Pictures from an Institution 9 (Visitors)

Catching up here with some photo sessions from the fall.

Broadly speaking, my theme of the visual documentation of faculty work always has two accompanying problems. The first is that some of the work of faculty makes for a lousy picture, or can’t be pictured at all. I’m just finishing my fourth tenure dossier review of the last four months, and I’ve done a fair amount of peer review recently as well. I can’t actually give any picture of that without puncturing confidentiality.

Second, much of what faculty do as a part of their professional duties is also very pleasurable or interesting. For so many people, it’s not work if it’s not unpleasant and burdensome. Before we get to any of the other reasons why there is some popular dislike of professors, I think the fact that academic labor is often enjoyable is a mark against it: we get to think, to write, to explore our interests, to merge our personal vision of the world with our professional obligations. Or, as in this case, to listen to, converse or present to a variety of interesting visitors to our workplace. We go out into the world, but at many campuses, the world also comes to us. Still, it is work in the sense that it takes time, it takes effort, and it produces value for our employer as well as ourselves.

Visitors are like a slow-motion but also humanly satisfying version of the serendipities I often find in digital culture. A team or a group is travelling to campuses like Swarthmore: I don’t know in advance they are coming or often even that I’m invited until a week or two before the visit, but then the day arrives and I find I learn something completely new. Or I find out that something I thought was a problem unique to us turns out to be widely shared, or what I took to be an improbable ambition has been accomplished. Sometimes they’re reassuring: old friends are still friends, and as reliably insightful as ever. Sometimes they are transformative: a look at work I’ve never even heard of that once seen becomes central to my thinking about a problem.

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