From “Ethos” to “Place”

I am walking boldly from “ethos” alone to “ethos and place”.

I am making a career move.

Since my undergraduate training in a liberal arts environment at Washington University in St. Louis, I’ve engaged knowledge and insights from many disciplinary perspectives while centering myself in the sciences.

I recall classes in literature, women’s studies, and African and African-American Studies (A&AAS)—the latter quite frankly to both learn about the experiences of Black Americans and Africans in the diaspora as much as to have the experience of a class taught by a Black professor. While studying biology, psychology, and math, these classes in literature, A&AAS, and women’s studies, among others impacted my intellectual pursuit of and engagement in my core disciplines.

I recall many conversations with my science professors about the cultural origins and global implications of scientific knowledge—such inquiries were often met with confusion, encouragement to “stay focused” on science, or on the rare occasion curiosity or encouragement.

Yet, I persisted.

Knowledge for me was never an individual pursuit alone, but a cultivation of my own curiosity which increased my individual knowledge and—because knowledge is communal in my family and culture of origin—a contribution to the collective knowledge of communities of which I was a part.

While my doctoral, postdoctoral, and (to-date) faculty positions have been in research-intensive institutions, I’ve always had a liberal arts “ethos” guiding my professional existence.

As a graduate student at UC Davis, I was actively involved in interdisciplinary communities, including the Ford Fellows Community, that allowed me to stay actively engaged in disciplines far beyond my own foci of biology and biochemistry. I read (and continue to do so) broadly—books and other scholarly works authored by my Ford Fellow colleagues and others in sociology, Black feminist theory, history, and more.

This interest outside my own scientific focus continued into my postdoctoral tenure at Indiana University and was formalized in my active involvement in communities focused on service learning and other community-engaged practices of taking knowledge outside academic spaces to impact local and community priorities. Such approaches that encourage pragmatic consideration of the impact of knowledge furthered my liberal arts and social engagement ethos.

The further cultivation and commitment to hold dear to such an ethos continued into my faculty career, despite expressed concerns that my commitment to “causes”—including work centered in equity and justice in the sciences, higher education, and far beyond—could be a distraction from my pursuit of scholarly “fame” and traditional forms of recognition.

Functioning based on a liberal arts ethos led me to consider (privately and publicly) not just what I was learning about plants and microbes in the experimental studies conducted by my research group to understand how these organisms perceive and respond to external environmental cues such as light and nutrient availability, but also to ask what can we learn from plants (#LessonsFromPlants) and microbes (#LessonsFromMicrobes) about how to be better humans—individually and in community.

Looking to plants and microbes as teachers is not an uncommon practice globally, although it can certainly be thought of as “outside of the box” in the sciences. Yet, these limitations do not guide one such as me who possesses a liberal arts ethos even when functioning in a research environment.

So, when invited to consider an opportunity to move from “ethos” to “place”—especially a place with expressed commitment to social responsibility and justice—I felt compelled to consider it.

Having engaged with a community dedicated to living out their expressed values and commitments, I knew this invitation was one I was eager to pursue.

Now I’m excitedly embarking on a new phase of my professional journey.

I am walking boldly from “ethos” alone to “ethos and place” as I prepare to join the Grinnell College community.

I look forward to sharing the journey ahead, including continuing to ask (as well as write about) how we collaboratively implement new means of leading and mentoring equitably, and what plants and other biological organisms and ecosystems have to teach us about that.

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

I’m freedom dreaming…actively plotting & planning

The ultimate full-time work for me sits at the intersection of work I can do (I possess the basic capabilities), work I want to do (passion- and mission-driven work), and work that is needed (both acknowledged & unacknowledged, but absolutely critical, needs). Ultimately, this overlap is the embodiment of my freedom dreaming.

I have a vision for the work I can do, want to do, and that the world needs me to do. I also have a plan for measuring the impact of this work – my B-Index.

Unfortunately…for the current moment…it’s not the totality of my full-time paying gig, even as I have actively crafted my “day job” into more and more of “the dream” every chance and opportunity that I get.

There’s a lot of work that I can do, and do very well.

There’s also a lot of work that I want to do, some of that I can do well and other aspects I just like to do and so it feeds the wellness of my being.

There’s also work that the world needs me to do. In that regard, I’m special (aren’t we all?! – That’s what the fortunate among us are told by our mothers at least). Yet, I believe that to be true of each of us! I genuinely believe that there’s a place that our gifts, passions, abilities align with the needs of the universe – as well as our places of vocation and places of living.

Freedom dreaming – and yes I mean in the Black radical tradition as espoused by Robin D.G. Kelly in “Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination” – takes me to the intersection of what I can, want, and the world needs me to do.

Figure 1. Venn diagram with intersecting circles: blue circle labelled “Work I can do” (upper left) ; purple circle labelled “Work I want to do” (upper right); and, green circle labelled “Work the world needs me to do” (lower center). Labels: description “things I’m most commonly asked to do” in upper left with black arrow point to blue circle; description “What I often do now as consulting” pointing to overlap between blue and green circles (what I can do and what is needed); description “What I would do full time if independently wealthy” pointing to overlap between purple and green circles (what I want to do and what is needed); description “My dream full-time job & what I cultivate when, where & how I can in my current work” pointing to overlap of all three circles.

What befuddles and – at times – frustrates me is how often the requests for what I’m asked to do lie solely in the domain of what I can do without engaging what I truly want to do or aligning with what is needed of me. That is work that for me has great potential to lead to a lack of fulfillment and sure burnout.

Nearly equally frequent are requests for me to do what the world needs me to do, whether I have interest or commitment in doing so. In terms of my work in institutions, I’ve written of these phenomena before, and the limits that arise therefrom, in my discussion of “The limits of institutional imagination.”

I am also invited – mostly from individuals outside my “home” institution – to do work at the intersection of what I “can do” and what “the world needs me to do.” My work in this space can be extremely valuable for those individuals or institutions who need access to work that I am capable of doing. Because these are not necessarily “passion” projects, it is primarily work that I can effectively carry out as paid consulting.

Where I (indeed many of us) love to exist is in the intersection of work I “want” to do and work that the world “needs” me to do. There is a lot of motivation and passion at this interface. There is something very satisfying – that feeds individual motivation – when work you want to do satisfies the needs of a community. It can indeed be very affirming to offer your desired contributions in service to local needs. However, I have found that in some traditional spaces that my definition of what is needed differs from what institutions and their leaders defined as needed.

When such misalignment with traditional work expectations exists, efforts in this intersection can be overlooked, or worse yet seen as derailing you from expected action and progress. Key examples that I think of that often fall into these spaces are growth-based mentoring – both preparative and restorative -, service, and some aspects of leadership. These can be areas of work that are critical to the functioning of institutions or professional spaces; yet, are not those things recognized through traditional metrics of success and advancement.

The ultimate full-time work for me sits at the intersection of work I can do (I possess the basic capabilities), work I want to do (passion- and mission-driven work), and work that is needed (both acknowledged & unacknowledged, but absolutely critical, needs). Ultimately, this overlap is the embodiment of my freedom dreaming.

One of the most recent examples of this work for me personal is my recently released book Lessons from Plants that draws on my disciplinary knowledge of plants, scholarly expertise in mentoring and leadership, and my commitment to broadly foster and engage in conversations with a broader humanity…and in the process of doing so to call myself – and invite others – “higher.”

As I’ve stated before, in the absence of a personal commitment to work in ways that support my freedom dream NOW, this is work that would have been relegated to retirement. Yet even as most paying full-time jobs in academia for me sit outside the center of my freedom dreaming Venn diagram, I’ve learned over the years to advocate for parts of my formal work to encompass my freedom dreams…even as I continue to reflect on, actively plan for, and will into existence a space – in the academy or perhaps beyondthat allows me to exist more fully and regularly in the space of freedom dreaming as my life-sustaining vocation.

I know I’m closer today than I was yesterday to actualizing that dream.

Being clear about it is the first step, the next steps are reflecting regularly on it, being vulnerable and brave enough to share it openly to draw opportunities to further develop it and bring it into existence.

As with all the work I do, I’m not just about making such work possible just for me. I’m deeply committed to work and leadership that makes this possible for others.

What’s the work you can do? want to do? the world needs you to do? and how are you actualizing it?

I’d love to be in conversation with you about it. You can find me pontificating about mine here and eager to engage about mine or yours on Twitter @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.