Narrative of Projects and Organizational Work

The academy, like any collective of mature organizations, depends upon an established diet of agreed-upon forms of productivity to circulate its life blood of data, information, and knowledge. For teaching faculty, the usual forms are articles and monographs for scholarship and lectures and handouts for teaching, at least insofar as daily life is concerned. For the annual cycle of evaluation or for those times when you wish to move from one place in the eco-system to another, one prepares or updates a vita and a narrative of research and/or teaching. There is little room within such dietary constraints to reflect upon and to explain other forms of work that get done within the academy, sometimes by academics like myself.

Truth be known, I like to write. But I also like to make things — and, honestly, writing is a form of making. It might be arguable that having a great- grandfather who made himself whole again after two sugar house gears crushed his arm by constructing his own neuromuscular stimulator out of spare parts from radios (in the 1930s when transistors were tubes) genetically predisposed me to see things from this perspective.* If not nature, then nurture: I put myself through school by working first at a television advertising agency and later working construction when the Louisiana economy cratered in the mid 1980s. In graduate school, I worked in computer labs helping faculty and other students and later collaborated with an instructor to design what might have been one of the first courses based on the notion of desktop publishing in the late 80s. When I needed some time off from my doctoral studies in folklore, I took a job with the Executive Education unit of Indiana University’s Graduate School of Business.

It was during my years in management development that I both gleaned a better understanding of organizational life and began to appreciate the work it took to make things happen. As many entrepreneurs can attest, sometimes coming up with the brilliant idea is the easy part. Making it happen, that’s the hard part.

My very first assignment as an assistant director of Executive Education was to take the nascent International Partnership for Executive Development and build it into a truly global program both in terms of content as well as

* A fuller account of my great-grandfather’s many machines can be found in “My Father’s Sprinklers” available at A copy of my “Narrative of Research and Teaching” is also available at /essays/narrative-of-research- teaching/.

constituency. IPED was one of several consortia Exec Ed managed and that meant that the success of the program depended as much on the mix of partnering corporations as it did the pedagogical content involved. We had some committed partners in AT&T, GM, Lucent, and Monsanto among others, but they were all clearly American companies and we needed to find a way to reach out to non-American businesses. We got a lucky break when one of the program’s early participants was transferred to China and offered to host some part of the program there. Overnight, the marginally-true descriptor international, which was based on the program taking place one week in Indiana and one week in France — at INSEAD’s CEDEP, was ripe for expansion to global. Now a week a piece in Indiana, France, and China, we found we could attract Europeans and we began to make some headway into the Asian market. I was hired, in part, because of my training in folklore studies and my understanding of cultural dynamics — and because of my openness to the business world — and so I found myself more involved in the pedagogical program than I first imagined. Nevertheless, the real success lay in how well the two partnering organizations, Exec Ed and CEDEP, got along and how well the faculty of both worked to make the program contiguous and inevitable for each set of participants.

In addition to the consortia Exec Ed offered and its various public programs, we also possessed a reasonably large portfolio of custom programs where either faculty individually or in groups worked closely with an organization on a particular problem or opportunity the latter was facing. The linkage was profitable across a number of dimensions: organizations got exactly the help they needed and they got it privately; faculty got access to real world cases on which they could do research, and publish, as well as build into their teaching; Exec Ed got to play the role of matchmaker, and thus increase our visibility both in the business community as well as among faculty. Our increased visibility gave us not only more resources but access to more markets. The custom program with which I was most involved, and for which I have the fondest memories, was the one focused on Indianapolis’ own Allison Engine.

With the rise of regional jets in the 1990s and airlines looking to consolidate maintenance costs, Rolls-Royce went looking for a small turbojet engine manufacturer to acquire in order to be able to offer a complete line up of engines, from large to small. It found Allison Engine, which had been a part of GM since WW2 but had split off in the 1980s. Allison possessed a line-up of well-engineered products, a number of which were mission-critical to Defense contracts. Rolls Royce faced two problems in incorporating Allison into its operations: the incredible independence, sometimes leading to dysfunction of Allison’s engineering culture and the decade of scrimping Allison had undergone while independent. Allison’s workflows were based more in the

1970s than the 1990s. Rolls-Royce placed a huge contract with EDS, which had itself recently acquired a management consulting division by buying A. T. Kearney, but, recognizing that not everything could be parachuted in, also contracted with a local team, that would be IU’s Exec Ed, to work with Kearney to give Allison’s engineer executives the management training they needed to be part of a global business.

I spent days researching the regional jet and turbine industries and their markets and days more communicating what I learned with faculty and even with Allison’s management. We then worked together to create a series of programs that would respect the expertise they possessed and use that as a basis for the expertise they needed to acquire. With each iteration of the program, we reached more managers and we also built respect based on our respect for them. Soon, we had managers coming to us with suggestions for what to add, what to tweak, what to forget. To this day, I feel just a bit of pride when I see a Rolls-Royce decal on the cowling of a regional jet: I know some of the folks behind it.

I quit Exec Ed to return to my studies and write my dissertation. Upon completing my dissertation, I took a job at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. In my first few years, I focused on research and teaching, but it was not long before I itched to roll up my sleeves again and collaborate with a group of people to make something happen. With that in mind I joined the Center for Louisiana Studies as Associate Director in 2003, where I was faced with the tasks of collection development, community outreach, consulting, and the daily complexities of running a facility with all those tasks. (One of those complexities is, of course, not only communicating the perspectives and goals of the humanities but also finding ways to finance such ventures: at least in Louisiana, funding is always scarce and funding for the humanities — even in comparison to the arts which at least have an established array of benefactors — is scarcest of all.)

One of my first contributions was the development of a framework, the Louisiana Folk Masters, which uses the popular lens of the biography to get at larger and more complex topics like culture and history.† Conceived in early 2003, we released our first CD in Fall 2004, to critical acclaim. The CD series were produced through a cooperative arrangement with Louisiana Crossroads, whereby the Archives maintained full creative control and all profits from sales were dedicated to the cost of producing the next CD. We were able to release CDs with industry-standard audio quality thanks to a grant I wrote to the Grammy Foundation, which made it clear that our goal was increasing the accessibility of materials in the Archives. The Grammy Foundation enabled us

† The original prospectus is archived at

to hire a local musician with technological savvy, as well as the linguistic and cultural competence to understand the contents of the recordings and to have her trained by no less an accomplished audio engineer than Parker Dinkins in what were then the emergent standards for audio digitization and preservation. Within six months, thanks to a lot of legwork by a lot of people, we had recouped our costs in producing the CD, which meant — since we had raised the funds for the initial CD through donations, a benefit concert, and other miscellaneous endeavors — that we now had the money to produce the second CD. (Along the way, we created our own product line and helped Louisiana Crossroads go from being a performance series to also being a record label. We also pioneered, as I understand it, a contract in the music industry that was readable by mortal human beings.)

The first CD focused on the legendary Cajun fiddler Varise Conner, and the second on women’s home music. Conner died without ever being commercially recorded, but his “Lake Arthur Stomp” is renown in south Louisiana, revealing that culture is indeed shaped by individuals. The women recorded by various folklorists over the years had kept a variety of older forms alive that would have largely been forgotten without their gentle singing while they ironed, cooked, and tended to children.

In the wake of these successes, I was approached by Louisiana Public Broadcasting with the idea of extending the LFM frame to a series of profiles within LPB’s weekly news magazine program. We began production in early 2006 and segments on a Creole filé maker and a Cajun Mardi Gras mask maker aired in 2007 and 2008. The agreement with LPB is that I have some editorial control over the contents of the broadcast profiles and that the Archives will get copies of all the footage shot, expanding the archeological record for Louisiana’s folk cultures. (It really is possible for everyone to profit from such ventures, and the exposure of working communications professionals to academic ideals and processes — and the change I get to expose students to professionals at work — is not one to be missed as an important part of the project.)

The second contribution I would like to note here is one that arose in the summer of 2005, when a collection of individuals involved in tourism in the nearby parish of Acadia approached the Center with regards to helping them improve what they were doing.‡ A number of ideas were considered, but they eventually gravitated to the notion of developing a visiguide — an interactive electronic device rather like a portable kiosk — for the parish. It’s an interesting project because today’s media platforms can successfully support

‡ A parish in Louisiana is the same as a county in other states; it is an administrative district with certain executive and funding powers.

text, photos, illustrations, audio, and video in a rich, but sensible fashion. The opportunity I saw, and argued for, was the development of a portfolio of information, images, etc. that could feed not only visiguides but also more conventional materials — such as brochures, driving maps, fixed-place kiosks, historical markers — as well as newer mediated materials — such as downloadable audio files (aka podcasts), CDs and CD-ROMs, DVDs (for use at home as well as in the car), and the emerging “rich GPS” platforms — which are now merging with smart phones. I based the idea on a complaint made by our local tourism director who, during one conversation, had pointed to a shelf of 16mm films, VHS tapes, and other pieces that had now in one way or another become obsolete or unusable. Because the pieces were delivered pre- assembled, there was little he could do to re-use anything in them, let alone use any of the excess material that always gets left behind on the figurative cutting-room floor. What we proposed was one input with multiple outputs. We would oversee the input and guarantee that the material had a high- quality humanities content. We would, in the process, be able to have some influence in the marketing of the area’s folk cultures. We would also, as part of the deal, be able to keep copies of all the original research and documentation produced for the project. Once laid out, our proposal was accepted and we begin work in Spring 2006. The Lafayette Convention and Visitors Center funded the first, trial run of the process and then later the Louisiana Board of Supervisors awarded a UL Serves grant to fund a continuation of the project.

In the wake of the hurricanes and the financial crisis that ensued for all state agencies, it became apparent that my hybrid position as full-time member of an academic department and part-time associate director putting in 40 hours a week at a research center, as well as now the father of a one year old girl, were simply too much for me to try to juggle, and I returned to my home department to focus on my research and teaching and to have more time at home parenting.

But in the spring of 2008 I was asked by the director of our university’s Humanities Resource Center (HRC), Leslie Schilling, to plan an event that would bring together our humanities faculties with the goal of increasing cross-fertilization and the kind of interdisciplinarity which our the focus of humanities at UL-Lafayette. Schilling was, in particular, concerned with doing more to support junior faculty who were interested in information technologies. The University of Louisiana is a public university currently categorized as “research intensive” according to the new Carnegie guidelines. It is not the flagship university for the state, and so it is not at the top of the list when it comes to funding. If you add up all these factors – public university, in the south, lower funding tier – and adjust for a moment when

the hurricanes of 2005 were, and are, playing havoc with the state’s economy and thus its budget, you can begin to glimpse her anxiety in making sure that younger faculty received a modicum of support. Her goal was to work in a targeted, resource-intensive fashion to develop the best possible solution.

A few weeks later I came across a reference to Project Bamboo in the Chronicle of Higher Education blog of Stan Katz. It seemed to describe a process occurring at a national-international level similar to the one Schilling had proposed. One month later I found myself sitting in the mixed company of humanists, technologists, and librarians. And a lot of them were just like me: people who wanted serious intellectual challenges, wanted to make profound contributions to the world, and liked making things.

My activity within Project Bamboo is somewhat well documented: I was invited to give one of the 4/6 presentations at Workshop 1; I drafted a framework for conceptualizing the linkages between scholarship and IT services in Workshop 3; I argued for the importance of cyberinfrastructure as a way to remain content providers on the emergent national, digital landscape in Workshop 4; and I was asked to contribute my analysis of the scholarly narratives as an appendix to the Mellon grant proposal in Workshop 5.

Locally we used the fact that UL-Lafayette is the only university in the Deep South to be in Bamboo collaborative as a foundation for a grant we pursued with the state’s Board of Regents for a Digital Humanities Lab. We were among the top 5 proposals and received a large share of the amount we requested. We are now using the fact of the lab as a way to seek funding, from the NEH among others, for faculty development. We have terrific equipment with production-quality software packages like Final Cut Pro and Adobe Creative Suite. What we need are users to begin to experience the possibilities of the digital realm who will, in turn, begin to make demands upon our university’s infrastructure: our technologists are interested in helping us, but money for their help must come from the University’s administration. We need to build a constituency that will lobby for services.

One step at a time, I know. My own development has been a steady , if also at times unplanned, progression from working from the outside with organizations seeking to change in response to a quickly shifting and competitive landscape, to working within an organization to find new ways to do research and new ways to connect with a public which really is interested in what we do inside the academy, to trying to build an organization of sorts that can explore a shifting and competitive landscape in order to find new ways to do research and connect with the public.

It’s been an interesting ride so far. I can’t wait to see what happens next.