In the Weeds

Hello, midterm!  Most of us, I suspect, are hitting that midpoint of the academic term.  We’re grading midterm exams and papers and juggling an increasingly busy calendar of committee meetings and advising appointments.  Maybe, just maybe, you’ve managed to carve out some time for research, or at least finishing the edits on that article that was due back to the journal two weeks ago.  And then there’s that book you need to read for the review you’re supposed to write.  Wait, is that your phone ringing?  The dean’s office needs a report on how your faculty interface with community groups.

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Among restaurant staffs, this is called being “in the weeds.”  You’re overwhelmed, you can’t keep up.  If you’re waitstaff, your finished orders are backing up and need to get out to the tables.  If you’re on the line in the kitchen, you’ve gotten behind on the orders and yet the tickets keep piling up.

The good news for those of us in the weeds in academe is that no one is going to go hungry if we’re this overwhelmed.  That said, however, we still need to find a way to manage that crushing feeling that we’ll never get caught up.  So a few thoughts:

* There is no such thing as “caught up.”  Caught up is a lot like the illusory concept of balance (I’ve written about this before here).  So cut yourself a break and acknowledge that you will not get caught up this weekend, next week, or over the holiday break.  It is the nature of academic work that there is always something else to do: book to read, report to write, papers to grade, etc.  Instead, prioritize and figure out what must get done, which deadlines can be bent, and how many of your expectations for performance are self-imposed, and perhaps not iron-clad.

* Things always seem worse at the end of the day.  At this point of midterm overwhelmed-ness the end of the day is not the best time to assess your workload or to take your emotional temperature.

* Make a list.  Sometimes the trick is to impose order–even if only superficially–on the chaos.  Lists help empty the swirling thoughts in your brain onto paper.  They also may help in setting priorities.

* Take a break.  Seriously.  Although time may feel like the one thing you don’t have, staying mired in your to-do list may only make you feel more overwhelmed.  Take a quick walk, drink a class of water, breathe (it is amazing how much stress constricts our breath–try taking some deep breaths when you’re in the weeds and you’ll see what I mean).  Step away and clear your head.

They’re not called the weeds for nothing.  You’ll notice that the phrase isn’t “in the field of beautiful flowers.”  But try these and any other strategies you have–and you have others please share them in the comments!–and maybe being in the weeds will be at least a little less overwhelming.

Well Done

No, this won’t be a culinary tutorial in overcooking things.  Instead it’s a post inspired by a quotation from Benjamin Franklin that I recently came across” Well done is better than well said.”  Putting aside my abiding love of eloquence, I take his point.  And it’s another one of those deceptively simple lessons that would serve administrators well.

In this case, I’ll adapt it to a particular set of circumstances and the issue of follow through.  For several years I attended an annual meeting of leaders in my college.  The afternoon included a brainstorming session to generate ideas about how to improve the college’s stature on campus, recruit majors, and other worthy endeavors.  But nothing ever came of these sessions.  Great ideas were generated but then vanished into the well-meaning ether of good intentions.  By the second or third time I’d watched this happen, I’d become completely disenchanted, and as a consequence, disengaged.  What good were any good plans we might identify if no one would ever try to implement them?

Clearly, this was a flawed process.  But aside from its immediate flaws, it unwittingly fostered apathy and disgruntlement.  So the long-term effects were probably more pernicious than the short-term ones.

So how could this process have been better?  In other words, how do you facilitate follow through?

To begin with, write it down.  Keep track of what gets said.  Be sure that someone is the designated note-taker and record-keeper.  In other words there need to be minutes of what transpired.  Taking minutes seem too old-fashioned?  Another possibility is to write the notes on big sheets of butcher paper or a blackboard and then take photos of them.

Once the group has finished brainstorming or generating ideas, look them back over and determine who is going to follow up on which idea.  In my experience, everyone is at least pretty good at coming up with clever ideas.  Where the rubber hits the road is in implementation.  So get people to volunteer or assign them tasks.  And circulate the minutes or photos of the work as soon as possible after the meeting.  Keep everyone engaged in the task at hand.

But wait, you’re not quite done yet.  You also need to set deadlines or some expectation of reporting back.  How long does everyone have to follow through on their assigned idea/task?  Will there be another meeting to discuss progress (if so, you’ve got everyone already assembled, set the date now while everyone’s in the room!).  Will there be sub-groups that need to set their own timeline?  Unless there’s some accountability you risk another encounter with the well-meaning ether of good intentions.

While some may grumble while you make these assignments and set these timetables, the payoff of promoting follow through and producing results will foster faith in your leadership and contribute to greater engagement in the long run.

Write It Down

Really, this blog post could begin and end with the title.  Write it down.  This, however, is a lesson that I learned the hard way recently, so allow me to say a few more words.

The issue in question was a sensitive conversation with a staff member about expectations.  I assumed I was clear.  But it has recently become apparent that we have very different interpretations of the conversation.

Sometimes we don’t write things down because we’re too busy.  Or too rushed.  And there is definitely a lesson here about slowing down and being deliberate and focused.  But sometimes, I think we don’t write things down because we don’t think we need to.  But I don’t mean those cases where we think we’re sure we’ll remember later.  I’ll say it baldly: my memory is awful.  If the reason to write something down is that so I’ll remember it, then I do.

No, what I have in mind here is something slightly different.  I’m thinking of a friendly, collegial conversation that goes well.  But it’s still a conversation that involves issues that touch on workload, expectations, classroom performance or similarly sensitive issues.  Yet you finish the conversation and you think to yourself “Gee, that went well.  We talked about some touchy stuff, but I think we came to a constructive understanding.”  That kind of good will and pleasant exchange doesn’t inspire record-keeping.   I also think we (and by this I mean myself) might resist the temptation to write things down out of sense of not wanting to seem mean or suspicious or litigious.  We want to expect the best of people, and don’t think it’s necessary.

But you should do it just the same.

As I discovered recently, even a friendly conversation can result in different interpretations.  Sometimes deceit or malice are involved in the later controversy, but more often than not, I think it’s honest disagreement.  Sometimes we hear what we want to hear.  Sometimes we don’t express ourselves well.  Sometimes we’re reluctant to ask questions or seek clarification.

So, if I could rewrite (pun intended) the past, what might I have done differently to avoid the scenario I described above?  There are several options.  I could have written a memo that communicated these expectations and then invited the faculty member to meet to discuss it.  Or I could have written a summary of our conversation afterwards and shared it with him.  Or perhaps, depending upon the individual and the circumstances, I could have done both.

The lesson here is deceptively simple: write it down.

Turn and Face the Strange Changes

I’ve written a fair bit about change.  How to manage unwelcome changes at your institution.  How to have conversations about making constructive changes.  The change as one school year rolls over into the next.

But this time change is personal.  I have a new position.  I have stepped down as chair of my department and assumed, at the invitation of my provost, an interim position as Director of a program at my university.  While it’s a change I was happy to embrace, it has not been easy.  First, I really loved being chair.  The job had its fair share of headaches, but I worked with great colleagues.  I was comfortable in my role and mapping new projects for the future.  Second, I am climbing a steep learning curve.  The program I am leading is mostly new to me.  I have a new (to me) staff and a lot to learn about the responsibilities and rhythms of the work this unit does.  Finally, I have, for the first time since I entered the profession almost twenty years ago, stepped away from my disciplinary affiliation.  This is a little disorienting.  Oh, and did I mention that this all happened in the second week of the semester after classes had already started?  Color me overwhelmed.

Despite this change, I’m still caught somewhere in the ranks of academic middle management, so I will keep blogging about the experience.  Shifting to a new role and learning a new job should provide plenty of fodder for reflection.  And what does it mean to be an “interim” anyway?  Navigating those waters will undoubtedly provide some lessons.  So stay tuned as I take up this new job and continue to ponder the challenges of academic management and leadership.

Starting Over, Back to Basics

‘Tis the season–back to school!  Even through I worked through the summer, August is that time of year when I fall under the happy spell of the promise of a new year and a fresh start.  The classroom, the office, the lab all seem shinier in the fall than they do at the beginning of a spring term. I recently got a fresh start with something else.  After being sidelined by a stress fracture, I started running again this week.  It is a humbling, sometimes frustrating, experience to return to something I love without the stamina and (relative) speed that I had twelve weeks ago when I had to stop.  But, starting over has also given me the chance to think about and fine tune various parts of my running regimen: my form, speedwork, what kind of an event I want to train for (a half-marathon, perhaps?).  In other words, I’m trying to take advantage of being back at square one.  How might that lesson translate into beginning a new academic year?  What can you do differently or fine tune in this season of fresh starts?

1.  Mapping the campus.  If you’re a department chair or other middle management administrator, chances are you’ve been around the block a few times and you know the lay of the land.  Or do you?  I find that the org chart and personnel at my university are constantly changing.  Suddenly, the office of International Programs no longer reports to Admissions, but instead reports to the Provost; this will change how we handle study abroad.  There’s a new person in charge of graduation applications; this changes my contact for questions about graduation.  Not to mention offices that have moved.  I had no idea Counseling Services was in a different building; now I can refer students to the right location.  You get the idea.

2.  Mapping your day.  After five years of being in the office most days of the week for 6-8 hours each day I have discovered that my powers of concentration evaporate between 1 and 3pm.  So this is NOT a good time for me to do anything detail oriented or to read for class.  It is a good time to finish relatively mindless bits of paperwork, to sort through the ever-increasing number of piles on my desk, and to answer simple email inquiries.  This also means that the hours between 9 and 1 ARE good for reading and writing documents that require focus.  There are some things I can’t change about my workdays: my teaching schedule, regularly scheduled meetings, but I can take the times that are my own and use them as productively as possible.

3.  Breaking bad habits.  As a runner, I am really bad about stretching after a workout.  As a chair, I am really bad about organizing my electronic files.  I use Dropbox and tend to just “throw” files in there, willy-nilly, reasoning that I will go back later and sort them into folders, etc.  This strategy has not served me well.  Time to change it.  Also time to stretch after a run.

4.  Mixing it up.  Look around your workspace, wherever it is.  Could it be organized more effectively?  Would moving a chair or a bookshelf or hanging a bulletin board somewhere else contribute to better work flow?  Or what about changing things just for the sake of change, just to make it look different as a way of signifying a fresh start?  Hang that poster on a different wall, put down a throw rug, buy yourself a new coffee mug.  Do something with your workspace that says this is the beginning of a new academic year.

One Is the Loneliest Number

Earlier this year The Blue Review at Boise State University published a study about the work habits of what it playfully dubbed “Homo academicus.”  The published article that outlined the findings was called “The Long, Lonely Job of Homo academicus.”  “Long” referred to what all academics will recognize as the schedule that never ends–grading on the weekends, writing at night, etc.  The “lonely” attribution, however, was less obvious.

The study found that academics spent the majority of their time (57%) working alone.  Some of this is probably a function of when and where they do their work–in other words, it’s linked to the “long.”  Working nights and weekends means working outside the office, which is more likely to mean working alone.  Some of it, however, I would argue, is a choice.  But I’m not sure it’s always a good one.

Faculty are an unusually autonomous work force.  We talk about “my research,” “my students,” and “my classes.”  In many fields (like mine), single-authored work is the norm.  So I’m not sure “lonely” is the right word.  I think we choose and even treasure our isolation.

But at what cost?  I want to propose two alternatives to working alone.  The first is a modest proposal: what if we created opportunities to work in the same space on similar projects?  I’m thinking here of the model some universities have employed of Dissertation Boot Camps.  They create a structured schedule and space with minimal distractions.  Snacks and writing consultants are often offered as well.  But a key component is “peer motivation and support” (see this description of one offered at Stanford).  I know that many of us have employed writing groups in and since graduate school to move our projects along.  I’m wondering, however, is this model might be brought to bear on other facets of academic life.  What about a syllabus-writing boot camp?  Or grant proposal boot camp?  I think both would benefit from “peer motivation and support.”  But I also like to imagine the conversations that would take place.  Conversations about what types of assignments we use.  What our policy for late assignments is.  How we structure the pace of work during the semester.  How many books we assign and why.

My second proposal follows from the first, but is less modest, yet critical, I believe, to the future of higher education.  Two books I’ve read this summer, Jose Bowen’s Teaching Naked and Robert Zemsky’s Checklist for Change, both argue persuasively that the future of higher education is dependent upon thinking differently about the curriculum and teaching.  We need to break out of a “my classes” mindset and work across the university to design new curricular models and new approaches to pedagogy.  In different ways and to different ends, each contends that we–whether defined as individual faculty or departments–have become too isolated and defensive.  But the old models and structures for higher education need re-evaluation in light of current pressures about accountability and value.  Those conversations are doomed to fail, however, unless we agree to spend less time being “lonely” and more time being collaborative.

Don’t misunderstand.  There will always be a time and a place for the solitary work of the teacher and scholar.  I treasure those times and have often used them to productive ends.  But I also think I need to be more self-reflective about when that model is appropriate and when it isn’t.  Where are the places and moments when we would benefit from thinking less about “my” and more about “our” students, curriculum, and pedagogy?


Before It’s Too Late

Goodbye, July.  You were a terrific month.  I didn’t travel, but for me, that’s kind of a break.  The weather was spectacular: warm days and cool nights.  My garden flourished.  I took a few 3-day weekends and read books–some for work, others not.  I cleaned out my front closet.  I drank rosé.

But now your friend, August, lurks around the corner.  August means syllabi.  And returning faculty.  And retreats.  And panicked students.  I always think I’m ready for August and then suddenly it’s Labor Day weekend and I’m already behind.

But not this year!  This year I will not let August get the better of me.  If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I value planning and lists.  So before it’s August 23 and you’re wondering what happened to the first three weeks of the month, take stock and get ready for the semester/term/quarter and academic year that lies in front of you.  Divide and conquer: what will the teaching and service demands on your time be?  Is there anything you really want to accomplish in one of your courses this time?  What’s something tangible you can do to make your thankless work on that committee a bit (or maybe even a lot) more tolerable?  Go back to my post on balance and think about those anticipated and unexpected moments when you might be able to squeeze in some research time.  Prepare for those by making a list NOW of the smaller tasks that you could do when that hour becomes available.

In other words, get ready.  “But,” you say, “I’m organized.  I want summer to last a bit longer.  I don’t want to start making lists yet.”  I can almost guarantee, however, that time will accelerate.  That writing your syllabi will take longer than you thought it would.  That when you get home from that department retreat on August 14 the last thing you will want to do is think about the Committee of Thankless Work.  So do yourself a favor.  Make even just one list now.  Before your mind is racing.  Before your plate is full (or fuller than it already is).  August is a cruel month.  You think it should still be summer, but the pace will quicken and suddenly it will be the first day of classes.

So while your head is still clear look at the expanse of the upcoming term and year and set some goals–big or small.  If they’re big, break them into their smaller components.  And then arm yourself with a couple of lists, plans, strategies–however you want to organize and name them.  And then reward yourself by sitting outside with a cool drink and telling August that you’re ready.


No, I don’t mean Dungeons and Dragons.  And I also don’t mean some horrible team-building exercise where I play the role of the exasperated faculty member and you play the role of the department chair trying to help me.

What I do mean is a better-informed sense of what goes on in the daily work life of people on my campus and your campus.  What is it like to be the dean?  What is it like to be an adviser?  What is it like to work in student life?  What it is like to be a faculty member who teaches a large survey course?  What, dare I ask it, is it like to be a student at your institution?

In this age of demands for greater accountability and demonstrations of the value of a college education, we have all dug deep into our campus trenches, adopting a defensive posture.  Our constant refrain, regardless of which part of the university we speak from, is that “they” don’t understand.  Don’t understand what it’s like to teach large classes, balance the university budget, tutor poorly prepared students, etc, etc.  We would do well to remember that our enterprise is a common one: at the end of the day, when we are acting on our best intentions, we all want what is best for our students.

But universities are complex institutions.  As faculty our rhetoric rightly highlights the educational mission, and hence the centrality of our role in shaping curriculum and teaching classes.  We  are quick to rail against administrators who don’t get it, who don’t understand what happens in our classrooms, who are out of touch with our students.  Both our rhetoric and our railing may be appropriate, but at the same time, I wonder about two things.

First, to what extent is the educational mission of the university dependent upon those other pieces–and thus the work of non-faculty–falling into place?  About five years ago I had an administrative position that required me to implement a new general education curriculum.  This provided the opportunity to interact and work with a broad cross-section of the university.  I emerged from that experience with a much deeper appreciation of the work that advisers, admissions officers, student life leaders, and others do.  I realized the extent to which what happened in the classrooms of faculty who taught in the general education program was dependent upon the training and hard work of these individuals (It also gave me a ready supply of allies across the campus when I need questions answered and help with solving problems).  Prepared, enthusiastic, well-advised students, who get the occasional chance to blow off steam at events sponsored by student life are the students I want in my classroom.  That doesn’t happen without the dedication of the admissions officer, the adviser, and the student life specialist.

And as a corollary to this, what could we, as faculty, gain from role playing or putting ourselves in the shoes of our campus partners?  Could we better understand what it’s like to advise stressed students about their financial aid?  Or the difficulties of creating a vibrant campus life on a mostly commuter campus?  Or promoting good study habits amidst noisy dorm life?  You get the idea.

By the same token, what if we turned tables on this proposition and also encouraged our partners to sit in on a class or invited them to a department meeting where we discussed the common challenges of helping students with issues of time management?

I’m also going to propose that we move role playing up the food chain of the university.  When was the last time your dean or provost sat in on a class?  Or attended a student life event?  But by the same token, when was the last time that you looked at the university’s budget spreadsheet and sought to understand the how your state (if you’re at a public institution) subsidizes (or doesn’t subsidize) higher education and the pressures that creates?  Or appreciated the shifting demography of graduating high school seniors and the challenges that creates for admissions officers?

My point is simple: we’re in this together.  Rather than cry that no one understands the work we do, we should encourage others to see us in action and then return the favor for our campus partners.


The Myth of Balance

Balance.  Elusive and, frankly, mythical.  Consider the following from writer Elizabeth Gilbert, posting on her Facebook page, where she speaks out against what she calls the “subtle tyranny” of the concept of balance: “To say that someone has found the secret to a balanced life is to suggest that they have solved life, and that they now float through their days in a constant state of grace and ease, never suffering stress, ambivalence, confusion, exhaustion, anger, fear, or regret. Which is a wonderful description of nobody, ever.”

But if you’re like me, I suspect you continue to hunt for balance.  For those of us in academe, it’s that mythical balance among teaching, research, and service (never mind, trying to carve out some time for hobbies and exercise!).  Let me propose a different way of framing the problem: rather than searching for the elusive state of balance, instead be on the lookout for openings and opportunities.  One of the advantages of our profession is that it’s never the same day twice.  A meeting may get canceled, a student may miss an advising appointment, and suddenly an hour opens up.  And at least  a couple of times a year a new term/quarter/semester begins and we have the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start again.  All of this requires recognizing that there will rarely–if ever–be an uninterrupted block of several hours when you can Work on the Book or Plan the New Course or Finish the Curriculum Report.  You will need to capitalize on the unexpected hour or anticipate when there will be some brief grading lulls during the semester.

This is what I mean by anticipating or seizing openings and opportunities.  Rather than beat yourself up because you didn’t do something related to your research today, see if there’s an hour or two in the coming week when you could write 250 words or enter some material into your database.  Taking this approach will also necessitate breaking the work into smaller pieces.  You may know what the finished product should be (The Book, The Course, The Report), but work your way back from that endpoint and then break that big project into its constituent parts (I should add that I’ve found this to be a good strategy for battling procrastination, too.  Once a project seems more manageable, I’m more likely to work on it).  That way, when you find that spare hour you have a clear sense of the tasks at hand, and you’re ready to dig in and make some progress.

Balance in all its illusory forms–work-life (a false dichotomy anyway), teaching-research-service–should not be the goal.  Its holy grail-ness will just keep frustrating us and making us feel inadequate.  In the place of balance, we can put planning and preparedness that will allow us to see those pockets of time that lurk within our existing schedules or appear unexpectedly, and make the most of them.

The Fine Art of Delegating

Delegating.  Put it at the top of the list of things I do badly.  After five years of being chair I know this about myself and still haven’t figured out a way to do it better.  So in this period of slowed-down summer timetables, I offer the following reflections on why academic chairs need to delegate and some strategies for how to do it.

The most obvious reason for delegating is to reduce or at least redistribute your workload.  Even though we all know that we can’t do it all, we consistently behave otherwise.  Call it micromanaging, call it control issues, but whatever you do, call an end to it.  I doubt any of us need more to do.

Another reason to delegate is that your colleagues need to be both cognizant of and invested in the work of the department.  If you do everything, magically and behind the scenes, you risk creating a faculty culture of disengagement where faculty don’t know, for example, the work that goes into identifying and recruiting students for the departmental honor society.  Or the logistics of organizing an event with a visiting speaker.  And what happens when you’re not chair anymore?  There will be a profound lack of institutional knowledge and memory that will make your successor’s job that much more difficult.  Further, as we know from our best classroom practices, the more students participate, the more they are invested in their education.  So, too, with faculty.  Delegating will help to create a participatory and engaged department culture.

Delegating also signals your confidence in your colleagues.  Managing everything yourself may make others think that you don’t trust them with certain responsibilities.  Even if that’s not the case, you don’t want to mistakenly foster that impression.

So, there are clearly benefits to delegating.  But doing it should be purposeful and directed.

To begin with, delegate strategically.  Simply going into a faculty meeting and asking for volunteers to work on various tasks or projects may not always be the best strategy.  You may not get the best people for the job.  Instead, try to match people well–play to the strengths and passions of your faculty.  It’s no good assigning someone with poor organizational skills to a project that will involve managing complicated spreadsheets.  Someone with a talent for chatting and conversation is the one you want to send to the open house for freshmen who are choosing a major.  Such maneuvering can even be a way to get otherwise reluctant faculty to take on projects.  If Dr. X has consistently expressed concerns about the declining number of majors then maybe Dr. X could work on designing an outreach program.

Next, build in some accountability.  Delegating makes me nervous because it means releasing control of a task or project.  I do much better when I release it with expectations like “Report back to me by such and a such a time,” or “Bring me a draft of the document in a week,” or “Please be prepared to make a report at the next faculty meeting.  You get the idea.

Finally, be prepared for delegating to fail sometimes.  Even the most strategic and deliberate delegation with clearly articulated expectations may flop if there is a failure of responsibility and follow through.  And the buck does stop with you, so you will need to pick up the pieces.  Try to figure out what didn’t work in that particular instance and apply it to future decisions.  In all, the benefits of letting go will outweigh those instances where it doesn’t work.