Some years ago, shortly after I became a dean, I found myself wondering if the work I did actually made a profound and positive difference for students. And how would I know if it did? The question has been constantly on my mind since then as I have worked with faculty and staff, designed and implemented institutional initiatives, served on accreditation teams, led educational programming and conferences, and worked with higher education experts and organizations regionally, nationally, and internationally on initiatives to improve or develop new approaches for academic quality and innovation.
Doing things in a new way is easy; we call this novelty. What’s challenging is to do things in a new way that eventually gets accepted by others; we call this creativity. What’s even more challenging is to do something in a new way that is ethical and advances the human condition; we call this ‘good work.'” – Howard Gardner, The Good Work Project
I recently ran across a poem that I was first introduced to when I was an undergraduate English major at Humboldt State, many (many!) years ago: To Be Of Use, by Marge Piercy. Along with other sources of inspiration such as The Good Work Project and this Naropa commencement address by Parker Palmer (“take on big jobs worth doing!”), I came to adopt a key principle for how I wanted to be of service in my career: I focus on the things worth doing well done.
To Be Of Use
by Marge Piercy
The people I love the best
jump into work head first
without dallying in the shallows
and swim off with sure strokes almost out of sight.
They seem to become natives of that element,
the black sleek heads of seals
bouncing like half-submerged balls.
I love people who harness themselves, an ox to a heavy cart,
who pull like water buffalo, with massive patience,
who strain in the mud and the muck to move things forward,
who do what has to be done, again and again.
I want to be with people who submerge
in the task, who go into the fields to harvest
and work in a row and pass the bags along,
who are not parlor generals and field deserters
but move in a common rhythm
when the food must come in or the fire be put out.
The work of the world is common as mud.
Botched, it smears the hands, crumbles to dust.
But the thing worth doing well done
has a shape that satisfies, clean and evident.
Greek amphoras for wine or oil,
Hopi vases that held corn, are put in museums
but you know they were made to be used.
The pitcher cries for water to carry
and a person for work that is real.