Tag Archives: professional development

Academic, Know Thyself

So as you’ll know from my last post, this has been a busy few months.  And if there is anything good that has come out of feeling constantly frazzled, behind, and discombobulated, it is a reassessment of how I work.  At first I was frustrated by the need to do this.  I’ve been in the academy for a long time–why I haven’t I figured this out more effectively?  Am I just a slow learner?  But then I realized that my life in the academy has constantly changed: from faculty member to department chair to full-time administrator (who tries, desperately, to keep a research agenda going).  I have also recently said yes to several big projects within the profession and these have definitely added complexity to my work life.

And so, I find myself taking stock and trying to make the chaos more manageable.  And one general observation I’ve made is that I need an inventory of what works–and what doesn’t–in the ways that I order my life and tasks.  Good academic that I am, I have read and researched, and I follow the blogs and commentary of other academics who are trying to do the same.  But in the end, as with so many things, it comes down to what works for YOU.  In other words, know yourself in all of your messy glory and work back from there.

I got lucky and stumbled upon some preliminary answers as I mulled this over for the past few weeks, but to avoid it being a random, undirected process, I would recommend asking yourself the following questions:

  1.  Where do you get stuck in your work?  Is there a particular task or time of day that routinely hangs you up?  What can you do to change or manage that?
  2. What are some small fixes that you can make in the short term while you figure out the big picture?
  3. What energizes you and helps provide the momentum to keep you going?

As some food for thought, here are a few things I’ve begun doing that resulted from trying to do a better job of figuring myself out.

Manage Your Bad Habits: In the long term you can work on breaking your bad habits, but in the short term, you need coping mechanisms.  Take my relationship with emails: if I can find a way to put off writing a difficult or complicated email, I will.  Now for the future should I work on a better system of managing my email?  Yes.  Absolutely.  But in the short term, there are emails that need to be written and business that needs to get taken care of.  So here’s what I’ve tried:

  • Tee it up: there are emails that I know I will eventually need to send, but I’m just waiting for a few details to fall into place.  I have started writing those emails in advance and letting them sit in my drafts folder.  Then, once the details are available, I just drop them in, and I’m done!
  • My inability to work on emails is symptomatic of a larger issue with procrastination.  There is a rich literature on why we procrastinate, but in the short term what helps me is to Just Start It.  Whether it’s an email or some other project that’s nagging at me, I set a timer for fifteen minutes and begin working.  The point here is not to go all Nike and Just Do It, because frankly that’s too overwhelming, and I never will.  But if I Just Start It I typically realize it isn’t so awful and I do have a handle on it.  Or maybe I don’t and it is awful, but at least then I’ve begun to figure out what I need to do to finish it.

Finally, digging deep and trying to assess what makes my work life tick has revealed that I need to Make Time for the Good Stuff.  I know this is often easier said than done, but try to identify what makes you happy and then endeavor to do it as often as possible.  Last week I was in a miserable mood when suddenly it occurred to me that two things that typically make me very happy–going for a run and taking time out to write–had both been markedly absent from my week.  I know that these things make me happy, but I don’t always do a good job of making time for them.  Like everything else that needs to get done–meetings, teaching, etc–I need to put these things on my schedule.  I went for a run yesterday, and yesterday I started this blog post.  And already I really do feel more like myself.

Do I hope that I will break my procrastinating habits?  Yes.  I also hope that I’ll get better about eating more vegetables.  But in the meantime, I need to find ways to make my bad habits manageable and to identify what energizes me and do more of it.

How would your work life look different if you dug deep and tried to know yourself a bit better?

Back to School, Administrator-Style

I confess: the first day of fall term always gets me.  I love the shiny new-ness of it all.  The term and the academic year lie in front of you–anything is possible!


But I will also confess that as an administrator, a little bit of that fall luster is lacking. When I was a full-time faculty member, I usually had been away from campus for big chunks of the summer.  I’d also been in a different kind of headspace: doing research, taking time to think, and with any luck, do some writing.  I would return to campus with renewed resolve.  I was all about the bouquet of newly sharpened pencils that Tom Hanks describes in “You’ve Got Mail.”  This would be the year that I would get all my lecture notes organized!  This would be the year I would stay current with the journals in my field! (we will put aside, for now, whether or not I achieved these things.  I suspect you know the answer).

But as an administrator, I work on a 12-month contract.  Sure, I take vacation in the summer, but I don’t really get long breaks from campus.  And yes, I try to carve out a little bit of time for my research, but it usually takes a back seat to more pressing administrative projects.  There’s a continuity to my work life now that means fall doesn’t feel like the dramatic shift that it used to when I had been away geographically and cognitively during the summer.

Administrative work, in addition to its continuity, can also easily become drudgery. Reports, meetings, spreadsheets, and other bits of administrivia can wear down even the best and most enthusiastic administrators.

So rather than get mired in my meh-ness or let my 12-month contract define me, I’d like to propose some strategies for recapturing some of the fresh start-ness of fall term.  Consider this a back to school primer of sorts, for administrators (though faculty may find some useful tips here as well!).

  1.  Identify something about your administrative work that brings you joy.  It can be big or small, but you need to find it and make time for it.  Maybe it’s helping faculty connect with grant opportunities.  Maybe it’s developing new curriculum.  Maybe it’s finding a new way to make a cumbersome university process more streamlined.  Use the start of a new year to reconnect with the part(s) of your job that you enjoy and let that provide a jump start for the next twelve months.
  2. Identify something that you could be better at.  If you’re like me, graduate school didn’t prepare you for administration, so the learning curve can be steep.  For example, when I started in administration, I was AWFUL at Excel and spreadsheets.  I have worked on cultivating this skill.  Embrace the start of a new school year to say that this will be the year that you learn how to do a certain task or figure out a certain problem.  It’s okay to be bad at something.  It’s not okay to continue to be bad at it if it’s essential to your work.
  3. Pay it forward.  If you’ve made it into the ranks of administration you probably have some seniority at your institution.  One thing that can restore a sense of resolve and purpose to the start of the new year is reconnecting with your faculty colleagues and helping those individuals thrive.  So reach out to those junior to you and be a mentor or an ally.
  4. Find a way to teach or interact with students.  I have strong feelings about why administrators should teach (which I will save for a future blog post), but for now, I will just say that much of what is missing in higher ed administration could be remedied by administrators reconnecting with the classroom and students.  And it’s good for you, too.  Nothing helps me transcend administrivia and spreadsheets better than the unscripted and unvarnished perspective of students.  So maybe you don’t have time to teach an entire course.  What if you guest-lectured for a colleague in your disciplinary area?  What if you sponsored a co-curricular activity that gave students the opportunity to meet and provide feedback to the dean/associate dean/provost?
  5. Vow to do one thing that is about taking care of you.  Maybe it’s getting regular exercise, or drinking more water, or taking time for a hobby that makes you happy.  Whatever it is, take advantage of this time of fresh starts to make it a priority.

I hope these strategies or any others you might identify will help you reconnect with the newness of the fall term.  May it be a year of sharp pencils, well-written reports, and easily comprehended spreadsheets!


Building Better Teachers

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


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

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

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

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

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


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.

Slow Down, You Move Too Fast

I am waiting.  I am waiting hopefully and patiently for the pendulum to swing in the other direction.  I am waiting for a cultural shift that will stop glorifying busy and that will stop measuring our worth by our ability to multitask, work long hours, and turn our smartphones into near-permanent appendages.

(And rest assured, I am guilty of all these things).

For now, however, I know that this means tilting at windmills.  So instead, I will write in defense of sabbaticals–both big and small.  At its most literal sabbatical comes from the Hebrew word “shabbat” or sabbath and means ceasing or taking a time of rest–typically, ceasing from work, so that attentions can be devoted elsewhere.  In the academy, of course, it is a break from teaching and other quotidian responsibilities, so that you can take time to do research, travel to archives, work in the lab, develop new curriculum, finish your book, etc.  Arguably, that ceasing from other tasks and obligations, opens up time and space for productivity to flourish.

But it might also do something less grand, but no less essential.  It might create space and time to think.  But, wait, isn’t that what we, as academics do all the time?  I’m going to guess that most academics would not answer that question in the affirmative.  Yes, I have to think about the student thesis I’m reading or the agenda I need to prepare for the department meeting or my lecture notes for Western Civ.  But careful, reflective thought that would help me finish that book chapter or outline that new course proposal?  Thought that would result in creative and innovative ideas/solutions/brainstorming?  Moments for that are few and far between.

And yet, we all need exactly that kind of time, as a recent study demonstrates.  In a compelling piece in The Atlantic, Rebecca Rosen investigated the dilemma of  feeling overwhelmed and overworked.  The big takeaway from that piece: “The brain is wired for the ‘A Ha’ moment to come, not when our noses are pressed firmly into the grindstone, but in a break in the action. When we let our mind wander. In the shower. On a walk. When we are idle, neuroscience is showing that our brains are most active.”

So if a semester-long or better still, year-long, sabbatical opens up space and time for that kind of thought?  So much the better.  But what about all the years, months, and days that separate us and our faculty from the next sabbatical?  If we really intend to spur creativity and innovation both inside and outside the classroom (and I’ll be honest, I’m not always sure this is the goal of my upper administration, but that’s a subject for another blog post) we must go about it differently.  As chairs we must find ways to encourage our faculty to create these open spaces when they cease from multitasking, put down the smartphone, and give themselves a break.  How do we do this?  By modelling it and talking about it.

As I noted above, I am as guilty as anyone of these overwhelmed and overworked practices.  We all have to-do lists that are a mile long.  But if my faculty see me disconnecting (even it it’s as simple as not eating lunch at my desk and instead going into the break room) there is power in that example.  And we must talk about this, too.  As most faculty prepare to depart for the summer, what if we encouraged this kind of openness instead of asking when the book is going to be finished or the new course proposal drafted?

Now certainly, we cannot encourage endless mulling that results in nothing.  I know that every reader of this post could present an anecdote about that faculty member who took three sabbaticals and never finished the long-promised book.  You might ask, why create a system that caters to these types?  The problem with that faculty member may be that he/she is overworked and overwhelmed, but there are also issues of procrastination and perhaps even project conceptualization at work there.  The question, then, is which faculty member should dictate the terms.  I will reach out to the faculty member who is always stymied in completing a project.  But overall, rather than a culture that penalizes procrastination, I would rather foster one that encourages creativity and time to think.  In the best sense of the word “sabbatical,” whether they last twenty minutes or a year, we all need more of them.

Keeping Calm

So it’s mid-semester here and I just made myself a cup of tea.  I’d rather do that than face the pile of grading, the nagging thoughts of all the emails I need to send, and the department agenda I need to prepare.  The mug that’s holding my work-avoidance tea (pictured here) was a door prize from the IDEA Center, a nonprofit that provides “assessment and feedback systems to improve learning in higher education.”  I attended one of their sessions at the Academic Chairpersons Conference this February.2014-03-17 12.50.05

The “Keep Calm” meme is everywhere these days, but in this context, it does raise an interesting question.  How do you keep calm as a chair?  Do you keep calm?  Recent research into our brains and happiness suggests that we will do better, more creative, and more productive work if we are already happy.  In other words, don’t wait for success at work in the hopes that it will make you happy; rather, start happy and the good work will follow.  Calm and happy are not necessarily the same things, but I think the benefits of a happy state of mind are probably not too far removed from the benefits of a calm state of mind.

With this in mind, today’s blog is of the very practical variety.  While musing about types of leadership and the future of higher ed, we all have to deal with our daily workload.  So let me propose two things I do to minimize disorder and keep calm.

1.  Before you leave your office at the end of the day, tidy it up.  I’m not suggesting you can get everything organized and properly filed–especially if it’s been a busy day involving lots of different tasks.  But even if it’s just arranging things in neater piles, when you walk in the next morning, you won’t be greeted by chaos, and you can start the day in a calmer state of mind.

2.  Before you leave your office at the end of the day, make a list of what you need to do tomorrow.  The simple act of writing those things down is a kind of tidying up, but it will also empty these things out of your brain so that you don’t worry about them overnight.  In other words, it will calm your mind.

What strategies do you have for keeping calm?

New Tricks for Old Chairs

This past week I attended the Academic Chairpersons Conference for the first time.  Now in its 31st year, I’m wishing I’d discovered it sooner.  In the first post on this blog I bemoaned the lack of training and preparation that many chairs face.  This conference provided an excellent remedy and offered sessions ranging from assessment to handling student complaints to time management.File:Jean-Louis Forain Dancer with a Hoop.jpg

I had previously attended a similar conference focused on chairs of arts and sciences departments.  And admittedly, this one casts the net wider and included chairs of departments I rarely interact with, even at my own university.  Although there are some distinctly disciplinary issues that chairs contend with, not surprisingly, we share more challenges than not.  Heads nodded vigorously every time someone shared an anecdote about the difficult faculty member or the university’s “business plan.”

I took copious notes, collected numerous handouts, and listened appreciatively to the wisdom and strategies of my colleagues.  But now what?  As with so many conferences, I ask myself the question, how will this experience change my work?  This blog will provide one opportunity to think aloud, strategize, and implement some of the best practices I learned about.  But I will also pose this as a broader question: given the chance for professional development as a chair, what do we then do with that knowledge?  How do we bring those lessons back to our home campuses, especially when those lessons might be in conflict with the prevailing culture at our institutions?

Stuck in the Middle?

uni2Stuck in the Middle?  Are you an academic stuck in the middle, somewhere between faculty and the upper administration?  Are you a department chair or associate dean, caught in that grey area where they label you a “faculty administrator”?  Welcome to the club–this blog is for you!  We are the middle-management of our institutions: chairs, directors, and associate deans.  We are not provosts or vice presidents.  No, we are a different breed of administrator.  We are the ones who still teach in addition to their administrative responsibilities.  The ones who usually receive modest, if any, increases in pay for their labors.

And I chose to become one.  I have been a department chair for several years now.  For better or worse, I have always had some talents in this area.  Some people can tap dance, some can bake pies with flaky crusts. I can run a meeting that won’t make you want to tear your hair out or run screaming from the room (rules of a good meeting to follow in a future blog post).  A lot of it is common sense, but it never hurts to be reminded.

Why This Blog?  Despite coming to this position with some administrative experience and some modest skills, in these last years I have learned volumes about myself and how to manage people.  I have made mistakes.  I think I am good at being chair, but I decided that a forum for posting about it would help deepen and hone my skills and hopefully make me a better chair as I serve a second three-year term.  I am also deeply troubled by how little institutional preparation and mentoring there is for faculty who choose or find themselves in these positions.  I don’t know about you, but nobody taught me how to be a department chair when I was in graduate school.  I see this blog, then, as a space for that kind of advocacy and support.  And finally, there is also, of course, the question of maintaining one’s personal sanity, finding time for research or creative activity, and having a life while being stuck in the middle.  I hope to be able to offer some insight about that, too.  For starters, I recommend some sort of cardiovascular sport that makes you sweat a lot (for me, it’s running) and a beverage that makes you happy (for me, it’s a dirty martini).

I welcome your comments, feedback, and suggestions for topics for future posts.