Tag Archives: faculty

Being There

The landscape of higher ed these days can be pretty despair-inspiring. Admissions scandals, badly-behaved administrators, shrinking budgets and the like do much to demoralize. As these challenges and crises play out on individual campuses, anxieties mount, tensions flare, and we are often not our best selves. And curiously, the structural patterns and organizing principles of higher ed do much to exacerbate this.

Perhaps ironically, given its origin story as an institution that evolved from corporations of students and teachers, the post-modern university has become a highly atomized environment. We speak of and suffer from the compartmentalization of silo-ed departments and colleges. And this fragmentation reaches all the way down to the faculty and shapes their behavior as well. A 2014 study found that faculty spent an average of 57% of their time working alone. Some of this isolation derives from where and how we work—on weekends, in coffee shops. Some of it derives from our academic disciplines: my own, history, is driven by the model of the solo researcher (though that is slowly changing). And further, as a system, higher ed encourages faculty to think in highly individualized terms. Faculty talk in terms of “my course” and “my syllabus” and “my research.” I am currently reading Kathleen Fitzpatrick’s Generous Thinking and part of her thesis is how the competitive funding structure and tenure and promotion processes of academe pit us against one another in potentially unproductive ways.

Some of this independence or separation has its place and serves worthy functions. But I do believe that in times of crisis it doesn’t always serve us well. If anything, I think that those who would undermine or subvert the nobler aims of higher education (educating and empowering students, creating knowledge, faculty governance, etc) benefit from, and perhaps sometimes even capitalize on, our atomization and separation from one another. It is easier to drive a wedge when there is space between people or units where that wedge can fit.

With that in mind, I believe there are small steps we can take to push back against a system that would isolate us and turn us into competitors with each other. I am going to put aside—for the moment—large-scale ideas about big projects where we can and should cooperate and collaborate and systemic changes that would work against a competitive rewards system.  Instead, I am going to say that we should just show up and be there for one another.

Obvious, right? Not necessarily. I read this article about supporting the emotional needs of junior faculty with a combination of head-nodding (“yes, yes, we should do this”) and head-shaking (“what the hell? Why aren’t we already doing this?”).

And I mean being here and showing up for each other in its most basic sense. Go to your colleague’s presentation at the local library. Throw someone a little party when their book gets published. Thank a staff member in a department outside your own for something they’ve done that makes your life easier. Create community where there was none before. A few years ago I started a very small online writing group with some colleagues who lived all over the country. I had some self-serving reasons: I had a writing project I needed to finish and I knew I needed accountability. But I also drew together this group of friends because I suspected they would be good for one another and benefit from the opportunity. Two and a half years later, we’re still going strong. Sometimes we touch base about writing projects, but we have also morphed into a group that offers all other kinds of professional and personal support.

And I also believe strongly that we have to extend these efforts beyond the obvious beneficiaries like the friends we already have at our institutions. Go to the retirement party of the colleague you didn’t always agree with. Send an email to congratulate the colleague you don’t know terribly well who just won an award. Treat your co-workers as people who, just like you, have complicated lives. Examine long-standing practices and traditions that may, in fact, work to the disadvantage of those on the vulnerable side of a power differential. For example, the Psychology Department at UCLA recently discontinued the unspoken expectation that PhD students bring refreshments to their dissertation defense. Build connective tissue between you and your peers. A few years ago two of my fellow deans created an opportunity for all of the deans to get together on a monthly basis. We are a group that, given the funding models and other circumstances at our institution, should be fighting with one another over resources. Instead, these gatherings have made us more collaborative and collegial. We still represent and protect our respective units, but we do so with more care and concern for each other than we might have otherwise.

Even as I write these words, I worry that they are painfully obvious. Or that you’ll think I’m being a Pollyanna. And certainly big structural change is necessary to make higher ed a better place for all of us. But, as readers of this blog will know, I also try to think about what we can do in the moment, while we fight these larger battles. And certainly, I am more inclined to slay those dragons if someone’s worked alongside me collaboratively, noticed my efforts, or just said a kind word to me.

Administration and Faculty: Can This Relationship Be Saved?

A week or so ago I published a piece in Inside Higher Ed about bridging the divide in higher education that too-often separates the administration from the faculty.  It prompted some lively discussion.  I appreciate those of you who engaged with my argument and offer the following as things I learned from your feedback.

* Experiences vary: One thing that the response to my essay taught me is that experiences vary widely.  I would not have necessarily characterized the relationship between faculty and administration at my university as good, but I have learned that it certainly isn’t as difficult as it is elsewhere.

* Point taken: Several of you called me out for describing my colleague’s move from faculty to administration as a “promotion” since that contributed to the very divide that I was railing against.  You are absolutely right.  And such a description is part of the problem.  I will think and write differently about that as a consequence–thank you!  I need to avoid characterizing, and thus valuing, administrative work as something “above” the work that faculty do.

* There are administrators and there are administrators.  What do we mean when we say “administration”?  The responses to my piece would suggest that among faculty the word conjures up images of overpaid and ineffective presidents, vice presidents, deans and others in the upper echelons of administration.  My own definition is a bit more all-encompassing and includes individuals who occupy more modest, but nonetheless administrative, roles at the university–associate deans, directors, and department chairs, for example.  It is often these folks that I think of (though not exclusively) when I think of talented, dedicated colleagues who are not deserving of faculty antipathy.  So we need to be careful that we don’t paint “administration” with too broad a brush.

Which brings me to my next point.

* Bad actors: I resisted the urge to respond to each comment that trashed the bad behavior of a particular administrator or administration with a counterpoint story about the bad behavior of faculty.  I resisted, because that’s NOT THE POINT.  You’re mad because an administrator pushed through a bad policy without adequate faculty governance?  I’m mad at the tenured faculty member who never answers student emails and reads aloud from her textbook as a substitute for holding class.  Both of these individuals are outliers.  They are not the sole face of either the administration or the faculty.

Now, I will acknowledge that my analogy breaks down in the face of the power differential that often separates administrators from faculty.

Which brings me to my next point.

* Cultural v. structural: Admittedly, what I was arguing for was a change in the culture that often divides faculty from the administration.  But as many of you pointed out, there are often structures that mitigate against that.  On campuses without a strong tradition and culture of faculty governance it may be virtually impossible to work with the administration.  If the administration controls large swaths of the decision-making process and wields that power without input from faculty, small wonder that faculty might be inclined to view them in a negative light.  I don’t think this means that bridging the faculty-admin divide is impossible on campuses such as these, but it will face different and harder challenges.

Which brings me to my next point.

* Growing administrators: If your campus is plagued by a toxic environment that divides the faculty from the administration, then perhaps you need to think about moving some of those faculty (or yourself!) into the ranks of administration.  Many of you lamented the fact that some of the most troublesome administrators come from outside the institution and don’t stick around very long.  I agree that this creates disruption and distrust.  One remedy is to encourage talented and dedicated faculty (and again, maybe YOU are one of these faculty) to consider moving into these positions.  The faculty perspective, institutional memory, and commitment to the institution that these individuals bring to the table could go a long way to creating better relations between the administration and faculty.

 

If I learned nothing else from the comments on my essay, it’s that the relationship between faculty and administration is fraught and often outright contentious on most campuses.  But I remain resolute in my insistence that there are things we can do to change that.  I welcome your continued thoughts and suggestions.

What Is In a Name?

What is in a name?  A lot apparently, if this recent essay in Inside Higher Ed is any indication.  In it, Alexander Bolyanatz vigorously rejects the appellation of “teacher,” largely because of the connotations he believes it carries.  Drawing on the example of K-12 educators, he argues that these individuals, who should be called teachers, are called upon to be disciplinarians, to act in loco parentis, and are often perceived by their students as adversaries.  These associations, he believes, should not characterize the work of university faculty.  Further, he contends, he is not trained to be a “teacher” since teachers have “formal training in fields like pedagogy and learning” and he does not.

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The pushback against this essay has been hard-hitting.  And it has been heartening to see many college and university professors embrace not just the title but also the responsibilities of “teacher.”  Where I would like to enter the debate is to address an issue that I encounter frequently and have written about previously: the extent to which we as college faculty should be engaged with pedagogy and research on the science of learning.

The author is correct in asserting that most college and university professors do not receive preparation in pedagogy.  So add that to the list of things we should be changing about graduate education since the vast majority of us will not teach at R-1 institutions and will regularly and frequently stand before students and TEACH.  But in the meantime, shouldn’t we WANT to engage with this material?  I have written before about the perplexing–to me–phenomenon of some university professors ignoring the vast literature on how students learn and persisting in outmoded and ineffective forms of instruction.  I have several theories about why this is the case, but Bolyanatz’s essay highlights one of them: the unspoken and uncomfortable hierarchies by which we (sometimes) divide the world of education.

I suspect I am not alone in having heard and observed the following sentiments.  Being a college professor is better than being a high school teacher.  Within the post-secondary world, being an English professor who teaches literature is superior to being one who “only” teaches composition.  Those professors who teach “Math Ed”?  Not as good as those who teach advanced subjects.  And yet ironically we expect those whose work we rank lower to be the ones engaged with the literature and research on how to teach effectively and enhance student learning.

So when the author relegates the work of pedagogy and learning to K-12 teachers I believe that doing so is symptomatic of a larger dilemma in education writ large: the chasm that often divides post-secondary education from its secondary counterpart.  Though the author credits these teachers with having expertise in pedagogy and learning, he also simultaneously denigrates them by saying in the next breath that they act as adversarial disciplinarians.  In this he exacerbates the divide by fueling negative characterizations that separate these two worlds one from the other.

Some have generously argued that the problem in bridging this gap between the findings of pedagogy and the science of learning and university faculty is one of “communication.” We should communicate the results of the work on pedagogy and learning more broadly and that will change minds.  I wish I could be as sanguine.  I think the problem is deeper and rooted in these hierarchies which in turn foster prejudices and disdain.  So the remedy is interaction.  In my experience these hierarchies do not hold once one begins to interact with K-12 educators, composition professors, my colleagues who teach math education at the post-secondary level, and others whose work we are typically quick to trivialize or criticize.  Is teaching high school different from teaching college?  Absolutely.  Are the challenges of teaching freshmen composition different from the challenges of teaching literature?  Of course.  But different does not mean that one is better or more valuable than the other.  I am convinced that we have much to learn from each other if we open a dialogue across these gaps and subvert these hierarchies.  I doubt any one of us–regardless of what we teach–has cornered the market on pedagogical knowledge and insight.  I know I haven’t.  With any luck at all, the best teachers–yes, I said, teachers–are the ones who aren’t done learning how to teach.

 

Try a Little Empathy

As an administrator, I hear lots of complaints from faculty about students and from students about faculty.  It is part of my job to adjudicate these complaints.  But the longer I do this the more I am struck by a seemingly simple observation–but one that is not acknowledged frequently enough–that is at the core of many of these conflicts.  The uncomfortable truth is that the professor-student relationship is predicated on us having power over them. We can seek to mediate that to make it less intimidating. We can seek to be more collaborative and to become their partners in learning.  But at the end of the day we occupy a position of authority and we do powerful things like evaluating their work and assigning grades. I say this not to suggest that we should lord our power over them. Quite the opposite, in fact. Instead, I think we need to remedy our (occasional) failure to fully appreciate how our students experience the power that we have over them.  We need to try a little empathy.

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Too often, our reactions to students assume a disrespect or malice that I don’t think is there. I think instead that students are worried and anxious. I am not saying we should be pushovers. Or that students should be coddled. But I am saying that a little empathy could be constructive. And in my experience, coupling that empathetic disposition with listening can really keep the situation from escalating.

So, like you, I get emails and have interactions with students where they make requests that rankle me: they want extra time to turn in an assignment, they want a detailed study guide for the exam, etc.  There was a time when I would have gotten my hackles up: “how DARE they make these unreasonable requests?”  But I have found that doing so was a failure on my part to consider the anxiety that might reside behind such petitions.  Unreasonable requests are often the last-ditch effort of students who are panicking about a grade.  Is it likely that they got themselves into this pickle to begin with?  Absolutely.  Do I accomplish anything by responding with outrage?  Probably not.

Instead, I have found that if I make my default setting empathy and I take just a few moments to ponder the concerns and fears of my students I am usually able to work towards a more constructive response.  Better still, if I have the opportunity to engage students and talk to them, and even more importantly, listen to them, they are more likely to eventually acknowledge their responsibility.  So whenever possible, find a way to engage with the student–easier to do if they approach you in person, but if they email, invite them to come to office hours or talk to you before or after class.  Email is notoriously bad at communicating tone and intent.  My point is this: oftentimes, students just need to be heard and give voice to their anxieties.  As a chair and now as a dean I continue to be surprised at how often a situation can be defused by just listening.  At least half the time, once a student has finished giving voice to the complaint/concern/frustration, the unreasonable request has evaporated, the student feels heard, and all of this without an escalation of the situation.

But if the unreasonable request hasn’t disappeared after a conversation, your response to that unreasonable request might still be “no.”  That said, I am still persuaded that a momentary flirtation with empathy costs us very little and may keep a situation from worsening.

Empathy has other roles to play in our interactions with students.  Your empathy should include, for example, never assuming that students know how higher education works. This is especially true, of course, for first-generation college students. Even a super-rigorous college prep high school cannot prepare them for the bureaucracy and interactions that define higher education. And this means that they may not know how to interact with you at first.  They may call you by your first name. They may express frustration when you don’t respond to their emails right away. Rather than take these things as a personal affront, take the opportunity to explain the rules of engagement.

As you interact with them, your empathy should also extend to realizing that you might be scary–or at least perceived as such. I like to think that I am nice, approachable, and reasonable in my interactions with students. And I suspect that eventually they are persuaded that I am. But for a student who has never taken a class with me or never come to my office hours, I may be scary and intimidating, no matter how relaxed or jokey or unpretentious I am.  I’m the one who graded that exam they want to discuss. I’m the one who will be hearing, and presumably evaluating, that comment they make in class. An appreciation of these potential tensions and apprehensions that sometimes result from the power dynamic in the professor-student relationship might go a long way to easing interactions with our students.

Some will say that this amounts to coddling students.  I couldn’t disagree more and am inspired by Prof. Sara Rose Cavanagh‘s wise work on the science of student emotions and learning.  She contends that we need to reject the false dichotomy of assuming “that we have to choose between rigor and care.”  Are students sometimes irresponsible and immature and even disrespectful? Absolutely.  My admonition to empathy is in no way meant to deny this.  And there may be situations where a more stern response is required.  My proposal, however, is modest: we should err first on the side of empathy.  Acknowledging the anxieties that adhere to the power we have over our students is a relatively small gesture that may have a large impact on their experiences and our interactions with them.

Mentoring 2.0

By all accounts, having a mentor is a good thing. A mentor is there to provide advice and guidance.   The most common model in the academy is for junior faculty to be assigned a senior faculty mentor. The senior person helps steer the junior person through the first few years of teaching, figuring out the requirements for tenure, and generally negotiating the landscape of a new institution. The research on mentoring demonstrates its key role in recruiting and retaining good faculty.

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Yet there are at least two shortcomings with the current way that mentoring happens on campuses. First, despite its clear benefits to institutions and individuals, we are far from a universal culture of mentoring in higher ed. My non-scientific research on the subject suggests that in the case of junior faculty some institutions assign mentors, some don’t (perhaps due to department size) but do provide broad mentoring support, and some do not have any system, formal or informal, of mentoring. Models for mentoring contingent faculty are few and far between and make the mentoring of junior faculty look positively robust.

Second, where it does exist, the model of one-on-one mentoring is not adequate. What do you do when confronted with a difficult work situation that because of power dynamics can’t be addressed entirely or adequately by your mentor relationship? Let me ground this in a specific example: a junior female faculty member receives a very critical peer evaluation of her teaching from a senior male colleague. Her attempts to discuss the evaluation with her colleague are rebuffed. But this individual is also a close friend of her mentor and has repeatedly sung his praises to her. What recourse does she have? The scenario could even be less dire. Even with the best intentions and careful selection, mentoring matchups don’t always work. What if you have a mentor assigned to you and that person isn’t a good fit (for whatever reason)?

The remedy for both of these shortcomings rest with senior faculty and administrators. We need to commit to and create a culture of mentoring on our campuses. This is an admittedly broad and amorphous goal.   Simply saying that an institution has a commitment to mentoring, will not be adequate. Once it’s been said, though, there are ways to build it into the culture of the place.

Don’t wait or hope for mentoring relationships to be constructed. Obviously, the particulars will vary according to the size and other circumstances at each institution, but make mentoring the responsibility of someone at the vice provost or dean level. That person can certainly delegate the specifics down to the department or division level, but the mentoring buck needs to stop with someone. Otherwise, it’s all too easy to assume that someone else will make it happen. Make the provision of mentoring a part of what’s discussed in campus interviews—we tell job candidates about parking and healthcare, why not let them know that mentoring will be part of their experience? Build the expectation of mentoring into letters of hire. Create a community of mentors on campus, who through face-to-face meetings, and some sort of online platform, can talk to each other about challenges and best practices. And do not limit mentoring to tenure-track faculty. We all know the demographics. If we are neglecting to mentor contingent faculty we are doing them and our institutions a disservice. And what about mid-career faculty? Faculty who need support to make the jump from Associate Professor to Professor rank? Or tenured faculty who are beginning to move into campus administrative roles? Wherever and however possible, weave mentoring into the fabric of campus life.

But as you do, be attentive to the limitations of the one-on-one model described above. What about instead assigning groups of faculty mentors to groups of mentored faculty? In other words, what if we imagined mentoring on the model of networks? This is more consistent with how we conduct much of our academic lives these days anyway on Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms that connect us to multiple people at once. The existence of a network would give the mentored faculty options in seeking guidance and resolution to problems. It would also give them an immediate community on campus. Rather than isolated meetings with one mentor, the network could meet at least once a semester and the mentored faculty would meet not just mentors, but other new faculty as well. Meaningful one-on-one relationships might grow out of these networks, and that would be an added bonus. But it would be an outgrowth of a broader network and would be more flexible than simply hoping that one-on-one assignments were a good fit.

Certainly, the network model comes with complications. What if, for example, the members of the network offer conflicting advice? Some conflicts like this could be avoided, though, if the mentors worked together, compared notes, and got to know the mentored faculty as well as possible. Rather than a barrier, then, the need for this kind of mini culture of mentoring within the network of mentors would bolster the overall institutional culture of mentoring.

When mentoring works, everyone wins. The mentored faculty receives guidance and advice that can only contribute to their job satisfaction. The mentors build strong ties with their colleagues. And the institution is stronger for this culture of support. That said, the old model of mentoring tenure-track faculty through the one-on-one model is inadequate. Mentoring needs to be woven into the fabric of an institution at all levels and should embrace a networking model of connecting mentors and mentored.

 

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.

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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.

 

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.

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?

 

Before It’s Too Late

Goodbye, July.  You were a terrific month.  I didn’t travel, but for me, that’s kind of a break.  The weather was spectacular: warm days and cool nights.  My garden flourished.  I took a few 3-day weekends and read books–some for work, others not.  I cleaned out my front closet.  I drank rosé.

But now your friend, August, lurks around the corner.  August means syllabi.  And returning faculty.  And retreats.  And panicked students.  I always think I’m ready for August and then suddenly it’s Labor Day weekend and I’m already behind.

But not this year!  This year I will not let August get the better of me.  If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I value planning and lists.  So before it’s August 23 and you’re wondering what happened to the first three weeks of the month, take stock and get ready for the semester/term/quarter and academic year that lies in front of you.  Divide and conquer: what will the teaching and service demands on your time be?  Is there anything you really want to accomplish in one of your courses this time?  What’s something tangible you can do to make your thankless work on that committee a bit (or maybe even a lot) more tolerable?  Go back to my post on balance and think about those anticipated and unexpected moments when you might be able to squeeze in some research time.  Prepare for those by making a list NOW of the smaller tasks that you could do when that hour becomes available.

In other words, get ready.  “But,” you say, “I’m organized.  I want summer to last a bit longer.  I don’t want to start making lists yet.”  I can almost guarantee, however, that time will accelerate.  That writing your syllabi will take longer than you thought it would.  That when you get home from that department retreat on August 14 the last thing you will want to do is think about the Committee of Thankless Work.  So do yourself a favor.  Make even just one list now.  Before your mind is racing.  Before your plate is full (or fuller than it already is).  August is a cruel month.  You think it should still be summer, but the pace will quicken and suddenly it will be the first day of classes.

So while your head is still clear look at the expanse of the upcoming term and year and set some goals–big or small.  If they’re big, break them into their smaller components.  And then arm yourself with a couple of lists, plans, strategies–however you want to organize and name them.  And then reward yourself by sitting outside with a cool drink and telling August that you’re ready.

The Myth of Balance

Balance.  Elusive and, frankly, mythical.  Consider the following from writer Elizabeth Gilbert, posting on her Facebook page, where she speaks out against what she calls the “subtle tyranny” of the concept of balance: “To say that someone has found the secret to a balanced life is to suggest that they have solved life, and that they now float through their days in a constant state of grace and ease, never suffering stress, ambivalence, confusion, exhaustion, anger, fear, or regret. Which is a wonderful description of nobody, ever.”

But if you’re like me, I suspect you continue to hunt for balance.  For those of us in academe, it’s that mythical balance among teaching, research, and service (never mind, trying to carve out some time for hobbies and exercise!).  Let me propose a different way of framing the problem: rather than searching for the elusive state of balance, instead be on the lookout for openings and opportunities.  One of the advantages of our profession is that it’s never the same day twice.  A meeting may get canceled, a student may miss an advising appointment, and suddenly an hour opens up.  And at least  a couple of times a year a new term/quarter/semester begins and we have the opportunity to wipe the slate clean and start again.  All of this requires recognizing that there will rarely–if ever–be an uninterrupted block of several hours when you can Work on the Book or Plan the New Course or Finish the Curriculum Report.  You will need to capitalize on the unexpected hour or anticipate when there will be some brief grading lulls during the semester.

This is what I mean by anticipating or seizing openings and opportunities.  Rather than beat yourself up because you didn’t do something related to your research today, see if there’s an hour or two in the coming week when you could write 250 words or enter some material into your database.  Taking this approach will also necessitate breaking the work into smaller pieces.  You may know what the finished product should be (The Book, The Course, The Report), but work your way back from that endpoint and then break that big project into its constituent parts (I should add that I’ve found this to be a good strategy for battling procrastination, too.  Once a project seems more manageable, I’m more likely to work on it).  That way, when you find that spare hour you have a clear sense of the tasks at hand, and you’re ready to dig in and make some progress.

Balance in all its illusory forms–work-life (a false dichotomy anyway), teaching-research-service–should not be the goal.  Its holy grail-ness will just keep frustrating us and making us feel inadequate.  In the place of balance, we can put planning and preparedness that will allow us to see those pockets of time that lurk within our existing schedules or appear unexpectedly, and make the most of them.