As my eighth year at Michigan State University begins, I have been reflecting on the work we have done and the work that lies ahead. In many ways, this past semester and the next mark a liminal passage from a period in which the pandemic shaped much of our academic life to one in which we will need to learn new ways of being together as we create a more just and beautiful future.
My reflections here are preliminary and are tied to a larger project for which I am seeking the right language and direction. I offer them here in the spirit of experimentation.
In considering the contours of this liminal period and the possibilities for the future we might imagine and create, I have turned again to the insights of Grace Lee Boggs. Her two autobiographies, Living for Change and The Next American Revolution, return regularly to the idea that without self-transformation, there is no structural transformation. Revolutionary change is evolutionary — it requires us, as Boggs would say, “to grow our souls.”
In Living for Change, she writes:
“To make a revolution, people must not only struggle against existing institutions. They must make a philosophical/spiritual leap and become more human human beings. In order to change/transform the world, they must change/transform themselves.”1
When Boggs speaks of “growing our souls,” she means making an intentional spiritual leap of self-transformation. This requires each of us to become a more mature human-being, a person who “understands the fundamental need of human beings at this stage in our evolution to relate more responsibly to one another and to the Earth.”2 Maturity requires self-reflection, ethical candor, and intentionality. It requires a commitment to act on behalf of our highest possibilities, recognizing that we are woven into a vast network of relationships that connects to everything that exists.
Rethinking Academic Subjectivity
The wisdom of Grace Lee Boggs helps bring the future we need to create together into perspective: transformative institutional change in higher education will require a substantive rethinking of the academic subject, of the human-being who undertakes an academic life. Perhaps, in fact, it is better to leave behind the old vocabulary of “subjectivity,” and adopt the term “earthling” in an effort to do justice to our relational dependencies on a rich diversity of earthly beings — human and non-human others — and to the earth that sustains us.
As Boggs writes:
“We must have the courage to walk the talk, but we must also engage in the continuing dialogues that enable us to break free of old categories and create the new ideas that are necessary to address our realities, because revolutions are made not to prove the correctness of ideas but to begin anew.”3
To speak of human-being as an ‘earthling’ is to draw on the posthumanist scholarship of Rosi Braidotti, who, although she does not reject the language of “subjectivity,” nevertheless reconceptualizes the posthuman subject as relational, embodied, embedded, embrained, vulnerable, rhizomatic, immanent, and animated by desire and joy.4
Without fleshing out the contours of this posthuman subjectivity, of this earthliness, I point to it now to lend some determination to what it might feel and sound like to begin thinking of the academic subject as an earthling relationally connected to a wide range of other earthly beings and animated by a desire to deepen our understanding of the world we share. This world, of course, extends beyond the Earth itself to the deepest reaches of what might be known — the signatures of which are just beginning to be discernible in the wondrous images we have received this summer from the James Webb Space Telescope.
When Boggs encourages us to walk the talk, leave behind old categories, and begin anew, she invites us to play with language and the ways of being that are shaped by language so we might imagine and create a more just and beautiful world.
Over the last semester, my colleagues and I have sought to do just this in a number of published texts and in a grant we received. These are early indictors of a pathway toward a future academy that is shaped not by competition, selfishness, and anxiety, but by collaboration, generosity, and joy.
Walking the Talk
In January, the HuMetricsHSS team published the white paper, Walking the Talk: Toward a Values Aligned Academy. Drawing on over 120 interviews with faculty, staff, and administrators across the Big Ten Academic Alliance, we outlined recommendations that address a fundamental misalignment between the values academic institutions profess to hold and the processes they embody. In the conclusion of that text, we write:
Without direct action to redress this misalignment, we will remain unable to tap into the hope, creativity, and joy that are the catalysts of genuine transformation. Through our conversations we identified opportunities for intervention in quotidian interactions, small policy changes, slight shifts of emphasis, and innovative structural adjustments. We learned that substantive institutional transformation is, in fact, possible — and that each of us involved in the higher education endeavor, however exhausted we may feel, can be an agent of the change we envision if we remain committed to putting our values into intentional practice in every encounter we have, in every decision we make, in every policy we create, and in every practice we undertake.
The hope, creativity, and joy of which we speak points to the affective dimensions of a new kind of academic life, one in which academic earthlings are fulfilled in the work we undertake in institutions whose resources, practices, and policies are oriented toward shared flourishing.
Pathways of Intellectual Leadership
In our article, Charting Pathways of Intellectual Leadership: An Initiative for Transformative Personal and Institutional Change, Sonja Fritzsche, Bill Hart-Davidson, and I outline a new approach to academic life we have been attempting to enact in the College of Arts & Letters at Michigan State University. The Charting Pathways of Intellectual Leadership (CPIL) approach is a framework and a process rooted in the recognition, as Boggs would say, that there is no institutional transformation without personal transformation. As we write:
“The framework is designed to expand our understanding of what counts as valuable university work. The process provides structure to mentoring conversations that empower colleagues to imagine and enact the meaningful contributions they hope to make.”5
The framework and the process are designed to recognize a wider variety of activities as genuine scholarly contributions and to orient our institutional policies and practices toward the dreams and goals our colleagues have for themselves, their communities, and their work.
Pathways of Presencing
The CPIL approach is also at the heart of the Pathways of Presencing: Toward Wholeness grant that my colleague, Ruth Nicole Brown, and I received in April from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Social Science Research Council. As we write in the proposal:
“By ‘presencing’ we mean the intentional practice of being wholly and authentically present to each other in ways that cultivate the trust necessary for personal and structural transformation.”
The grant focuses on creating space and time for colleagues in the Department of African American and African Studies, founded in the midst of the pandemic, to build meaningful relationships. Practices of presencing also are central to our efforts in the College of Arts & Letters and the MSU Honors College to create the conditions for mutual flourishing. This requires intentional practices of what Brené Brown calls “wholeheartedness,” the courage to bring our whole selves, in all their vulnerable beauty, to each encounter, to every situation, to all of our personal and professional relationships. The future we need is rooted in our capacity to be wholehearted.
An Irresistible Destination
As we move through this liminal passage from what was to what might yet be, we have undertaken, in the College of Arts & Letters, an approach to strategic planning rooted in appreciative inquiry. This has presented us with an opportunity to dream about the more just and beautiful future we hope to create together. This led us to develop a new articulation of the aspiration statement for the College. In this we turned to the eloquence of another activist leader, Toni Cade Bambara, who said: “As a culture worker who belongs to an oppressed people my job is to make revolution irresistible.”6 To “make revolution irresistible” is to wholeheartedly embrace the institutional and personal transformation to which Boggs points in the passage above — it is to risk becoming “more human human beings” by “relating more responsibly to one another and to the Earth.”
With this in mind, we have adopted the following aspiration statement:
“We will be an irresistible destination for those who imagine and work for a more just and beautiful future.”
The call is for those who not only imagine a more just and beautiful future, but for those who are also willing to work together to create such a future. The aspiration is for us to become magnetic, such that all who are committed to this work cannot help but come to join us in the effort.
- Boggs, Grace Lee. Living for Change: An Autobiography. Reprint edition. Minneapolis ; London: Univ Of Minnesota Press, 2016, 153.
- Boggs, Grace Lee, Scott Kurashige, and Danny Glover. The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century. First Edition, Foreword by Danny Glover and Afterword with Immanuel Wallerstein. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012., 112.
- Living for Change, 51.
- Braidotti, Rosi. Posthuman Knowledge. 1st edition. Medford, MA: Polity, 2019.
- Fritzsche, Sonja, William Hart-Davidson, and Christopher P. Long. “Charting Pathways of Intellectual Leadership: An Initiative for Transformative Personal and Institutional Change.” Change: The Magazine of Higher Learning 54, no. 3 (May 4, 2022): 19–27. https://doi.org/10.1080/00091383.2022.2054175, 21.
- Bambara, Toni Cade, and Thabiti Lewis. Conversations with Toni Cade Bambara. Literary Conversations Series. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2012, 35.