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 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 you’re your to-d0 list. Then get rid of half of it. Then pick the top three items. 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. J)

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 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.

Celebrate

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.

Strategize

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.

Plan

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.

 

 

 

The nature of work

13 July 2018 by Lisa Meloncon

I’ve been thinking a lot about work lately. Not necessarily the work of work but the definitions of work—the nature of work–and how the definitions play out in higher education.

There are all sorts of think pieces and blog posts about the idea that being an academic is an interesting kind of a job because of the nature of the work we do. The (in)famous “life of the mind” or the idea that we create knowledge, which isn’t always easy to explain or to show tangible benefits. The latter of which is what most people talk about when they talk about their work.

Academics (like many busy people) talk a lot about to-do lists and schedules and planning. As the links in that previous sentence show, I’ve spent my fair share of time talking about these things as well. But I want to take a step back and ask us to consider what is our work? What do we value and prioritize when we put things on our lists and in our planners?

No matter how you think about the intrinsic rewards of this job, academia is a job. It is work that comes with regular duties for which we are paid. That’s the most basic definition of work there is.

But what is the nature of our work? Unfortunately, much of the nature of it, much of what we constantly talk about, much of what we have been conditioned to value, centers only on the research aspects of our jobs. What about the nature of work found in the rest of our jobs, those  other big categories of teaching and service? Why isn’t that more central to the nature of our work or more importantly, more central to how we talk about and view our own work?

This is not a new phenomenon since we, unfortunately, train our graduate students and early career scholars to focus on research since that is more valued at many institutions at the time of tenure and promotion. I know there are institutions—usually regional state schools whose mission is more teaching—where one can get promoted on teaching and service, and it can happen much quicker than a promotion through research. We need more examples of these and more stories about the joy and satisfaction that can be found in doing the work.

But if we are ever to change the culture, to shift those institutional documents, then we need to focus on valuing and celebrating all aspects of the work we do.

It should come as no surprise that I spend a large portion of my time on what is traditionally considered service. The mentoring work I do (as do many others) actually bridges across all the traditional categories of teaching, research, and service, but this work is often eschewed because it doesn’t directly relate to research. However, I’ve had to make the case recently as to how it actually does impact research and teaching and that this work is much more than simply service. While a singular anecdote, it underscores an important point about valuing the nature of the work we do.

Here’s the big takeaway. Everything we do is work. It is. It’s all part of our job. There’s only a very, very select few in higher education that don’t have to worry about teaching, research and service in some specific percentage split. For the majority of us who are kind of regular faculty with some form of administrative appointment or not, our jobs are never just about research. It’s a shame that this the only thing we typically talk about. And it’s sadder still that the culture does not enable the majority of us to take pride in the many accomplishments we have outside of a research publication.

So when we spend our days or weeks doing administrative work or taking time to set up service learning projects and sites or mentoring students or learning new teaching techniques or spending all day in meetings that are necessary to move “things” forward, all of those things are work. All of them are valuable.

Work, as it has an effect that helps, is a culmination of all the different parts of our job, and most importantly, all the different parts of the work in the order that YOU VALUE.

Our work demands that we broaden and extend these conversations in other areas, and that we consistently work toward finding ways to value the work we do, no matter what that work looks like. On twitter there is a ubiquitous hashtag–#amwriting—to designate that you’re working, but it also designates only ONE kind of work. It also suggests that that work is more valuable than any other.

This is why I often use a series of hashtags: #amadministering, #amteaching, #amreading, #amadvising, #amcommitteework…..none of these have caught on like the one related to research because it seems the most common thing we ever want to talk about is research and writing of that research. We need to move toward changing this mindset because for so many of us, the bulk of the work week isn’t about research. Instead, it’s about all the other work that we are required to do, that we want to do.

As a community of scholars and teachers, we need to work toward these goals to shift the culture of higher education, particularly in our part of higher education where we have the potential to effect the most change.

I look forward to the day when I ask how you are, you not only don’t respond with how busy you are, but you also tell me about all of the good work you did not just what you’re researching.

Wishing you health, peace, and joy for the remainder of your summer.