Needed: Artists and Poets

Over the past few months, I have hiked through the majestic mountains of the Western United States and walked along the beautiful and calming Pacific Coast beaches. These are the places of artists and poets. As I’ve mentioned in prior reflections, awe and inspiration are frequently evoked when one is in the presence of mountain peaks, canyons, oceans, waterfalls, mountain meadows, wildlife and forests. Human beings’ direct experiences with these places often draw out deep awakening that is better captured by artistic imagination than by basic descriptive prose or reductionist theories of human development. Indeed, verbal and pictorial renderings by the poet and the artist foster meaningful connections with nature and illuminate the rich and diverse ways humans experience the world. Artistic representation, both visual and textual, speaks to and cultivates within human beings a sense of mystery, awe and inspiration, propelling the individual to personal transformation.  

Mystery, awe and inspiration are rarely acknowledged as virtues in the operation of today’s universities. We tend to be reductionists; and this often serves us well. It is best that procedures like executing course changes and applying for financial aid not be shrouded in mystery. Clarity is necessary when giving students roadmaps for achieving their academic goals. Institutions continue to develop strategies to support student success, even as expectations rise and complexities produce new challenges. But the clear pathways to completion are not sufficient to meet our responsibilities to today’s students and to the world–a world, as I described in an earlier reflection, that is “on fire.” I’m not suggesting we throw the baby out with the bathwater. Good management is valuable, but it is not enough to produce the necessary adaptations to current and future existential challenges facing our students. 

In the context of the natural world, the places I’ve spent much of the past few months, the national and state park services perform valuable management work. They do their best to balance the need for environmental and human protection, on the one hand, and real connection with nature, on the other. Perhaps the grandeur and beauty of these natural places ensure that the ethos of management will never cast too large a shadow on the heart and soul of the magnificent sights, sounds and smells of nature.

The world of higher education is different. We have built large and complex institutions–so large that any tinkering, let alone innovative transformations, require heavy labor. Often the labor required to adapt institutions makes reflective experiences and deep human connections a luxury. Substantive change is indeed daunting in higher education. At my institution, Ohio University, efforts to reinvent the general education approach resulted in decades of toil, bad feelings and diminished trust between a president and the faculty, considerable financial costs, etc. Because of the institution we have built, adaptive approaches to enhancing the education of students require superhuman collections of skills, attributes and grit on the part of institutional leaders. 

But, even when leaders possess all of the management and leadership skill sets we seek, our work inevitably becomes a service to the preservation and the reputation of the institution rather than to the enlightenment or direct benefit to students. Consider institutional responses when a hate crime occurs on campus. The institutional leaders recognize that they need to “do something.” Institutional responses too often are superficial band aids that do not recognize nor address core issues underlying the problems. Leaders and managers either believe too fully that organizational interventions will solve big problems or they understand, at some level, that issues like systemic racism and sexism and heterosexism are so deeply ingrained in the human experience and so complex to address that public demonstrations of concern–as hollow as they often manifest–are all an institution can muster.  

Because of the limits of institutional efficacy in meeting the demands of contemporary life, we must seek deeper ways of meeting our core responsibilities in higher education. While we are drawn to expediency and efficiency, it is often at the grey and liminal boundaries where the most vital and rich learning occurs. Liminality is about thresholds–places of transition and transformation. If we can agree that this is a time of transformation in higher education, then it is important to occupy these threshold spaces–spaces that are uncertain and presently unknowable. These are the dimensions of life where the poet and artist are at home. 

We can’t transform a modern institutional culture by relying on tools from that same culture. In the words of Einstein, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” The epic crises we confront are, at least in part, creations of the advancement of industrial approaches reflected in our grandest institutions of higher education. Enter, then, the artist and the poet, whose access to the deepest dimensions of human experiences and longings differ in basic substance and character from the mindset cultivated by industrial age culture. The new space–that is, our future–is largely unknown. Poetry and art can call us into this new place, this mystery. While not providing specific directions or laying out a concrete image of the characteristics of our best future, they redirect us from our futile efforts to discover solutions to today’s problems in the same formulae that brought us to this place. 

A few years ago, I was a member of the President’s executive staff at my university. Our president would regularly say that we aimed to provide the “nation’s most transformational student experience.” What a magnificent goal! I occasionally mentioned that in order for us to be transformational we must also be transformable. That means the form in which we do our work must change. We must be open to change. That includes, most certainly, how we communicate with each other and what we give our attention to. One way to do this is to ask, “How can we make things messy to students?” alongside the question about how we can make things clear. Poetry makes things messy–it evokes questions, while much of what we do and how we engage students are designed to provide formulae to follow, to conform. Those approaches–the ones geared at finding easy or singular right answers–are not going to promote transformation. Rather, we need to boldly walk into the unknown–the liminal–the place of the poet. 

The great poet Mary Oliver wrote, “. . .and there was a new voice, which you slowly recognized as your own, that kept you company as you strode deeper and deeper into the world.” Imagine employing words such as these to engage students in reflection on who they are becoming and the journey they are on. My students would say that I am an enthusiastic (and perhaps insufferable) lover of student development theory. It is true. But engaging student affairs masters students in reading poetry that might speak truth or raise questions about the mystery of life has the potential to engage them more deeply, or at least in different and important ways, than a formulaic understanding of the stages of human development. It can enliven students to engage in a deeper conversation about understanding who we are and the experience of others. My future teaching of student development theory will include asking students to find art or poetry that bring to the surface questions and truths about their own journeys and about what they are studying in their theory class. I imagine engaging them in a reflection on words such as Oliver has provided to reflect on their own lives, the lives of their students and the work they are setting out to do. My goal is to have us, together, “live into the questions” as the poet Rilke suggests.

And, just as students are engaging in new (or renewed) ways of learning, so can leaders in student affairs and higher education. I have spent much of my time in meetings doing things like looking at data that show trends in enrollment, and discussing the responsibilities each of us has to ensure continued growth or reversing declines. Week after week, meeting after meeting, we sit, listening to leaders seated at the head of the table tell us what we need to do. We make personal commitments to work harder and longer to ensure healthy institutions. These discussions are not unimportant. However, we are big on talking about what we need to do, but short on discussing who we can be in order to enrich the lives of our students and strengthen communities. I imagine “gatherings” that replace many of our traditional meetings, bringing together diverse groups within a community (e.g., students, staff, and faculty) fostered by art and poetry to access the mysteries and the promise of being together and being our best selves. The goal is to access the mysteries of ourselves and our lives to ensure that our “doing” is aligned with the best possibilities for who we are and can be, together.  

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One thought on “Needed: Artists and Poets

  1. Mary Beth Held says:

    Pete,
    I love this post! There is so much I could say in response but so little time (ironically because I’ve got to figure out how to rewrite outcomes and assessment measures for our institutions’s gen Ed COMM courses… yuck).

    I spent my twenties self actualizing through nature and then have been slowly forced away from my self exploration tendencies as I’ve aged (sadly). I share your interest in student development because of the exorbitant time I spent on my own development growing up. I wandered and explored career paths after college and managed to have many enriching cultural experiences. I never felt I had time to do this type of exploration in college because of the perception that I needed to do it on a strict timeline and also because I was a student athlete. Why wasn’t “the institution”encouraging this kind of growth and development from kindergarten through college?!?! Not only did I do a lot of self exploration in my twenties but I also spent much of my twenties guiding youth towards the type of human development you describe through natural experiences. One of my very favorites being solo hikes and drum walks. People always gain so much when they are in nature when their sole purpose for one day or five minutes is to listen and absorb their own selves in a natural environment. As you know, the results are rather profound, especially for someone who has quite possibly never had this experience before.

    Elementary and secondary education have seemingly eliminated the possibility for this type of growth to occur and then technology has squashed the rest of curiosity in people. When I get my students in public speaking as freshmen, many can’t even name one hobby that they have. They are lost! I take one entire class to go student to student to attempt to “pull the color” out of them that was never nurtured but rather began to bud as a child and then left to rot as students who were programmed to take tests, write papers to a formula, and get straight A’s.

    As I said, so much to say but so little time. I apologize for a somewhat sloppily written response. Thank you for writing this. Perhaps this will be the beginning of an awakening that frankly, all institutions need right now.

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