In Defense of Despair

Apr 22, 2015 | Uncategorized

For many of us, our commitment to higher ed began as a kind of love affair didn’t it? A cliche indeed, but it’s true. I’ve heard the sentiment from colleagues much more level headed and pragmatic than I. Higher ed was supposed to be this barely sullied space for ideas and ideals. Ideas and ideals that, granted, could take on a range of shapes and tones. For some, it was about escape, for others engagement. A return to the comforting cloister of canonic sameness or the empowered righting of political wrongs or just a little peace and quiet. Haha! Anyway, for me, the idyllic draw of higher ed had to do with problem solving and a necessary coupler: high tolerance to failure. Here, indeed, was a space in which–in the name of problem solving–failure was expected, condoned: try things, fail, and try again. Admission policies somehow highlight this kind of work but not that? Try it this way. This canon violent or warped? What if we blow it up! Or build another one or insert more info here…Yes, it’s embarrassing to even type this out, mostly because so many people smarter than me have already written about the issue ad nauseum but that has been The Big Let Down as far as I’m concerned–the extraordinary resistance in higher ed to take risks.

A Librarian’s Defense of Despair, a diminutive article published in the Chronicle by Amherst College Librarian  Bryn Geffert somehow managed to sum up much, very much, of what I felt–fifteen full years ago, when I began, seriously, my entanglement with it–was  the exhilarating promise of higher ed.  However. He’s  is writing specifically about the broken scholarly publishing system and he’s doing so from the other side of the fence–coaxing us, urging us–and so efficiently!–to see the error of holding on for dear life to a way of being whose diminishing returns will kill us soon anyway. I actually love the way he frames his argument for trying new (open) models (of scholarly publishing) as “embracing despair as an unshackling force that frees us to try new things.” “Hopelessness,” Geffert notes, is what “provides the impetus we need to make impossible choices.”

Yes! Hopelessness, despair, and all their liberating possibility! I am indeed on this side of the fence now, fifteen years later. Countless black female colleagues not getting tenure, Arizona, and consultant-led prioritization processes pushed me there.  And yes, my hopelessness and despair may be directed at higher ed writ large, not just it’s freakish and warped obsession with the myth of the privatized knowledge of the codex–but whatever. I think there is extraordinary hope and possibility to be found in the hopelessness and despair that causes us–in spite of logic and tradition–to fling ourselves off the cliff. It’s so, totally Mary Oliver.


I’m done with being good. HOORAY!

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