I’m beginning this blog entry in a small café near Paddington Station in London – I’m heading to the second stop in a week of travel, leading seminar-style events for the Institute for Innovation in Large Organizations (ILO), the business I founded when I left my last (somewhat) traditional academic job as the president of the Antioch New England Graduate School in 2005.
I’m doing the work I do now because of a sequence of pivotal decisions made over 20-plus years. One of those key decisions was to write a dissertation about the Civil Rights Movement instead of about modern American poetry.
I’d spent a couple of summers as an undergraduate at the Naropa Institute in Colorado, studying mostly with Allen Ginsberg, Robert Creeley, and managed to spend a few semesters at a couple of different schools sticking with Creeley – a fascinating and important poet who, sadly, passed away just as I was leaving academia to start the institute. In graduate school at Columbia, I had been told more than once that having a feel for how to write serious academic criticism about modern poetry was a great career ticket, because so few people were comfortable doing it. I’d even had an article in my discipline’s flagship journal, PMLA, about a “difficult” poet, Laura (Riding) Jackson, that got a lot of notice. But I was tired of that work, and wanted to do something on a larger scale, and more connected to social history. I hit on the work about King, and loved it, though I had to make my way through a fair amount of drama with my advisors.
I’d written a 150-page outline of a big-idea kind of dissertation, proposing a grand theory about a particular aspect of American Literature and ending with a chapter on King’s rhetoric – but without any notes or scholarly apparatus. My advisor – a very notable guy – read it and said, in effect, you’ve got a problem because there are no notes and no apparatus. I reminded him that I was just looking for his reaction to the big idea before I got into the weeds to tune it up as a scholarly piece – because maybe it was just too wrong, or too ambitious. He said that he never engages in his students’ ideas, that he was just concerned that the work be up to snuff by scholarly standards, and I set to work on the notes. Six months later, I sent him a new draft, and he let me know that he was going to stay at the new university he’d been at as a visiting professor, and passed me on to my second reader, who would be my new advisor. And this gentleman, someone I loved but who had no profile beyond our campus, said in effect, nice notes, but I don’t buy the whole concept. The material on King, though, seemed new and important to him, but he added that of course that was outside his area of expertise so I’d need to find a different sponsor. And on and on it went.
In the end, a series of small miracles better left unreported allowed me to finish my degree – I was already teaching full-time elsewhere – and the dissertation drama began to fade in my mind. But that work on King was as much about the nature of organizational leadership and institutional change as it was about rhetoric. Studying those dynamics in a serious way laid the groundwork for the kind of advising and research I do now.
I still love working with university people. The University of Alabama is a member of our Institute; and I get to be involved with a lot of new projects at their school of public health. SUNY has been a member in the past, through their CFO’s office, and I’ve had a fascinating chance to see how that massively large systems plans the ways it spends its money. We actually had a senior fellow from Cambridge around the table yesterday, who was a real hoot. I do still teach now and then when I can, and even though my schedule is demanding, it’s flexible enough that I can usually fit in a course to teach now and then when a nice opportunity arises – like teaching in the Core Curriculum at Columbia, a real honor and great fun.
I’m closing the laptop now, heading to Paddington and then to Heathrow. I’ll change planes in Iceland and arrive in Toronto at about 8pm. I’ll have a drink with tomorrow’s guest speaker at the hotel this evening if I’m not delayed, and then I’ll be making photocopies of materials for our participants till after midnight, no doubt. From Toronto, on to San Francisco to host one more meeting, then home.
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