In praise of mischief-makers

A surprising piece in Inside HigherEd this week praises the work of mischief-makers. The authors make a case to other deans and directors to consider hiring people who are willing to shake things up and take risks. During this time of crisis and tumultuous change, we may be tempted to stick with what seems safe and known. But in fact the opposite is what is most needed now, they argue.

Their understanding of constructive mischief-making relies upon a certain set of virtues. The whole essay is an exercise in thinking about these interrelated qualities — “having a bent for mischief isn’t sufficient on its own,” they warn. Higher education needs more people who possess the traits of “creative playfulness” and an “impulse to nudge against tradition”; who naturally embody “a mix of empathy and impatience”; and who have a sense of humour and “an ability to connect to others from the heart.”

We have seen mischief makers doggedly nudge others and their community toward a goal, their impatience of a type that the late preacher Peter Gomes described as follows: “Impatience is not the opposite of waiting; it is the opposite of self-satisfaction.” 

From “A Case for mischief makers,” Inside Higher Ed, January 14, 2021.

As a devoted Mac user, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the now classic advert, “Here’s to the Crazy Ones,” part of Apple’s Think Different campaign from 1997:

Of course it matters what role one plays within an institution. The VP of Finance needs to possess a “predilection towards caution.” They also note that mischief-makers tend to work unreasonable hours and not take care of themselves: “They can benefit from communities of support — including others who model work-life balance and recovery practices, as well as those who act as confidential advisors.”

{For more on the importance of self-care within academe, see Courtney Dorroll’s recent posts}.

While this essay is written for administrators and people who live in the world of higher education, there is much to their discussion that could be used to prompt good conversation with students.

For example, using the Apple ad as a starting point, who else would they add to the list of “crazy ones” who are worthy of our admiration. Going deeper, what other qualities help temper the risk-taking or make the creative playfulness productive? Get students to tease out the set of attendant virtues that make a difference. How do the needed characteristics connect to each other?

If someone mentions an example that raises questions or is a “borderline case” for some reason, get them to think through what makes the case different from the ones where everyone readily agrees that the mischief-maker is an exemplar. Is it about the context? A lack of other virtues? Mischief that has gone awry or too far?

Do they know anyone who is a mischief-maker? Can they imagine themselves in the role? Why, or why not?

Hannah Schell was a professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Monmouth College in Illinois from 2001-2018. She is the author of “Commitment and Community: The Virtue of Loyalty and Vocational Discernment” in At this Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David S. Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015). Currently the Online Community Coordinator and the editor of this blog, she is also a campus consultant for NetVUE. Click here to see other blog posts by Hannah.

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