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

The power of reflection…and “what” returns

My throat went on vacation…and brought me along for the ride…well that’s my description for the laryngitis I’ve been experiencing.

This state of existence has led me to expand my periods of silence—to give regular periods of rest to my vocal chords over the past days. While these rest periods could have just been stretches of mindless silence, I’ve taken these as periods for intentional reflection.

I’m big on self-reflection. It’s been critical for my personal and professional growth. Prior to the current coronavirus-associated pandemic & a disruption to my travel, I had regular retreats that included reflection time as a core tenet—or in some cases the entire agenda.

These times of intense self-reflection allow me to pause and ask myself—How are you? How did you arrive at this place and time (literally and figuratively)? What will you leave behind when you move forward and what will you purposefully take with you? All critically important interrogations for myself, the last question in particular is about what returns from the period of reflection when I emerge to move forward.

The impact of stopping to reflect—a critically important practice that we too often fail to engage as we exist in cycles of endless busyness—is amplified by the ACTION of intentionally shedding some things that are not serving me well to increase time, as well as mental and physical capacity, to move forward with other things.

While my current ability to sit in silence and spend some intense time in reflection has arisen due to a physical challenge rather than a planned pause, I fully embrace the opportunity. It reminds of the need to plan for such periods with intention and anticipation rather than waiting on a “forced” period of pause. The importance of anticipating change and preparing for it is a lesson that I usually draw from plants in the season of autumn that is rapidly coming to a close. A period when deciduous trees degrade their green chlorophyll and drop their leaves in an active period of preparation for rest during winter.

Many of us resist planning for and fully embracing intentional quiet, pause, engaged reflection. As I have stated before, it “goes against all the incessant action that too many of us value – i.e., the illusion of busyness as evidence of commitment and productivity.”

Yet, I recognize that to embrace the ability to reflect and ask “where am I now and how and with what (and sometimes the pertinent question is with whom?) do I move forward?” is needed for sustained commitment, impact and productivity.

So while I didn’t (this time) plan for the current periods of reflection and invitation to deeper self-awareness, I welcome them…and I will certainly move forward with purposeful commitment to plan for the next period to understand, engage and support myself—so that I can also understand, engage and support others.

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.