Saturday, July 7, 2012

Phelps' "Turtles All the Way Down"

Phelps, Louise Wetherbee.  "Turtles All The Way Down:  Educationing Academic Leaders."  The Writing Program Administrator’s Resource. Eds. Stuart C Brown and Theresa Enos. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002. Print. 3-39. 

This article explores the case of leadership development in the academy and specifically with relationship to WPA work. Leadership development is not something that is well addressed as an aspect of training the future professoriate, which is problematic considering the complexity of academic leadership. The article explores the issues of professionalism and power associated with administration. These leaders must fight for their work to be considered intellectual work relevant to promotion and tenure and must carefully navigate ideologies related to the use of power with their own negotiate of the power their position affords them. The often-clashing domains of the discipline, collegium, and workplace complicate issues of identity for the academic leader. Individuals in varied leadership roles with in a department can struggle to “negotiat[e] and reconcil[e] multiple identities as practical learner, researchers, employees, disciplinary colleagues, administrators, student peers, co-teachers, family members, and community activists” (21).

To make things more complex: while the academic enterprise is perceived as holding the public good at the heart of its mission, faculty are able to operate under their own perception of the public good regardless of their specific context, but administrators necessarily must consider public good within its local context—thus they are bound to their institution more directly. As leadership is a deeply complex experience, leadership education is extremely important to consider. Phelps examines the benefits of triangulated approach to leadership education that allows for formal learning, experiential learning (indirect, observation based) and pragmatic learning. The formal and practical learning models fed into one another in a recursive manner which lead to a rich learning environment. The department as a whole when leadership education is not taken as something merely for graduate students, but rather something that engages members of the department from multiple generation working together to create opportunities for the three modes of learning to take place.

Discussion: This piece is really important to me because it strikes a cord directly with a tension I have felt as an administrator that I could not always properly articulate. It’s easy to say that one feels like they’re going to the “dark side” by becoming an administrator, but that is woefully reductive in articulating the struggle a faculty member feels with coming to terms with his or her identity as an administrator and faculty member. Part of my greatest struggle in the last year has been in determining issues of my own professional identity and how schizophrenic it has felt. Moral dilemmas are commonplace. Merely months ago, I spent an hour on the phone with a dear mentor of mine (Paul Heilker) asking how he slept at night knowing how “troubling, conflicted and difficult” (Phelps 21) the moral choices of administration truly were.

These conflicts seem even more pronounced as I attempt to reconcile my dissertation emphasis on guerrilla rhetoric with my administrative work, which at times feels anything but guerrilla. Phelps does help me reconcile the two a bit, however. She says, “[t]he ethics of administrative leadership are preconditioned on faith in the global potential of higher education institutions to further the public good. It would be impossible to view the academic enterprise itself in moral terms if it were devoted simply to self-aggrandizement…” (22). This notion of academic leadership being motivated by the good of the people relates quite well to Carlos Marighella’s notion of the urban guerrilla. He maintains, “the urban guerrilla defends a just cause, which is the people's cause” (Minimanual of the Urban Guerrilla Kindle Location 168-169). It is this emphasis on the cause of the people, rather than focus on one’s self that distinguishes a guerrilla from one who is simply rebellious, or an outlaw, to use Marighella’s term. Unfortunately, institutions are critiqued for falling away from this value for narcissistically motivated purposes. The tension between these two mindsets, Phelps explains, has always been a staple in American academic professionalism. But, I digress (this is what happens when comprehensive exam reading and independent study reading come together)…my own personal interest in this piece aside, this is rich with information on professionalization and power dynamics and certainly a keeper for WPA course development.

1 comment:

  1. I love that Louise tackles morality, and I think this is another area we should focus on in the course. I love the idea of the 'good leader'--as in the moral one--and that the administration isn't the dark side. "Killer binary!"