pete rorabaugh

father | atlantan | cyclist | educator | scholar | union member

Consolidation Notes: Identity and Purpose

It was always a mistake not to write about the story I am starting now. And, truthfully, I should have known better. The most productive times of my career so far have been marked by committing to a series of rambling, curious ideas. The ideas turn into concepts, the concepts get backed up by facts and context, and – voila – a publishable piece or valuable initiative emerges. But through the last two years, it’s felt like all I could do to teach my classes and prepare for and show up for meeting, less time for reflection and research. That is my own failing.

I’ve started this story in little pieces before, when I thought it might be wrapping up. The first time was over a year ago with a post titled “Departmental Reframing.” I’m not going to start laying out the timeline of what has happened since that post, or since November 2013 when the Board of Regents announced that our university, SPSU, was being consolidated with Kennesaw State University, or since November 2014 when my department was told by our dean that we were “ground zero” for the SPSU/KSU consolidation. That timeline, as important as it will become to this narrative, is too much for now.

So, aside from all of that anxious discourse about why I haven’t been writing, I’m going to start with a piece of the story now – individual identity and its connection to institutional identity within a university.

I worked for three years during and after finishing my doctorate in contingent faculty positions, the academic world’s equivalent of contract work. The exciting part about being a faculty member rather than a graduate student came from the work that goes on outside of the classroom. During those three years, I began to see how one’s life as a professor lends direction to the institution and its curriculum. Our research interests, our pedagogical innovations, our creative and social strengths start folding into the mission and momentum of our department. What will be studied? What will be taught? What degrees will be offered? What research initiatives will be funded? I began to understand how I would have value beyond working with students inside of a course. I was both excited by and anxious about this transition – anxious because, as someone who had always cared more about pedagogy than a research agenda, this was the tidal pull that I’d understood drags academics away from focusing on pedagogy and turning them, instead, toward their own publishing interests.

But in small pieces, even in those contingent positions at Georgia Tech and Georgia State, I was involved in important discussion. I helped construct a program for peer teaching evaluations. I developed a strand of the gen-ed Composition curriculum that involved new media and its benefit to undergraduate writing and research. I wrote a grant to have a new writing lab outfitted for hybrid usage, with a new media classroom in mind. I was able to work with graduate students to help them identify opportunities for pedagogical innovation in their own practice. When I finally landed, three years later, in the English, Technical Communication, and Media Arts Department at Southern Polytechnic State as a new Assistant Professor, my dream had come true. My new department valued my joint interests in new media and critical pedagogy and involved me right away in reshaping our degree in English and Professional Writing.

Less than two months after that first curriculum meeting, everything changed. We were plunged into a new environment, one that even my colleagues who had worked in the department for over decade struggled to understand. We didn’t know how our teaching and research would be integrated into the mission of the newly merged institution. Since then, we’ve lived through an experience of subtraction — of our colleagues (many of them left the department), of our students (we have been prevented from taking on new majors), of our reporting structure (much of the leadership changed) — while at the same time we have been asked to fight a rhetorical battle with a new structure that we didn’t understand. All of this has resulted in a lack of purpose and identity.

I first started noticing this feeling a year or so ago in the way I received the steady stream of announcements and communications from our college. In my early days at SPSU, every new initiative or CFP or committee seemed full of promise and purpose. I wanted to do everything – too many things. I’ve understood for a long time that this is how I work best, by poking around at existing communities, programs, and theories and moving through them quickly until I find something that has viability. When I arrived at SPSU, I had designs on starting a Domain of One’s Own program, hosting a THATCamp, proposing an edited collection of work on digital academic collaboration and connectivist methodologies, and applying for an Atlanta-area NEH Digital Start Up Grant.

Lately these things haven’t seemed viable because they’ve taken a back seat to a getting a curriculum approved that would ensure our professional survival. The culture of the university has moved on without us, and every announcement about an award ceremony or publishing opportunity has fallen under the category of “I don’t have time for that.” Of course, that kind of feeling naturally creeps into work inside of universities – there are just so many things to do! The difference is that, in our marginalized existence here, I’ve become less curious. I tinker with things less because I don’t have a feeling like the work matters in a larger context.

I remember, vividly, a conversation that I had with my department chair at another university in 2013. He was telling me that my lecturer appointment would not longer be funded beyond the spring. Part furlough notice, part annual review, this conversation ranged widely over the things that I had done while I was there. I think he felt responsible for giving me some hard truths on my career because this was the department wherein I had earned my Ph.D. The most memorable takeaway from that conversation was this: All this digital stuff you’re doing Pete, it’s very interesting and gets lots of people’s attention outside of the university, but it just doesn’t matter here in this department. You’ve got a job teaching four undergraduate classes every semester. That’s what we’re paying you to do, and you’re doing that well. The scholarship you’re doing will be great for you in your next job, but if we can’t afford your lecturer line because of enrollment, then we can’t afford it. It’s not your fault.

None of that ended up being true, for the record. I snagged the tenure track appointment at SPSU, and he came back to offer me my job back. Eventually, someone was hired by the fall to take on that same workload. But the impact of that conversation was profound: don’t get your own academic interests confused with the interests of the institution. One inspires you, but the other one feeds you.

I’m in a similar place now, coming to awareness of the fact that I need to find a way to both make myself institutionally functional and personally happy. I’m lucky that I’m not sitting on a faculty line that is expiring at the end of the year. My colleagues and I will now have to start building a new path forward that is detached from the one we’ve been on for the last two years. It’s not what we wanted, but there is some relief in the fact that uncertainty about the future is finally over.

I’m hoping that this direction change will restore my institutional identity and purpose that has eroded over the last two years. Because: I miss it. But even if that doesn’t happen, I’ll have to do what I’ve usually done – to reconnect with my colleagues in digital spaces and to build exciting virtual projects beyond the horizon of my department and institution. So, now that I have more time, look for me knocking on your inbox or DM stream, because I’m ready to get back to work doing things that realistic and important.

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