Life in the Swamp: Float, Don’t Flail

P1020499Community-engaged scholarship is mucky business. It takes a high tolerance for—and even delight in—ambiguity, lack of clear paths, no solid ground, simultaneous decay and incubation, annoyingly loud squawking ducks, tail-thwacking beavers stirring the mud, and skunk cabbage. Oh yes, the putrid smell of skunk cabbage. Skunk cabbage reminds me of the people who seriously pluck my nerves, who irritate me, yet somehow must serve a useful purpose (for instance, as food for bears coming out of hibernation in the case of skunk cabbage).

Community-engaged scholarship is not for the faint of heart or the fastidious or the unprepared. I’ve learned and re-learned these lessons many times over my thirty-plus years of such work. There always comes a point of crisis, with the inevitable interpersonal and inter-agency power plays coming to a head. In these times, (which I am in the midst of currently with the particularly complicated Doorway Project) when my default mode is to fight back against the stealthy, submerged weeds of the swampland territory of this work.

But then I remember my Red Cross swimming safety instruction as a teenager. When swimming in swampy rivers and the underwater fingers of submerged plants begin to grasp your limbs, threatening to pull you under—instead of fighting them (thus tightening their hold), you are instructed to relax and float. The threatening underwater plants will then release you to the surface where you can gently scull your way back to the safety of shore. Float, don’t flail.

It is useful to have wetlands and swampy areas near at hand to visit and remember these sorts of lessons for life and for community work. (Not to mention, of course, the myriad positive environmental aspects of wetlands.)  I’m fortunate to have Yesler Creek in my (literal) backyard and Yesler Swamp (where the creek empties into Lake Washington) only a mile from my home. Yesler Swamp has undergone a restoration process (ongoing) spearheaded by a campus-community group (Friends of Yesler Swamp and University of Washington Botanic Gardens) and is now a refuge for wildlife—and for humans who need a respite from the bustle and hassle and skunk smells of academic and city life.

Swamps are terrific metaphors for community-engaged scholarship, especially scholarship that deals with wicked problems such as homelessness. I return time and time again to the wise words of Donald Schon, author of The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (Basic Books, 1984) among many other important works:

….The research university is an institution built around a particular view of knowledge, as the following dilemma helps to make clear:

The dilemma of rigor or relevance.  In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp. On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the use of research-based theory and technique. In the swampy lowlands, problems are messy and confusing and incapable of technical solution.  The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern.  The practitioner is confronted with a choice. Shall he remain on the high ground where he can solve relatively unimportant problems according to his standards of rigor, or shall he descend to the swamp of important problems where he cannot be rigorous in any way he knows how to describe.

Nearly all professional practitioners experience a version of the dilemma of rigor or relevance, and they respond to it in one of several ways. Some of them choose the swampy lowland, deliberately immersing themselves in confusing but critically important situations. When they are asked to describe their methods of inquiry, they speak of experience, trial and error, intuition, or muddling through. When teachers, social workers, or planners operate in this vein, they tend to be afflicted with a nagging sense of inferiority in relation to those who present themselves as models of technical rigor.  When physicists or engineers do so, they tend to be troubled by the discrepancy between the technical rigor of the “hard” zones of their practice and the apparent sloppiness of the “soft” ones.

People tend to feel the dilemma  of rigor or relevance with particular intensity when they reach the age of about 45. At this point, they ask themselves, “Am I going to continue to do the thing I was trained for, on which I base my claims to technical rigor and academic respectability? Or am I going to work on the problems — ill formed, vague, and messy — that I have discovered to be real around here?”  And depending on how people make this choice, their lives unfold differently. (Donald Schon, “Knowing-in-action: The new scholarship requires a new epistemology,” 1995, Change, November/December, 27-34.)

Here is to all of the swamplands and swamp workers of the world. Let’s keep mucking around together and remember: when things get particularly tough—float, don’t flail.

P1020490

2 thoughts on “Life in the Swamp: Float, Don’t Flail

  1. Dear Ms. Ensign,

    I happened on your blog through a reference to “Catching Homelessness”; thank you for the courage and determination to use your talent for expressing complex and difficult concepts to an extremely important area. I’m a member of a neighborhood council in Los Angeles, where the tide of homelessness is still on the rise, and the measures taken, while well-intentioned and occasionally effective in helping homeless individuals, don’t come near matching the scale of the situation.

    As a software developer, I’ve learned the difference between “ordinary” problems and “wicked problems”; I’m learning it again, with greater intensity, as a member of the neighborhood council. I’ve also learned the difference between “problem” and “predicament”; the latter being something that can’t be “solved”, but must be adapted to.

    On a different note: I’m not sure why (maybe your love of swamplands), but I think you might enjoy Sharon Blackie’s book “If Women Rose Rooted”, and her blog “The Art of Enchantment” (https://theartofenchantment.net/).

    Hang in there, and “illegitimi non carborundum”.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s