The push in higher education for faculty and departments to think more “entrepreneurially” about their course offerings, their programs, and the experiences they provide their students gets a fair amount of pushback in the humanities. I remember a department chair telling me, circa 2008, that, yes, there might be money to be found in partnerships with foreign companies, but that we, as a department in the humanities, needed “to be careful with whom we climb in bed.”
His objection to pursuing corporate sponsorship for departmental events or prizes came from that place of collective cynicism in the academy that ascribes morally pure motives to researchers in the ivory tower and capitalistic, exploitative motives to (all) other players in the capitalist economy. I disagree with his commonly held assumption that academia operates somehow separately from the economy as a whole–an assumption oft implied in phrases like “the real world” to talk about non-academic contexts, for example–because it is obvious that both the political and economic climate of “the real world” filter into academic policy and procedure, if only in reactive response.
Back to “entrepreneurial,” though. I’m going to offer a different interpretation of the directive to be entrepreneurial in your career or your course offerings. Now that I’m almost a year into building a sole proprietorship business (also known as being a “solopreneur”), I see really clearly the parallels between being a professor and being a small business owner.
Setting your own agenda and goals–how big do you want your career to be? Journals vs. monographs? Grants and partnerships or solo archival work?
Project Management–whether it’s a course syllabus or a monograph, even if the final goal involves adhering to expectations or orders from your institution, how you get there is up to you. There is probably something to be said here about “with great freedom comes great responsibility,” but I’ll spare you.
Promotion–many universities have a tool that helps them manage and promote faculty expertise profiles to media outlets. You can choose whether or not to opt into that system, based on how you want to disseminate your scholarship. Additionally, the world of LinkedIn, Twitter, FaceBook, Tumbler, and blogging is open to you as a platform for you to talk about your research, your interests, your experiences with writing, publishing, teaching, etc. Far from being a dirty word, promotion on social media is, for many, a way to create and nurture an international community of scholars in their subfield. Find the hashtag of your people!
A lot of the faculty members I know think of themselves much like freelancers. This may represent a major deviation from some kind of academic good ole days, but I think there is a potential flip side to this attitude toward work. Thinking of your career as your product and creation, rather than as something the university or college gives you, frees you up to take charge of and shape your career in ways that serve you, while also serving the institution. A profile on Twitter, a massive following on LinkedIn, or a popular blog all serve as a way to increase your own profile, while building a community around you of people interested in your work and ideas.
As a business owner, it’s clear to me that I need a community of people interested in my work and ideas, because those people are potential clients. As a faculty member, though, your community is potential collaborators, readers, admirers, conference planners, book and journal editors, and competing departments and institutions. Your reach outside of your department and institution represents part of your value proposition to your employer. At the same time, it can offer you an interesting–and energizing–platform for idea generation and sharing.