Future perfect

In answer to aquestion posed by Mark Pilgrim, “Does your boss read your weblog?” I can say I don’t know. In an academic department, I’m not even sure the word “boss” works: is that my chair, my dean, my provost? Well, I doubt they do, but given that a good portion of my hits come from unidentifiable computers on the UB campus, I can’t be sure. And so, I made the rounds in person a bit before posting.

The department had a planning meeting last week. It was scheduled to be a “retreat” but the budget caused us to retreat from that idea. It had a lot to do with where we saw ourselves over the next few years. When I came on faculty, I was pretty clear that I was joining in the hope of what the school would be, not necessarily what it was, so this meeting was of particular interest to me.

There was a bit of complaining, some of it helpful, and some of it a waste of time. That’s to be expected. There was also some clear agreement: we need more faculty or less students, we need to improve the prestige of our Ph.D. program–we mint great scholars, and a few who are not as great. We all agreed that the Ph.D. program had to remain our gem, and that the M.A. was a prep for completing the Ph.D. I like concrete plans, rather than abstractions, but it was nice to see general agreement (or seemingly) on these topics. Boldness can be dangerous in an academic setting, but it is also–in my very limited experience–the only possibility for avoiding stagnation.

Despite this general good feeling on the details, there seemed to be a general feeling that the department should retrench in terms of its interests, namely scientific (or “mathematical,” as one faculty member put it) study of communication. I wasn’t playing dumb, as I sometimes do, I honestly didn’t know what they meant. I couldn’t quite grasp how this is a concentration. One of them explained it: they had made the decision at some point in the past that rather than narrowing the scope of the department topically, they would narrow it epistemologically and methodologically to a particular empirical and social scientific perspective.

I was a bit taken aback by this, in part because it hadn’t in the last year and a half, hit me that this is what the department was really about. I guess it should have, but with the dean and chair pushing the idea of “informatics,” as ambiguous as it might be, I mistakenly thought that there was general buy-in from the faculty. As the “new guy” it’s not as though I can make them change their minds, but with a regular faculty numbering in the single-digits, not specializing seems to me to be the kiss of death. And frankly, every department has its epistemological center–saying that we do social science fails to differentiate us from some other very good programs for either potential students or faculty.

I know how I would specialize: global communication. Yes, this is somewhat self-serving; I do this. But it also meshes well, by and large, with what our faculty on the communication side is interested in. Yes, there are a few stretches here, but everyone could fit under such a tent.

I am very pessimistic when it comes to whether they would. Which leaves me a bit the odd man out. That’s not that unusual a situation :). I would think I was doing something wrong if it meshed completely with what was going on around me. On the other hand, one of the reasons Buffalo was appealing was that I thought they were moving in interesting directions. If I’m going to be on a faculty that doesn’t really do what I do, why not somewhere warmer?

There are a few reasons: first, I genuinely like all of the people on this faculty. I would challenge any academic to say the same about their own faculty at another institution. There is no one in the bunch–and this includes adjuncts–that I wouldn’t like to have lunch with.

Second, adjusting to being an assistant professor has taken a while, and I think I’m on the cusp of hitting my stride (mixed metaphor alert!). That is, for the first time in a long while, I have struggled with my work. I haven’t gotten much of anything published in a year and a half, and I am officially behind the curve on moving toward tenure. It may be illusory, but I feel like this is just about to turn around. I know moving to another institution at this stage would require adjustment, the question is simply how much.

So, a new medium-range plan is in effect. I will continue to try to push the envelope here at the UB. The RING is a part of that, as is attempts to network better with scholars outside of Buffalo. But, I will also keep one eye on the horizon.

As a final note, I recognize that publishing such a declaration to the world (or rather, the 2 people who read my blog :) may seem to violate some level of propriety. I think it does. But I am trying to live to my mottos. One of them is “narrow is better,” another is “radically open.” Both apply here.

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2 Comments

  1. Posted 2/7/2003 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure if the department makes any endeavor to find money from outside. If not, the following grant might be worthy of a try:
    http://www.neh.fed.us/grants/guidelines/challenge.html

    I guess many problems in the department can be resolved by bringing in more money.

  2. Alex
    Posted 2/7/2003 at 7:13 pm | Permalink

    It is true, this department does not bring in very much outside money, though faculty members have certainly received funding, both in the past and at present.

    Especially in an academic department, thouigh, money is never a panacea.

    Unfortunately, I doubt folks in our department would be particularly successful with an NEH grant. That’s kind of the point above. We have established ourselves in opposition to the humanities, for reasons that are a bit strange, IMHO.

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