¶ 1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 1 For starters, I want to separate the notion of generosity that we’re working with from the act of giving and any apparent selflessness that it may entail. When I say that the relationship between the scholars who make up the university and the public that university serves should be characterized by generosity, I do not primarily mean to say that we should all be doing more volunteer work in our communities, or developing more service learning projects, or engaging in any other form of “giving back” that you might imagine. These are all enormously important activities, some of which I’ll draw on as we proceed, and undoubtedly doing more in that vein would be better. The mode of generosity associated with philanthropy or volunteerism has enabled the means through which those who have benefited from the advantages conferred by the university can pass those advantages on to many who do not have the same access. These generous acts can, in fact, enable us to create greater access and opportunity for more members of our communities. But there are some notable ways in which focusing too exclusively on this material, action-oriented approach to generosity may cause the transformations that I’m seeking to fall short.
¶ 2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 1 One of the reasons that locating generosity within generous acts would be insufficient in transforming the relationships between the academy and the public can be seen in the challenges experienced by those who spend their careers in philanthropic or other socially-oriented fields. People who work in the public service, and particularly in roles that are associated with a high degree of selflessness—think of social workers, public school teachers, nurses, clergy, as well as those who work for mission-driven nonprofit organizations—are highly susceptible to burnout. It’s enough of an issue that the Chronicle of Philanthropy publishes an extensive toolkit on its website designed to help nonprofit employees avoid or recover from the burnout associated with their roles. In fact, as Adam Grant’s work has explored, while giving is unquestionably good, and while those who are givers in the workplace tend to be highly successful, selflessness can cause anyone’s internal resources to run low. As Grant and his colleague Reb Rebele demonstrate in a week-long series on the Harvard Business Review website, a wide range of professionals who are committed to supporting their clients and colleagues run the risk of feeling overloaded and exhausted by that commitment. And university faculty and administrators are no different: all the work we do for our students, for our colleagues, and for our communities can leave us feeling we’ve got nothing left to give.
¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 Beyond the risk of burnout, however, approaching generosity as a material, philanthropic act allows us to draw boundaries around our responsibilities to the communities in which our institutions are embedded. In so doing, we risk not only limiting our impact but in fact undermining the very relationships we seek to build. That is, the ability to say that we gave at the office (or in the classroom, or in the community center) turns the generosity I’m describing into something transactional, an exchange with both a defined location and a clear conclusion. As a result, we create specific contexts for our generous behavior that lie outside the center of our working lives. Nothing about that center need necessarily change: we do what we do, and then we bring the good of what we do to the world. Generosity in this model slips all too easily into a missionary project, in which we provide the understanding derived from our privileged position to the less fortunate around us. And, having done so, we can consider our obligation to the world fulfilled.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 The potential damage of such an approach is, I hope, visible. When we focus on what we can give them, we not only deepen the divide between us but we further entrench our own assumption that we inhabit the true center where knowledge resides. This is not to dismiss the impact that many community engagement projects have; sharing the benefit of my knowledge and resources with those around me is indeed a generous act. The problem arises when that project doesn’t equally transform us, when it remains an act, of limited duration, one that I can conclude, returning to the rest of my life unchanged.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 10 What I am seeking instead is something that is seemingly smaller and yet more pervasive: rather than understanding generosity as transactional, and thus embodied in finite acts, I want to approach it as a way of being that creates infinite, unbounded, ongoing obligation. And yet the infinite nature of that obligation does not require us to renounce our positions and possessions, take vows of poverty and charity, and seek a form of intellectual sainthood. Rather, this sense of generosity bears much in common with Anthony Appiah’s description of cosmopolitanism: it is a way of being in the world that need not be “an exalted attainment,” but that instead derives from “the simple idea that in the human community, as in national communities, we need to develop habits of coexistence: conversation in its older meaning, of living together, association” (30). Generosity, in my sense, both dwells in and grows from this conversation: a generosity of mind.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 Focusing on conversation highlights the need for generosity to be continually renewed in order to function. Moreover, it points to the things we owe one another, the things we owe our colleagues, but also the things we owe those publics we hope to engage. Conversation imposes an obligation that cannot be easily concluded, that asks me to open myself again and again to what is taking place between us. Conversation thus demands not that we become more giving, but instead that we become more receptive. It requires us to participate, to be part of an exchange that is multidirectional. It disallows any tendency to declare our work concluded, or to disclaim further responsibility toward the other participants in our exchange. It asks us to inhabit a role that is not just about speaking but also about listening, taking in and considering what our conversational partners have to say, reflecting on the merits of their ideas and working toward a shared understanding that is something more than what each of us bears alone.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 6 This mode of generous thinking is thus first and foremost a willingness to think with someone. Scholars frequently engage in this kind of work with our close colleagues, in various ways—when we read their in-preparation manuscripts in order to help improve them, for instance—but it’s an orientation to scholarly conversation that rapidly diminishes as we move outside our immediate circles and turn to the more public performance of our academic selves. In those modes of interaction we often feel ourselves required to become more critical—or more competitive—and we frequently find ourselves focusing not on the substance of what is being said to us but on the gaps or missteps by which we can demonstrate that our own position is the correct one. That so many scholars do so much work on behalf of their colleagues and students indicates that the problem is not that academics are fundamentally ungenerous. It’s more that the structures within which we work, and the reward system that lets us know when we have succeeded, limit the locations and relationships within which we are encouraged to practice generosity. As a result, while we may understand generosity of mind to be a key value within the profession, its actual enactment is not allowed to become habitual, not part of our general mode of being.