On “sober judgment” and “forthright speech”

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Theology professor Charles Marsh (Univ. of Virginia), in a 2012 issue of The Cresset, considers the lot of scholars committed to social justice and concludes that “(t)o speak of the audacious hope of the engaged scholar (in this context) is to commit ourselves to sober judgment and forthright speech.”

Dr. Marsh writes primarily about academicians from Christian faith traditions, but his wise words should be of interest to any scholar who sees his or her role as connecting to broader social, economic, and political concerns. Indeed, in that one sentence, he captures what I believe to be the core responsibilities of a socially conscious academician: Sober judgment and forthright speech.

Ideally, the former should lead to the latter. Sober judgment is about research, analysis, and reflection. Forthright speech builds on that judgment and says something meaningful to the world.

One would think this intellectual and educational process occurs all the time in academe, but that’s not necessarily the case. Some academicians skip the sober judgment and jump right into forthright speech. They let their biases and untested beliefs substitute for careful research and evaluation. Professors who yammer away in an opinionated yet fact-free manner fit this mode.

Others immerse themselves in sober judgment, but then dodge the forthright speech. Instead, their erudite analyses lead to softer generalizations and platitudes that foreclose sharp review. They want to sound intelligent, measured, and intellectually respectable, but they fear sticking out their necks too far.

***

If the spirit of Ralph Waldo Emerson has read Dr. Marsh’s essay, then hopefully the great New England philosopher is nodding with approval. In an 1837 address titled “The American Scholar,” Emerson stated:

There goes in the world a notion, that the scholar should be a recluse…as unfit for any handiwork or public labor, as a penknife for an axe…. Action is with the scholar subordinate, but it is essential. Without it, he is not yet man. Without it, thought can never ripen into truth.… Inaction is cowardice, but there can be no scholar without the heroic mind.

To put it another way: Emerson, too, believed that scholarly thought can and should lead to something more.

***

I’ve collected a lot of ideas, reflections, and experiences on the relationship of research and analysis to social change initiatives in a forthcoming law review article, “Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice). In the piece, I discuss my work on workplace bullying and on unpaid internships, as well as my collaborations with the therapeutic jurisprudence and human dignity communities. The article also includes a short annotated bibliography of 40 (mostly non-legal) books related to intellectual activism.

You may freely download a pre-publication draft here.

Stories can drive change, but workplace bullying stories often defy quick summaries

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Two summers ago, Yes! magazine devoted its cover package to the power of storytelling for purposes of driving positive social change. I’ve thought about that collection of articles often in connection with the challenges of telling stories about workplace bullying, both to educate the public generally and to advocate for passage of the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill.

Of course, it’s relatively easy to summarize frequent bullying behaviors, their prevalence, and their destructive effects on individuals and organizations. For example, I start a lot of my talks on workplace bullying with a quick section that covers these basics. I often find a lot of people nodding their heads in recognition of the behaviors I’m describing and how people are affected by them.

Similarly, stories of overt, in-your-face bullying behaviors are pretty easy to summarize. This form of workplace mistreatment is probably the closest thing we have to common schoolyard bullying or verbal domestic abuse. The facts are fairly straightforward and easily comprehended.

But the bigger challenge is how to convey narratives of more insidious, covert, and multi-layered forms of workplace bullying that defy quick summaries. They can take hours of patient listening and attention to grasp the full context and detail of what occurred, even when the person recounting the story is relatively concise and specific with his or her words. However, once understood, they can be among the most bone chilling examples of workplace bullying, often revealing the deft minds and malicious intent of the abusers.

Over the years, many individuals who have experienced more complex forms of bullying at work have shared their extended narratives through long personal statements, social media, and self-published books. The inherent problem is that very few of them translate easily into digestible summaries that maintain the attention spans of legislators, journalists, and the public. I know of many other instances of severe workplace bullying that are hard to comprehend in their entirety without a strong understanding of all the players and institutions.

By their very nature, some stories are complex. They require time and effort to get their significance. In an age resistant to detail and nuance, the challenge of finding receptive audiences for these complicated stories of bullying at work yields no simple answers. This will continue when the Healthy Workplace Bill becomes law. The storytelling challenge will then move from the court of public opinion to courts of law. It will be up to legal advocates to help craft these narratives with, and on behalf of, their clients.

Displays (literally) of progress for the workplace anti-bullying movement

Deb Falzoi and Torii Bottomley holding sign near the MA State House

Deb Falzoi and Torii Bottomley holding sign outside the MA State House (photo: MA Healthy Workplace Advocates)

Hey, it’s about time that we made a big display about ending workplace bullying!

Recently I wrote about Massachusetts: Face Workplace Bullying, an artistic photo display designed to raise public awareness about workplace bullying and to voice support for the Healthy Workplace Bill (House No. 1771, currently before the MA legislature). The display features photographs of 14 individuals who have been targets of workplace bullying, along with their names and statements about the circumstances surrounding their experiences. It made its official debut on the 4th floor of the Massachusetts State House.

Last Friday, advocates met at the State House to commemorate the display’s two-week run and to take it down, packing it for its next port of call. Later that afternoon, Torii Bottomley and Deb Falzoi, staunch supporters of the Healthy Workplace Bill and participants in the Face Workplace Bullying project, took to the street outside the State House to display their homebrewed sign “End Workplace Bullying.”

The photo display in the State House and the big sign outside are just what we need to shine a public light on workplace bullying and the damage it causes. In order for the Healthy Workplace Bill to become law, we need more advocates to be out front with this messaging.

I have been privy to communications between the individuals who allowed their images and stories to be included in the Face Workplace Bullying display, and they have invoked terms such as healing and empowering to describe how they feel being a part of it. I think their brave actions are making a huge statement: Enough of the silence and shame surrounding this form of interpersonal abuse. We need our legislators to pass the Healthy Workplace Bill. Let’s get on with it.

Interviews and documentary footage in the State House

Media interest and documentary footage in the State House (photo: MA Healthy Workplace Advocates)

Non-conformists as change agents

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ProPublica, the non-profit public interest news organization, recently did a neat little feature on Dr. Adam Grant’s (U.Penn/Wharton) new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World (2016). Here’s the lede by Cynthia Gordy:

In his new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant examines the circumstances that give rise to truly original thinkers and groundbreaking ideas. Throughout Originals, the Wharton School of Business professor shares stories from the fields of business, politics and sports, and his chapter exploring the psychology of speaking truth to power – whether it be federal whistleblowers, or a middle-level employee with an innovative idea – holds several lessons for investigative journalists and the people on which they report.

The feature includes a podcast with Dr. Grant interviewed by ProPublica reporter David Epstein. Here are some of the highlights:

  • On lower-level workers facing backlash for making suggestions: “People often confuse power and status, but power is about being able to influence others. . . . You see a really strong backlash when people try to assert their authority when they haven’t yet earned respect.”
  • On whistleblowers using internal channels: “We need much better internal channels that make it safe for people to blow the whistle. One of the most important steps that you can take is to model openness to that kind of information, and I think that means whistleblowers sometimes need to be called out and recognized for having the courage to speak even if they end up being wrong.”
  • On advocating for change internally vs. externally: “This is a tightrope walk. If you refuse to conform at all and you don’t buy into the system, it’s really hard to get taken seriously. . . . On the other hand, if you adapt too much to the world, then you never change it.”

Impossible

Okay folks, it’s impossible for me to be objective on this topic. I naturally identify with the role of non-conformist and have done so for as long as I can remember. In years past, this role was all too often accompanied by attitudinal rebelliousness. I am not completely free from such instincts, but I think I am much more constructive and mature about it than I was before.

Grant’s characterization of the “tightrope walk” specially resonates with me. It overlaps with the idea of what author and coach Judi Neal calls the “edgewalker,” an individual who builds bridges, works at the boundaries and soft edges, and operates in a visionary way.

Of course, it’s not all about starry-eyed idealism. As Grant’s work suggests, non-conformists can pay a price for being out front, with ridicule, pushback, and retaliation being among the costs. For this reason and others, I’m looking forward to spending some time with his book. I hope it will yield some lessons on how to be an “Original” as smartly, safely, and effectively as possible.

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More to come: The experience of everyday wealth differences

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A guest contributor to The Guardian‘s “What I’m really thinking” column — apparently a female student — writes about the awkwardness of making social plans with friends who have a lot more money than she does:

“I’ll meet you there,” I say. “I’ve got something to do first.” That’s a lie. I just don’t want to take an hour-long taxi with you; the fare for that is outrageous. No, better to take public transport and spend an extra hour and half to save the money.

. . . Make no mistake, I am by no means poor, but by your standards I might as well be. When we go out for dinner, I scream inside at the cost. Often I don’t eat, saying I’ve had something already or I’m not hungry. Some people ask if I’m anorexic, because they never see me eat a proper meal outside school.

Iceberg ahead…and we’re steaming into it, full throttle

Of course, the socially awkward dilemmas confronting a younger person with less disposable cash than her friends are one thing, while deep inequalities in income and wealth are quite another. At least here in the U.S., I believe those inequalities have been, and continue to be, intentionally baked into our economic and political infrastructure. And they are becoming evident across the generations.

For example, here’s a piece of writer Sarah Kendzior’s insightful take on the “post-employment economy” that confronts many recent graduates:

A lawyer. A computer scientist. A military analyst. A teacher.

What do these people have in common? They are trained professionals who cannot find full-time jobs. Since 2008, they have been tenuously employed – working one-year contracts, consulting on the side, hustling to survive. They spent thousands on undergraduate and graduate training to avoid that hustle. They eschewed dreams – journalism, art, entertainment – for safer bets, only to discover that the safest bet is that your job will be contingent and disposable.

On the other end of the generational spectrum, you have late Boomers and early Gen Xers — a cohort that just missed out on the golden era of employer-provided pensions — hurdling into middle age and beyond with scant retirement savings. For example, a 2015 study by the non-profit National Institute on Retirement Security concluded, among other things:

The average working household has virtually no retirement savings. When all households are included— not just households with retirement accounts—the median retirement account balance is $2,500 for all working-age households and $14,500 for near-retirement households. Furthermore, 62 percent of working households age 55-64 have retirement savings less than one times their annual income, which is far below what they will need to maintain their standard of living in retirement.

My prediction? Without significant changes, we are going to see more and more instances of everyday inequality staring us straight in the face. For some, this will mean quietly bowing out of pricier social activities due to a money crunch. For others, it will mean trying to maintain appearances of “middle class” status while opting for a dinner of macaroni & cheese from a box. And these will be among the folks who actually have “choices.”

I haven’t yet said a word here about climate change.

Saving ourselves from a dystopian future

Yes, I know I’m sounding overwrought. But too many indicators are suggesting that (1) we have yet to pay the full price for our inequalities and excesses, especially during the past thirty-five or so years; and (2) we have not come to a reckoning about the mess we’ve made.

For those who can afford it, there are things that can be done on an individual level: Be generous. Give to good charities. Pick up the check. Leave a nice tip. To help someone dear who is in a financial bind, give, don’t loan, and do it without fanfare. Instead, be grateful that you can afford it. (I try to hold myself to these standards, while confessing that I sometimes fall short.)

More broadly, all of us, regardless of financial status, must grasp how our economic, political, and social systems have stoked massive inequality, nationally and globally, and then help to do something about it. 

I’m not sure of all the answers, but I believe they will be a combination of changing how we live, building a more robust yet inclusive economy, and repairing our social safety net. We will have to be smarter and kinder in creating a society that places greater value on human dignity and the common good.

Servant leadership in the contemporary workplace

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Imagine a world where most leaders see their roles as serving their constituencies, imbued with a sense of the broader good, rather than simply adding bullet points to their resumes in preparation for the next climb up the greasy pole. Imagine professional cultures where ambition and the desire to advance in our careers are balanced with values of care and responsibility.

How can we grow leaders who hold themselves to these higher standards?

Massachusetts educator and organizational consultant Steven Lawrence is an emerging voice on the virtues of servant leadership, a topic that deserves much greater attention. In an essay posted to his Ground Experience site, Steve introduces servant leadership by citing the seminal work of the late Robert K. Greenleaf, founder of the Center for Applied Ethics:

Greenleaf spent more than 40 years after early retirement researching management, leadership, education, and organizational culture. Over time, he came to the conclusion that the institutions in this country -both public and private- are suffering from a “crisis in leadership.”

…Greenleaf introduces a vision of leadership in which leaders see themselves as servants first and leaders second. Leadership is viewed as an instrument of serving the greater good, not as an end itself, and the search for and acquisition of power or influence is always subsumed into the overarching desire to be of service.

Servant Leaders are fundamentally about people and define the stakeholders in their sphere of influence quite broadly, including colleagues, subordinates, and boards of directors/trustees, clients and even the world at large. They place the needs of their people as primary and will not sacrifice the needs of the organization they lead in the service of furthering their own careers.

My connection with Steve has been through our common interest in preventing and stopping workplace bullying. He discussed servant leadership in this context at the Workplace Bullying Workshop that I hosted last fall in Boston. Suffice it to say, the presence of more servant leaders in our workplaces would sharply reduce the prevalence of bullying and other forms of interpersonal mistreatment on the job.

I find the concept of servant leadership to be enormously appealing and life affirming, especially amidst professional cultures where raw ambition, private agendas, and naked ideology too often prevail. As a denizen of the academic workplace, I have witnessed and experienced the destruction wrought by self-serving administrators and board members. Looking at academe from a distance, one might visualize it as an idyllic work setting, fostered by leaders who share a love of learning, research, and ideas. All too often, this is not the case. In fact, servant leadership is increasingly rare in higher education.

So herein lies the rub: For more servant leadership, you need the presence of — yup — more servant leaders. To me this means that the philosophy and practice of servant leadership should be part of the training and orientation of future and present leaders. This doesn’t require us to cast aside our career goals and aspirations. Rather, we should treat opportunities to lead as privileges that enable us to make a difference, guided by a spirit of service.

The joys of publish or perish

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English and environmental studies professor Christopher Schaberg (Loyola-New Orleans) addresses the old academic chestnut of “publish or perish” in a recent issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education:

In graduate school, when I first heard the saying “publish or perish,” I remember it uttered as a dire warning: If you want to make it as a professor, you have to publish, publish, publish — and never stop, no matter what. It made publishing sound awful (at best, a miserable fate to be endured) and necessary.

Now, as an associate professor, it recently occurred to me that I don’t think that way anymore, and haven’t in a long while. I have come to think about “publish or perish” in an entirely new light. It doesn’t have to be a threat or a gloomy mandate to live or die under. It can actually be a spirited affirmation of a certain kind of academic life.

I’m delighted to read someone turning that famous phrase on its head! 

Many years ago, when I began what has turned out to be an academic career, I was more attracted to teaching than to scholarship. In fact, I regarded the writing of law review articles — a law professor’s typical scholarly currency — as more of an obligatory burden in order to earn tenure than a core point of my engagement.

However, within a few years of embarking upon a tenure-track appointment, I began to see how scholarship allowed me to write about compelling issues of law and public policy, sometimes even breaking new ground. Two of the subjects addressed in my earlier law review articles — workplace bullying and unpaid internships — have become focal points of my academic career. This work has led to further academic publications, legal and legislative advocacy, speaking engagements and public education programs, blogging and other less formal writings, and media interviews.

In other words, my early scholarship has opened the door to potentially difference-making opportunities. Now, with the gifts of hindsight, I have used the term “intellectual activist” to characterize my approach to scholarly work. So when I hear the words “publish or perish” today, I think of them differently. If I don’t publish, then I will surely perish as an academician. Scholarship joins with teaching as the two most important tasks of my work as a professor.

I have written two law review articles setting out my practice and philosophy of scholarly work, and those who want to dive further into those weeds are invited to check them out by clicking the titles:

“Intellectual Activism and the Practice of Public Interest Law” (forthcoming, Southern California Review of Law and Social Justice) — I recently posted a revised draft, and here’s a snippet from the article abstract:

How can law professors, lawyers, and law students use legal scholarship to inform and inspire law reform initiatives that advance the public interest? How can we bridge the gaps between academic analyses that sharpen our understanding of important legal and policy issues and practical proposals that bring these insights into the light of day and test their application? How can we bring an integrated blend of scholarship, social action, and evaluation into our professional practices?

I explore these and related questions by invoking a simple framework that I call intellectual activism, which serves as both a philosophy and a practice for engaging in scholarship relevant to real-world problems and challenges, putting its prescriptions into action, and learning from the process and results of implementation.

. . . This is a very personal piece, grounded in extensive scholarly, public education, and advocacy work that I have done in two areas: (1) researching and authoring proposed workplace anti-bullying legislation and building public awareness of the phenomenon of bullying at work; and (2) playing a visible role in an emerging legal and social movement to challenge the widespread, exploitative practice of unpaid internships.

. . . The article closes with an Appendix containing a short annotated bibliography of books related to intellectual activism, public intellectualism, and the uses of scholarship to advance social change.

“Therapeutic Jurisprudence and the Practice of Legal Scholarship” (University of Memphis Law Review, 2010) — Here’s the article abstract:

The culture of legal scholarship has become preoccupied with article placement, citations, and download numbers, thus obscuring a deeper appreciation for the contributions of scholarly work. This article proposes that therapeutic jurisprudence (“TJ”), a theoretical framework that examines the therapeutic and anti-therapeutic properties of the law and legal practice, provides us with tools for understanding and changing that culture.

More prescriptively, the article applies a TJ lens to: (1) identify a set of good practices for legal scholarship; (2) examine the TJ movement as an example of healthy scholarly practice; (3) consider the role of law professors as intellectual activists; and, (4) propose that law schools nurture a scholar-practitioner orientation in their students to help them become more engaged members of the legal profession.

 

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