Performative Informality, Community, and Collaboration

Every year about this time, I pause for a bit to remember my late friend Joel Jonientz who died in 2014. Invariably, this leads to my thinking back to the salad days of the decade from 2004-2014 which felt not only more productive but also more collegial than the years since then. You can read some of my Jonientz inspired blog posts here.

In general, my view of that decade was deeply nostalgic. I saw the good things that happened in those years—collaborative projects such as The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota, an interest in a wide range of transdisciplinary digital media, and the formation of social bonds that continue, in some ways, to define my professional life (e.g. Paul Worley serves as the poetry editor at NDQ; Mike Wittgraf and I have published articles together; Crystal Alberts has guest edited an issue of the QuarterlyKyle Conway and I have published together on the Bakken).

At the same time, I recognize that the conditions that produced this major shift in my professional life and identity were not just social ones. The university itself was flourishing at the time. It was near peak enrollment numbers, riding a wave of solid legislative support, and led by administrators who found ways to support innovative projects in the arts and humanities, including the Working Group in Digital and New Media where I formed many close personal and professional friendships. Feeling particularly nostalgic last year, I charted out some of the things that emerged from this fruitful period at UND

I also emphasized this period at UND as one of hope which now seems almost impossible to recapture. Budget cuts, awkward leadership styles, an emphasis on competition between programs and departments, the steady hemorrhaging of faculty, and the corresponding decline in morale ensured that even before the pandemic UND had become a very different place than it was in 2010.

While the passing of time intensifies nostalgia, it eventually offers a more critical vantage point for reflection.

This year, in particular, I got to wonder whether the important social bonds that I formed years ago at UND were also part of a kind of toxic atmosphere that is as much to blame for at least some of the tensions that exist today at UND as budgetary, administrative, and structural issues. For example, the Working Group in Digital and New Media had a presence on campus, but it was every bit as much a social group whose meeting regularly concluded with a trip to a local watering hole and interaction between our families, weekend visits to each other’s homes, and various other social events.

This blurring of social and professional boundaries relied, at least in some ways, in the kind of “performative informality” that creates boundaries. These boundaries which tend to be less than visible to the “in group” who shares the informal convivial rituals and ties, are nevertheless highly visible to individuals in the “out group” who feel excluded by these practices. That our group was largely the same age, largely the same professional rank, and largely the same place in our personal and professional lives, further reinforced the exclusivity of our performative bonds.

It strikes me that these informal bonds are fairly hard to recreate in a way that is not exclusive, at least when compared to more formally defined professional relationships. In fact, the the university, for all its faults, has tended to invest in relationships, collaborations, and partnerships defined on the basis of professional standards. It is perhaps idealistic to think that this investment ensures greater inclusivity as recent research into structural racism and sexism in higher education has shown. That said, there are many who see changes to professional standards of collaboration and cooperation in higher education as easier to achieve than long standing practices of social behavior and performative informality. It might be that these institutional shifts have the potential to create more inclusive groups on campus.

This isn’t just an issue of inclusivity and fairness in our professional life, but also reflects an interest in creating more enduring institutions. As I’ve blogged about before when faculty moved on, resources dried up, and campus culture changed, groups bound by performative informality crumbled as the social bonds succumb to distance and changing professional responsibilities.  

In hindsight, then, I wonder whether the easy collegiality that was so productive in the short term, had shallow institutional foundations because of practices that hindered its ability to reproduce itself in persistent ways.

This doesn’t mean that I regret the friendships and sense of community that I developed over that decade or that I’ll stop looking back on it as a period of growth and intellectual development, but I suppose that I should also recognize that the exclusive character of my collaborative circle created a kind of fragility. In some ways, my current sense of intellectual isolation on campus is perhaps as much a result of choice that I made 15 years ago as conditions on campus today.  

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