Imagine a professor. Let’s call her S. She is retiring from her university after a distinguished 35 years. She has just come from the wine and cheese party in her honor at the department. On the way to the real after-party at a colleague’s house in the quainter section of town, she decides to make one last stop at her old office, telling herself she’d just check to see if she’s left anything behind.
S. slides the key into the lock and opens the door in one practiced, unconscious motion. As she surveys the empty office, she notices the light fade from the day through the dusty window overlooking the academic quad. But she’s beyond all wistfulness and sentiment now. She opens the drawer to her desk one last time, decides she won’t be embarrassed at leaving behind a few paper clips and stray pennies, closes the drawer, stands up resolutely, and for the last time, leaves her office.
As she leaves, though, another kind of regret steals over her. What has S. left behind besides the paper clips, stray pennies, and the fading light in her office? The unwritten papers. The research that couldn’t be conducted because the grant never came through. The thousands of classes, meetings with students hopeful or tearful, hours in committees, millions of papers graded, books that lined the shelves, the drafts of journal articles written and manuscripts reviewed, a gazillion memos – and then since the 1980s emails – answered or ignored: all the detritus of a long life in academia.
Now think of the non-obvious stuff that’s been left behind: the things she’s learned but never got to say. The accumulated wisdom, some of it never expressed or captured for posterity. The personal knowledge she just is carrying with her out the door, the stuff that’s not quite institutional not quite academic that didn’t quite fit into the discipline or the profession and for which there was no real outlet, both the gold and the dust: How to pause at just the right moment during a lecture about mushrooms edible, inedible, and … hallucinogenic. How to handle the tenured colleague who never grew up. How to get student teams to work together. How to persuade a colleague to join you on a grant proposal. How to give a troubled student a break without breaking the rules. How to influence a committee without taking charge. How to conduct an interview for a job candidate. How to deal with the discouragement of waiting two years for a paper to be published.
More hidden treasures from wild mushrooms
And then there’s all that other wild stuff for which there aren’t even categories because it’s all crossover wisdom and quasi-conscious influence between different continents of her inner world: How her professional research in genetics informed her choice to volunteer leading teen tours of nature. How raising her children gave her tools to deal with difficult colleagues and eventually, serve as Chair (for those horrible and glorious five years!). How what she knows about preserving species genetics could be a multi-million dollar business, if only she could find the time and the folks with business savvy to make it happen. How much of her field knowledge of botany is not worthy of publication but is worthy of dissemination beyond a small circle of grad students. The network of friends and former students and colleagues that crop up with increasing frequency in those small world events, where they’re least expected, and her fantasy of connecting them together. What she learned working with troubled teens about the healing power of focusing on the small intricate things in nature during a walk in the woods in the rain. Ah, the desire she has just to express that stuff that falls between the cracks and outside the boxes.
Where does that universe of things worth knowing go when S retires? What happens to its value? What can a large university, or any institution for that matter, do to preserve this most precious resource, this PK?
And this is not just a challenge – and an opportunity – for universities. I know from working in the corporate world, even a fairly open and enlightened company, how damnably difficult it is to express the stuff that your boss isn’t ready to hear and that isn’t in your job description and for which there are no journals or classes or room in the workday. The cliche about not thinking out of the box is not just true, when you find you’re unable to even express it, it’s a form of pain.
A cover piece in the magazine INC. (May 2007) highlighted the problem: “Find It. Use It. It’s a good bet your company possesses intellectual property it isn’t exploiting.” The article goes on to discuss the intellectual property left on the table (or behind the closed door or in the drawer or in your silent preserve behind your eyes) by many corporations and strategies to find those hidden assets. In the corporate world, as for all enterprises, it begins with a definition of what is valuable.
“Baruch Lev, a professor of accounting and finance at New York University’s Stern School of Business, who once calculated that approximately 85 percent of a company’s value resides in such intangibles. Unfortunately, many of those assets go unexploited because they are hard to inventory, manage, or even recognize. ‘What drives me nuts personally and professionally is to think about all that good stuff being wasted,’ says Sherman [an IP lawyer featured in the article], shaking his shaggy head. ‘All that innovation. All that intellectual capital. It’s just sitting there collecting strategic dust.’ ”
– ““Find It. Use It.” Leigh Buchanan, INC 5/1/2007
Gills of the mushroom
What’s the solution? Well, to start I’d suggest two things:
Recognition: A broader definition of – and recognition for – what is valuable from within the institution and for the people who have the blooming in their heads, potential to be harvested. Beyond the syllabi and disciplines and journals there’s personal and wild knowledge that never gets expressed or recognized… wild mushrooms.
The Means: The tools to extract and entice the people in our institutions to express what they know, to share and broadcast it simply and without too many restrictions. A platform that gives people an invitation, the permission, and the simple but robust means to show all that they know, whatever they know, and find their audience.
Obviously, the Web, and especially Web 2.0 has shown us the pent-up world-wide desire for self-expression is there, and it has shown us some of the tools. Wikipedia and YouTube and Facebook suggest people are content to have their stuff projected in a public space even if it whizzes by anonymously, like elaborate graffiti on a NYC train. Whoah! I’m famous! Oh, I’m not.
Why not unleash these Web 2.0 lessons and technologies in the academic space to both treasure – and uncover the buried treasure – of wild personal knowledge that we leave behind like spare change in the folds of a couch or the hidden but wondrous underbellies of wild mushrooms?
We would all benefit from the harvest, providers and seekers alike.