The meaning of “meaning”

Whatever things bring you a sense of meaning….Whatever things that help you find meaning in meaning…whatever things require your attention and care…may you pursue them fully and in all their glory.

As many of us stay “safe” at home in the face of a persistent COVID-19 pandemic, I’m intentionally reflecting on the meaning of meaning and how that “sits” relative to the daily decisions that need be made about how we spend our time.

We have to make these decisions daily, even when things are more “normal” than in a pandemic. Yet in specific times like these where we are staying safe at home with other responsibilities—childcare and homeschooling, eldercare or coordinating such care from a distance, care of pets, additional chores that are intensified with increased time at home, and lack of access to some self-care options such as visiting the gym or leisure time and energy for reading—the range of flexibility that we have in making choices can be diminished.

With many of these “at home” responsibilities being things that can’t wait or be easily compartmentalized, options of “keeping up” with scholarly or professional demands can rapidly dissipate or the realities of what can be accomplished can be significantly less than anticipated. This is particularly true when also weighing the physical and mental costs for some of moving much of their work—teaching that has received much attention, but also other forms of work and meetings—to online platforms and formats.

While I consistently try to prioritize my own definition of success, impact, and what it means to have “meaning” in my work and purpose, changes in our environment are best met with a time of reflection about “meaning” in a particular time, space, and context.

The prevailing messages in many academic circles—and associated frameworks of support—are focused on the premise that we simply physically move our bodies from one work location to another and accordingly move our focus to our homes and the goal of keeping going. Across the nation, these messages of resilience are branded as keep “learning”, keep “teaching”, keep “researching” perspectives. Yet, the likelihood of these being spoken into reality is limited for many.

Many of us desperately need someone to “keep supporting” and “keep listening” to us explain what our true priorities must be in this time like none we have ever seen before. What is needed most in this time is grace and understanding.

Grace extended from each of us to ourselves, but also grace extended in what may be expected of us.

Also needed is understanding that each of us seeks peace and well-being in such moments in ways that resonate with our values, our own processes of making meaning, and through strategies that feed our motivations and sense of self.

What I am finding in this time is that something as BIG—as unprecedented—as this global pandemic is sending me on a search for and deep reflection about the “meaning” of “meaning”. Whereas for me writing can be a panacea, a celebration, a mourning, a respite, and so much more, in these times I find myself thinking deeply about the meaning of my writing.

Because each moment can seem weightier than the last during a global pandemic of this magnitude, I find it hard to focus on writing about topics that are only measured in terms of whether I’m being “productive”—quantity of words produced, words for the sake of words but not linked to improving someone’s possibility for advancing a “worthy” goal, words linked in some way to pursuit of status in an academy that may emerge from this crisis understanding its worth differently [or perhaps so I hope in regards to this latter point].

Yet, I know, as much as I know the seriousness of this current moment, that I process the world through words. Thus, writing will remain critically important to me in this moment.

So, as I reflect on meaning, I ask myself which topics can I engage, which words can I juxtapose, which phrases can I turn, that may bring meaning to the meaning of this time. I draw on all the sages, word-masters, and lyrical philosophers whom I can conjure to find a guidepost.

I know that I’ll write through the crisis, but I’ll follow the wisdom of Queen Mother Toni Morrison and I will be “writing for life”.

There's a difference between writing for a living and writing for life. If you write for a living, you make enormous compromises.... If you write for ...

My writing in this time will not in the least be about productivity.

As writing is so frequently for me, it will be my way of processing the world, my way of finding meaning in the face of senselessness, my way of hoping that I can sit at the feet of whatever teacher I find in the universe and demonstrate my learning in writing.

Whatever things bring you a sense of meaning….Whatever things that help you find meaning in meaning…whatever things require your attention and care…may you pursue them fully and in all their glory.

May they bring meaning…and comfort…to you now and far beyond.

As always, if you have thought or feedback on this post, find me @BerondaM.

Leading in Crisis…Are your leaders focused on the whole person and leadership for all?

We are learning a lot about leadership and community in the face of a global pandemic.

Undoubtedly, we are learning about the need for grace, kindness, thoughtfulness, and the need for progressive leadership in this crisis.

My work in higher education means that I am watching my local leadership and the leadership of learning institutions nationwide make decisions about multiple aspects of the lives of the people they serve. Quick decisions have been made in many cases about the physical safety of these people, in terms of moving classes to online platforms and suspending large gatherings.

Lessons that I am learning in this moment include the following

  • Crisis, and extreme crisis such as this global pandemic, is a time in which you quickly learn how and where your trust in your leadership lies. One sign of trust is that in moments when there are many things requiring your attention, you feel that you can leave a certain set of issues and decisions to your leaders without worrying about the decision(s) that will be made. If you have a large list of such issues and topics, you largely understand your leaders’ values and abilities to make the right decision in those areas. Having areas that you trust your leaders to steward in the short term means that your limited time, attention, and energy can go to areas of high priority that your know require your vigilance and input. Where trust is not firmly established or in place across many areas, your time and attention must be divided across paying attention to so much. The lesson for leaders is that trust needs to be firmly established and cultivated daily so that all can focus time, energy and resources to areas of greatest priority in times of crisis or urgency.

Where leaders identify areas that trust is limited or lacking in a crisis, they should make note of these as areas of extremely high priority when post-crisis.

  • Crisis is a magnifying glass or unintended “assessment” tool for the areas in our systems that work well, leadership strategies that are effective, and individuals who have fortitude, creativity, and communication skills to help our institutions. These moments of crisis simultaneously reveal where there are gaps in our leadership, resources, systems, and communication (forms, format and content). In a crisis the scale of this global pandemic of Coronavirus, we undoubtedly must pay attention to the moment and the way things can, and do, shift quickly and radically. Yet, we should not leave behind the valuable lessons that we learn about the strengths—and definitely not the lessons about the lack thereof—of our leaders, leadership structures, methods of communication, nuance of communications, or other factors when the crisis passes and just proceed back to business as usual.

If we learn and implement all that we should about our systems during the crisis, WE SHOULD NEVER BE EXACTLY THE SAME.

  • Whereas we must focus on our missions and try to preserve aspects of our core functions in our responses to crisis, we can’t forget that we are dealing with whole people. We are leading people whose first concern and priorities are likely to be about their personal health and safety, and that of those in their personal circles. The ways in which individuals in higher education are rising to the occasion in their local domains to support instructors in moving classes online, the ways in which leaders are thinking and working around the clock to try to “save” our educational terms are admirable. Across the nation “keep teaching”, “keep learning”, “keep researching” platforms are popping up. We can’t imagine the hours of work, thinking, planning and coordination that these are requiring. I applaud each of my local colleagues and those nationally working on these issues and the utility that they (will) provide to ensure that we do the best we can to “salvage” the terms for students and colleagues.

Certainly leaders from department chairs to deans to provosts to presidents/chancellors are sending out messages to inform and support.

I’ve also been encouraging leaders in my circles and on my campus to consider that we find ways to give more personalized messages, acknowledging that the current shift to limits in campus engagement and limited access to spaces is necessary, yet these changes impact distinct populations differently.

Although I recognize that these leaders are likely already working beyond their physical and emotional capacity, progressive leadership would identify a core set of individuals able to help in communicating the ways in which we recognize the urgency some individuals may feel depending on their status – graduate students defending in the next few weeks and moving on to other positions, instructors who renew contracts from year to year, assistant professors on schedule to come up for review for tenure this year, associate professors planning for promotion, etc.

Where possible, we should build into our systems efforts to have proactive communications such that these individuals do not feel undue urgency to risks their health (and by extension the health of those with whom they come in contact). We need act and communicate such that they understand that their leaders are proactively planning and implementing support for them and reasonable consideration and accommodations.

I was encouraged to see the following info shared by Terry McGlynn about such a proactive and thoughtful accommodation made about teaching evaluations:

I hope that we will see more action and dissemination of exemplars in this regard. Perhaps there will be campus leaders who consider enacting a decision to shift tenure decisions by 6 months or more this year for all, rather than defaulting to our usual practice of waiting for individuals to ask and then deciding on a case-by-case request basis which favors the bold and unafraid to ask and disadvantages the marginalized functioning in hypervisibility. I am sure there are many other creative things that we could do, and I look forward to brainstorming personally and learning from the many examples that I hope will emerge.

I think it is vitally important that as we contemplate ways to keep teaching, keep learning, and keep researching, that we proactively and innovatively KEEP SUPPORTING!

As always, if you have thoughts on this or other posts, find me on Twitter at @BerondaM.

But especially if you have needs or creative solutions or suggestions about supporting each other, please find me @BerondaM.

Understanding and enacting my FULL purpose in the academy

I have lost count of the times that I’ve been invited into a space to share my scholarship⁠—recent advances in my teams’ understanding of the acclimation of plants or cyanobacteria to their local environment or my recent insights into meaningful mentoring, leadership, or institutional transformation⁠—that I’ve also had intentional interactions with Black women scholars around BEING and BEING WHOLE in academic spaces.

These interactions and conversations happen when I’m stopped in corners of exhibit halls, convention centers, or hotel lobbies. They happen over coffee, lunch, or dinner when I’m invited to share space and conversations by these Black women scholars and other young women⁠—women who have been waiting to see themselves represented as speakers on the “big stage” or in leadership and expert consulting roles.

I’ve come to embrace thatin addition to my scientific purpose of exploring interesting and relevant science questions and contributing to scientific advances, as well as engaging in the efficacious mentoring of junior colleagues and innovative academic leadershipmy full scholarly purpose also encompasses the mentoring moments [or episodic mentoring] and ongoing mentoring that occurs from encountering junior women scholars of color.

I currently work on a large research campus and I’ve increasingly noticed that these engagements are also happening locally.

As a first and only in so many of the stops along the trajectory of my own professional journey, I recognize how rare such opportunities can be for young Black women and other women of color to encounter and actively engage with senior women of color in academic circles. So, I fully embrace these opportunities and recognize that MY FULL PURPOSE in the academic spaces I inhabit spans scientific and representational contributions.

In embracing my FULL purpose, I hope to contribute in some meaningful way to these scholars also walking fully into their own purpose. The academy needs these women and their brilliant contributionseven when the very academy that needs them can’t always see, affirm, cultivate, acknowledge and reward the priceless contributions that will be made.

As always, if you have thoughts on this or other posts, find me on Twitter at @BerondaM.