Stanley Fish

This week marks the one-year anniversary of my taking up the position of dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago. One year ago today, I heaved myself out of a sickbed and drove through the snowbound streets of Chicago by a route that I did not so much know as intuit, toward a university I dimly remembered having seen when I’d gone there to interview six months before. My wife and I and her mother and our cat and dog had arrived in late December in Chicago after a two-day drive from Chapel Hill, N.C.; we were sustained, in a fashion (my wife was too ill really to be sustained by anything), by the radio broadcast of the impeachment hearings, which turned out to be incredibly fascinating, despite the predictability, banality, and more than occasional mendacity of what we were hearing. We pulled into town and were greeted by zero-degree weather, but not by the movers, who were meandering through some part of America with everything we owned, including a British-racing-green Jaguar, on their truck.

We holed up in a Marriott Residence Inn that turned out to be remarkably pleasant, and I began to wish that the movers would never show up, that we would live in the inn forever and have free breakfasts and, in the twilight-zone existence of a stay in a hotel, forever defer confronting the consequences of deciding to move from wonderful circumstances in North Carolina to God-knows-what in Chicago, a city neither of us knew and both of us suspected we would dislike. Alas, the movers finally came and deposited boxes and a distressing collection of broken lamps, chairs, tables, pianos into an apartment unlike anything we had ever experienced–floor-to-ceiling glass all around; high-Modernist white walls, pillars, and indirect lighting; and views so sublime that they induced vertigo and fear of disappearing into the horizon’s void. My wife got better, I got sick, and then she got sick again, and we became so feeble that home care and around-the-clock dog-walkers were called in as I spiraled down the rabbit-hole of depression, absolutely convinced that this was the worst decision I had ever made and that we should simply get into the car and drive to some other place, it didn’t seem to matter where.

I seriously suggested this, but my wife said I was crazy, and she was right; for when I finally got to the university, more than a week after the semester had started, I walked immediately, within seconds, into a meeting of a committee talking about LAS 100, a one-credit pass/fail course required of all freshmen, instituted three years previously under disputed circumstances, revered by some, reviled by others. I was immediately reassured by the familiarity of the discussion, although every detail of it was unknown to me; and strangely, today, one year later, I am also reassured by the fact that the discussion and the issue are still with us, and that all the pro and con arguments I heard in 1999 are still being made with equal vigor and irresolution on this day in the year 2000. I am reassured because the persistence of this and other problems confirms my view that the work of administration, indeed of life, is maintenance; and that maintenance is just that, the tending to things rather than the removal of them from the proverbial “to do” list. What you have to know about administration, I have decided, is that, first, the “to do” list is always as full as it ever was, no matter how many things have been done, and, second, that the items on the “to do” list are always the same, even when the names they bear seem to have changed. If you like closure, resolution, and the satisfaction of having neatened up your room once and for all, then administration is not the game for you. But if you actually find pleasure in the prospect of never really being done with anything, and the certainty that your best-laid plans will always be vulnerable to the self-deceptions of fellow academics who tell you, quite sincerely, that they are acting on principle, then get yourself to the pages of the Chronicle of Higher Education and look for a job like this one.