Working in In-Between Spaces

I started my second season coaching swimming last week.

Well, it’s not my second season ever. I’ve been coaching swimming off and on since I was a teenager. But my second season where I have my own group on a local team, going to meets, building swimmers.

Building swimmers.

I’m really looking forward to this season because I have a much clearer picture of who my kids are, where my group fits within the larger ecosystem of the team, and what I can expect from them, and what I can expect from myself.

My group is a transitional group. They are legal in all four strokes, but their strokes are still rough around the edges. They are still fairly young, and often involved in a number of other sports and activities. My job, as I understand it, is to build a good swimming foundation that they can then take into the higher levels where they will really work to get faster. Or that they can hang on to if they chose to do another sport or activity.

I want them to maintain a love of the water, a love of swimming, even if they decide that they love doing something else more. I want them to develop good habits, improve, and feel welcome.

It’s a level that I love to coach, that I’m really good at coaching. But it’s also a strange space to coach; I’m not the one who teaches them how to swim (thus holding an important space), and as soon as they get a little faster, they move up, and so I’m not the coach they’ll get their first cuts with. I’ll be the one they probably won’t remember, at least not at first.

I’m the gentle nag, the technician (hold the streamline, don’t breathe off the walls, high elbows, think core out – not limbs in, forward not up, etc, etc, etc). I’m more mentally demanding than physically demanding, fixing their strokes, their technique, their habits, their muscle control. It’s certainly not comfortable in a lot of ways for them, taxing their minds and bodies in new and different ways. But I’m preparing them for what comes next – longer yardage, faster intervals, more practices.

We celebrate the small and often unnoticed: finally sneaking your breathe on freestyle, getting the timing right in breaststroke, understanding the difference between a flip and a summersault, finally getting the start to look like a dive, not getting disqualified in fly, figuring out the deep catch in backstroke. They are all loose limbs and undiscovered muscles. How many ways can I explain the mechanics of what the stroke is supposed to look and feel like so they can put it together for themselves?

I sent an email to the parents explaining this approach to them, hoping they understand the importance of building a solid foundation, rather than practices filled with long, hard yardage on fast intervals. They will get faster, because they will be more efficient and stronger. And yes, the times will drop even more dramatically when they move up, but that’s because they will have the base on which to build.

My role is to carry them through, to get them ready. To nurture their nascent love of swimming. To keep them from burning out too soon. To keep their bodies from falling apart too fast. To understand what it is to be a good teammate. To watch them move on.

I am in charge of an in-between space.

And I’m ok with this.

This role plays to my strengths – surprisingly, a technician who focuses on the details, and not-so-suprisingly, a cheerleader. I am passionate about swimming and I love working with kids at this age and level. I’m working at owning this status, instead of apologizing for it to those who are coaching different levels than I do, and thus coach differently than I do.

So why is it so difficult for me to transfer this lesson to my professional identity?

I am currently researching affect, intimacy, and care work in relation to faculty development. You end up seeing a lot of words like “betwix and between” and “margins” and “margial” in article titles, as well as larger debates on making faculty development into a “discipline” or a more formal professional vocation.

Among other things.

Obviously I’m not the only one who feel uncomfortable in the place that we, as faculty developers, hold within the larger organization of our universities and higher education. We write essay after essay on…celebrating? justifying? retconning? our place. We are clearly, as a professional, wrestless in our role, uneasily fitting into a structure that doesn’t have a clear place for us in the process.

When I think of my comfort with my role as a coach and my discomfort with my role as a faculty developer in relation to one another, one important distinction becomes clear: as a coach, I have a clear role within a clearly and transparently articulated process and progression. It’s an in-between place but I know exactly what I am in between. And the swimmers know exactly what they are between as well.

This same discomfort existed for me in a different form when I was exclusively teaching courses in the two course Freshman Writing series. While I understood the progression of the courses (transition from high school to college writing, reading, critical thinking), the students struggled with how it fit in their own academic progression. It was a required course, but often felt to the students like an add-on. It was also frustrating, once the course was over, to never be able to build any sort of long-term relationship with the students. The process I was a part of was in a lot of ways abstract because you would never see the students again, never see how progress was carried forward.

We are in a lot of ways, as faculty developers and instructional technologists (and others), an add-on within the system of higher education. We are a “service” (shudder) in much the same ways English and Math departments are being reffered to now as “service” departments, servicing the gen-ed (and often remedial) needs of the institution. But while students are “forced” to go through the in-between spaces of First-Year Composition, faculty can choose to inhabit the in-between space of faculty development.

Or not.

Anyone who knows me knows that I am all about agency when it comes to learning. And the choice should always exist to just say no and choose not to partake. However, when the majority of people do in fact choose to say no and not partake, because they don’t see it as integral to their development (another word that I’m finding increasingly problematic), or because it isn’t rewarded or valued, or because that in-between space is just as uncomfortable for them as it is for us, but in very different ways…

You can start to see why faculty developers spend so much time making their case to, well, everyone about their relevance and importance within the loosely understood system of academia, as well as making the case to ourselves to come to terms with the status quo. It all seems incredibly…defeatest in a way to me.

I don’t know what I am advocating for instead. I also bristle against the impetus to “discipline” faculty development or justify our role via (social) scientific and quantitative research. It’s a battle we we won’t win. But the trappings of an academic discipline are seductive, and it’s a world that many of us come from.

We are indeed in an in-between place as faculty developers, but like my role as an in-between coach, I want to use that space to get us somewhere else, somewhere better. I see the growth of faculty development as a symptom of a larger shift in higher education. I think we all need to spend more time in these in-between spaces, struggling, working, uncomfortable, experimenting, evolving.

I want a central, essential space where it’s ok to be uncomfortable, where it’s necessary even. I want to shift the conversation around what we are stuck between, rather than a rock and a hard place (the faculty and the admin), to who we were moving into who we aspire to be. The affect can only be the beginning.

And this ultimately is what my problem with much faculty development work that appropriates postcolonial metaphors for explaining, conceptualizing, justifying our roles. The purpose of these postcolonial theorist/activists was never to maintain the status quo – it was to use the margins to change the world. To create models to inspire and empower those in the margins to make, create, fight, thrive.

If we are to take a lesson from postcolonial theories in understanding our roles (and I have some real issues with it, beyond this short outburst), then we’re taking the exact wrong ones. In what I’ve read, we’re not building or building to anything right now. We’re wallowing.

We have to do better than that. I refuse to hide in the cracks of higher education, reshaping myself to fit in the narrowness. Let us not fill the cracks, let us break them open.