Monthly Archives: August 2014

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.

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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?