Campus Center: Panda Express. “It is better to shine than to reflect,” my fortune cookie says confidently. I understand the intended encouragement: it is better to produce light than merely to bounce back someone else’s light. But the problem with aphoristic wisdom is that . . .it blurts. It shines in a brief moment of Olympian pronouncement. It is categorical and simplistic and –at its best—merely suggestive because of the negative space created by the silence surrounding the brief message. This little slip of paper in the fortune cookie can’t accommodate extended consideration. Don’t blame the little guy-- it’s hard to pose alternatives in a space a quarter inch by an inch. No room for qualifiers or second thoughts. Can’t even say “On the other hand…” because convention allocates the reverse side of the fortune paper to a different strategy altogether: if words won’t improve your fortune, try these lucky lotto numbers. If that doesn’t work, move on to the next cookie, the next fortune. Fortune cookies are all about shining.
Sometimes it is better to reflect than to shine. The Academic Senate is all about reflection. Impatience with deliberative bodies like the Academic Senate is spot on: on occasion we as Senators do take the floor bombastically, seeking to shine. We use the Senate floor to warn against real or imagined bogeymen, our rhetorical chops exercised in defense of chimerical or obviously doomed boons. But sometimes impatience with deliberative bodies like the Academic Senate is misplaced. Our job is not to package truth in sound bites, to laud efficiency as our highest goal, or simply to produce an answer. Our job is to reflect. Reflection: the raison d’etre of the university, and the heart of Senate work.
Hauling my Compact Edition of the O.E.D. off the shelf (does anyone else do this anymore?), I discover that “reflection” of the sort I’m talking about here doesn’t appear until the eighth and ninth definitions, and that the root of this word has to do with bending, turning and diverting. Anyone who’s been to a full Senate meeting knows that our conversations regularly bend and turn, though they’re not always diverting. But that’s the point: our job is not to scribe the shortest line between point A and point B. Our task in the shared governance process is to make sure point B is where we want to end up, and to assure that we make all the proper stops along the way. Efficiency is valuable but not our highest value. Our job is to ponder the academic enterprise, to evaluate how best to accommodate some pretty hoary traditions to a world of social media, sorting the wheat from the chaff. It’s very heady stuff . . . and yet there’s also the institutional politics. As part of shared governance we’re engaged in the academic side of making sure that our resources match our mission, both in adequacy and distribution.
The skills necessary for doing the reflective work of the Senate are the skills that we celebrate as academics: the ability to analyze and evaluate, the ability to grasp what’s central and vital and what’s peripheral, the ability to understand and to create cogent arguments, the patience to absorb lots of material in meetings and reports, the wisdom to know when you need more information before acting and when your information though incomplete is sufficient enough to act upon.
For many years now the number of faculty members available to do Senate work has been declining even as the number and work of committees expands. We need help. The fact that you’ve read this far is a good indicator that YOU are the kind of person we’re looking for. There are many rewards, none of which will show up on your W2. Check out the folks active in the Academic Senate and on Senate committees; you’ll find some of the most interesting, engaged members of this academic community. Join them. This webpage has a listing of current service opportunities. Go there now. I’ll be glad you did. So will you.
Chair of the Academic Senate 2012-2013