Snowball effect

14 October 2018 by Lisa Melonçon

The silence on this blog (as well as others that I write) has been due to a whole host of circumstances, and those circumstances are the subject of this post.

I’d like to introduce a term in higher education—the snowball effect, which is a cumulative intersection of events that negatively impacts a person’s schedule so that everything piles up at one time, and a defining characteristic is that often, one doesn’t even see it coming until you’re buried underneath it.

In survey research, there is a sampling technique referred to as snowball sampling. The purpose of this technique is to build up research participants like a snowball rolling down a hill; the snowball gets bigger as it rolls and collects more snow. In snowball sampling, researchers rely on participants to help recruit other participants for a test or study. So if each study participant forwards a request to five other people and those five people send it to another five people, eventually a whole of people will h

In this case, however, the snowball effect isn’t a positive effect, but it works in the same way. While July is a cruel time, October is a painful time. This time of the term means all sorts of things start to accumulate and require attention: different types of letters due; often due dates for collections or special issues are due at this time; job market folks feel this time intensely as the first round of applications are due; the first round of student papers and projects are due; committee work intensifies; advising has to be done, and on and on. All of that is on top of the usual schedule of things such as keeping momentum on your writing projects and as importantly, keeping some balance in your life.

About a week ago I realized that added to the normal ebbs and flows of the term, I was way under the academic snowball effect. When a number of things that should have been done have lingered into the fall and where all the things that are normally due in October are still due AND there’s a whole slew of things that I am still having to deal with, well, I am not the only one experiencing this phenomenon.

It truly feels like I am under a 1000lb snowball. I have written and talked a lot about the need for balance  in our lives where we need to not work all the time. Included in those conversations, however, is the reality that sometimes life will conspire and things will happen where you have to work more than you want or should.

Sometimes these things are unavoidable. It’s a good moment to remind everyone that even the best laid plans go awry, and unfortunately, sometimes there is just no way around it. And keep in mind that I am sitting in a privileged position with few true real demands on my time. But I feel this way because I continue to be an active researcher with lots of collaborators and lots moving parts in my administrative, service, and teaching life. All of those factors have combined to bury me under the proverbial snow.

So here is how I am getting out the snow drift and trying to reclaim control over my own life:

Take a step back and reevaluate

If you’ve been keeping a schedule and trying to be realistic, it will still come as a surprise when you realize that you are buried. Even with the best laid plans sometimes you cannot control all the variables and after a week or so of things just not going right, the next thing you know you are in scheduling hell and completely buried.

It is possible to dig yourself out. This is a painful process because you have to be honest with yourself about the real priorities are and you have to be honest with yourself about what is realistically possible to accomplish.

Do the priorities

Let me give you an example. I have been working for over two years with a group of folks. The writing portion of that project morphed from one manuscript to two and then it was delayed for all sorts of reasons and then we were given a hard due date (which are dates that when not met negatively effect a whole of people and can hold up production of printed things). Since we all still believe in the project, but also need it to end, we agreed that it needed to be a priority.

So this research project was the focus of my research work, while I also looked to prioritize all the other things. What’s an example of other things? Students is the answer. This is the time of the year when students need to be advised to prepare them to register for spring. Graduate students in particular need an intense amount of time not only for the practical specifics of registrations, but also to continue (or start) conversations about how to think strategically about their careers, discussions about next steps and interests, and on and on.

Other priorities are anything with firm due dates. Look at ALL of them and then figure out if it is possible to manage them or if you need to professionally back out or ask for more time. See next section.

 Everything else can wait. Even things that mean a lot to you.

 Let people know your status

The propensity in higher education is to just ignore the hard things and not tell folks what is going. There are so many jokes about never answering emails that it makes my professional heart hurt. Please do not misunderstand; I know EXACTLY how things happen where it takes a year (a literal year) to respond to a message. But when the snowball effect arrives, not letting people know just adds to the stress and compounds the problem.

So take a deep breath, and send those message or make that call. You will likely be surprised how supportive and understanding people are. I just did this the other day and lo and behold found out that most contributors were having their own snowball effect so we’ve all agreed to a new timeline.

Ask for help and/or delegate

Asking for help or delegating tasks is the most variable of the suggestions because it is hard to provide specific examples because of the diverse nature of our jobs and the diverse nature of the causes of the snowball effect. But I included it here because sometimes just talking through all the things you need to do will help you see the full picture more clearly. That is an easy way to ask for help.

Other suggestions in this category include potentially bringing on a collaborator to a research project (particularly if it is someone you trust who will be a help rather than a hindrance); asking colleagues to step in and take on discreet parts of service roles; conferring with your chair about a fuller understanding of priorities and responsibilities; and simply letting some things sit until the snowball effect passes.

October is hard. This is job is hard. But it can be made easier when we take the time to reflect, re-set our schedules and priorities, and try to be as efficient as possible. And it’s time to sort of re-start again.

It’s a good thing to remember that October will pass, and the snow always melts.

Wishing you health, peace, and joy.











New Starts

18 August 2018 by Lisa Melonçon

One of the perks of being an academic is that we get a lot of new starts. Each academic year and even each term brings with it a whole set of new possibilities. We often think to ourselves that this year/term will be different from all the others.

I don’t wanna be the bearer of bad news, but well, you gotta let that idea go. Why? Because it sets you up in all the wrong ways. Rather, than the positive thing that you think it may be, it’s actually setting unrealistic expectations around the ever-present ideal of being an academic.

Let me explain.


It’s easy to fall into the cycle that goes something like this. You think through what you want to accomplish, and you feel that this term/year is going to be different. It’s going to the best ever. You say to yourself:

  • This is the term I’ll finally get organized
  • This is the term I’ll get that piece out.
  • This is the term I’ll grade the papers the minute they come in.
  • This is the term I’ll be prepared for each meeting and class.
  • This is the term I’ll write everyday (or not miss my scheduled writing times).
  • This is the term I’ll I won’t be late on [fill in the blank].
  • This is the term that I start my exercise routine.
  • This is the term [fill in the blank].

So you lay out a plan and a couple weeks into the term, you are feeling so good about yourself because everything is rolling along and you’ve kept to your schedule and your goals. And then, life happens.

You get sick or you’ve been asked to fill on some committee or a colleague needs your help or there are more students needing something or the national committee work explodes or [fill in the blank here with the last thing that happened that you didn’t expect].

The painstakingly perfect schedule you created and have been sticking to didn’t fully account for all the things that come up in our day to day lives. And note, in my short list of issues I didn’t even list ones related to your family or your life outside of you job. The point here is that we live complex lives and often we don’t leave room in our schedules for that complexity. Said another way: we forget that we’re human and we have lives (or should anyway) and we can’t control everything.

The new start you laid out for the year/term is a laudable goal, but the reason the cycle above doesn’t work is that it’s not reasonable. We sometimes have come to believe that we can do everything at once, and we have to do a better job of leaving room in our schedules to account for all the things that come up or when things go wrong. Building perfect schedules and trying to hold ourselves to them is not reasonable or realistic, and more so, it’s simply not healthy.

So here’s the new start I wanna talk about today. The new academic year/term brings with a new hope because we can do things differently. But the key is that we need to consider this new start from a more realistic place so that we’re setting ourselves up for success rather than failure and disappointment.

Your challenge for the new start this academic year is to be realistic in your planning. Make a new start by

setting realistic goals

I’ve written about this before. But it bears repeating often. Go ahead and make your to-d0 list. Then get rid of half of it. Then pick the top three items (see below on priorities and satisfaction to help you with these) because that’s likely what you will get done. In most cases, this system works for daily, weekly, monthly, and by term/year to-do lists.

including down time in your schedule for things that come up

As mentioned above, something will always come up or go wrong. Try to build in some time for these eventualities so that when they do happen you aren’t even more overwhelmed or feeling behind. Note: You will never be caught up. 🙂

prioritizing time for your mental and physical health

The work will not get done if you are struggling mentally or physically. Please take a moment and do a personal care inventory and then, if necessary, make the calls to be certain that you are taking care of yourself.

thinking through what brings you the most satisfaction and making time for that

This thought exercise should be related to your work and your life. Taking time to reaffirm or to find what will sustain you is an important aspect of any new start. It helps you to see what it is that you need to be happy and satisfied.

creating a priorities list

Headings on these priority lists could look something: These are the things I have to do because of the job; the things I need to do because they bring me joy; the things I have to do because I said yes even when I should have said no.

doing at least one thing a day that is just for you

I was an undergraduate student working for the McNair Scholars program. The director of that program told me this the first day I met her. I have tried very hard to live by that statement every day since. Thank you, Dr. Govan.


So if you’re like me and you look forward to the new starts that the academic job can bring, then I wish you the best of luck in approaching this new start with expectations that can lead to success rather than disappointment. Instead of saying this is the term that everything will go just exactly like I planned, why not flip that to say instead: this is the term I will kind to myself and set realistic goals to be productive, healthy, and happy.

Wishing you peace, joy, and health at the start of the new academic year.





The cruelest time

by Lisa Melonçon

It’s at this time of the year—you can set a watch by it—that academics far wide start to lament the loss of summer. They realize that their grand plans of writing and “catching up”  are not going to happen as they planned. Let me be clear,  I’m right there with y’all. I feel the pain—literal pain—of the end of July.

For so many of us, this time marks a month (give or take a week) of when classes start, and those in any administrative role have to plan for all sorts of things meaning that the other part of work  has already started.

I had declared this the #summeroffinish over on Twitter where I hang out a lot. I have so many things in various states of completion that I wanted to emphasize those to get them out the door. Well, as usual, life happens and the #summeroffinish didn’t happen as I had hoped. July really is cruel because it reminds us that we likely set our goals too high, that we need to rest and recuperate, and that sometimes we need to slow down and think (among other things).

It’s also the cruelest time because it reminds us not only of what we didn’t do or get accomplished, but it also reminds us of the upcoming term and all that needs to be done. So we are crushed beneath past expectations and future expectations all at once. And for many of us, this crushing of academic time—this moment of being caught between—happens in late July.

These feelings are a tricky thing to counter, but I want to offer a few things that may help us move on through  late July.

Talk it Out

You have to get the angst out. So talk to your partner, your friends (academic and non-academic), your mentors, and your pets (or whatever, whomever moves you). Just talk. Explain what you wanted to get done and discuss why you don’t think it happened. Was it too high of expectations? Was it the weight of the world distracting you? Was the unstructured time too much to handle?

Talking it through helps you process what happened and clears up valuable brain space and visceral energy to focus on moving forward rather than looking back.


I have written about this idea of celebrating (link) before, but it’s one that needs practice so that it becomes a habit. Celebrate every damn little thing that you accomplish. Set up a reward system for it. For those that follow me on Twitter know, I adore otters. I just finished an administrative task and rewarded myself with otter pajamas.

Even if it’s just taking a moment to be proud and to share that with someone else, helps to remind us that we do a lot all the time.


It’s always good to use this time of the year  to take stock of where you are in your career and where you may want to be. This is not an exercise to ramp up the cult of overproduction, rather, it’s a time to really reflect on what you want and what it takes to get there.

Look at your institutional documents and let them be a guide. They are a guide, and an important part of what should guide your work. You will not get extra tenure (and many of those things published as “extra” won’t count toward promotion to full). Merit raises, in the places they exist, will not necessarily be demonstrably larger if you work 12 hour days to get “one more thing out.” Try to believe those documents are there to guide you (cause they are) and then strategize with those in mind. (and if part of your strategy is to move locations, look to the documents—most are public—of a type place where you want to move.)

Try to imagine the next couple of years and then walk backward to set the larger goals for each term, including the one coming up.


I cannot repeat this enough because it is worth repeating. Pick a planner and plan. Link More importantly, be realistic. Realistic goals result in goals being met, which results in happier, healthier academics. The actual planning becomes the tactics to the strategy above.

Truly. Realistic goals. Exempting the folks starting brand new gigs, you know your life. You pretty much know when meetings are, how long it takes you to prepare for class, what you need in terms of self-care. Try not to pretend that this term will be better and perfect. Use your own self knowledge to plan realistically. (I can help you with this or find you someone who can help you with this.)

For those starting at a new job, you won’t get much done on “your own work” that first year. The learning curve of the institution and jut settling in to a new life takes up a lot of emotional, mental, and physical energy. Go ahead and make a plan. Then cut 2/3 of it. See Summer Sundays for more tips.

The great thing about many planners today is that they have places for you to put your big goals (strategies) and hopes and such and then to lay out the details.

Care of the self

Please rest, exercise, take up a non-academic hobby, go outside, do things you like, watch trash TV, try to eat a little better, and laugh. Laugh as often as you can. Time is short no matter what and late July will soon pass and regular time will be restored.

This job is hard. Late July is the hardest, and you are not alone.

Wishing you health, peace, and joy.