Let Me Eat Some Humble Pie First.Posted: September 27, 2012
I’m, once again, sitting in an airport lounge and about to fly to Melbourne to discuss a challenging transition project. I have a very strange job in some ways. If you ask me what I am doing today it can vary from ‘teaching’ to ‘research’ (which says everything and nothing) or ‘flying to a meeting to look at something interesting’, because higher education is a damn funny beast in many ways.
Two days ago, however, what I was doing was “making an ass of myself”. Fortunately, the impact of this was that I ended up looking over-reactive and foolish, rather than any real damage, but this is something that I want to share with all of you because I am constantly aware of the aura of competence that we ascribe to the people in our societies who can communicate well. I regularly state (and it’s on my about page) that I expose my thinking processes in order to educate but there is something more than this, in that dissecting my own activities and reactions allows me to learn from myself.
I have read a great deal of literature on trying to bring change to areas that are steeped in tradition and burdened by history and, if you ask me, I can tell you that trying to force people to change won’t work. The best way to enact change is to provide an environment in which change can occur, providing pathways and good examples and by not wasting your time and effort bashing away at the unchanging stone faces of the looming statuary. The problem is, when you believe that you’re doing the right thing, that you get caught up in your own rhetoric. Worse, if you’ve been fighting these battles for years, you build up two highly destructive emotions: frustration, which then can lead to anger.
Two days ago, I let accumulated frustration out and I snapped at someone when, to be honest, I should have basically ignored it or, more positively, interpreted it generously and then guided the discussion towards the more generous interpretation. Instead of doing this, where I could have been positive, I took a negative stance and, boy, did I look like a schmuck when the dust settled.
And rightly so! I was a schmuck! The important thing now is for me to remember that my role is not to assume some level of authoritarian control over everything – I am not the evidence or the work of experts, I am a conduit that can help other people become more educated about these things. I tried to take control of something that not only could I not control but that it was not my job to control. Let’s call this a failure of humility – a hubris issue – and I shall make a delightful pie from it.
The night of the aftermath and yesterday were very, very difficult for me because I had to review where I had gone wrong, how I could have handled it and what it meant for me in terms of ongoing relationships with people. I spent a lot of time in e-mail looking at constructive ways forward, with a lot of discussion and thought, and I believe that all the good avenues of dialog are open and, once again I’m still a schmuck, but no long term damage is done.
In the end, however, I have to apply the same spirit to myself that I apply to my students. I have to determine why I acted as I did (and, ultimately, it was over-protectiveness combined with fatigue). I have to work out how I could have done it better. I have to explain, in detail, to myself how I can change it and put steps in place to make sure that I change it. Then I move forward, with a new perspective and (I hope) a better way of dealing with things.
I am concerned with some of the information that has surfaced during this issue, as I am now worried that I am seriously out of step with some of my colleagues – a lot of what I’m trying to do revolves around how much mental adjustment someone can make and it is now obvious that there are far fewer usable foundations in some areas than I had hoped. This does not mean that I should become strident, shrill and militant because it won’t work. It does mean that I have some rethinking to do, a time to regroup and consider how I can go forward with the same message (educational research is useful, scientific and essential for our future) in a way that works for an even wider range of people.
Yes, if I had a time machine, I’d probably try and go back to not initiate the problems of two days ago. I prefer not to look like a raving idiot. But it’s not the end of the world and, as long as I’m learning from it, it’s a valuable reminder of how much more I have to learn, how much thinking is required to make good change happen and the fact that sometimes we all make mistakes.