12 October 2014

"Good Enough" Mothers, Cooks, Professors, and Institutions

"Spoonful of cereal" by Scott Bauer, USDA ARS 
Long before I became the Good Enough Professor, I wanted to be the Good Enough Cook.  The urge to write about cooking followed quickly upon my discovery that cooking was a thing I could do. Meals need to be prepared, however--not so much the clever essays about them.  While the Good Enough Cook never became a brand (cooking shows!  frozen entrees!  books!), over the years of marriage and family, I got better at turning ingredients into meals.  I'd still call myself a "good enough cook" though, and I take more pleasure than ever in the designation.

As the world bifurcates into self-proclaimed foodies, on the one hand, and people who cheerfully proclaim their culinary cluelessness, there is more need than ever for the sort of people who can simply get a meal on the table.   Somewhere between the grim parade of meat + starch + vegetable + dessert to which many of our mothers martyred themselves and our palates and the slapdash convenience available today lies a nutritious path of least resistance that the good enough cook seeks out.   She (the good enough cook is often, but by no means always, she) also recognizes her limitations, responds to the stresses of the moment, and embraces compromise.  She rejects the sales pitch of guilt and self-doubt and finds the patterns that work for the people she is responsible for feeding.  

These patterns may involve unethically sourced rotisserie chickens, family bonding over cold cereal and milk in the mornings, and occasional dearths of green vegetables.  Some well-organized weeks, creative, nourishing meals emerge at regular intervals from the slow-cooker. Sometimes mental health requires popping a vat of popcorn, pouring a glass of wine, and calling it a day.  The whole point of being "good enough" is not to form one's own identity around the ability to cook "well," but to cook well enough to meet the needs of one's family members' bodies and souls, to enable them to function independently.

In her own riff on the various ways of being "good enough" applies to college instructors (a blog post that brought some internet traffic my way this past week),  Lily Cho at Hook and Eye goes back to D. W. Winnicott's original formulation of "good enough"-ness:
it’s really useful to remember that Winnicott’s theory of being good enough was first and foremost a way of thinking about parenting .... He talks a lot about illusion and disillusion – how the mother should give the infant the illusion of her constant presence and attendance to the child’s needs, only to slowly disillusion the child of that unfettered availability. Hello, transitional objects! What might this have to do with being a professor? Well, a lot, I think.
Cho acknowledges the well-worn use of the "good enough" trope to negotiate work-life balance, but delves instead into a different academic application of the concept:
Putting the institution in the place of the child in Winnicott’s theory would make it so that the professor’s job would be to provide the institution with the illusion of constant availability, of an unwavering commitment to respond to all of its demands and needs, only to slowly engineer that disillusionment.
       We move from being academics doing something purely because of our love for the job to a more detached relationship where labour relations are more visible. We come to the university as providers of an illusion of our love for this work, but this illusion can only be sustained temporarily. Ultimately, we have to disillusion the institution. We can only love our work within limits and with boundaries.
This relationship between "good enough" professor and institution-as-infant is, as Cho acknowledges, a function of not only of being "lucky enough to be full-time faculty members," but also having a traditional tenure stream position defined by "the 40-40-20 split between research, teaching, and administrative work."  The labor force in higher education is increasingly made up of employees who are paid to perform only one of those dimensions of a faculty position.  For adjuncts, contingent, or NTT faculty, "good enough" to be hired to teach for a semester (or a year or a decade) inevitably implies "not really good enough" to be taken seriously as a contributor to the institution's mission of teaching, research, and service.  

The institiutional logic that puts so much teaching in the hands of faculty institutions deem "[not really] good enough" undermines the merits of understanding one's work as "good enough" in Winnicott's terms.  As Cho concludes, "good enough was not about doing less, but about detaching in ways that actually sustain relationships, and that allow that relationship to thrive."  But of course Winnicott's "good enough" mother is the one with agency to structure the relationship.  The "good enough professor" lacks that power.  

Many "good enough professors" can only understand themselves as "good enough" in Winnicott's positive sense by sustaining "healthy" and "good enough" relationships with students.  Is the "good enough" instructor sufficiently detached from the students to be able to  correct them?  Is the "good enough" instructor sufficiently warm and attached to instill the security that leads to learning?  Is the "good enough" instructor imparting skills and ways of thinking that the students will be able to apply even after the course has ended?  The answers to these questions generally lie well outside the frameworks of institutional validation.  Finding answers is low on many institutions' list of priorities, and end-of-semester evaluations are imprecise instruments for measuring how much students learn.  

It's much easier to be a "good enough cook," despite all the guilt-inducing advertising, pseudoscience, and advice that preys on parental anxieties.  All kinds of cultural pressures validate the parent or spouse who makes food available to the the rest of the household, whether she does it by swinging past a drive-through window more nights than not or by spending hours in a kitchen.  By contrast, "good enough professors" live a paradox: as far as students are concerned, they're the warm face of the institution's concern, the heart of the mission that has drawn students there.  For the institution, though, they exist at the periphery, with none of the academic freedom, research imperatives, or participatory stakes that would otherwise cause them to matter.   Many "good enough professors" value their teaching as "good enough" and strive to improve it, despite their marginalized status and a profound lack of institutional validation.  When the real work of teaching happens in spite of the innovations and reward systems of corporatized higher ed., "good enough" ceases to be nourishing.

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