What Principles Guide Our Occupations? (Reflections at the end of 2011)

Overheard after the Memorial Service for my father-in-law in November, his daughter conveying to my son some advice her father had given her: “Get clear what work you are passionate about and decide how much b.s. you can put up with to be allowed to do that.”  Hmm, that might be a principle to put into practice.  After all, this year I had to lead or co-lead two program’s multi-year reviews, an experience that is captured well by an academic’s “Devil’s Dictionary” entry: “Spending so much time demonstrating to the reviewing authorities that you’re doing your job that you don’t have enough time left to actually do the job” (source: John Daley in Thought & Action).  Actually, it’s not really true that there was no time left to do my job given that, starting last January, I have had two very competent assistants. But I do shake my head when I see my institution and some colleagues jumping into new initiatives without—and here’s a principle important to me—first making sure that we are able to do what we’ve already committed to, which at universities includes serving the students we have, and doing so without adding unagreed-upon burdens on others.  I often fret about how following that principle and factoring in unrewarding work (see above) leaves no spare time to spend at the front lines, which became sharply drawn this year in North Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and then the Occupied United States.  Yet, what occupied me during the leave I had from teaching in the second half of 2011?  Yes, I put in some appearances at Occupy Boston rallies, but dare I admit—and here we turn to the denominator of the b.s. quotient—that staffing the barricades and encampments is not work I am passionate about?  As will be evident in my 250 blog posts for 2011 (on this blog as well as http://pjt111.wordpress.com), I choose instead to explore a lot—creating opportunities to learn from others how they make sense of heterogeneity, social relations built through new social media, and principles underlying group process, as well as to articulate the principles running through the project-based learning courses I teach and the science-in-society workshops I organize.  To jump ahead to my punch line for 2011, a principle that shapes what I readily get involved in is to provide opportunities for participants to re-engage with themselves as avid learners and inquirers, opportunities that led a workshop participant to say way back in 1988: “Now it is no longer possible to simply continue along previous lines” (the words here are, I think, those of a former student Ad van Dommelen).

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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