Generosity, Humility, Vulnerability

Primary Source: Kathleen Fitzpatrick, December 1, 2019

A few conversations in recent days, as well as a bunch of the reading I did during my holiday writing retreat, have led me back to thinking about generosity. One would think I’d have exhausted myself on that concept, but not even close. In the same way that I find myself continually relearning the same lessons via blog posts that retread the same terrain, I find myself returning to the notion of generosity to be sure I’m taking the right things from it, and that I’m emphasizing the right things in it.

I spend a lot of time in the book trying to hone in on exactly what I mean when I talk about generosity. It’s a fraught subject. As I argue at some length, the requirement to be generous is not evenly distributed in our culture — whether by that I mean to point to the academy or to the contemporary US more broadly — and so where I exhort us toward greater generosity, the primary object of my “us” is people like me: centered rather than marginalized, over-represented rather than under-served, comfortably secure rather than precarious. Empowered.

I also note in the book, however, that people like me have everything to learn from the folks around us who have long since grappled with these issues, and who grapple with them daily. There is a reason why many might hear me talk about generosity and the ethics of care in which it’s grounded and hear that as a highly gendered goal, for instance: because it is, and because it is meant to be. I draw many of my models for the kinds of solidarity I hope that we can work toward from social movements and theories of education that have received inadequate uptake from the contemporary university. In invoking those models, I’m asking what it might mean if we were to recenter our approach to higher education around their goals. What if the purpose of higher education were not personal achievement — the building of individuals — but instead a social good — the building of communities? And how, as I explore in the book’s final chapter, would the internal structures of our institutions need to transform in order to appropriately value and reward the labor involved in such care?

There are a couple of other aspects of generosity that I want to underscore. The first is critical humility, by which I mean in part starting an argument with the acknowledgment that I could quite well be wrong — that I could have misunderstood or misread the speaker or text I’m engaged with, that we could in fact be closer to agreement than I think. That whatever I am reading deserves all of my attention. Such humility plays a significant role, as the passage I quoted yesterday from Eduardo Bonilla-Silva makes clear, in our ability to build coalitions and stand in solidarity with communities we hope to support. Our relationships depend crucially on our ability to invert the hierarchies we ordinarily experience as teachers, to become and remain learners instead. We have a lot to learn.

This inversion, however, leads to the second aspect I’d like to emphasize: a willingness to make oneself vulnerable. Vulnerability is of course radically unevenly distributed in contemporary culture, and in the contemporary academy, and far too many people experience it daily in unsought and undesired ways. But if those of us who are able to do so — again, those of us like me, who are centered, represented, secure, empowered — are willing to make ourselves vulnerable, allowing our learning processes and the mistakes that result from them to take place in public, we can clear paths for others to work and learn more safely as well.

Such is the heart of Shawn Graham’s brilliant new book, Failing Gloriously, just out today. All of us fail, after all, but the risks involved in those failures, and the freedom to admit to them, vary enormously for different members of the academic community. As Shawn notes in his introduction:

Learning to fail productively is not without risk and pain. It’s not easy. It’s not a gimmick. Some of the stories I share here hurt. To fail gloriously is to share and use the productive fail to offer others a shortcut. (viii)

Sharing these stories of failure is a radical act, a generous act, one that requires a willingness to be vulnerable so that others can learn from your failures. Doing so, as Shawn has done, can create the potential for helping others through the failures we all inevitably encounter. And that vulnerability likewise creates the potential for connection, for solidarity, for our ability to talk to one another, for a good that reaches beyond the self.

But, as Shawn notes, our institutions are — and in turn train us to be — deeply risk-averse, and those of us who are safest in assuming certain kinds of risk are (as evidenced by our success within the system) the least likely to do so:

competition is everything in academia, and so academia is not set up to recognize productive failure. Indeed, in a competitive system, failure necessarily has to be punished. The systems and meshworks, the entangled flows of power and money and incentives that make up academia are fragile, and failure is seen as a rupture, a breaking, a threat. (3)

We need, in other words, new institutions that do not see failure as a threat, new institutions that support risk-taking and community-building and generous thinking. Among my goals in the coming year is to continue thinking, with those institutions that want to recommit themselves to their mission of public service, about ways we can together create an environment in which we honor and support generosity, in which we engage one another and the world around us with humility, in which we can be safe despite (and perhaps even in) our vulnerability. This is the kind of institution we need to be building together — one that is structurally capable of supporting the notion of together in the first place.

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Kathleen Fitzpatrick
Kathleen Fitzpatrick is Director of Digital Humanities and Professor of English at Michigan State University. Prior to assuming this role in 2017, she served as Associate Executive Director and Director of Scholarly Communication of the Modern Language Association, where she was Managing Editor of PMLA and other MLA publications. During that time, she also held appointments as Visiting Research Professor of English at NYU and Visiting Professor of Media at Coventry University. Before joining the MLA staff in 2011, she was Professor of Media Studies at Pomona College, where she had been a member of the faculty since 1998.
Kathleen Fitzpatrick

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