Monthly Archives: January 2015

Here and Now

For many of us today is a holiday.  And yes, I am using it to run errands, get caught up on laundry, and go for a run.  But I am also trying to use it to pause and reflect as a way of honoring the occasion.

Ours is a world that desperately needs more justice and peace, and less division and hatred.  But these are overwhelming tasks.  I talk a good talk, but often feel like I fail to deliver on anything truly transformational.  But what if I boil it down to the essentials of my chosen vocation, higher education, and my daily work?  It is easy amidst the various crises that plague our profession to lose sight of our purpose.  And don’t get me wrong, the resolution of these crises–the exploitation of contingent faculty and the rising costs of higher education, for example–are at the core of ensuring that this world has more justice and peace, and less division and hatred.  So let’s keep doing that important work, but in the meantime, how do our daily tasks and interactions intersect with these larger aims?

We are here because students have come to us for an education.  That education encompasses everything both in and beyond the classroom while they move across our campuses–both the brick and mortar ones and the virtual ones.  And I know that we are all doing more with less and that class sizes have grown and advising loads have doubled and tripled, and that they upper administration is bloated and doesn’t get it.  But despite all of this, can we carve out moments and gestures that might make a difference?

Not long ago I had to sign about 200 form letters that congratulated students on a significant accomplishment.  In addition to signing my name, I wrote a simple “yay!” on each.  In total it maybe added 5 minutes to the tasks of signing all those letters.  One of the recipients of that letter recently thanked me for doing this.  At the time, I wasn’t sure it would make a difference, but it did for this student.  And that’s the tricky part: you never know what the impact of gestures like that might be.  And so it’s easy–and trust me, I’ve been there and done that–to just not bother.  I often lack the fortitude and the patience to take the time to do the things I’m prescribing here.

And it’s not just the nice stuff.  We can probably all recount stories of the professor or advisor that held us accountable in uncomfortable, but necessary, ways.  So this is not an argument for babying or pandering or being a pushover.  Our students’ education is certainly what we teach them in the classroom, but it is also the accumulation of all those other interactions–the conversation in the classroom door about why they were absent last week, the response to the frantic email that comes the day before a big exam, the advice about what classes to take next semester and why.  All of those scenarios might require stern words and consequences.  But the way we deliver that message–the words, the tone–will matter.

So I will continue to fight the good fight for better pay, lower tuition, smaller classes, and more tenure-track lines.  But I will also strive to remember that one part of achieving those things is  built on the accretion of these smaller, daily moments and how I handle them.

Betwixt and Between

Aside from liking the word “betwixt,” I’ve been wanting to write for some time about the experience of being appointed as an “interim” to a position.  It is an odd place to be.  You are betwixt and between.  Neither fish nor fowl.  I am currently in my second interim position.  The first was a few years ago. I knew at the time of the appointment that it wasn’t a position that I did not intend to apply for the permanent position.

This time it’s different.  The provost appointed me to be interim director of a program earlier this fall.  And I love this job.  And I want to apply for the permanent position.  So, what are some guidelines for and potential pitfalls of being an interim?

First, you need to make the decision I described above.  Is this a job you want to keep?  Will you be applying for the permanent position?  If the answer is “yes,” then here are some things to ponder:

* Your job just became an audition.  Even if no one year knows that you intend to be an applicant, this is the time to be particularly attentive to your interactions with colleagues, your tone in emails, your attendance at events.  These little things will matter once you become an acknowledged candidate and your colleagues are weighing your suitability for the position.

* You already have the job, so clever projects that you initiate and accomplishments that you achieve reflect well on you.  It is tempting, while an interim, to fall into the trap of not wanting to be too bold.  You’re a placeholder and there’s no guarantee you’ll be in the position a year from now.  But if you really want the permanent position, resist the temptation to be cautious.  Take advantage of your insider status–no other applicant will have it–and set some goals for things you want to accomplish that you can then discuss in your letter of application and (fingers crossed) your interview.

Even if you don’t want the permanent position, you have some interesting things to ponder.

Is it possible that holding this interim post is a potential stepping stone to something else that you want?  If it is, what are the things you can do while you are interim that would enhance your application for that other position? Is this a chance to demonstrate your ability to supervise a staff, manage a large budget, initiate curricular innovations, any of which would, in turn, make you a stronger candidate for a different position?

Maybe you are “just” a placeholder, stepping up to fill a post until someone else is hired and afterwards you’ll go back to what you were doing before.  You shouldn’t let this limit you.  And you should avoid the trap of thinking that you are merely a babysitter.  That will only result in boredom for you and low morale for your staff and faculty.  It’s like we tell our students: you’ll be more satisfied and do better work if you’re researching a topic/identifying a project/pursuing an internship that really interests you.  Assess your new, albeit temporary, work environment.  Is there a contribution you could make to the smooth functioning of this office?  Is there a project or initiative housed in this office that you could really sink your teeth into and leave knowing you’d accomplished something constructive?  And nothing is more demoralizing to the people you’re working with than the attitude of someone merely acting as a placeholder.  Find a way to do the job with integrity so that the rest of the office can do the same.

Betwixt and between is an undeniably odd place to be. But there are ways to embrace and own it, regardless of your endpoint. I’ll keep you posted on my own campaign to land the permanent position.

Something/Anything: Momentum

Many of us, I’m guessing, are taking advantage of the combination of some form (however brief) of winter break and the advent of a new year to assess and recommit to various projects.  My dilemma is a perennial and common one: finding adequate time for my own research and writing.  Over the years I have tackled this problem in various ways: writing a certain number of words each day, setting aside a day of the week devoted to these tasks, and, more commonly, bemoaning the fact that I can never make as much headway as I want to (the last one, admittedly, is not really a solution).

Chances are I’ll be writing a similar entry this time next year, but for now, I’m putting my faith in momentum.  I have decided that I will do something/anything related to my current research project every workday (now that I’m “administration” and putting in longer hours on campus, I try to protect my weekends more).  The something/anything can be reading secondary works, taking notes from primary sources, writing actual text, tracking down a source–as long as it contributes to my project, it counts.  This will, I think, be better than a daily writing challenge.  I’ve benefited from that previously, but it measures productivity in only one form: words on a page.  And frankly, that’s not how I work.  I’m always writing a bit, running back to a source, writing some more, being reminded of a secondary source I read a long time ago, writing some more–you get the idea.  This approach will also be better than setting aside a day a week.  Doing that makes it hard to keep my head in the game.  I’m always trying to remind myself where I left off and what I was thinking the last time I sat down to work on things. And it should be obvious why the daily something/anything approach is better than the third option, noted above, of simply bemoaning.

I tend to think of momentum solely in terms of movement or progress forward, but it is also, of course, a force that becomes more powerful with greater mass (hey, I’m a historian, not a physicist!).  So the something/anything approach should also make the project grow, giving it greater heft with each passing day, thereby contributing to its forward movement.  I’ve deliberately not quantified something/anything in terms of time or words.  If I get on a roll and work for 45 minutes, great.  If I get to the end of the day and realize I have to squeeze something in before I go to bed and all I do is order some books from interlibrary loan, so be it.

An implicit part of this plan, then, is to set reasonable, achievable goals.  Because I’m pretty sure that setting myself up for failure would be the opposite of momentum.  I’ll let you know how it goes.