Breathe, Hydrate, Eat an Apple

I’m having a crap day.  I can’t log into the university’s idiotic timecard system.  One of the students in the program did something stupid.  There are various little fires in the office that need to be put out.  And I have a sore throat and feel like I’m getting sick.

All of this means I’m finding it hard to focus and get anything accomplished.  And all I really want to do is go home (not an option, I’m here until about 7:30 tonight) and eat an enormous bag of potato chips (that is an option–the snack shop in the student center is open; but it’s not a good option).

So what’s a harried administrator to do?  Hydrate, breathe, and eat an apple.  Seriously.

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Breath is probably the first thing to go when we get stressed.  I don’t mean that you stop breathing, of course.  But I do mean that your breath becomes constricted and tight and maybe even labored.  So take a minute.  Sit still.  Breathe in slowly and deliberately.  Breathe out slowly and deliberately.  Repeat.  Several times.  It may not work the first time.  If I’m really stressed that first attempt at a deep breath is HARD.  But it also demonstrates to me how constricted my breath has become.  Stick with it.  The slower, easier, deeper breath will come.

Now hydrate.  Chances are your day is a marathon, not a sprint.  So you need to fuel it properly.  I am convinced that water makes everything better.  And really, could it really hurt to drink a couple of glasses of water when you’re feeling stressed?

Finally, eat an apple.  Or some other proxy for a healthy diet.  Chances are that bag of potato chips might be satisfying in the short run, but later I’d be beating myself up about bad choices.  And once I’d had the potato chips I’d figure there was no harm in a succession of poor nutritional choices.  But an apple?  That’s healthy.  And easy.  And it makes me look good.  Then I can say to myself, “take that, stressful day!  You tried to bring me down, but I took deep breaths, drank some water, and ate an apple.”

Some days are truly awful and perhaps irredeemable.  And I won’t lie: some days absolutely require potato chips (or something stronger).  And in those cases, indulge a bit, be gentle with yourself, and move on.  But if you can, try to do even just one of these three things.  If you do, I think the day will be at least a little bit better.

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.

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.

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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 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.