mean for a university to be a community? Is the university community the one that gets celebrated in marketing materials and commencement speeches? What does it mean to have your paycheck provided by, and your career controlled by, the administrators of the community? What does it mean to pay to become a member of the community — and, more often than not, to go into significant debt for that membership?

These days, most universities try to pay attention to the communities beyond their own. There are community service projects and internships, as well as external partnerships between various programs and outside organizations and businesses. However, Fitzpatrick makes an important point: “No amount of service learning or community-engaged research has thus far succeeded in transforming the structure of our institutions — any of our institutions — or the ways they are perceived and experienced by the public in general. If anything, we lay the groundwork for an inevitable betrayal of the public trust every time we focus on building such programs without building corresponding internal policies and structures in line with them” (223-224). In The Great Mistake, Newfield demonstrates the ways many external partnerships undermine the public good that universities strive for, with businesses able to leverage state funding and student tuition money for their own purposes. Nonetheless, it doesn’t feel especially difficult to identify what the communities outside the institution are.

But within the institution, the community may be harder to identify, because if we want the word to have any meaning, it needs to be more than just the people who are on campus. That’s the institution’s population, not a community.

“Is it scalable?” is a question we often hear these days. I wonder about that with community. How can we make a place of thousands — or tens of thousands — of people feel like a community? Beyond feel like, how can we make such a place function as a community?

The social sciences have studied community for a long time. I am not a social scientist, so my understanding is superficial, but maybe superficial is enough to get us going. I’ve written before about my experiences at a small school where the phrase known, needed, and cared for became a powerful lens through which to evaluate our work at community-building and taking care of ourselves and our students. It’s one approach.

For our purposes here, let’s go back to the influential 1986 article, “Sense of Community: Definition and Theory” by David W. McMillan and David M. Chavis. It’s well known and widely available. McMillan and Chavis identify four features leading to a sense of community:

The first element is membership. Membership is the feeling of belonging or of sharing a sense of personal relatedness. The second element is influence, a sense of mattering, of making a difference to a group and of the group mattering to its members. The third element is reinforcement: integration and fulfillment of needs. This is the feeling that members’ needs will be met by the resources received through their membership in the group. The last element is shared emotional connection, the commitment and belief that members have shared and will share history, common places, time together, and similar experiences.

As McMillan and Chavis point out, these are not inherently good qualities. Membership, for instance, requires boundaries. It creates insiders and outsiders, deviants. And even though the word community tends to have a positive connotation, we should be wary of that connotation. A murderous, racist militia group is a community just as much as a committedly nonviolent organic farming cooperative is. Corporate CEOs throw the word around even more freely than they evade taxes. Facebook loves to tout itself as a community. Community by itself is more a description than a value. It is a tool that may facilitate and enhance the values you want to bring forward … or it may not.

Good liberals like ourselves of course seek peace, love, and understanding. We pride ourselves on our tolerance and openness. So, thinking about community membership, we might not like the idea of creating insiders and outsiders. But it’s worth considering how community membership can be used to reinforce the values we want our community to uphold. There are all sorts of paradoxes in the concept of toleration, and whatever we may think of Karl Popper, it’s worth at least giving some good, hard thought to his paradox of tolerance (“Unlimited tolerance must lead to the disappearance of tolerance.”) and consider that perhaps a resilient community must declare as deviant the values and behaviors that dilute and eventually destroy its own core values.

With Newfield and Fitzpatrick in mind, then, we might say that privatization and competition are values/behaviors that undermine the generous community of a public university, and should therefore be kept in check, if not shunned altogether. Members of a generous community are not in competition with each other, but rather seek to build cooperation and solidarity. People committed to competition should look elsewhere for a community of their own.

That’s an example. There are likely good arguments against it, for instance from sports enthusiasts, who might stand up and advocate for the benefits of competition. The conversation itself would be more valuable than any hard and fast rule. Indeed, it seems to me that communities ought to be built around cooperative communication about the community’s values, and such conversations will probably find that many community rules ought to serve as guidelines, not hard-and-fast laws. A community discussion clarifying how sports teams contribute to a sense of community, and how they demonstrate some positive elements of competition, would likely bring clarity and cohesion to the community. Resilient communities are dynamic.

Here we see an idea Fitzpatrick raises at various points: The need to articulate and discuss values. I’ve been at institutions where the supposed values of the place were shared via banners and brochures created by the institution’s marketing department, and my suspicion was that those values were ones that had been imposed from on high by administrators. Events often made me wonder whether even the administrators actually believed in them. A coherent community doesn’t just have a list of values; the members of the community can articulate what those values mean in action.

There are many qualities of internal community we could discuss and elaborate here, but I want to focus on one last one: agency. McMillan and Chavis identify influence as one of their four qualities leading to a sense of community, a quality with various implications: a healthy community is one that is both influenced by its members and that influences its members. It’s the former that I want to think about here in terms of a university community. How might every member of the community have a sense of meaningful agency? How might every member be able to shape the environment of the community?

This is about empowerment. Perhaps the place to start, then, is with the most disempowered. Those of us with some power in a university might do well to ask ourselves: Who is most disempowered here, and what could we do to better empower them? How might we increase agency and influence, and thus strengthen the community itself?

For myself, I’ve focused on thinking about student empowerment within my classes, the environment I most control. I have de-emphasized grades, increased student choice in how we approach the work of the course, sought to make my courses as accessible as possible to various types of learners, tried to reduce authoritarianism in my course policies and demeanor, etc. It’s an ongoing process, as it should be — communities are dynamic and we human beings are defined by nothing so much as our fallibility. But by sticking to some basic values (openness, cooperation, empowerment), I’ve been able to bring myself back on track when it felt like what I was doing in class was going astray. More importantly, by articulating these values to students in my courses, I’ve been able to ask them to help us keep on track. Communities can become self-regulating organisms when values are known, discussed, and evaluated by community members who have agency within the community.

The Public Good

At the end of The Great Mistake, Christopher Newfield outlines a “recovery cycle” for public universities, a cycle that begins with recognizing the university as a public good. Newfield argues that public funding is the only mechanism that has led historically to a maximization of the benefits that universities provide to communities and societies, and this argument is one that everyone seeking to save public education ought to make, rather than continuing to make the argument that public education exists solely for individual benefit. In Generous Thinking, Fitzpatrick asks, “What might become possible if we were able to decide that the real competition is not among institutions of higher education but rather between a vision of higher education as a public good and an understanding of higher education as a private responsibility?” (187).

Many things might become possible, but first we have to think about how to do this. How do we, as Fitzpatrick advocates, “build collectively the systems and capacities that all institutions of higher education need in order for the entire sector to thrive”? Aside from getting a bunch of us with this vision elected to public office, what can we do?

At the most basic level, we can do our best within the environments that we have some influence over. I can change my classroom practices. I can communicate with students and colleagues in a way that shares my vision of what education is and ought to be. I can evaluate my interactions to see if I’m holding to my principals. I can look for opportunities to encourage and empower other people on campus toward ideas of education as cooperation and collaboration, as something that contributes to society at least as much as it contributes to individuals. I can seek out collaborations beyond my own corner of the community. This work may feel small and insignificant, and it may be small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. My first teaching responsibilities were during my undergrad years when I worked part-time (through the AmeriCorps program) at a school profiled in a book called Small Victories, and if I believe anything about education, it’s that small victories matter.

To move beyond the basic level, we would need to evaluate where we have influence, and where we might expand our influence. We have to think about propaganda: If we believe in our vision of education as a public good, how do we spread that vision? How do we put its principles into action? How do we measure our success? (And what are the perils?)

Perhaps if enough people at an institution commit to a vision of collaboration, cooperation, and solidarity then that vision will begin to be articulated and shared by the institution itself … and maybe if the institution itself articulates and shares the vision, then it will reach beyond the institution, and do some work out in the world, increasing a sense of the university as a public good … and maybe if the vision does some work out in the world, a bit of that work will feed back into the institution…

It’s a hugely idealistic concept, but we need some idealism to energize our days.

What Can We Do?

For now, though, and less idealistically, there’s what we can each do ourselves. I’ve thought of this a lot as I’ve recently joined the elite ranks of the tenure-tracked. I’ve spent the last eleven years as an adjunct, a grad student, and a one-year contracted faculty member. Contingent positions, subordinate positions. Positions without a whole lot of influence on the community beyond individual classes. But now I do have some more influence. Not over the state legislature that controls some of our resources, nor even much over the administration of the institution itself, but I certainly have influence within a sphere of that institution in a way I did not before. How to use it for good? I don’t have a set answer for that question; rather, I use the question itself to evaluate what I’m trying to do.

Don’t be evil was a good motto for Google, though one they couldn’t live up to. Maybe we can. And maybe we can be better: Maybe we can, generously, with solidarity, work toward doing good work for the public good. Maybe, if we evaluate what we have control and influence over, we can spread that vision and not become overwhelmed by its opposite, the vision of competition, individualism, and authoritarianism that currently dominates.

Fitzpatrick writes:

The political and institutional obstacles in front of us, the blockages that prevent us from creating the kinds of universities that might be communities, that might support communities, are huge. Our thinking must be equally so. And that requires all of us to think beyond our local allegiances, beyond our own situations, and to develop new forms of solidarity, of commitment, to one another. (235)

That means that administrators and tenured faculty need to be fiercely aware of their privileges and complicities, that we must all recognize the ways that the hierarchical structure of the institution undermines community, that we must acknowledge borders and exclusions — and we must use this awareness, recognition, and acknowledgment not to bemoan our circumstances and revel in despair, but to work to increase agency, involvement, and community around the shared goal of a university: to create spaces for learning.

That’s what gives me hope, even amidst all the overwhelming obstacles to generous thinking and generous work. We who work at universities in whatever capacity — administrators, faculty, staff, students — are at this place to encourage learning and to honor knowledge. Everything else is gravy and whipped cream. If we can keep our most basic purpose (learning; knowledge) at the forefront, and if we can keep working together to clarify and enact our values, then we can keep moving forward.

These days, any forward movement is a real success.

Appendix: Qualms

[Drafting this post, I wrote a few paragraphs digging into some misgivings I have with the book, but rereading what I wrote, it seemed tangential to what is worthwhile in Fitzpatrick’s ideas, which is what I want to focus on. I still have these qualms, which likely say as much about me as about the book, so will note them here, but I hope nothing I say here detracts from what I wrote above.]

I sensed a certain disciplinary or epistemological bias from Fitzpatrick. I may be overly self-critical, but I wasn’t especially comfortable with the second chapter of the book, “Reading Together”, which engages with recent ideas from Rita Felski in particular (see The Limits of Critique; also her co-edited volume Critique and Post-Critique). This chapter seemed to me the kind of thing we English teachers like, but which perhaps will alienate, or at least puzzle, people in fields less devoted to the particularities of interpreting texts. In later chapters, Fitzpatrick does a good job of bringing in voices and perspectives from outside her discipline, but I couldn’t help feeling it was awfully convenient for an English professor to make her second chapter about reading. (And a long chapter, too. I’m interested in the particularities of interpreting texts and I thought the chapter was interminable. What might a mathematician make of it?) Even in later chapters, where Fitzpatrick reaches beyond her own discipline, her bias returns in how and what she values. For instance, late in the book she writes:

It is in focusing on community at all levels, rather than on particular skills and fields of knowledge, that I believe the university can make its greatest contribution to its culture, helping to ensure that we become a strong, functioning democracy. Scholars such as Martha Nussbaum have pointed to the role of the humanities — especially philosophy, history, and literature — in cultivating “the ability to think critically; the ability to transcend local loyalties and to approach world problems as a ‘citizen of the world’; and, finally, the ability to imagine sympathetically the predicament of another person,” abilities that are, she argues, “crucial to the health of any democracy internally, and to the creation of a decent world culture capable of constructively addressing the world’s most pressing problems. (213)

I groaned, reading this. Of course someone in the humanities would say this. Only the most self-abasing person would say, “The thing I’ve devoted my life to is not actually of much use to the world, and might even be an enabler of evil.” But though we in the humanities understandably value what we do, there are problems with what Nussbaum states and Fitzpatrick paraphrases, problems of an imperial will to power, of white saviorism, of simple arrogance. We must always remember that the many of the greatest crimes in history were enabled by people well versed in the humanities. Imperialism, for instance, got (and gets) justified by the humanities as a process of civilizing. Remember: Joseph Goebbels had a Ph.D. in literature. Young Joseph Stalin wrote poetry. Henry Kissinger is well read.

I thought Fitzpatrick might offer some critique of Nussbaum’s statements — Fitzpatrick says, of what is learned through the humanities, “But those abilities alone cannot be enough; the study of philosophy, history, and literature (or music, or art, or theatre) may expose students to the possibility of empathetic connection but such studies cannot in and of themselves instill the value of connection in ways that can genuinely transform a community or a culture.” That’s not the critique I hoped for. (Being post-critique can be dangerous. There are things such as the wielding of power toward which we ought always to be skeptical, authorities we ought always to question.) I like what Fitzpatrick says next, which I’ll get to in a moment, but lacking an understanding of the limits of the humanities (and of empathy) highlights something that caused me some qualms as I read: the book’s tendency to let feel-good words like community carry too much weight. As David Banks and Britney Gill point out, community is a word that easily misleads. Fitzpatrick is admirably inclusive in many ways throughout the book, admirably clear-eyed about the perils of certain practices for marginalized people especially, but though the subtitle of the book is A Radical Approach to Saving the University, it is not in a political sense radical, but comfortably liberal. This is not to say the subtitle is wrong, though. It is true that this vision of the university is, for the current environment, a radical one both in the etymological sense of getting back to the roots and in the general sense of being very different from the status quo. That’s a significant condemnation of the status quo. This shouldn’t be a radical vision; yet it is.

All words potentially mislead, and all words may be co-opted — just look at the ways ostensibly nice words like open and free get used on things that are their opposites. I don’t want to linger long on the perils of the humanities or the nefarious uses of words like community, because what matters is Fitzpatrick’s vision, a vision that I agree we need now in our educational institutions if they are to survive as anything other than debt-inducing credentialing agencies. But perhaps a part of generous thinking is also to register qualms.

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