Shifting the culture of overproduction

29 July 2016 by Lisa Meloncon

Pile-of-PaperI’ve been thinking a lot about burnout, overproduction (the feeling you have to produce just one more thing), and the increase in the number of conversations that revolve around how busy we all are. It’s almost as if we’re on a hamster wheel and we’re afraid to get off.

Three things got me to thinking about things. First, a twitter friend in another field tweeted a series of tweets where she was talking about her constant feelings of guilt as she tried to vacation. Because she felt that she should be working. She is highly successful, already has a book published, and she feels pressured to work all the time. It broke my heart a little.

Then that got me thinking about a tweet and series of conversations that occurred last year at this time. Then I tweeted:

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I was somewhat surprised that it was retweeted so often (especially in the summer quietness of the twitterverse). But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that I shouldn’t be surprised at all.

Then I remembered a dust-up on twitter during the December, 2015 break. There were tweets coming from different parts of higher education about who is working—and not working—over the “break.” What started out—in my view—as a simple gauge of who was working ended up being this ongoing “who is busier” thing couple with many tweets trying to make folks feel guilty and is if they were wrong if they weren’t working. (Granted the most heated part of this discussion started over in the sciences where the soft money as salary makes the stress and the work schedules a whole lot different.) But, the discussion got so out of hand—even by twitter standards—that the original poster deleted the original tweet and completely backed out of the conversations.

It’s not uncommon to answer the question of “how are you?” with “Busy.” We’re rhetoricians and language people and some of us are even linguists, and that reply isn’t a standard and in some ways doesn’t answer the question. We’re all busy, and the degree and kind of busy varies based on our jobs (which I should remind you are all different) and our own personal priorities (which I should remind you are all different). But, it’s an important point when the academic culture has turned to one where overwork , overproduction, and guilt is the norm. And the standard answer to a question of wellness is “busy.”

We have created a culture of “too busy” that leads to the constant feelings of burnout, exhaustion , and guilt. And within that culture, it is perceived that if you aren’t too busy or cranky because of overwork then you’re doing something wrong or you’re not doing something right. It is painful to watch so many new faculty and grad students (hell, and “old “ faculty, too!) put their health—physical and mental—in danger because of this culture.

As I continue to work on a project about tenure and promotion and have started to interview people, I am discouraged by the pervasiveness of the thinking of faculty that one has to overproduce to just be sure that criteria are met. I guarantee you there is no extra tenure for all that extra work. (and the documents I’ve examined and senior faculty I have interviewed don’t seem to support this stance for overproduction.)

This whole culture and festishization of overproduction has to stop. Truly. ¹

I totally get that sometimes it is hard to separate our lives from our work because we do in many ways have a life of the mind, so it can’t be separated, or we feel we have a vocation that’s it’s not work at all. And that’s great. But every person and every mind needs a break.

Some will even claim that they love parts of their job so much that it seems like a hobby. I get that too. But I would encourage you to actually find a hobby that isn’t connected to your research, service, or teaching.

So how can we start to shift the culture to make over production and over work stop? I don’t have all the answers to this question, but I do have a couple of simple suggestions for trying to break the viscous overwork cycle.

The Butt in Chair Philosophy

The writing only gets done when you’re trying to do it rather than talking about it. No matter if this writing is for research or a big service report or for teaching materials. You have to start to be able to finish and that requires your butt being in the chair. It is true that if try to have a set time—everyday—you will learn habits to become more efficient. The positive energy from getting things done should lead to being able to feel as though you can take some time off.

Quiet time

Nothing helps with getting work done than having brain space to do it. That means you have to find a way to give yourself some quiet time to let your brain relax and de-stress and de-clutter. For many people, exercise helps with this, even if it’s just a short walk. For others, it’s meditation, and for others still, it’s cleaning or reading anything non-academic.

 This is a job

When I think back to when I was full-time consultant, the thing I am most thankful from that time is learning how to do a job. Yes, academia is a unique kind of job, but shifting your thinking slightly will enable you to get a lot more work done when you have a set schedule for yourself. And when you hit the end of the work day, you reward yourself—guilt free—with small things like your favorite beer or wine, a decadent dessert, a long bath…whatever it is that truly feels like a treat for a job well done.

Understand your requirements

Do not rely on lore or anecdote. Do not compare yourself to others. Instead let your tenure and promotion documents become your best friend. Understand what they mean and how they are enacted. Ask trusted mentors internally about any unwritten requirements, and make a plan to achieve the requirements at YOUR institution. (Institutions vary widely so here is where a narrow focus is good. ²

Focus on the positives

As I’ve written before, there’s a lot of “No’s” in this job. Focus on the positive. Surround yourself with those people who are positive. Take advice from those who have the kind of success like you would like to have, that is, those that seem have found some semblance of balance.

And the field as a whole needs to acknowledge that when we can, we need to be certain that our policies and more importantly unwritten expectations are in sync. Us oldsters have that obligation to those coming up behind us to do what we can to make our working environments as kind and humane as possible.

Finally, we need to have sustained discussions about strategies for balancing our lives to include guilt-free breaks and vacations ³, as well as trying to understand what has caused this culture of overproduction.

Cause this is my hope, the next time I ask someone “how are you?” I really want to know how you are rather than to hear “busy.” We all deserve that. We really, really do.



  1. Now, before I am accused of being a hypocrite because most folks in the little technical and professional communication world will immediately call me out as one who works too much, let me go ahead and publicly acknowledge a secret I have long held dear. I take time off. Since I was consultant for over 15 years with high-pressure deadlines and multiple projects always going on at the same time, I developed strategies and habits that have lead me to be painfully efficient in short periods of time. So while many folks think I am a workaholic and I work all the time, the fact of the matter is that I don’t. So when I tweet things like the need to take breaks or tell you in conversations that you need to take time for yourself, I truly am practicing what I preach. (And I have long said out loud, repeatedly, that I am a strange and unique anti-academic and I should never, ever be the example for most anything! 🙂  I do gather good data though. So you that can be an exemplar!)
  2. Admittedly, this does not take into account all scenarios such as if you’re considering going back on the market. That’s a post for another day.
  3. Also, I totally get that there are periods where things converge that you hadn’t planned and there are few choices but to put in a series of long days (and nights). But this should be the exception, and not the rule.






Expertise and Service

22 July 2016 by Michele Simmons and Pat Sullivan

How do you build toward a coherent and flexible portrait of expertise with service work?

At the Women in Tech Comm luncheon during the ATTW conference in April, we talked about service, more specifically we talked about strategies for making service count in the institutional documents in which we are most frequently evaluated—annual activity reports and promotion and tenure documents. Categories for talking about service and how service is weighted in these institutional documents differ greatly across institutions. These differences across institutions are important to consider–we don’t have a common language for service or how we talk about service. Yet, developing a common language is necessary for changing the often nebulous ways in which service is counted toward professional advancement.

A luncheon activity asked attendees to place professional activities they knew would count as either research or teaching at their institution into columns on a handout. We then asked the women to list all other professional activities they do in a middle column. We hoped both to make visible the work the women performed but also to prompt a conversation about the ways in which this work might be considered research or teaching through language and representation. For example, a classroom community-based writing project might be written up and result in a research entry as a published article.

As a focused follow up to the service discussion at the luncheon, Pat Sullivan and Michele Simmons facilitated a Women in Tech Comm talk on the language we use when we talk about service. Specifically we talked about the ways in which a metalanguage of service enables us to navigate and trouble the categories our institutions provide for us to represent our service work in ways that productively intersect with our representation of our research and teaching in order to create a portrait or trajectory of expertise that is often expected for tenure and promotion and other professional advancement. Universities want experts. How do we portray ourselves as reflecting this expertise through service?


A first step toward creating such a portrait of expertise may be understanding the options available for building arguments about service. For example, during our talk, we discussed issues such as the visibility of deliverables, actions, and choices. Specifically, Pat notes that service operates both more and less visibly. Service may be made visible through documents such as annual activity reports or artifacts such as instruments we have developed to assess curriculum as well as reports or websites we create for community partners. Service also operates in less visible ways such as service actions and toolkits we use for framing our choices. The more visible and the more consistently framed the service, the more likely you are to create a portrait of expertise. These less visible operations warrant some unpacking.

Categories of Framing

We can think of categories of framing our service as a toolkit that provides a range of options to help us talk about our service in ways that create a portrait of expertise. These categories of framing include our service language choices, reporting conventions, entrepreneurial actions, and documenting actions. Service language choices, which ask us to consider not only how we describe our service, but also how we choose the headings or categories for our service, come into play in documents such as annual activity reports and CVs. Our academic institutions dictate, to some extent, what categories we use for reporting our service work in our annual activities report. These reports typically use the same reporting format in all departments within an institution and often do not accommodate the nuanced service work of a particular field. While we may not be able to change the categories available in our annual activities reports, we can give careful consideration to which category best reflects how we want to represent our service work as well as how to describe our service in language that highlights and reinforces the expertise we aim to portray. In other words, we can create and open spaces for our service work if we carefully consider the language we use in our descriptions and how those descriptions promote our expertise within (or near) the boundaries of institutionally-established categories.

Variation Across Institutions

At the same time that annual activities reports often appear a one-size-fits-all for an entire institution, their formats and categories vary across institutions. The variances can highlight what individual institutions value but they also show a lack of a common language regarding service. For example, recently the annual activities report at Michele’s institution have evolved from six categories for service, which primarily focused on types of service to the department, the college, and the university as a whole, to eight categories for service, which included two different types of service to the community with detailed definitions of each. Colleagues at other institutions noted that categories for their service varied from one to seven, and also varied by the type of service emphasized. The variation may mean that for some of us, when the categories offered do not accommodate the way we want to portray our service work, we have to add a new category within the most closely related category. Other strategies we can deploy include using existing headings but providing a detailed descriptions of the service work that aims to make visible the nuances of that work in ways that support and to connect it to a particular expertise as well as considering placing the detailed description in another category all together—such as teaching or research. Drawing from our luncheon example, service to the community might fall under research if it leads to publication or teaching if you work with the same community partners in a course project.

Service as Expertise

While certainly more agency exists for choosing categories or headings as we construct our CVs, we still need to consider what categories will resonate and be recognized by our intended audience and illustrate intersections with the expertise we want to portray. Here, a lack of common language for talking about service again becomes apparent. Yet, we do have strategies to help us navigate this lacking. Our language (for both categories and description) should be precise, or at least imaginative, to draw people in and help them see the activities the way we do.

Think about your service as expertise when you describe it in annual activities reports and CVs. Often we are asked to perform a particular service because of our experiences and expertise. Are you an outside reader on a dissertation committee at another school? Your description might be “expert reader on dissertation regarding X subject at Y University”. Are you a reviewer for conference proposals? If you were asked to choose particular topic areas that align with your area of expertise, name those areas in your description.

A closely related, and often overlapping, framing choice lies in reporting conventions. Understanding the genre your university uses for evaluating service, what kind of service they value (based on how they define the categories of service and the order they list the categories), and what counts as evidence of significant service is important. Tailoring your descriptions of your service to align with these conventions where appropriate but also considering where to interrogate and trouble the boundaries to accommodate and highlight your service, can help those reviewing the documents see the connections to an expertise. We must also consider how our university’s reporting conventions intersect with our field’s—especially as we seek external review for tenure, promotion, and other professional advancement.

Further, we need to think beyond the traditional reporting language and conventions to what entrepreneurial actions might supplement our argument of expertise. Has a class project resulted in a website or brochure or manual that a community organization uses? Ask your community partner to write a letter about the service you coordinated for that organization for your file. We need to show how we are measuring the success of our service. Did you design a website for an organization? Develop a set of metrics for assessing how successful it has been for helping that organization achieve a particular goal.

A final category in our framing toolkit involves documenting actions. We are likely to forget activities we have completed over the course of the year if we wait until we begin working on our annual activities report the week before they are due or update our CV only when we are applying for a new position. Maintain a file, updated at least monthly, that documents your service, and that provides a space for you to think about how you want to shape the story of that service to reflect into your expertise trajectory.

In conclusion, as you talk about and document your service, work to show coherence and expertise in your role with the university, your students, your community, and your profession. Your portrait will become more nuanced and focused.
The accompanying slides are an excerpt from the Women in Technical Communication talk on Service Words and Their Uses, facilitated by Pat Sullivan and Michele Simmons in April 2016.


15 July 2016 by Lisa Meloncon

The world seems out of kilter and the daily onslaught of news about violence and injustice can easily overwhelm and distract. Each of us, however, copes in our own way. Some may ramp up their activism. Others may turn to faith and local communities. While still others, may simply do things that are private and behind the scenes.

Finding a way to balance the scary, horrific, unjust, and just crazy world with the day-to-reality of our lives can be a struggle. I have no sage advice on how to get involved and make a difference because I’ve always found these sorts of decisions are intensely personal, painfully contingent, and as rhetoricians know, always contextual.

So today I offer the long-standing, tried, and true advice: gratitude. The google definition that pops us tells us gratitude is the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.

gratitudeMy strategy of self care as of late has been to prioritize gratitude, that is, to be deliberate and conscious about the things we are grateful for and to be certain to return kindness or simply to bestow them. It helps me focus on the positive events around me, and in some small measure, it helps me feel as though I am making a tiny difference.

While many smarter and wiser folks before me have said it, a good strategy to start each day is to write down the three to five things that you are most grateful for. As we know, the material act of writing does something to us. It enacts an embodiment of becoming and doing and even making. Recent world events have made this practice even more important for me, as it reminds that there is still good out there in both little and big things.

Here is a sampling of my gratitude list over the last couple of weeks:

  • finding the words to answer this question posed by my 6-yr old great niece, “why are people so mean?”
  • having a full week where my body didn’t let me down
  • enjoying the time (and privilege) or being able to write
  • relishing a silly conversation about eye shadow and you tube videos on make-up application with my almost 15-yr old goddaughter
  • finding out my new office at school did indeed have a window
  • reading lots of cool and interesting project ideas floating through the #medrhet community
  • managing a revision where the comments actually made it better
  • laughing with various friends over everything and nothing
  • sharing some meatballs (a major guilty pleasure) with a colleague
  • giving silly gifts to folks here that I brought back from my time in Florida
  • saying an official goodbye to two lovely people who I loved so much and miss even more
  • talking with a friend/colleague and realizing you’ve been on the phone for 2 ½ hours
  • hearing from alums and enjoying their success

By know means a comprehensive list, but it shows the variety of things that I write down on any given day. My planner actually has a place for “good things that happened” so there’s a ready spot for my gratitude lists.

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So as we’re moving toward the last past of our summers, trying to balance life and our thoughts and emotions in what seems like a world gone mad, I encourage you to take care of yourselves in whatever way that works for you.

And it’s always good to remember that you’re never alone. Never. An ongoing gratitude is this community and the knowledge that there are lots of people there to help in all sorts of ways.

Wishing you peace and joy.