Tag Archives: campus culture

Of Surgeries and Superwomen

I love the start of a new school year.  Even after 20+ years in higher education, I thrill to the new-ness of it all.  Fall temperatures, new students, and that “anything is possible” atmosphere all bring me great delight.

Thus, I was both surprised and disappointed when I found myself in the emergency room the night before the start of the semester, looking at the possibility of needing a surgery that week [spoiler: I’m fine; everything worked out; my health is good].

So I missed the first week of classes, had my surgery, and, as you’ve probably already anticipated, the world didn’t end.

But neither did my fretting, fear of falling behind, or general anxiety about missing so much work.  So I went back to the office the following week.  And lasted about four hours.  And then later that week I put in a twelve-hour day.  Which turned out to be a very bad idea.  I spent the next three days recovering from that decision.

Reflecting on the experience of those two weeks, I have realized that I let my desire to be a superwoman outweigh common sense.  “I’m tough,” I reasoned, “I can go back to work.”  I wanted to be some sort of shining example of resilience and determination.  This surgery couldn’t slow me down.  I’m a superwoman!

While I do not think that women exclusively fall prey to the temptation to be superheroes in these situations, I want to address this post to women in the academy and point out why this behavior and the temptation towards superwoman-hood does us a disservice.*

Senior superwomen: I suspect that we build this tendency towards superwomanhood when we are junior or contingent faculty, trying to be the best and most dedicated colleagues possible.  But what dismays me is that this behavior continues even later in our careers.  I was out once for drinks with a group of female colleagues who all held administrative positions at my university.  At one point the conversation devolved into a somewhat competitive round of who got to work earliest/stayed latest/put in the most extra hours.  It is telling that even senior women who are tenured and secure engage in this behavior. We are still trying to prove ourselves in a culture that whether explicitly or implicitly has not fully welcomed us.  Some places are better than others, but overall, women in the academy as reflected in service obligations, teaching evaluations, pay scale, or any host of other metrics still fight an uphill battle for acceptance.  So whether consciously or unconsciously we continue to try to prove ourselves and our worth and our right to be here.

That said, I try not to play along with my colleagues.  Whenever possible, I leave work at 5.  I don’t check my work email after I get home.  Weekends are for non-work activities.  Now certainly there are exceptions to this.  Big projects or the inconvenient overlap of multiple deadlines sometimes means I stay late or work on the weekends.  Sometimes my role as dean comes with evening and weekend responsibilities.  But generally speaking, making overwork and the dissolution of work-life boundaries a competitive sport is not productive.

Which brings me to my next point:

Modeling and normalizing: What message are we sending to our female colleagues when we try to be superwomen who prove their dedication and their talent through overwork?  We’re certainly modeling a behavior that says that self-care doesn’t matter.  We’re setting a presumed standard that values and perhaps even rewards overwork.  We are perpetuating the cycle and a culture that asks women to rise to the standard of superwomen at a possible expense to their health and well-being.

As I repeatedly argue on this blog, those of us in a secure position of power have an obligation to do the work to gradually shift the culture of academe.  So I would ask you: what example do you set for the women in your office or department?  If you are an administrator what policies do you lobby for at your institution?  Sometimes, for example, our jobs require us to work nights and weekends.  But if we’re going to normalize the expectation for that kind of work, then we also need to normalize the concept of comp time [this idea came from one of my wise female administrator friends].  Work four hours on Saturday at a recruitment event?  Fine.  The duties of the job require it.  But then when you take four hours on a Friday afternoon to have a life, you shouldn’t feel guilty or have to explain yourself to your provost.  We need to stand up for and beside our female colleagues when they make choices like these.

Talk about it: Wherever and whenever possible, we need to highlight this issue.  I posted on Twitter when I started working on this post and was surprised/not surprised at how many people responded, indicating that these issues resonated with them.  Despite an enthusiastic response for addressing this issue, I have never had a conversation about this with anyone on my campus.  That needs to change.  Again, those of us in secure positions need to take some risks and bring this up with the senior administration at our universities.  We need to forcefully and vocally advocate for female colleagues who we see trying to take care of themselves while still fulfilling their responsibilities.  We need to intervene when we see someone falling prey to the Superwoman Syndrome.  This last one, I think, is particularly tricky; we tend to praise, and even reward, superwomen, not caution them.

Our efforts to speak up and highlight this issue probably won’t go terribly smoothly.  We will probably be accused of whining or shirking.  And I am the first to acknowledge that institutional structures and cultures do not always support our ability to take care of ourselves and have fulfilling lives beyond our workdays.  But until those of us who are senior and reasonably well-protected begin modeling better behavior and advocating for ourselves and our female colleagues nothing will change.  We will be very unhappy superwomen.

 

*I want to be quick to say that I think this issue is undoubtedly relevant for scholars of color, contingent faculty, and others who find themselves feeling unwelcome in the academy and/or needing to prove themselves through overwork.

Advertisements

An Open Letter and Invitation to Nicholas Kristof

Dear Mr. Kristof,

I recently read your op-ed on the “The Dangers of Echo Chambers on College Campuses.”  Many things trouble me about your piece but for now I wish to address the caricature of higher education that undergirds your entire argument.  Oberlin, no disrespect intended, is not typical.  The notion that college campuses are “liberal bubbles” demonstrates a profound disconnect between public opinion and what a college campus actually looks like today.

The students who populate these campuses are clearly not what your piece suggests as a study on higher education reveals: “The National Center for Education Statistics reports that of the 17.6 million people enrolled in college in the fall of 2011, only 15 percent were attending a four-year college and living on campus. Thirty-seven percent were enrolled part time, and 32 percent worked full time…More than a third were over 25, and a quarter were over 30. By 2019, the percentage of those over 25 is expected to increase by more than 20 percent.”

In other words, the college campus of which you write is an outlier.  It is not typical.  The new traditional student is not eighteen, probably commutes to school, may not attend full-time, and would find the college campus you describe to be quite alien.

These statistics provide a powerful counter, in fact, to the very dangers of insularity that you decry.  Diversity is not simply political or ideological.  It is generational and experiential as well.  When I look out at a classroom that includes a nineteen-year old, a thirty-ish year-old single mother putting herself through college, a returning veteran, and the handful of individuals who are over sixty and participate in a program my college offers that allows them to take classes for free, I don’t trouble myself much with a worry about a liberal bubble.  Instead, I relish their discussions of the assigned material, as each brings to bear a distinctive perspective that educates the others.  There is nothing “shrill” about this exchange.  And if anything, I have observed in over twenty years of teaching at this institution, that their exposure to such a diversity of life experiences encourages a civility and open-mindedness that serves them well both inside and outside the classroom.

If anything, your caricature of higher education only serves to feed its critics on the right.  When you accuse us of operating in liberal echo chambers and behaving shrilly and illiberally you endorse the image that conservatives have used to undermine and underfund institutions of higher learning.

The only cure it would seem, is to understand better what college campuses today are really like and to actually meet the students who populate them.

And so I end this letter with an invitation.  And a sincere one at that.  Come visit me and my students at an urban, public university where many of my students are Pell-eligible, working multiple jobs, raising families, all while being among the most engaged and diligent students I have ever had the pleasure of teaching.  Spend a day or more with them, talking to them, listening to their experiences, and discovering more about what it’s like to be a typical college student today.  I think you will be pleasantly surprised to find that they are not the straw men and women that your piece makes them out to be.  They are living, breathing students who have a lot to teach you.

Academic Kindness

Not gonna lie.  I’m angry.  As I reflect upon the presidential election and the troubling ripples it continues to cast I am angry.  And fearful.  I have tried in the short-term to productively channel these emotions by calling my congresspeople and making donations to various organizations.

But in the longer term I have concerns about my anger.  I think it is okay to be angry, but generally speaking I am aware that my anger and fear have made me impatient and short-tempered in my daily interactions with colleagues and students.  And this worries me.  While I think anger can be an inspiring emotion–it can motivate us to take action and fight back–it is ultimately, in my experience, an exhausting and unproductive emotion if you inhabit it for too long.  So inspired by a terrific Tumblr account and the Twitter hashtag #AcademicKindness, I’m determined to find ways to insert more of this into the culture of my campus and my broader professional communities.  And before you accuse me of being a Pollyanna and just trying to paper over real problems with sunshine and flowers, I also want to offer some insights as to why such an approach has merit beyond temporarily assuaging unpleasant feelings.

Being truly present for my students.  Over and over again the evidence about retention and student satisfaction demonstrates that one of the most significant factors is the sense of connectedness that students form with their professors.  In his book, Small Teaching, James Lang highlights small, easy things we can do to reach out to our students.  For example, arrive a few minutes early for class and make a point, over the course of the semester, to chat with each student–not just the ones in the front few rows.  The twenty-first century university has, in my opinion, become too enamored of shiny software fixes.  Yes, that clever online advising system does make a difference, but so does something deceptively simple: human relationships.

Such an approach doesn’t just make students happier, it can also impact student learning.  In their book How College Works, Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs have demonstrated that student motivation increases when they sense this kind of investment and attention from their professors.  If we can engage students at this level, then we can leverage that motivation and enthusiasm in other ways that promote their learning.

But then it occurs to me, why would we limit such an approach to our students?  Surely we want to retain good faculty and colleagues and promote their job satisfaction, too, right?  Surely, we want to motivate them to do their best work.  What might this look like in practice?

Create community among our colleagues.  And no, I don’t mean department meetings.  I never cease to be amazed at the power of a shared meal or cup of coffee and conversation.  When I was a department chair I instituted a weekly opportunity for faculty to gather, imbibe some caffeine, and share a snack.  It cost next to nothing and it fostered tremendous good will.  Some of the conversations inspired new initiatives and projects.  We could replicate this practice or variations on it across various categories enacting it at the departmental level, as a way to foster interdisciplinary conversations, or to bring colleagues together to discuss teaching and pedagogy.

Recognize good work.  Let people know when they’ve done something you appreciate or find valuable.  In these short-tempered days I am very quick to complain about the colleagues who annoy me.  But this it to ignore the ones who unfailingly meet deadlines, produce great work, or otherwise are just easy and pleasant to work with.  And here, too, the lessons from student motivation and learning have something to tell us.  Much of what drives faculty is the reward system of tenure and promotion–in other words, they are extrinsically motivated.  Staff motivation is often built upon a parallel rewards system of merit pay and the like.

But in these difficult times I believe it is all the more important to help connect the people we work with to intrinsic motivation, something bigger than themselves and beyond the quotidian tasks at hand. Research has demonstrated that the more specific we are in our praise of students and the more we connect it to their development of skills or a larger purpose, the more it resonates with them and motivates them to improve or continue to perform at high levels.  So rather than simply thanking a staff member for helping a student, what if it went something like: “thank you so much for taking the time to work with that student.  Connecting her to that important resource is going to help with her graduate school application.”  And for the faculty colleague: “I really appreciate your hard work on that report.  Your thoroughness is going to make it much easier for me to argue with the dean for new positions.”

Finally, practice some academic kindness on yourself.  I know it’s a busy time of the semester/quarter/term.  But this week commit to carving out 20-30 minutes in your schedule for something that is pure joy for you: reading for pleasure, going for a run, watching an episode of your favorite sit-com, taking your dog for a walk, enjoying a meal and conversation with your partner or a friend, or maybe, just maybe sitting still and doing nothing.

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.

A Tale of Two Campuses

The news of and reaction to the budget cuts at the University of Akron fueled and animated my Facebook and Twitter feeds last week.  Faced with a deficit that could reach as much as $60 million in the coming year, the Akron administration has cut approximately 200 positions, including the entire staff of its university press.  The outrage has been clear and vocal.  And those protesting have noted various ironies: the football team loses money but remains, the president is the beneficiary of numerous perks, at least one of their deans makes over $200,000 a year (more than the equivalent of the entire press staff’s salaries).

Brooklyn_Museum_-_Comme_Sisyphe_-_Honoré_Daumier

It is possible that there are valid explanations for why these specific cuts were made and why the seeming ironies do, in fact, make sense.   But herein lies the problem: the Akron administration has been notably un-transparent about its decision-making process and has offered vague and opaque explanations in the press.

Contrast this with the case of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire–profiled in this excellent piece by Inside Higher Ed reporter Kellie Woodhouse.  This campus was faced with a similarly daunting financial situation–a $12.3 million deficit, a consequence of Governor Scott Walker’s deep cuts to higher education.  The Eau Claire administration’s behavior and leadership during this time of crisis and low morale, however, embody many important lessons for the administration of Akron and others.  I’ll highlight a few:

* “The majority of eliminated positions will be administrative” and many of these will be at senior levels.  Nothing angers faculty faster than being asked to bear budget cuts when the administrative ranks continue to grow and garner large salaries.  Administrations need to demonstrate that the cuts will be felt at all levels–even the senior ones.

* “Eau Claire didn’t hire consultants…but instead asked about a dozen alumni with business experience to share their expertise and recommendations.”  Another thing that often angers faculty and other observers is the tendency to pay high-priced consultants to help you manage budget crises.  But the decision to use alumni instead?  What a great way to demonstrate your faith in the degrees you award.  Brilliant!

* “Eau Claire assembled a group to consider how such changes might affect the curriculum.”  Proactively managing change encourages transparency (you can’t manage it, if you don’t say what it’s going to be), involves other participants, and generally helps sow the seeds of good will.

* “Schmidt [the Chancellor] says he’s consulted with faculty through each run of restructuring…Members from the Eau Claire’s University Senate agree that they’ve been part of the process, and that administrators have been transparent and communicative about reductions.”  Many things to love about this: consulting, transparency, and communication top the list.

Undoubtedly, there are other factors that play into things not going well for Akron and things going better at UW-Eau Claire.  But I can’t help but be struck by the Eau Claire administration’s playbook.  It seems to me that they are managing a bad situation by setting an example (cuts at senior levels), demonstrating transparency, and encouraging conversation.  It’s not a mysterious or complicated strategy, but it’s one that other universities would we well-served to embrace.

 

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.