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From the Past President - Dunking Chairs and Brussel Sprouts

Thursday, April 27, 2017   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Kathi Bailey
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When I agreed to be nominated for the position of AAAL’s Second Vice President, I had some general idea of what I was getting into. I had read the Bylaws and the Standing Rules very carefully, and I had talked to the Nominating Committee. I’d had some previous experience with association leadership, so I felt generally well prepared to take on the position of AAAL’s 2nd VP. In fact, I looked forward to learning more about AAAL, meeting new people, facing new challenges, and possibly even making some new friends.

The part that came as a surprise to me (okay, let’s be honest – as a bit of a shock) was the intensity of being the AAAL 1st VP the following year. The 1st VP is the person in charge of planning and running the annual conference. While the experience proved to be rewarding in the long run, there were several bumps in the road along the way. For instance, I was stunned by the number of (in my opinion) unprofessional responses to proposal rejections. I was also very surprised by how many people requested special treatment of some kind, often in spite of publically stated AAAL policies. Eventually, it all worked out, although some people were unhappy with the results.

So in April of 2016, having survived the intense year and a half leading up to the 2016 AAAL conference in Orlando, I looked ahead to (which is not the same as “looking forward to”) the precedential year. Would it be as demanding? Would as many people be upset with me? Would as many unexpected and serious issues arise?

The image that occurred to me was that of the drowning tests, sometimes using the “dunking chair” in witchcraft trials of the 1700’s and 1800’s. Apparently if a woman was convicted of practicing witchcraft, she would either be weighted down with stones and thrown into a pond or river, or strapped to a chair attached to long poles and suspended over a pond. While tied to the chair, she would be dunked and held under water for several minutes. When the chair was finally raised, the woman’s fate was determined: If she had drowned, it meant she was innocent of being a witch. If she had survived the lengthy dunking, however, it meant she had used evil magic to stay alive and was therefore a witch. At that point, she would be condemned to be burned at the stake.

I wondered: If being the AAAL 1st VP could be equated to trial by drowning in the dunking chair, did it follow that being the AAAL President would be like being burned alive? I hoped not!!

In truth, when I look back on the year as 1st VP, being responsible for the 2016 AAAL Conference was an incredibly rewarding experience, one I will treasure for the rest of my life. And subsequently, serving as AAAL President was equally rewarding: challenging, yes, and demanding in terms of the time commitment. But my colleagues on the Executive Committee and our wonderful professional staff (Sarah Berke, Jessica Atkinson, Ellen Shea, and Michele Doyle) formed a terrific team – collegial and efficient. Together we faced some interesting challenges, but we also made a great deal of progress, in terms of the development of AAAL.

So I’ve changed my grim witchcraft analogy to a much more positive visual metaphor. But to share that new image, I have to tell you a story.

In 1984, I had my first opportunity to work for the US State Department as an Academic Specialist. The job included living in dormitories at Adam Mickiewicz. University in Poznan, Poland, with college seniors for three weeks. Those students were about to undertake their practicum assignments to prepare for careers as English teachers.

At the time, Poland was still under Soviet domination. Consumer goods and food products were scarce. Lunch in the cafeteria was a dismal affair, and the students seemed miserable. The professors weren’t happy either, but we chose to be polite and thankful for the food. The first meal consisted of watery mashed potatoes, salty mashed carrots, and salty cabbage that had been boiled down to the consistency of sludge. The portions were slapped onto our plates by hostile kitchen staff who yelled at the students, but merely scowled at the professors. Still, food is food and I didn’t want to seem ungrateful, so I took my tray and proceeded in the cafeteria line to the beverage area. However, I had to draw the line at drinking the beverage that was served: a cup of liquid and what looked like two disintegrating brussel sprouts, apparently rotting in a cup of water. The sight of them almost made me gag. But after eating the sticky, salty meal, I was parched. I really wanted a drink of something. Cautiously, I sipped the liquid, distracted by the floating sherds of brussel sprouts.

But wait! Not brussel sprouts. Plums. Golden green summer plums, in a compote that was both tangy and sweet. It was incredibly refreshing. What an amazing surprise!

Since that summer in Poland, I have often thought about that delightful surprise, especially at times when something I expected to be awful has turned out to be wonderful.

And that’s how I feel about having been AAAL President. Yes, there were challenges, particularly in terms of time management, and there were some difficult decisions to be made. But the camaraderie and professionalism of the Executive Committee and our wonderful staff members turned every interaction into a developmental experience, and for that series of opportunities, I am very grateful. I look forward to serving my final year on the Executive Committee as the Immediate Past President of AAAL.

PS: By the way, there are now many new AAAL initiatives under way that will need volunteer support. If you are interested in serving AAAL on a committee or task force, please be sure to indicate that interest the next time you renew your membership.

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