Academic journal article College English

Reimagining Leadership after the Public Turn

Academic journal article College English

Reimagining Leadership after the Public Turn

Article excerpt

We seem to have a problem with leadership. As we prepared this issue, a campaign raged across the country between two of the most unpopular leaders in US presidential history. While we often bewail our leaders' weaknesses, we generally leave the study of leadership to sociologists, organizational experts, and schools of business. That is rather surprising. Preparing citizens for leadership was one the founding purposes for studying rhetoric and the other liberal arts, and rhetoric's civic vision has taken on renewed significance as we have expanded our public engagements in service learning, community literacy, social movement studies, and political advocacy. While these lines of inquiry converge on an interest in collective action, leadership has not really been a topic of discussion in College English, College Composition and Communication, or other leading journals, perhaps because we tend to see leadership's traditional relations with rhetoric as being concerned with exercising power over others rather than with mobilizing collective action. The 2014 special issue of College English on "Reimagining the Social Turn" provides a useful point of departure for bringing leadership into our discussions. Jacqueline Rhodes and Jonathan Alexander coedited that issue, which opened and closed with calls to follow through on the public turn to "engage in critical reflection that moves toward collective action" (Young 586). In response to such calls to action, the articles in this issue examine how a rhetorical stance on leadership can help us engage with the opportunities that are emerging as the foundations of traditional academic hierarchies shift due to erosions in state funding, a deepening dependence on student tuition, increasing threats to federal grants, expanding numbers of nontenure-track (NTT) faculty, and intensifying pressures to articulate the values of liberal education in more accessible terms as we defend against the privatization of public education.

These trends can seem overwhelming, especially when we consider their impact on our field. Continuing declines in English majors have contributed to sharp declines in jobs, with the 2014-15 MLA Job List offering the next generation of faculty the fewest numbers of tenure-track jobs in forty years. These leadership challenges are rarely addressed in our journals or in our department meetings. When we discuss faculty leadership, we tend to focus on the need for it rather than its impact; when we refer to campus leaders, we tend to be referring to central administrators. These assumptions work against our best interests. While we generally think little of leadership, we think even less of administrators. The underlying assumption that administrative service is a distracting sideline that any scholar can casually step into is satirized in Donald Hall's "How to Destroy an English Department." Hall sardonically suggests that to destroy a department, a lackadaisical head should simply profess disdain for "loathsome leadership" obligations and ignore the rest of the university, particularly "stupid pseudo-fields" such as "leadership studies" (540-1). Such attitudes trivialize the challenges of collaborative leadership at a time when we need to get serious about it. The challenges of engaging faculty are familiar to anyone who has worked to advance collaborative initiatives, as administrators or as faculty. Those of us who take up such work often find that we have learned a lot about leadership from our studies of rhetorical analysis, collaborative learning, and cultural studies. Our studies of rhetoric and writing as a collaborative problem-solving process provide us with strategic ways of thinking that can help us re-envision leadership as a mode of collective action in response to the forces that are undercutting the standing of our departments and our institutions.

While the challenges we face are historic, so are the opportunities. Many faculty leaders have come to recognize that research and teaching are integrally involved with service and outreach, as Ernest Boyer discussed in Scholarship Reconsidered and "The Scholarship of Engagement. …

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