What You Don’t Know

Forewarned is forearmed–or so the saying goes.  And so when I took up my new position I had extensive meetings with the outgoing director.  She walked me through the major responsibilities of the job, highlighted the most pressing current issues and concerns, and discussed the staff that I was about to be working with daily.

Truth be told, it was the last item that interested me the most.  I had previously supervised two people and would now be supervising four.  These two staff people were without controversy or trouble.  I was nervous about working with people I had never worked with before and apprehensive about working with an even (modestly) larger staff.  So I welcomed any insights and advice she had to offer about these four people.

I quickly regretted my eagerness and wondered if sometimes it wasn’t better to not know things.  Let me explain.

My colleague told me many things about the staff I was about to supervise.  Problems with tardiness and a reluctance to do certain things.  Long-standing interpersonal friction between staff members.  And so I steeled myself–ready to stamp out bad behavior and unwilling to brook personality conflicts within the office.

And then a funny thing happened.  I saw little or no evidence of the problems she had described.  There were a few tiny bumps in the road, but overall, the office ran smoothly.  At first I credited a kind of honeymoon period, with the staff trying to be on their best behavior.  But now, ten weeks in, I think it’s something else.

I think my ten-week experience is the result of a difference in management styles.  I respect my predecessor in this position, but she managed the staff differently and I think some of her management style contributed to the problems and conflict.  More importantly for me, is that I discovered I had a management style that worked (more on this in a future post).  Having only ever managed one office before, I felt largely untested.  But it turns out that clear expectations, communicated with a light touch have gone a long way to minimizing trouble.  Early on, I did stumble.  But this was because I was expecting the worst from the staff, based on my predecessor’s comments.  Hence, the title of this blog post.  I might have been better off not knowing these things about the staff.

But in truth I’m not actually saying that I would have done things differently.  Part of my orientation to my new position needed to include information about the staff.  However, the lessons I have learned are to consider the source and to have faith in my own management skills.  And I’m not saying there won’t be problems in the future and that my leadership won’t be tested.  But going forward I will manage the information I receive about my staff carefully, withholding judgement and resisting the temptation to make too many assumptions, and worse yet, decisions, based on that information.

Change Happens

I have written frequently here about change.  But I have typically been on the receiving end.  I changed jobs just a couple of months ago.  I weathered and helped manage a huge curricular change–not of my own making–while I was department chair.  But now I find myself in charge of leading a change.  And as with all change, there is grumbling (is there ever NOT grumbling about change?) and there are pockets of discontent.  Change happens, but how?  And what should you do when you have a leading role to play in making it happen?

Savage Chickens - Nickels and Dimes

Without wishing to give too much away, the change is this: converting a program into a free-standing college.  And I am the interim (more on the benefits and perils of being an interim in a future post) director of the program, tasked with writing a proposal that articulates this change and argues for its approval.  The proposal will then move through the various administrative and shared governance channels.  My goal?  Get the proposal approved within four months (which, as many of you know, would be fast by the standards of most university bureaucracies).

So the time seemed ripe for a few observations and lessons learned along the way:

1.  Know the players.  Who are your allies?  Who are the people (committee chairs, administrators, etc) who will play a role in the approval process?  Who are your possible adversaries?  You know, the ones who object to every idea, just because.  Or who might have good reason or cause to interpret the proposal as a problem or threat?  Mapping the terrain of participants early on will help you to build alliances and anticipate bumps in the road.

2.  Meetings before the meetings.  Before I even started work on the proposal, I gathered together a group of faculty leaders for a preliminary conversation.  My basic message: “Tell me what the big questions and issues are so that I can be proactive in my approach.”  You can’t really do this until you’ve done #1.

3.  Follow Up and Through:  Vigilantly follow the path of the proposal.  Don’t allow it to languish in committee.  Not sure where the proposal is in the process?  Don’t wait for someone to tell you, call the committee chair/dean/whoever and find out.  It’s unlikely that others are as invested in the efficient and timely approval of your proposal as you are.  You need to be proactive.

4.  Elevator speech: I learned this one the hard way.  You need a succinct and pithy statement of what you are proposing and why it should be approved.  In other words, something that you could communicate in a 30-second ride on an elevator with someone.  I say I learned this the hard way because sometimes the only way to hone this speech is to be tested.  I got grilled at a committee meeting about my proposal.  Somewhere in the course of responding to their questions, I hit upon my elevator speech.  Now I have it for the next round of questions.

5.  Keep your cool.  You love your proposal.  You don’t know why anyone would object to its eloquent beauty and persuasive objectives.  But they will.  Don’t respond with defensiveness.  Launch into that elevator speech.  A moderate and reasonable tone, which can still be assertive and forceful, is remarkably disarming when others are being combative.

So far, my proposal has cleared two hurdles.  Next week it’s on to a new one.  I’ll keep you posted.

Speaking the Language

All of us in higher ed have heard some version of this exchange (oversimplified to make my point):

Trustee and/or College President: This university needs more efficiency and accountability.  We need to run it like a business.

Faculty: WHAT????   The university isn’t a business.  You can’t run it like a business!

Or maybe we can.  But it depends upon the model.  And being able to speak a certain kind of language.

In a recent article in The New Yorker James Surowiecki highlighted and explained “Benefit Corporations.”  “B Corporations are for-profit companies that pledge to achieve social goals as well as business ones.”  And they can be held accountable by their shareholders not just for financial responsibilities, but also for failing to carry out their social mission.

And the evidence suggests that these companies, despite not tying themselves to an ethic that is driven almost exclusively by profit and shareholder value, are doing well (Patagonia, Etsy, Warby Parker, and others count among the high-profile B Corps), attract and retain talented workers, and enjoy a certain appeal with some consumers (think about the success of various fair-trade movement products).

So, what if we re-imagined the university as a B Corporation?  I admit that the symmetry of this model is not seamless.  Most universities are not for-profit ventures, I really don’t want to cast students as shareholders (much less, customers!).  But I do think this mental exercise has rhetorical and strategic value.

What if the next time an administrator or trustee talked about running the university like a business, you fired back with this example and held that individual accountable for meeting the social vision of your institution?  What if the next time you are a participant at one of those interminable strategic planning meetings, you counter the relentless rhetoric of business by framing your push back in the language of a B Corp?  Simply saying that we shouldn’t run the university as a business is not going to acquire traction with those wedded to this model.  But perhaps meeting these folks on their own terms and playing a bit of their rhetorical game will be effective.  We do this all the time as faculty, right?  We play to our audience.  I don’t teach the Protestant Reformation the same way in my survey class as I might in an upper level course for majors.  A presentation to a community group on the women’s suffrage movement is going to be different from the same talk delivered to an audience of scholars.

Whether it’s the example of B Corporations or something else, my larger point here is that in the seemingly perennial debate about how to “run” (itself a strange metaphor) college and universities, we might sometimes need to embrace a different worldview and speak that language.

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.

File:Weeds in Waterloo, Ontario.jpg

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 glass 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.