Email: Can’t Live With It…

It’s Monday morning and I just opened my work email.  Despite being armed with a ginormous cup of coffee, beginning to scroll through these messages is undoubtedly going to spark a cascade of negative emotions: frustration, anger, exasperation, exhaustion.  And then there will be that daily internal monologue about being behind on my correspondence and how overwhelmed I feel.

I’m sure I’m not the only one to have this reaction to email so what follows are some guidelines about how to engage–and occasionally not engage–with email.  Let’s start with the assumption that you’re smarter than your email inbox and that you can find a way to make sense of those hundreds of stockpiled messages.


How to manage an overflowing inbox.  The upshot: you need a system of folders or task management.  Other folks, far more clever than me, have come up with great ideas.  There are some examples here.  And there are many more if you just Google, “manage your email.”  Because I don’t know about you, but just hoping for the best and saying that at some mythical time in the future I will be “caught up on email” isn’t working for me.

From there you need some rules and structure: all emails answered within 24 hours, setting aside blocks of time when you only work on email, etc.  I know that for me, simply scrolling through the new ones each morning, responding to the really urgent ones, and then forgetting about all the others is not a good system.  So I flag (literally, my email program lets me do this and then I can sort by flagged messages later) the ones I need to come back to that require some time and attention.  Beyond that I’m experimenting with setting aside two or three 15-minute blocks of time each day when I work through the flagged materials.  Setting a timer and saying that I will only work on email focuses me and reduces the temptation to just scroll through all the emails and be overwhelmed.  But choose a discipline that will work for you.  Don’t set yourself up for failure.

Once you do start responding, a different set of guidelines kicks in.  Let’s start with the email that makes you so mad you can barely see straight.  Go ahead, write the angry response.  Say everything you need to say.  Don’t hold back.  But then put it in your draft folder and DO NOT SEND IT.  Let it sit there for at least 24 hours.  Then go back to it and revise accordingly.  Having had the chance to vent will help, but 24 hours later your emotions (hopefully) won’t be running as hot, you can exercise some discretion, and send a measured response.

Let’s continue with that really important email you’re composing where you need to communicate some really critical information.  Don’t bury the lede.  Put the important stuff first.  Think about a list of bullet points, rather than embedding all the material in a series of prose paragraphs.  Highlight the meeting time, date, and place or the deadline you want everyone to adhere to–or put it in bold or italics.  Make it jump out.  If you really want people to pay attention and read the whole thing, keep the overall message as short as possible.  Remember how you don’t have time for your email?  Everyone you send an email to is in the same boat.  So make sure your emails get to the point quickly and don’t require a lot of reading.

And let’s not forget the basics.  Use “reply all” carefully.  Does the whole list of recipients need to see your RSVP for the meeting?  Probably not.  Does the whole list of recipients need to see your trenchant comments about a thorny issue that you were, in fact, invited to share with everyone?  Yes.  Don’t be that person who disrupts the group conversation by mistakenly replying only to the sender.

And finally, sometimes it’s okay to avoid email.  I have a rule that I am getting better at following and have talked about here before: I don’t do work email after 6pm.  No good can come it, unless you count not sleeping well as a good thing.

This is just a start.  What other rules or practices do you have for making email manageable and handling your responses?

Building Better Teachers

Add the Association of College and University Educators to the list of for-profit consulting firms that have arrived on the scene to save the day and help those of us in higher ed get it—in this case teaching—right.  Their consultants offer hour-long modules on a particular topic—increasing class participation in discussion, for example.  The website is slick and professional.  The modules seem (you can only access samples of their content without paying) to have a well-conceived structure that provides feedback, includes videotaped classroom presentations, and well-defined objectives.  The faculty that are listed on the site as experts represent a range of disciplines and come from all different kinds of institutions (public and private, community colleges and 4-year institutions, etc).  The materials on the website rightly incorporate some of the latest research and evidence from the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).  But despite what seems to be a well-executed product, the model proposed by ACUE and its clients is deeply troubling for several reasons.


The first reason is a fundamental question about the structure and process of teacher training.  ACUE is seeking to remedy ineffective teaching, which, it rightly notes “costs” institutions in terms of poor retention and graduation rates.  In its comments on its mission, ACUE has specifically stated that a PhD in a particular field is not necessarily evidence that the candidate is an effective teacher and that many graduate programs do not provide adequate training in teaching and pedagogy.  There is evidence, albeit not universal, for both of these assertions.  However, addressing this after faculty have already been hired and arrived on campus is wrongheaded.  Our efforts to create effective teachers should begin in graduate school.  And several disciplinary associations are working on exactly this.  The Executive Director of the American Historical Association, James Grossman, has issued apersuasive call for PhD programs in History to address this issue: “Teaching is an essential skill for every historian, whether in a secondary school, college classroom, museum, archive, historical site, or even the public square, presenting evidence persuasively to legislators and fellow citizens. Historians teach. Learning how to teach should be equal to and intertwined with learning to become a research scholar.”   The American Society for Microbiology has a Teaching Fellows Program.  And I’m certain there are other examples.  Who better than the disciplines to tackle this gap in preparation?

As a corollary to this, teacher training of this sort—a certification offered by a non-discipline-specific-for-profit company—risks divorcing research and scholarship from the practice of teaching.  While many graduate programs probably still need to work on strengthening the connection between the two as they train future faculty, this alternative model of credentialing could potentially devalue the PhD.

The second reason that this model is objectionable is because it ignores the resident knowledge and wisdom present on all campuses.  Most campuses have a teaching center.  These centers provide workshops, resources, and are run by individuals who are experts in the scholarship of teaching and learning.  All campuses have great teachers.  Further, a group like ACUE assumes a smoothing out of institutional differences and risks proposing a one size fits all approach.  I can already here the pushback from faculty who have to participate in these modules: “what you’re proposing won’t work with my students because they work long hours/they don’t have ready access to technology/our classrooms aren’t set up for what you’re proposing, etc”  And these centers and these faculty are already familiar with the institution and its students.  They know the local culture and are ready to jump in with ideas and solutions that will immediately suit the situation.  The ACUE model devalues existing faculty expertise and experience on every college and university campus.  Why would a college or university spend precious funds to hire an outside firm to provide something they already have at their fingertips?

The third reason to be troubled is the burden that this model puts on faculty.  ACUE places most of the onus for weak retention and graduation rates (and their website makes painfully clear to administrators what the financial cost of low rates is) on faculty teaching.  Adopting the remedy of improved teaching as the solution to low retention and graduation rates implicitly suggests that other factors—high school preparation, income disparities, other campus support systems, etc—are less important or relevant.  Effective teaching is absolutely essential to student success, but if faculty can be blamed for poor retention and graduation rates because bodies like ACUE have not credentialed their teaching, we are definitely in trouble.  Could retention and graduation rates become a metric for faculty performance?  And what is the impact of this on contingent faculty?  Will the absence of such credentials (presumably harder to attain if they do not have stable, long-term relationships with the institutions where they teach) risk further compromising their status within the profession?

The ACUE rightly identifies the importance of effective teaching.  The model it proposes, however, is one that faculty should push back against since it devalues their knowledge and experience and threatens to place undue burdens on them.  Administrators should also avoid this model because it is a bad investment.  They should invest instead in building up teaching and learning centers and leveraging the existing expertise of the successful teachers already on their campuses.


Selling the Liberal Arts

So three years ago to the day, before I even had a blog, I flexed my op-ed muscles for the first time and had the following piece appear on

Given that the recent turmoil at Mount St. Mary’s (which I have already written about here) includes the president’s assertion that “liberal arts doesn’t sell,” it seemed worth posting again.

(Apologies–the link to the article is being weird.  You need to right-click it to open).


We Are All Bunnies

I’m sitting at my desk today watching the reactions and commentary about the situation at Mount St. Mary pour in via Twitter and Facebook.  In case you haven’t read about it yet: here’s the latest.  Those of us who recognize the value of tenure, still believe there is a place for respectful disagreement in higher ed, and want better things for our own students and institutions are a bit speechless (which would be a wise strategy if you were at Mount St. Mary).  Horrified and shocked and saddened seem the most common emotions.

I’m guessing that this drama isn’t over yet.  I expect lawsuits, alumni protest (at least the president can’t fire them), and hopefully, some response from the college’s Board of Trustees.  But in the meantime I think we faculty and administrators at other institutions need to do three things.

The first is to engage in some self-education.  What are the policies and procedures at your institution governing speech?  In one of the first ripples in the drama at Mount St. Mary it became clear that the university had a policy that “all university employees must clear any communications with reporters first with the university spokesman.”  What is YOUR university’s policy in these matters?  Perhaps there isn’t a policy, which is probably a good thing.  But my PSA to you is to find out.

The second two items hinge on the assumption that in the current higher ed climate no one is immune from these kind of actions.  We can shake our heads and wring our hands and say how messed up things are at Mount St. Mary, but I bet our colleagues there didn’t see this coming, either.

So the second item is to become the allies of vulnerable individuals at your institution who might end up in the firing line.  A particularly troubling part of the recent developments is that the untenured facultly advisor to the student newspaper, which leaked the president’s emails, was one of the faculty members fired.  I’m not sure what sort of things might have protected this individual, but having senior, tenured members of the faculty recognize his vulnerability would be a good place to start.

The third item is to write and tweet and post about this as much as possible.  And sign this petition.  We need to recognize not just that this could happen to us wherever we are, but that we need to be in solidarity with our colleagues at other institutions.  It is easier to pick off faculty like this if the perception is that they are isolated.  And I say this to my fellow administrators, too.  We need to say that this kind of management is unacceptable and an insult to the enterprise of higher education.

Charm Schooled

Something about this piece rubbed me the wrong way. While it acknowledged the very gendered perils that women in the academy face when they aren’t nice enough to their colleagues, the rather simplistic advice about a “charm offensive” didn’t sit well with me. The suggestion that the person in question just needs to be more social and charming is offered too blithely and with no attention to the possible consequences and underlying issues. The formerly withdrawn colleague who suddenly becomes outgoing and cordial risks being perceived as insincere or opportunistic. Further, simply instructing a woman to be nicer and more solicitous of her colleagues doesn’t address the deeper dilemma about perceptions of female behavior in the academic workplace. If, as the author argues, what she is proposing is a strategy for the time until “the patriarchy is overthrown,” shouldn’t we be working on overthrowing it while we address the problems of how the sociability of female academics is perceived?

Sadly, I am not going to figure out how to overthrow the patriarchy in this brief blog post. I am, however, going to suggest one strategy for helping this withdrawn colleague whose chances for advancement are being hurt by a perception that she is cold and unlikeable. The strategy is this: the individual posing the question on behalf of the withdrawn colleague needs to become her mentor. I realize that she probably thinks she is by posing the question and thereby implicitly (but unbeknownst to her colleague) helping. But, I would argue, she could accomplish much more by actively mentoring this individual. In the early days of my career, I’m not sure I was attentive to how colleagues perceived my behavior. I was too busy prepping lectures and trying to publish so I could get tenure. In addition, I don’t think I really thought about academe as a workplace in my first months at my university. Part of why we all got into this game is because we didn’t want a regular office job. So I’m not sure that I was attentive to workplace interactions and how my new colleagues might have been reading my actions and interactions with them.

Thus, a mentor would have been useful at this early stage. Even if I was doing everything “right,” it would have helped to have this landscape explained to me. A mentor is also someone who can help smooth those social waters and interactions. Rather than the entire burden being placed on me to make coffee dates and draw my colleagues out, a mentor could create opportunities to interact with colleagues: “Hey, Liz, I’m having lunch with Senior Colleague X, why don’t you join us?” A mentor could propose work on a particular project that would provide the opportunity for me to showcase my talents and insights. You get the idea. Finally, a mentor is an ally. If you are senior and in critical committee meetings where a junior colleague is being evaluated and confront either implicit or explicit comments that her behavior isn’t nice or sociable enough, you have an obligation to push back against this. You need to do more than shake your head ruefully, and wonder whether you should later counsel her to launch a charm offensive.

Will this take time? Yes. Is this hard work? Possibly. Is it fair that we need to do this? No. But do those of us who are senior—especially women who have risen to senior ranks as faculty and administrators—have a responsibility to do this work? Absolutely.

The Limits of Autonomy

As workers faculty are an odd bunch.  They tend to be largely autonomous as they go about their workday.  They are required to be on campus to meet certain responsibilities: teaching, attending meetings, holding office hours.  But they don’t punch a clock.  You can call their offices at a particular time between 9 and 5 when you know they are not doing one of the above or related activities, but there is no guarantee–or even expectation–that they will be there.  They arrive on and depart from campus largely on their own timetable.  Theirs are tasks–grading, reading, writing lectures–that can be performed offsite.

Particularly in disciplines where the single-authored book or paper is the norm, they carry this autonomy over into their scholarship.  They perform their research and write in relative isolation.

All of this autonomy, in turn, means that their interactions with other colleagues are random, coincidental.  They’re on campus the same days that certain colleagues teach, but may not see the ones who teach on other days.  You bump into someone in the hall, on the elevator, in the parking deck and that’s where conversations take place.  Our substantive contact takes place in that most dreaded of forums: the meeting.


This autonomy has its benefits and I am not looking to dismantle it.  But I am not sure that this autonomous way of life for faculty is always a good thing.  As I have argued previously it encourages a narrowness of thinking  where faculty talk about “my course” and “my research” and aren’t prodded to think about the larger aims of their department or college.  It elides questions like “where does MY course fit into the larger departmental curricula?”  This autonomous behavior also contributes, in part, to the silo mentality on campus.  Should we be surprised that there isn’t more cross-college collaboration (my university has a generous funding program for this that goes largely untapped) when we simply don’t interact with our colleagues all that much outside of meetings?

(Note: I have painted a deliberately bleak picture of faculty separated from one another [though this *is* mostly what I see on my campus] to make my point and do acknowledge that there are departments/colleges/ universities where this is not the norm.)

Some administrator colleagues at my home institution and elsewhere have taken the stick (as opposed to carrot) approach to this lack of faculty cohesion: insisting that faculty be in their offices a certain number of hours per week, creating course schedules that bring faculty to campus 4 or 5 days a week, etc.  I don’t find much merit in these approaches.  They are interpreted as punitive and if they are intended to promote cohesion and collaboration, I suspect they will fail.  Faculty will simply punch the required clock and then leave campus.  Simply being required to be in your office does not necessarily mean that you will talk to the colleague next door about a new project.

No, instead, as I often am, I am more about the carrot than the stick.  More about quality than quantity.  While the cohesiveness of departments or units will invariably be a function of personalities, other responsibilities outside of work (childcare, for example), and personal preferences, I still maintain that it is important to create spaces and times where departments come together for more than just meetings.  Now, fear not, I’m not proposing (though I used to jokingly threaten my department with this when I was a chair) some scary team building retreat.  I’ve been in academe long enough to know how poorly that would go over.

But I have learned that the common denominator of food and drink can make an enormous difference.  A space to have a cup of coffee and cookie or a space to gather and eat lunch can have small, but remarkable, effects on a work space more generally.  When I was a department chair I instituted a weekly coffee chat (detailed here).  Senior faculty, adjuncts, and tenure-track colleagues would stop by, chat, and move on as their schedules demanded.  But it broke down barriers and encouraged casual conversations that often naturally, and without a meeting agenda guiding it, became discussions about teaching, curriculum, and research.  The kinds of conversations that you can’t artificially manufacture or script but that lead to collaborations and projects

This semester I will put my money where my mouth is and try a variation on this.  I’ve long wanted to bring together faculty from across my home college (Liberal Arts and Social Sciences) to discuss promoting the humanities.  You know how foreign language departments sponsor language tables where students and faculty gather to practice a certain language?  I want to try something similar for faculty where the “language” we are practicing is the humanities.

Past experience has taught me that two things will be important at the outset.  The first is food.  No, seriously.  We will need to meet over food and coffee.  Doing so relaxes people, creates a different atmosphere, and encourages a kind of sociability that a thing called a meeting doesn’t.  The second is the absence of a rigid agenda.  This goes against everything I’ve said previously about meetings.  But I think in this instance, the conversation should be more free-ranging.  It is okay for the meeting to have a purpose: bringing together like-minded colleagues to discuss promoting the humanities on campus.  But for at least the first few gatherings, I think there needs to be space for lower stakes conversations, getting to know one another, and just chatting.

I’ll let you know how it goes.


Three Simple Rules

I’ve been an academic administrator for about six and a half years now.  I’ve been blogging about it for almost two years of that time.  I’ve endeavored to make my shift from faculty to administrator a learning experience and have tried to figure out what works and what doesn’t when it comes to leading people, managing time, and introducing necessary change to the workplace.  All of these things can be stressful, and I’ve pondered how to do these things while staying productive and maintaining my sanity.  Over and over again I find myself returning to Three Simple Rules to reduce work stress.


Rule #1: It’s not personal.  No, it really isn’t.  I know the tone of that email seemed condescending and patronizing.  I know you made special arrangements to be in your office and the student who wanted to meet with you missed the appointment.  I know how angry you are because the dean wants you to teach a different course this semester.  This isn’t to say that people aren’t sometimes jerks or inconsiderate–because they are–but most of the time these infuriating or frustrating behaviors are not meant as a personal affront or attack.  Most of the time, in fact, the bad behavior of others has everything to do with them–their insecurities and anxieties–and nothing to do with you.  And sometimes it’s just business–like the dean asking you to teach that course.  Sometimes people just doing their jobs is going to have unpleasant consequences for you; that doesn’t necessarily make it personal.  So step back and reduce your personal investment in the situation.

Rule #2: Ask yourself: will this (trouble with a colleague, a missed deadline, a disgruntled student) matter in two weeks’ time?  In a month?  In six months?  Most of the time the answer is “no.”  My point is again to step back and assess the situation.  The problem certainly needs to be dealt with and solved; you can’t abdicate responsibility.  But you can lower the stress involved by realizing that the crisis is temporary.

Rule #3: No email after dinner.  This is a tough one for me.  I break this rule often.  But I have also learned the hard way that little good comes from opening your email at 8:30pm and realizing that a crisis has erupted.  Really, what can you do about it from home at 8:30pm?  You can worry a lot.  You can lose a good night’s sleep.  But you probably can’t make significant strides towards fixing the problem until you’re in the office the next day.  So put down the smart phone or the laptop and enjoy your evening.  The difference between finding out about the crisis at 8pm and 8am the next day probably makes little difference in resolving it, but will make a huge difference in your sanity.

These Three Simple Rules have served me well.  What strategies do you have for reducing the stress that comes with being an academic administrator?

Kitchen Tales, part 2

This is the third installment (the first is here and the second is here) about the dilemma of verbal abuse and bullying in academe.  For this post I decided to test a hypothetical case: what if I chose to pursue a case against someone who I believed had verbally abused me?  Would there be colleagues I would be comfortable talking to about this?  Would it be evident from the university website and other resources what my options were?  Because I don’t want to actually alarm anyone here at my institution, this will be mostly a thought and research exercise, but all the same, let’s find out how it might go.


The harassment scenario (and let me be absolutely clear: this is a FICTIONAL scenario.  This did not happen!): Fellow administrator (let’s assume we’re of roughly equal rank–I’m a Dean, he’s a vice provost) who is male comes to my office  and confronts me about a decision I made that has resulted in a budget cut for his office.  He appears at my office door without an appointment and proceeds to launch into an expletive-laced tirade about the injustice of my decision, questioning my authority and my good sense.  I have the presence of mind to tell him that I won’t discuss this with him while he’s so upset, which only angers him more.  He finally storms off, slamming my door loudly behind him.   The next day I’m in a meeting with him and other administrative colleagues.  He makes disparaging remarks about my work and contributions to the group and brings up my decision that affected his budget, indicating his dissatisfaction.

What to do?  I talk to a few colleagues who are also close friends.  They agree that the behavior is unacceptable but, like me, are unsure what my recourse is.  I consider talking to the Provost, to whom both I and the abuser report.  Even though I suspect he would be sympathetic, I’m only in my first few months in this position, and I’m not sure how this would be interpreted, especially since the anger was prompted by a decision that I made.

Perhaps I need a more neutral sounding board or resource.  Does the university have a policy on these things?  After I plug “harassment” into website’s search engine, I get this:

And yes, I am linking to it here, because it is accessible from the university’s public site.

Okay, good.  There’s a policy.  But as I begin to read the policy, several things become apparent: (1) harassment and discrimination are often conflated in the policy and (2) the policy, as written, highlights sexual and racial harassment and discrimination in such a way to make other more generalized claims of harassment a bit more difficult to parse within the policy.  It is unclear to me, for example, why our Office for Institutional Equity (formerly the Office of Affirmative Action) would serve “as the recipient for any formal complaint or report of discrimination/harassment (344-2-03 D (2))” that was NOT based on “race, sex (including pregnancy), religion, color, age, national origin, veteran and/or military status, genetic information, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity and/or expression, marital status or parental status (344-2-03 A).”  I applaud the university’s comprehensive definition of categories of harassment and discrimination, but they don’t fit my scenario.  There is a more generalized section on “harassment” (344-2-03 B (4)) and it addresses the creation of a hostile work environment.  I guess that’s my entry point.

In the next installment I’ll continue this thought experiment and consider what the risks and consequences of taking action might be.

But for today these are the takeaways:

The good news?  The university has a policy on harassment.  The bad news?  It’s a bit difficult to work through.  What do things look like at your institution?  Is there a policy?  How clear is it?  Would you be comfortable using it?