Like an Oak Tree — Considering Pathways for Intellectual Leadership

An oak tree, approximately 200 years old

This month, I have officially begun a new appointment in the College of Arts & Letters as Associate Dean for Research & Graduate Education. The new post expands my role in the college to include supporting our research mission, which in CAL includes a diverse range of artistic activity, humanities scholarship and scientific inquiry. As part of the CAL leadership team over the last four years, I have been fortunate to learn from senior colleague and mentor David Prestel who has previously led our research efforts. His wisdom and example are very much shaping my thinking in these earliest days of this new role.

My new appointment coincides with another career milestone for me, my promotion to the rank of (Full) Professor. That these two changes would occur together is fortuitous and only partially coincidental. But they have me thinking about what keeps scholars motivated as they move into the phase of being “senior faculty?” There are no higher promotions to seek (though there are of course awards, etc). So where does one plan to go next? Below, I’ll talk more about a moment of inspiration that helped me to answer this question.

The confluence of my promotion and my new appointment means that I am working simultaneously to answer these questions for myself and for others, as I am charged with supporting my colleagues in CAL in their research and artistic activity. My answers, then, must come into focus not only in a way that is actionable, helping me to make decisions for myself, but also in a shareable way.

Here, I’m taking up the practice of ‘writing along the way’ to find a few of the answers I must now seek. I don’t have them all yet. Not by a long shot. But with this as a beginning, I hope to invite my colleagues at MSU and around the world to think and write and talk about charting pathways to intellectual leadership and what those pathways look like at different moments in one’s career.


Charting Pathways: Horizons, Milestones, and Stepping Stones

One reason that I find myself at this confluence of role and rank with a moment to reflect on what it all means is that for the last several years I have been able to work towards making my own path to intellectual leadership clear and deliberate. This is in large part due to my role as Associate Dean for Graduate Education, where I help to articulate the idea of a pathway to intellectual leadership as a concept for folks who are just beginning their academic journey. There are a few important ideas that go along with this framework.

First and most fundamental is the idea that intellectual leadership is the end towards which we work in our academic lives. The traditional ways we measure academic success — books, articles, grants, etc. — are (merely) the means toward that end. When I write an article, it is not the end of some process. It is, more likely, the middle of one. It signals a moment when I am sharing my ideas in a way that I hope others will consider and use them. The article is a way to reach people and help them to do something. Counting up articles one has published is not, in this way of thinking, a good summative measure of career success. It may be one indicator, but it can never tell the full story of a scholar’s intellectual leadership.

At CAL, we are taking this idea very seriously. One example is the work that Dean Chris Long and a group of colleagues from around the country are doing with the Humetrics project, an effort to define measures for career success that better align with our values in the Humanities. Activities like mentoring others and assisting in the ways their careers develop can be transformative for one’s own career as well as one’s discipline. We know this, but we rarely count this sort of work in the same ways we do, say, publishing a monograph. Even when we accept the idea that we write books for the same basic reason that we mentor young scholars in our area — to have a positive impact on future generations of researchers in our field — we haven’t yet found the best ways to measure the impact of both of these activities. Both contribute to intellectual leadership, though. And as one’s career develops, the decision to focus more on one than the other can make a big difference not only in others’ success but in one’s own success as well.

Learning to see one’s choices as they influence progress toward intellectual leadership is a key part of being successful over the course of an academic career. To that end, there are two key takeaways I ask folks to consider when I talk about charting a pathway to intellectual leadership:

  1. Being on a pathway to intellectual leadership means that we conceive of our careers as a journey. There are ways to chart our progress, there are goals, and there are things we can do to get us where we want to go. Goals appear on the pathway as horizons. Often, in academic careers, these are events: moments when we are recognized by others as having a positive impact or making a significant contribution. Milestones are markers along the way that tell us where we are on the journey. The vast majority of milestones one passes are established by others who precede us on the path. Moments like getting a degree, getting tenure, publishing a first article are milestones. Some of these, you will note, may have been horizon events at one time too. Others pass by with less public fanfare, though they may be personally just as significant.
  2. The choices we make are stepping stones. Stepping stones are different than milestones. They are the things an individual can control. The concrete moves one can choose to make to move forward on the path. These, and not milestones, are the things to put on a “to do” list. Submitting a grant proposal is a stepping stone. Getting a grant funded is a milestone. One you can definitely make happen. Another is out of your hands, though when it happens it signals that you have moved ahead on your path to intellectual leadership.

No matter where we find ourselves on the path, we can always define a horizon, locate ourselves with milestones, and define next steps to move toward where we want to go. At times, the horizon is not so distant. The terrain may be hilly or there might be fog that means each step we take defines what seems to be a new horizon. At other times, the path ahead is clear as far as we can see. Both of these can be overwhelming. At those moments, it is easy to obsess about the milestones, the signs we have to show that others have been this way, that the path surely leads somewhere. But it is important not to let reaching the milestones become the goal. When we do that, we confuse ends with means. We count CV lines instead of thinking about why our work matters to others out in the world.


Be Like an Oak Tree: A #LessonFromPlants

Earlier this year, I had the good fortune to meet a remarkable MSU colleague, Dr. Beronda Montgomery. She is an MSU Foundation Professor, and a distinguished scientist who studies plant biology in the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology and the Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics. I met Beronda in conjunction with another role she has at MSU in the Academic Advancement Network, a unit in the Provost’s office dedicated to supporting faculty career development. She leads an effort with the AAN to enhance faculty mentoring. And what fascinated me (and many others) is the way she braids this aspect of her research with the work she does in plant biology. Put simply, she considers how we can learn to develop as humans from examining the ways plants develop. It is a wonderful way to explore the implications of the knowledge we build in disciplinary spaces and how that knowledge might travel and enrich other areas of work we do in the academy. She calls these insights “lessons from plants.”

Both Chris Long & I have been inspired by Dr. Montgomery’s effort to learn from plants. This summer, we’ve both learned something from trees. Chris wrote about a tree outside Linton Hall, the administrative home of the College of Arts & Letters on the MSU Campus, that was struck by lightning. The majestic specimen pre-dates the campus. After the storm, it appeared we had lost the tree. But then this Spring, it started growing again. Its resilience is remarkable and something we can all learn from.

My own installment of #LessonsFromPlants happened just a few days ago. And it came at the perfect time. We had dinner guests and, as one of them was an MSU horticulture grad and an arborist, I couldn’t resist taking him on a short tour of my yard to learn more about the trees we have there. One is a mighty oak, at least 200 years old by my expert guest’s estimation, that has a long spiral crack. I have watched over the last several years as the crack in the tree created opportunities for many other creatures to exploit it. The inside of the tree at the base has been hollowed out, leaving a deep red apron of sawdust that extends several feet from the trunk. Carpenter ants have eaten away the wood on the inside. Squirrels have nested in the cavity too, and one year, they filled it up with walnut shells. I used a flashlight to see the pile of hulls was nearly three feet high inside.

Woundwood around the spiral crack of the oak tree

When the wind blows, you can see the crack expand and contract. There is a subtle groan that goes along with this too, a sound that our other oak tree nearby does not make. I have wondered whether, because of the damage to the tree, I ought to have it taken down. Its branches extend out over the road in front of the house, and I don’t want it to be a danger to anyone. Before I could ask my guest about this, he began to tell me what he saw. What I didn’t expect is that he would also be giving me a guiding metaphor for how to understand the next phase of my career.

“Look at the woundwood here,” he said, pointing to a thick ring of new growth around the crack. I had noticed that the crack was getting narrower, or changing shape, but it hadn’t occurred to me that the tree was healing itself this way. But that wasn’t the most important lesson. The more important thing was what my arborist friend told me next.

“This is the lifecycle of an oak tree. For the first part of its life, it relies on its ecosystem to put down roots and grow. But for hundreds of years after that, it provides for many other species. That’s what it is here to do. It’s a home for these ants and squirrels and birds. It feeds them with acorns and wood and bark. It provides shelter. Its leaves and this (sawdust) enrich the soil and rebalance the pH. It’s amazing.”

Amazing, indeed. The oak tree is a keystone species of its ecosystem. Its life is defined by the way it provides opportunities for a rich variety of other plants and animals. Even its wounds are a resource for others. That one — wow, I’m going to have to think a lot about the level of altruism it takes to internalize that particular lesson from plants — but just doing the math is pretty amazing. An oak like the one in my yard might live four hundred years. It grows and matures enough to start making acorns after twenty years. So the vast majority of its life is spent providing for others. What we recognize, almost on instinct, with awe when we see the broad spread of its limbs is a capacity to give and give as the true measure of its value.

So what is my lesson? I see two. As a scholar, I see the value in being like an oak tree. This isn’t merely an altruistic impulse. Providing for others makes the way for my own recognition, after all. So it need not be about sacrificing my success. This is not a Giving Tree situation.

Accepting the idea of being like an oak tree as my pathway to intellectual leadership will mean, though, that my choices will be different than they were at an earlier stage of my career. As I take on new projects, I will look to those that create opportunity for others to advance their careers as much as I size up the benefits for my own. I will try to be capacious and measure my success by the success of those around me.

The other lesson I take from the oak tree is one that resonates with my new role in the Dean’s office. I won’t be cutting down that tree anytime soon. I see that it is, in mid-career at 200 years old, doing precisely what it should be doing. I will look to ways I can identify and encourage my senior colleagues even as I recognize their roles in nurturing our intellectual ecosystem in CAL. One way we can do that in CAL is to get better at counting the work of helping other people as important, even vital to what we do. Another way is to recognize when their wisdom and experience can provide opportunity for others, without waiting until they become vulnerable or exploited to learn what riches they have inside.