My Year Away. And Back.

The Joys of Getting Back into Academic Life after a Year-Long Sabbatical.


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The Path Between the Seas Is More Than a Book About the Panama Canal

As I’ve shared in several previous postings, I’ve been focusing my pleasure reading on presidential biographies. Sometimes, however, circumstances require a detour. On Sunday, I am heading to the Panama Canal. Talk about a detour! So, of course, I needed to read up on the building process. All scholars agree that the final word on the canal is David McCullough’s The Path Between the Seas (ISBN #0-7432-6213-1). With 600+ pages, it presents every detail (and I mean every detail) in constructing the canal. As a bonus, it features my current three favorite presidents—Teddy Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson—so it seemed like a no-brainer of a book to read during my sabbatical.

Visiting the canal has been on my bucket list, which is a bit weird since I actually know very little about the canal. That is, until I read Path. Whoa. This book covers everything including “political skullduggery” (thanks New York Times review!), swashbuckling French iconoclasts (Ferdinand de Lesseps, the original canal champ), explanations of economic fortunes (who knew General Electric was basically put on the map because of the canal?)—and Roosevelt, Taft and Wilson to boot.

What people might not realize about this book, however, is that it’s also an excellent primer for learning about university administration. Path boasts vision, but it also celebrates the day-to-day drudgery of getting into the mud, digging all day, returning in the morning to the same mud, and starting all over. Day after day. Year after year. When some of the visionaries gave up on the canal, it was left to the worker bees to take that vision and complete the task.

I’m all for vision. But vision without structure (or the tools and resources to complete the vision) makes a lot of people grumpy. To his dying day de Lesseps preached “We can build the canal.” But they couldn’t. The vision was plumb wrong. The Panama Canal could be built. But not the way de Lesseps’ envisioned it. And he was too stubborn to change. A lot of French citizens’ life savings were swept away with de Lesseps’ vision.

Universities are certainly not immune to skilled bloviators. I’ve worked at four and have dealt with at least one in every school. I continue to marvel at faculty who are willing to believe the hot air. The French should have known better. But many wanted to believe the get rich quick dream. (You’d think a decade into the project with no discernible progress would make people hesitant to continue to invest, but that was not the case.)

Professors are smart people. They, too, should know better. Perhaps we should all swallow a big dose of realism. Let’s face reality. Making progress is hard. You can’t just create a vision and then wave a magic wand. You have to dig deep and get dirty. It’s not all that glamorous. For example, I’m not sure we’d have a Panama Canal without John Stevens, the American engineer who tried to figure out what the French were trying to do, who organized the masses, who found financial support for the doctors who figured out how to control yellow fever, who spent his days at the dig sites making sure everyone was doing the work. John Stevens didn’t start the canal. And he didn’t finish it. Sometimes his name is not even associated with helping to build it—although it could not have been built without him.

During My Year Away, I’ll admit I’ve written some rather cranky posts about administration. Sure, it’s probably a bit of sour grapes. But this post is really meant to be a paean to the hard and important work that administrators do—especially the associate deans, directors and chairs who work in the background. If you find yourself in one of the non-glamorous administrative jobs know that your work is important. Realize that if you’re doing your job well, there’s a chance that no one will notice. But it’s still important. I’m thankful for the behind-the-scenes administrators who stand at the ready to get dirty and do the tough work. One shovelful at a time.

I will be thinking about y’all when I lean over the ship’s railing at the Gatun Locks and marvel at how those behemoth gates still work. I’ll remember that it took an awful lot of hard work from lots of people. That if it weren’t for those willing to work even when the end was nowhere in sight, we’d never have a Panama Canal. That it took both vision and simply slogging it out.   And I’ll tip my hat to the sloggers.