¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 “Community offers the promise of belonging and calls for us to acknowledge our interdependence. To belong is to act as an investor, owner, and creator of this place. To be welcome, even if we are strangers…. To feel a sense of belonging is important because it will lead us from conversations about safety and comfort to other conversations, such as our relatedness and willingness to provide hospitality and generosity.” —Peter Block, Community
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 “One of the dangers we face in our educational systems is the loss of a feeling of community, not just the loss of closeness among those with whom we work and with our students, but also the loss of a feeling of connection and closeness with the world beyond the academy.” —bell hooks, Teaching Community
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 2 The argument that this book presents—and I will admit right here up front that this is an argument, hoping to persuade you of its rightness—begins for me with what has come to feel like an emblematic moment of university life. Some years ago, I gave my graduate seminar a recent article to read. I do not now remember what that article was, or even what it was about, but I do remember clearly that upon opening the discussion by asking for first impressions, several students in a row offered fairly merciless takedowns, pointing out the essay’s critical failures and ideological blindspots, some of which were justified but at least a couple of which seemed, frankly, to have missed the point. After the third such response, I interjected: “Okay, okay, I want to dig into all of that, but let’s back up a bit first. What’s the author’s argument? What’s her goal in the article? What does she want the reader to come away with?”
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 5 I won’t rehash all of what ensued, but suffice it to say that it was a difficult moment. I was a lot younger and a fair bit less steady on my feet then, and my initial response to the silence was to start wondering whether I’d asked a stupid question, whether the sudden failure to meet my gaze was a sign that my students were now wondering how I’d ever gotten to this point in my career with such a pedestrian perspective, whether having asked them about the argument was tantamount to asking them what the author’s name was and where they might find it on the page, either so painfully obvious that they were mortified to find themselves being treated like high-school students or so apparently superficial that there must be deeper layers that they were missing. “It’s not a trick question,” I said, asking again for somebody to take a stab at summarizing the argument. It only gradually became clear to me that the question was not stupid or superficial but rather oddly unfamiliar, that everything in their educations to that point had prepared them for interrogating and unpacking, demystifying and subverting, all of the most important critical acts of reading against the grain, but too little emphasis had been placed on the acts of paying attention, of listening, of reading with rather than reading against.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 3 Before this starts to sound like a complaint about the kids these days, let me place alongside it another emblematic moment, in the form of the discussion period concluding the vast majority of conference sessions. The frequent academic jokes involving phrases such as “this is less of a question than a comment” and “why didn’t your paper focus on the thing that my work focuses on” might begin to indicate something about our dispositions in the act of engaging with the ideas of others, which is to say too often fixated on our own ideas, waiting for the next moment at which we can get them on the table.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 5 This book is in large part about my desire to see universities and those who work in and around them—faculty members and administrators, in particular, but also staff members, students, parents, trustees, legislators, and the many other people who affect or are concerned about the futures of our institutions of higher education—develop more responsive, more open, more positive relationships that reach across the borders of our campuses. In it I argue that a key component of building those relationships is for all of us to cultivate a greater disposition toward generosity, toward community, toward engaging with what is actually in front of us rather than continually pressing forward to where we want to go. But I don’t want the two examples above to make it appear that I am primarily focused on getting those of us within the university to communicate more productively with one another, though that certainly wouldn’t hurt. The ways that we exchange ideas with one another—in our classrooms, in our publications, in our committee meetings—could all bear some close examination. However, in the chapters that follow, I am asking us to take a closer look at the ways that we communicate with a range of broader publics about and around our work: how the university presents itself to the world. And some focused thinking about that mode of public presentation is in order, I would suggest, because our institutions are facing a panoply of crises that we cannot solve on our own.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 4 These crises, I want to acknowledge right at the outset, are not life-threatening, not world-historical, not approaching the kind or degree of the highly volatile political situation we face today both at home and in the world, living as we do at a moment in which the threat of international terrorism is being met with and surpassed by a surge in nationalist politics and domestic terror; in which millions of people running for their lives are confused with and held responsible for the thing they’re running from; in which many residents of our communities find themselves in grave danger posed by those sworn to serve and protect them; in which the communications network once imagined to create a borderless utopia of rational collectivist actors feeds attacks on those who dare to criticize the manifestations of oppression within that network; in which the planet itself gives every sign not of nearing an ecological tipping point but, instead, of being well past it.
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 9 That, in the face of such a world, I am noodling about the importance of generosity for the future of the university may appear self-indulgent and self-marginalizing, a head-in-the-sand retreat into the aesthetic (or worse, the academic) and an escape from the ugliness of the Real World. I hope, by the end of this book, to have put together a case for why this is not so—why, in fact, the particular modes of work undertaken within our institutions of higher education have the potential to help us navigate the present crises, if not to solve them. The argument of the book that follows is that the best of what the university has to offer the world lies not in its power to advance knowledge in any of its many fields, but rather in its ability to be a model for what I am referring to as “generous thinking.” It’s for this reason that it would not be a waste of time for those of us who work in those institutions to take a good hard look at ourselves and the ways that we engage with one another and with the world, in order to ensure that we’re doing everything we possibly can to create the ways of being we’d like to see manifested around us.