1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Organizational cultures are buzzing with claims of and calls for “agility” in the wake of rapid shifts in the political, economic, social, and environmental realms. This particular usage of “agility” derives in no small part from the world of software startups, where “agile” is used to describe a set of project management practices that focus on short-range work sprints and frequent project updates. Agile in this project management sense is meant to be distinguished from long-standing software development practices described as “waterfall,” in which a project is fully designed, built out, and polished before release. Waterfall development is linear and structured: project requirements and specifications are fully elaborated before any code gets written, and a plan is established for the project’s full production and implementation at its outset. Agile methodologies, by contrast, are iterative. Each sprint focuses on particular functions that are designed, developed, and evaluated in a cyclical fashion. The roadmap for the project as a whole thus remains flexible, and communication between developers and product owners is ongoing.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Each set of practices has its benefits and its drawbacks. Waterfall enables a team to keep a project’s full scope clearly in view, but it can be inflexible, and in pushing feedback to the end of the process makes user criticism hard to integrate. Agile obtains and responds to that feedback throughout the process, but as a result scoping and documenting a project and keeping focused on its long-term goals can be challenging.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 1 Agile’s adherents are legion, and devoted, and like many notions emerging from the tech industry, “agile” has transformed from methodology into ideology as a result.1 As Trevor Owens told me in our interview, agile and its various sub-disciplines — Owens’ team uses scrum — can help a team sort through a tangled mass of problems and carve off smaller issues that can be worked on right away, and this practice can produce insight into ways to solve bigger ones. But he also noted that scrum and other forms of agile run the risk of becoming ends rather than means, in which scrum becomes “the eternal answer,” and in particular “the answer to why scrum isn’t working is that you’re not doing enough of it.”2

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 2 This begins to hint at something problematic in the ways that the notion of agility has bubbled up in organizations and institutions as well: difficulties in effecting change are attributed to insufficient changeability. As a result, many organizations prize the ability to pivot over the actual results of pivoting. The ideological form of agility demands a disruptive flexibility that upends the ways things have been done less because they’re not working — though that is admittedly often the case — than because they’re not agile.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Remember, for instance, the moment in 2012 when the Board of Visitors of the University of Virginia announced that then-president Teresa Sullivan would be stepping down. The stated reasons for this ouster revolved around her apparent lack of agility: she wasn’t moving quickly enough to “consider dramatic program cuts” in order to “keep U-Va. competitive in a volatile higher education marketplace.”3 The board’s sense of the marketplace’s volatility was in part driven by the appearance of MOOCs — or massively open online courses — and their conviction that “that Virginia was falling behind competitors, like Harvard and Stanford” in the development of this “potentially transformative innovation.”4 Moreover, Sullivan was perceived as unwilling to “shut down programs that couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German”5 in order to make way for transformative innovations.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 With hindsight, we know that MOOCs and other variants on online learning did not in fact transform the higher education “marketplace,” and we know that the University of Virginia remains as “competitive” as ever, even with all those obscure academic departments. But this incident highlights the damage that the Silicon Valley-derived “move fast and break things” ethos can do when corporate hubris overtakes any understanding of the values that focus on the public good.6

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Moreover, it makes clear that the kinds of agility demanded by organizations and their boards today have little to do with institutional values and goals and everything to do with the bottom line. As Charlie Warzel and Anne Helen Petersen note in Out of Office, the “defining characteristic of the flexible workspace has never really been freedom, no matter how it’s been sold. It’s always been worker precarity.”7 And in the production of worker precarity, the academy has been a cross-industry leader. Agility has long demanded that course sections be added and dropped from campus offerings at a moment’s notice, and so universities have moved to create a more flexible — that is, contingent — workforce. According to the American Association of University Professors, by 2016 fully 73 percent of the instructional labor on campuses across the nation was off the tenure track, with nearly 50 percent of instructional faculty in either part-time or graduate employee positions.8

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 1 Colleges and universities must of course be able to adapt to changing circumstances, but sustainable, ethical operations demand that they find ways to do so without creating unlivable conditions for the professionals whose labor they depend on — not least because, as is frequently noted but too rarely truly acted upon, faculty and staff working conditions are student learning conditions. If our institutions of higher education are to fully embrace their responsibilities to their students, their leaders must begin to think far more creatively about their responsibilities to their employees and begin, as Bethany Nowviskie suggested on Twitter, designing and building “resilient systems” rather than relying on resilient people, which is “usually a sign that we let our systems fail.”9

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 That creative thinking, however, cannot look like the dot-com version of agility. The academy must develop more adaptive ways of working, without question — but as Shannon Miller, dean of humanities and arts at San Jose State University told me, rather than jumping directly into the Silicon Valley “go hard and break things” mode of transformation, we must think about “the implications of that. What are the implications in terms of the human costs, and what kind of assumptions are there that elide the issues of the absence of diversity. So I don’t mean go hard, break things, move fast. I mean, iterate, learn things, and appreciate what you learned along the way.”10

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 1 If we approach adaptiveness not by changing direction every time the wind blows, but instead by designing systems that can allow us to read accurately and prepare for the terrain ahead, we might begin to suspect that what is called for is less agility than nimbleness. Or at least this is how I think of nimbleness. I will admit that I have never climbed one single rock, so I am quite likely to make a mess of the metaphor here, but my understanding of climbing is that it’s a constant process of reading the path in order not just to find the next handhold but the next three after that. We might oppose that to some Spiderman-like ability to jump from one place to the next without consequences, a form of agility that few of us will ever possess.

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 In case you think I’m making too much out of a tiny distinction between nimbleness and agility — and perhaps I am slicing things pretty finely here — I’m about to resort to dictionary definitions. Of course, the definitions for “nimble” and “agile” are connected. Merriam-Webster, for instance, defines “nimble” as “quick and light in motion: AGILE,” and defines “agile” as “marked by ready ability to move with quick easy grace.”11 The emphasis in both definitions on quickness and motion is, of course, what the contemporary business world is seeking, a “ready ability” to change directions just in case it should be desired.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 2 But the Oxford English Dictionary adds something to our thinking about nimbleness that’s missing in contemporary agile ideology. The OED’s definitions of “agile” are, like Merriam-Webster’s, focused on quickness in motion, but the first definition of “nimble” presented there is “quick at grasping, comprehending, or learning; (hence) clever, wise.”12 This emphasis on learning and on wisdom is what’s missing from most of the “go hard, break things” instantiations of agility: we need to be quick to understand the conditions ahead that might call upon us to move, rather than ready to move for movement’s sake. In this sense, nimbleness might allow us to draw on the knowledge we already possess even as the circumstances around us change — and might in this way help rescue us from agility’s correlate, precarity, by allowing us to center ourselves and our communities in the values we have chosen to live by. Nimbleness and planning thus go hand-in-hand: having a clearly articulated set of goals that are rooted in our collective values can allow us to keep an eye on the shifting terrain without risking a dangerous fall.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 2  In practical terms, the distinction between agility and nimbleness might have a profound impact on university hiring practices. Rather than perpetuating the unethical habit of hiring underpaid part-time instructors to pick up the slack in our schedules, we might instead use our planning processes in order to create positions for full-time, properly supported faculty with the nimbleness required to shift their teaching as needed.13 We might, in fact, begin to understand such nimbleness as a value in hiring, as well as in review processes, and reward it accordingly.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Of course, that would likely mean that we’d need to think differently about how we prepare graduate students for careers in and around the academy.14 That work has of course already begun at many institutions, where degree programs now include not only training in pedagogy but also a widening range of skills that can ready graduate students for careers that can be deeply rewarding even if they don’t look much like those of their advisors.

15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 1 And what of their advisors? Not to put too fine a point on it, but too many senior faculty have taken the academic freedom that comes with tenure to mean “you can’t tell me what to do”; they — or, given my membership among them, perhaps I should say we — we teach what we want to teach, which is often not equivalent to what our students need or want to study. The more successful we are in our research areas, the less likely we are to teach outside that narrow slice of our fields, leaving the more wide-ranging, introductory, or general interest courses to our junior colleagues, or the part-timers we hire, or our graduate students. That is to say: we bear a large share of responsibility for the circumstances that have led to the university’s deplorable hiring practices. All of us stand to benefit, however, if we reverse that gradual withdrawal into our specializations and commit to more nimble approaches to our teaching across our fields.

16 Leave a comment on paragraph 16 0 This commitment can not only produce a form of solidarity among instructors at all levels, if everyone is available to pick up the slack, but also reminders of the reasons we joined the profession in the first place. In Spring 2020 (before everything went kerflooey), I was asked on fairly short notice to pick up a section of our introduction to literary studies course, a class designed to introduce potential English majors and other interested students to close reading and critical analysis and a range of ways of talking and writing about literature. I selected a group of texts that had been published in the previous few years, all of which were in different ways asking questions about who we are as we read and interpret the world around us. And the questions we asked again and again included “why do folks in literary studies read and write the way we do, and why does it matter?” It had been years since I’d stepped back to the first principles of the discipline, to think about why I’d gotten interested in the field and how I might help facilitate that kind of curiosity among my students. I’d been exceedingly nervous about how it would go, but it turned out to be the most joy-filled experience I’d had in the classroom in years.

17 Leave a comment on paragraph 17 0 Not incidentally: that joy was one reason among many that I found myself bereft when we had to move on two hours’ notice to remote instruction for the rest of the semester. But with the vaguest sense of what was about to happen, my students and I had just the day before used what turned out to be our last session in the classroom to discuss what we’d need to do if the unthinkable happened and we were unable to finish the semester in person. That tiny glimmer of foresight and the conversation it permitted didn’t make the transition easy, but it did make it easier; we’d talked through some options for our work together online, and they’d started thinking about what they’d need to do in order to complete a semester from off-campus.

18 Leave a comment on paragraph 18 2 All of which is to say that all of us can benefit from becoming more nimble, from using our knowledge and experience to shift directions and think about what the communities we’re working with need. But I want again to emphasize: nimble, not agile. My proposal for creating more flexible faculty positions should not be taken as an inroads into the further Uberizing of the profession, turning us all into on-demand content disseminators. And it is certainly not an argument for eliminating tenure, or the benefits of tenure — if anything, I want to make the strongest possible argument for ensuring that everyone working on campus has access to tenure’s most important benefits: job security, intellectual freedom, respect, and a living wage. That, however, requires those of us who currently have those benefits to loosen our exclusive grasp on them, to recognize the extent to which our ability to say no has made the working conditions for those without that luxury increasingly untenable, and to develop the flexibility required to make the institution sufficiently nimble that it no longer feels the draw of agility.

19 Leave a comment on paragraph 19 1 Doing so might enable our institutions to create more full-time, stable positions, knowing that as conditions change the folks inhabiting them will be able to adapt. This kind of nimbleness might also allow us to begin rethinking the categories of employment on campus in a deep way. There are areas of administrative responsibility that would benefit from having members of the research and teaching faculty able to devote time to them during periods when those other areas demand less attention. And there are folks in positions considered “staff” whose academic training has prepared them to — and whose work lives might be enriched if they could — teach occasionally. Key to this kind of nimbleness in job assignments, however, is a two-part recognition: first, all employees on campus are fundamental contributors to the academic mission of the institution, if in different ways, and second, none of those ways of contributing are more deserving of respect and reward than others. Our institutions can simultaneously become more nimble and more just in their hiring practices if (and, I believe, only if) they are willing to rethink the hierarchy among categories of employment from the ground up, ensuring that all jobs on campus are considered, with reason, to be “good” jobs. Stable, not precarious. Nimble, not agile.

Questions for reflection and discussion:

  • 20 Leave a comment on paragraph 20 0
  • How might your campus reconsider the hierarchies between research faculty and teaching faculty? How might you similarly reconsider the hierarchies between faculty and staff?
  • What structures — within human resources, within academic and administrative units — would need to change in order to allow for the creation of positions that value and reward nimbleness?
  • What lessons from the Spring 2020 shift to remote instruction — its successes and its failures — should inform the ways we approach planning for future semesters? What lessons do we seem already to have forgotten?

  1. 21 Leave a comment on paragraph 21 0
  2. On the history of agile and its effects on work cultures, see Posner, “Agile and the Long Crisis of Software.”
  3. Owens, Interview.
  4. Vise and Kumar, “U-Va. Board Leaders Wanted President Teresa Sullivan to Make Cuts.”
  5. Rice, “Anatomy of a Campus Coup.”
  6. Vise and Kumar, “U-Va. Board Leaders Wanted President Teresa Sullivan to Make Cuts.”
  7. On that corporate hubris, see Taplin, Move Fast and Break Things; on public values, see Bozeman and Crow, Public Values Leadership: Striving to Achieve Democratic Ideals.
  8. Warzel and Petersen, Out of Office, 19.
  9. American Association of University Professors, “Data Snapshot.”
  10. Nowviskie, “Design—and Sustain!—Resilient Systems.”
  11. Miller, Interview.
  12. “Nimble, Adj.”; “Agile, Adj.”
  13. “Nimble, Adj., Adv., and n.”
  14. We might even develop some new planning practices that could help reduce the need for such shifts.
  15. On the changes needed in graduate programs, see Cassuto and Weisbuch, The New PhD; Rogers, Putting the Humanities PhD to Work.
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