Tag Archives: sanity

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.

It’s Called Work for a Reason

So I have been thinking a lot about work.  And overwork.  And boundaries.  And trying to have a life (whatever that means).  My inner monologue is a constant tug of war between feeling woefully behind and unproductive and pep talks about how it’s okay to make time for things that don’t involve work. And judging from my Twitter feed, I’m not alone in this.

Undoubtedly, these anxieties are fueled generally by our culture’s obsession with overwork and productivity and how we make those the measures of our self-worth.  More particularly, the current metrics and marketplace of academe create a relentless cycle of never having done enough.

But I think there’s another, less examined culprit as well: the tension between a job on the one hand, and a vocation on the other.

A vocation is literally something you feel called or summoned to do.  And at the outset (before all the committee meetings and grading marathons) I suspect most of us came to higher ed with at least a small sense of that.  We wanted to teach.  We wanted to create knowledge.  And because it’s something we feel drawn to doing, a vocation is, by definition, supposed to provide satisfaction.  We wouldn’t be doing it, if we didn’t want to do it, or even love doing it.

But you know that saying, “Love what you do and you’ll never work a day in your life”?  We might think this encapsulates the essence of a vocation–a job that transcends drudgery and mere necessity, and provides some sort of deeper fulfillment.  But here’s the thing: there’s a part of me that pushes back (hard) against this pithy little saying.  I think the concept of vocation also has the potential to become a limiting and tyrannical force in our lives.

On the one hand, I get it.  We all want to feel a sense of purpose and as though we are in the right place, doing the work we were meant to do.  We all want our work to be meaningful.  Considering the amount of time we spend there (and perhaps, even the amount of time we spend going back and forth to our workplaces) feeling passionate and excited about our work is critical.  And as someone who has supervised others–both faculty and staff–I know how essential it is for people to be excited and engaged with the work that they do.  And most days, I have these feelings and I love my job.  I work with amazing students, the college classroom energizes me, I have creative and supportive colleagues, and I’m still excited about my research agenda.  I do feel called to do the work I do in higher ed.

But some days it’s awful.  An angry parent, an uncooperative colleague, a failed grant proposal, a rejected article–all of these can derail that passion and sense of vocation.

And even without such dramatic interventions, sometimes work is just that: work.  It can be tedious (hello, endless forms required for anything to happen at my university), it can require tasks that are not naturally in your skill set (hello, Excel spreadsheets!), it can be boring (hello, bi-weekly compulsory meeting where nothing is accomplished). I don’t know about you, but I have days and moments when I genuinely question this thing I’ve felt was my vocation for so long.  Thankfully, those episodes usually pass quickly or are at least batted away by going for a run or drinking a margarita.

But this idea of a vocation can still mess with our heads and lead us to make bad choices.  Focusing on our job as a vocation and not simply the work that it sometimes is, runs the risk of encouraging us to make unnecessary sacrifices because it’s our “calling.”  If we treat our work as a vocation it becomes all too easy to justify staying in the office after 5pm, checking email when we wake up in the middle of the night, or saying “yes” to another commitment when our plate is already full to overflowing.  And I would venture to guess that the tyranny of vocation is particularly the bane of women and POC in the academy who tend to do or be expected to do more service and more emotional labor than their counterparts.  These individuals may in turn feel as though they should discredit or brush aside their exasperation and exhaustion because they’re meant to be fulfilling the higher call of a vocation.

It’s okay to be passionate about our work.  And we ought to seek and nurture and expand those parts of our job that deliver joy and satisfaction and purpose.  But sometimes work is work and it’s hard.  And we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about that.  So it’s also okay to say “it’s just a job,” and to close the laptop, set the phone aside, and to step away to do something else that makes you happy.

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.

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.

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?

Email: Can’t Live With It…

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

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

Mozilla_Thunderbird_3.1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starting Over, Back to Basics

‘Tis the season–back to school!  Even through I worked through the summer, August is that time of year when I fall under the happy spell of the promise of a new year and a fresh start.  The classroom, the office, the lab all seem shinier in the fall than they do at the beginning of a spring term. I recently got a fresh start with something else.  After being sidelined by a stress fracture, I started running again this week.  It is a humbling, sometimes frustrating, experience to return to something I love without the stamina and (relative) speed that I had twelve weeks ago when I had to stop.  But, starting over has also given me the chance to think about and fine tune various parts of my running regimen: my form, speedwork, what kind of an event I want to train for (a half-marathon, perhaps?).  In other words, I’m trying to take advantage of being back at square one.  How might that lesson translate into beginning a new academic year?  What can you do differently or fine tune in this season of fresh starts?

1.  Mapping the campus.  If you’re a department chair or other middle management administrator, chances are you’ve been around the block a few times and you know the lay of the land.  Or do you?  I find that the org chart and personnel at my university are constantly changing.  Suddenly, the office of International Programs no longer reports to Admissions, but instead reports to the Provost; this will change how we handle study abroad.  There’s a new person in charge of graduation applications; this changes my contact for questions about graduation.  Not to mention offices that have moved.  I had no idea Counseling Services was in a different building; now I can refer students to the right location.  You get the idea.

2.  Mapping your day.  After five years of being in the office most days of the week for 6-8 hours each day I have discovered that my powers of concentration evaporate between 1 and 3pm.  So this is NOT a good time for me to do anything detail oriented or to read for class.  It is a good time to finish relatively mindless bits of paperwork, to sort through the ever-increasing number of piles on my desk, and to answer simple email inquiries.  This also means that the hours between 9 and 1 ARE good for reading and writing documents that require focus.  There are some things I can’t change about my workdays: my teaching schedule, regularly scheduled meetings, but I can take the times that are my own and use them as productively as possible.

3.  Breaking bad habits.  As a runner, I am really bad about stretching after a workout.  As a chair, I am really bad about organizing my electronic files.  I use Dropbox and tend to just “throw” files in there, willy-nilly, reasoning that I will go back later and sort them into folders, etc.  This strategy has not served me well.  Time to change it.  Also time to stretch after a run.

4.  Mixing it up.  Look around your workspace, wherever it is.  Could it be organized more effectively?  Would moving a chair or a bookshelf or hanging a bulletin board somewhere else contribute to better work flow?  Or what about changing things just for the sake of change, just to make it look different as a way of signifying a fresh start?  Hang that poster on a different wall, put down a throw rug, buy yourself a new coffee mug.  Do something with your workspace that says this is the beginning of a new academic year.

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.