The Forum | Freedom of Expression

Generous Thinking: Modeling Civility in Higher Ed

March 8, 2019 by Erik Gross

Kathleen Fitzpatrick is the Director of Digital Humanities and professor of English at Michigan State University. She joined ACTA to discuss her new book Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University, which responds to the hyper-competitive nature of higher education.

You recently published a book titled Generous Thinking: A Radical Approach to Saving the University. Can you talk about what your message is and what “generous thinking” means to you?
Part of the argument that I make in Generous Thinking is that something has fallen out of whack in the way that we in the university approach the critical work that we do. We want to be critical thinkers and we want to teach our students critical thinking, so that we can wisely approach the problems that are facing us today. But what’s happened in that focus on critical thinking is that we’ve lost track of the social purposes that higher education was meant to serve. It has become much more individualized, much more focused on individual success or individual financial gain, rather than actually understanding that education is meant as a social good. It is meant to really work toward solving large-scale social problems.

So what I’m arguing in Generous Thinking is not that we need to walk away from critical thinking, but that we need to underwrite that critical thinking with a bedrock of generosity: thinking about how to create connections and relationships.

How much of that vision relies on teaching listening skills rather than argumentation?

It’s an enormous part of it. Generous thinking relies on teaching listening skills as a precursor to argumentation. We find ourselves in a situation now in which people are talking past one another. You see this on the news all the time. In the political sphere, more yelling is happening than any kind of real listening-based exchange. We need to stop and genuinely listen to one another so that we can say, “Okay, I see what you’re saying,” and then “Here is what I have,” so that we might build on one another’s ideas rather than simply negating them.

“Generous thinking relies on teaching listening skills as a percursor to argumentation.”

If you were to institute a freshman seminar, or perhaps a seminar for professors, to teach the modes of thinking that you promote, what would that course look like?

I would probably start with some texts that focus on collaboration and the commons or the nature of the public good. I’m thinking about John Dewey and Elinor Ostrom, and other writers that are focused on how individuals come together to build a social good. And then I would focus on some texts that really try to enact the kind of generous thinking that I’m trying to model. The work I point to a lot is Arlie Russell Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, an extraordinary book that demonstrates the deep listening that she did with the folks she was interviewing. I would want the graded work to be entirely collaborative and community graded. I would not want the success to be focused on any given individual, but on the project as a whole.

I’m interested in your differentiation between constructive and competitive thinking. Can you elaborate on these ideas?

There are some aspects of competition that are healthy—they aim to help us all to do better. But the kinds of competition that we end up promoting within higher education are often not that type of healthy competition. It’s the kind of competition that leads to zero-sum thinking. If your argument or your lab or your institution succeeds, it’s going to take something away from mine. So the way that I then make my argument is to start by tearing down yours, and that’s how I build up my argument. It’s that mode of competition that I really want to get us away from—having so much individual stake in success that we can’t imagine building something together.

I read a great article the other day in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled “The Rise of the Pedantic Professor.” How does overly focusing on terminology and pedantry relate to the issues you’re getting at?

There is an enormous amount of emphasis on faculty being able to convince everyone around them that they are the authority on whatever subject they are dealing with. Some of the resistance to that is part of the larger cultural resistance to expertise and authority. There’s a general resistance to expertise right now that makes us look at someone who says they know a lot and think they’re pedantic, rather than thinking, “Well, they have important information that I should pay attention to.” But at the same time, faculty are in a position in which they have to demonstrate constantly that they are an authority in order to be taken seriously. As a result, they don’t feel comfortable acknowledging when they don’t know something. It’s really important when a question comes up in class to be able to say, “I don’t know, let’s look into this.”

“The way that I then make my argument is to start by tearing down yours … it’s that mode of competition that I really want to get us away from.” 

You note that public confidence in higher education has eroded. What can the academy do to counteract this trend? How does acting as a public intellectual relate to this end?

Institutions of higher education need to do a much better job articulating and demonstrating the social good that they serve. We understand the purpose and benefits of higher education to be overwhelmingly private today. And more of the burden of paying for college is placed on the individual as state funding has decreased. If we want that funding to return, we need to start demonstrating the public good that the university serves by doing more public-facing work. That’s where the public intellectual bit comes in. The more that we can demonstrate that the work we are doing is being done on behalf of the public, and invite the public to participate, the better off the institution is going to be.

What can university leadership do to help faculty like yourself promote your vision of generous thinking?

One of the things that needs to happen within the leadership at many institutions of higher education is a real re-centering on mission, on what all the work we are doing is for. Most mission statements have something about public service in them. But the institutional reward structures, whether in hiring practices or tenure, and the mission that the leadership wants to see served need to fully align. If we’re saying that public service is so important, but what we’re rewarding is individual scholarly achievements, it’s impossible to achieve that mission. Trustees are entrusted with ensuring that the institution lives up to its values. They need to find ways to articulate what those values are. It’s crucial that they support the faculty and the administration in ensuring that those values are lived out

What inspires and motivates you as an educator?

I think the thing that inspires me most is seeing students who may not be sure what it is that they’re in college for — they know that they need the degree, they’ve been told that it’s going to provide a better future for them. But watching them get inspired, and really get interested in whatever it is that they care about … I find myself really inspired by those students who come in frankly with kind of a utilitarian idea about what higher education is for but leave understanding that they have now been given this gift of inspiration and knowledge that they carry out into the world.


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