Claim your power

18 February 2018 by Lisa Meloncon

I’m not good with nuance. This is not some great insight. It’s just true. From my upbringing to my life as a consultant to just the way that I am wired, my go-to path through life is direct and as kind as I can possibly be. Among his many countless gifts, my good friend Blake Scott,  has a gift for nuance, and I’ve asked him to teach me how to do it. Alas, those lessons have not taken a hold yet.

So I give you this piece of background to sort of apologize for what will likely be a ham-fisted attempt at saying something that needs a lot more nuance than I can probably give it.

There’s a piece that’s been circulating through social media, “ Why I Collapsed on the Job” by Katerina Bodovski, that is equal turns heart wrenching and rage inducing. It is heart wrenching because I hear stories similar to Bodovski’s from women (and some men) in our little field of tech comm and in the bigger field of rhetoric and composition. It is heart wrenching because her story is not unusual and that leads to the rage inducing.

So the piece above is really, really important for all sorts reasons. Since twitter is where I spend some time, I have done some tweet rants over the last couple of months about the EXACT things that Bodovski writes about. But most importantly about the need to take on this thing she writes about:

I somehow became a silent workaholic…..many of us are socialized into this trait of academic culture. This is how things are done, goes the unwritten agreement.

This is what we have to rail against as loudly, as specifically, as directly, as proactively, as forcefully, and as consistently as possible. Hell, no, this is not the way things have to be done. No.

One of the reasons that I agreed to and have stayed on working with #womeninTC is to work toward changing this very thing. To work toward shifting the culture and the way we approach work and how we train and mentor graduate students and early career faculty. No, it does not have to be this way.

Here’s another line that really, really got me from Bodovski’s piece:

Somewhere along the way, though, I lost the ability to help myself. I’m writing about it now in the hope of bringing attention to the troubles in the ivory tower and to give others the legitimacy to question the things we have come to take for granted about faculty work and life.

We have to question this culture and work toward changing it and shifting it. As the direct and to the point person that I am, I want to just lay out some ideas that I’ve been thinking about.

For tenured folks, who write way too many letters for too many things….

  • call out the over production and point out how it is not necessary based on the guidelines that every department and college and institution has
  • resist the urge to ever compare two people, Just don’t. they are different people with different lives and different career goals. Yes, they may both want tenure, but that process does not look alike nor should it.
  • point out in every letter if this is a disproportionate amount of things. I say again and again: you don’t get extra tenure and all that extra-ness doesn’t necessarily get you to full any faster.
  • Refuse to ask the same people to do things because you know they will get it done. Instead, ask those that never do anything. Patterns cannot change unless you try.
  • Hold people accountable. For the millions of words published about equity it’s glaringly ironic that we don’t hold our colleagues to the same standards we expect of our students and our work. Let me just say it directly: people need to do their damn jobs and if they aren’t, someone needs to tell them. The cult of being punished for competence is a big part of this whole mess. (and hey, I know all the resistance to this not the least of which is “it’s just easier to do it yourself or ask someone else.” You can see the problem with that, right?)
  • Model behaviors for your graduate students. Cause I can tell you right now that we have a MAJOR problem in graduate education and much of stems from the cult of overproduction and the distortion of what it really takes to do this job. (How I can say this you ask? Well, I can say that I took four calls/DMs/messages out of the blue this week from your grad students who ran the range from being in tears to being a ball of stress where nothing was getting done. And these students are at four different programs.)
  • Work to change the documents that should govern our lives if they aren’t reasonable or work to enforce them in humane and doable ways (though from the ones I’ve seen they are. They just aren’t encouraged and/or used to guide our jobs like they should be.)
  • Offer good advice to early career faculty and graduate students and that often means that you need to look outside of your own experiences.

When I admitted that I was having to reboot my life, the bigger takeaway there was this, “But more so, it’s because we have to set a different tone. We have to start trying to shift what is a powerfully unjust culture and system that encourages us to be one dimensional and focused on the culture of overproduction rather than encouraging us to be real, three-dimensional people committed to slow scholarship and being excellent, thoughtful teachers, and kind supportive colleagues.” We can do this shifting in all sorts of ways including institutional resilience.

For those on the tenure track,

Remember that you have agency. So what if you don’t’ get a unanimous tenure vote or a perfect annual review. The fact remains the number of people in our field that do not get tenure is minuscule and most of those have some important back stories that never make the mainstream. The tenure guidelines that I have read and that are representative of the field are all doable. No, you do not have to publish a 100 things. No you do not have to attend every conference. No you do not have to serve of 5 committees at every level.

My point is that you can say no. You really can. You can say no to that extra committee; you can choose not to answer that CFP for a special issue or another collection; you can wait to do that really cool thing (cause the opportunity will come around again) when you have more time and space.

You can make decisions for you and no one else because you do have agency. No one can take that from you.

For graduate students,

You truly, truly can do this job and it not be your entire life and your entire existence. Look for the silent leaders and those people who work at a place you’d like to work at and really find out how this job works.

Some of the patterns you develop in grad school will stay with you so it’s so important to develop good habits for yourself around work and life. Train yourself to do the work by sitting in the chair and trying to do it. Develop some strategies to deal with stress, to plan your time in ways that work for you, to balance out and have a life without the guilt. These skills are started in grad school. Seek out mentors and friends who share these values.

You also do not have to have to try and publish a 1000 things to get a job nor go to every conference or accept every “opportunity.” This time is for you to learn and to read and to think about what the field is and what you want your role to be. It’s precious and it needs to be done slowly and thoughtfully.

For contingent faculty,

Thank you for the work you do in our programs, and bearing the brunt of institutions’ teaching mission. I am thankful for the work you’re doing, and I am sorry for the system that has created this mess. Please take care of yourselves first. (I have much more to say about this issue, but since I’m in the midst of a “book” on it, it’s all too muddled.) So, I reiterate, please take care of yourselves.

Circling back to all of us

….my heart still aches for Bodovski and more so, it aches for the people that I personally know who are struggling within the system and trying to figure things out. The process of determining what is important and how to juggle the multiple demands of this job is one of the greatest challenges. It’s an ongoing challenge because our jobs change at different points for different reasons. I don’t have any answers, and the suggestions I’ve made here aren’t anywhere close to revolutionary. The biggest takeaway is that we need to be reminded that we do have more power than we think we do.

It’s also important to examine behaviors to ensure that you’re not doing the exact thing you’re talking about needing to change. If you are, consider what Bodovski suggests, “But I surely face a challenge of reflecting, regrouping, re-evaluating,and redesigning what and how I do from this point on.”

If you want to strategize on how to regain your own power, please reach out. I’m always happy to listen and plan, and if I’m not the best person to talk to, I’ll find you someone that can help.

Change starts with each one of us, in our own way. Start with taking care of yourself (physical, mental, and what your priorities really are) and then working your way down the list.

Wishing you joy, peace, and health… and the strength to claim your own personal power.




4 February 2018 by Lisa Meloncon

Horizontal side view of a lonely yellow flower growing on dried cracked soil

The topics or inspirations for blog posts are typically something that has come up in conversations with people in the #womeninTC community or that have come up in discussions across higher education. This blog is no different.

One of the greatest benefits of this job is the flexibility it affords., That flexibility plays out in a number of ways such as our day-to-day schedules, topics of research, diversity of classes, and the ability to choose where we put our time. Absolutely, we all have documents that guide our work lives to an extent i.e., workload policies, annual reviews, and reappointment, tenure and promotion guidelines. The ongoing challenge is figuring out how to make the decisions to make that flexibility work in the most beneficial way for you in both career and life.

All this flexibility comes at a cost, however, as we’re challenged to maintain a balance in our life because it’s so easy to use that flexibility to work all the time. I have been a vocal advocate about the need to move away from what I have started to consistently refer to as the cult of overproduction. I have had several tweet threads over the last month or so that laments the pervasive and destructive nature of over work, particularly on graduate students and early career faculty.

  • There is something wrong with a culture that seems to from the early days of graduate school start to program (for lack of a better word) young scholars that the only way to survive is to work all the time.
  • There is something wrong with an institutional culture where people don’t get the irony of announcing how terrible the culture is and we should do something at the same moment they announce of yet another all the projects they need to finish.
  • There is something wrong with an institutional culture where for some reasons our early career faculty feel that they can’t pick and choose their own destiny when in fact they can.
  • There is something wrong with an institutional culture where doing good, slow research is overshadowed by doing more work for the sake of (over) production.
  • There is something wrong with an institutional culture where people (especially graduate students) think they need to go to every conference with no rationale for it except they believe it’s an expectation (but it is not).
  • There is something wrong with an institutional culture where people feel no matter how hard they work it still does not feel like enough?

I could go on with so many more examples*, but the point is where have we gone wrong in training and mentorship and professional development? How do we shift the tide away from lore-based decisions or emotion-based decisions that aren’t’ grounded in actual practice? How do we realistically show how expectations for the job can match the requirements for the job? How do we help each other understand how to make better decisions around finding a balance in their lives? How do we make the norm not overwork?

I have thought a lot about these questions and trying to determine ways to address some of them. That’s one of the reason #womeninTC was started. Since some of these issues cut across academic job titles, and they definitely cut across all institutional types. This means having these conversations are important for all of us. These are big, hard questions and ones with no easy  immediate answers. But they are questions we need to start trying to ask and answer because the amount of stress, exhaustion, and fear associated with this job needs to be tempered with more realistic expectations that result in less stress, exhaustion, and fear.

As Colleen Derkatch** recently pointed out on Twitter, there is something fundamentally wrong when institutions market and encourage faculty to attend resilience workshops all the while touting and encouraging all the behaviors that lead to the need for resilience.

I’m all about being resilient. It’s a great word. There’s a lot to be said for building up a toughness to get through the day-to-day realities of life. But what we as a field need to focus on is how to invoke resilience in less toxic, work driven ways. We need to celebrate and perform resilience in different ways. We need to encourage and praise our collective resilience when we

  • stand our ground based on decisions that benefit our physical and mental health
  • choose to say no more to overwork
  • make strategic decisions to protect our time that has direct benefits in balancing our lives
  • support one another when hard decisions are necessary
  • find ways to shift our institutional cultures ever so slightly that benefit the most vulnerable among us
  • push back against policies by drafting new ones that encourage a healthy work outlook

But the thing about resilience is we need to use it and our ability to be resilient to our advantage. What about a resilience that helps us get back up when we’ve knocked down not to just do the same thing again, but to thoughtfully and carefully consider what factors led to the need for resilience in that moment. Figuring out what the difficulty was that forced us to recover is the first step to changing institutional cultures, and those are steps we can take individually and collectively. Let’s use our resilience to change the system.

Wishing you peace, joy, and health!

*This is in no way a criticism of anyone and the decisions they make. I get why most decisions are made. I do this job too. But the overarching point is that so many people are suffering in big and small ways based in large part on a culture that needs changing.

**I want to thank Colleen and Aimee Morrison for helping me think through some of the ideas here and helping me articulate some of my ongoing concerns about the systems and cultures that are in part causing so many problems with people’s mental and physical well being. However, all ideas are my own.