Just breathe

28 April 2016 by Lisa Meloncon (post inspired by @KristinArola)

This is definitely the time of the year where we are all feeling tired, stressed, worn down, frazzled, out of focus, and [fill in your own term(s) here].

So I just want to encourage you to



Go ahead and do it with me right now. Close your eyes and think of a happy place. Take a long, deep breath. Hold it. Now, let it out slowly. Repeat.

There is no way to make the piles of student work go away nor is there any way to get out of every one of those year-end meetings everyone is trying to schedule so the only solution is to be nice to yourself. Take a walk. Work-out. Have a drink with friends. Go to your favorite restaurant. Relax on the couch and don’t feel guilty about it. In other words, take care of yourself because that’s the only way to be able to get through all those things you have to do!

As you keep breathing, let me offer just a couple of things to keep the end of term in perspective.

  • We are all feeling the exact same way. Just because I already submitted my grades (last week) doesn’t mean that time isn’t filled with other end of term tasks. I just finished writing my third report. I have three more to go. Sometimes knowing you’re not alone makes it better.
  • Lots of things collide at this time of year so finds ways to prioritize and scale back. All of those things you had hoped to do but don’t have a firm deadline need to be put on the back burner until later. Minimize grading or comments on student projects, particularly by telling students you’ll only comment if they’re coming to pick them up.
  • Don’t scale back on those things that you have to have. Now is not the time to cut back your caffeine in take or if you’re someone who has to sleep, make the time for it.
  • Treat yourself after every major task. This is something you should always do, but it becomes more important at this time of year.
  • Reach out to mentors and friends for encouragement. Don’t be afraid to ask for some kudos or props for getting something done or asking for support in trying to get something done. Accountability in online spaces can be useful for some people and for others, you can always try talking through things with someone you trust.

I am consistently a little bit in awe at the continued expanse and participation of the #womeninTC community. So many of you are generous and kind and ready to lend encouragement or to find time to have a conversation if need be. As I have written before, you have to reach out. You created this network so use it to your advantage, especially at this time of the year.

And really, don’t forget to breathe.



A Preview of the Luncheon, Sort Of

3 April 2016 by Lisa Meloncon

service-softwareSo next week is the annual ATTW Conference, which immediately precedes or overlaps depending on your perspective) the annual CCCC convention. This year will be our fourth luncheon, and we’re looking forward to gathering together again.

The area that the luncheon will focus on is the third part of the tripartite division on which the vast majority of us are evaluated: service. A consistent theme in the data that we’ve gathered from all the participants at our events is that service is the squishiest of the areas in which we are evaluated and the area in which you wish you had more clarity. While I don’t want to spoil the activity at the luncheon, I do want to talk a little bit about being strategic in your service roles.

I have often used this term strategic when talking about this job because it’s important to plan in actionable and concrete ways. For me that’s what strategic means. Previously, I’ve written about how to say no and yes, and but I recognize that when it comes to service it’s so much harder to figure out what to do because it involves more direct interaction with people and politics.

(from McGill University, University Services page)

What makes service so squishy is that it is hard to determine exactly what it is. As we continue to work on the RPT project, I can tell you that preliminary results have this defined in more ambiguous ways than the other two areas (teaching and research). While faculty service is required by all institutions and is a vital part of our jobs and the institution’s mission, it does become problematic trying to figure it out.

Some locations make it clear. For example, here is an excerpt from a SLAC:

  • Service to the profession includes: administration of scholarly conference; reviewing books and articles for presses and journals; and involvement or leadership in professional organizations
  • University: sitting on standing or ad hoc committees; faculty senate; part of a university wide program (like service learning); recruiting, peer mentoring; major advising
  • Department: working on program issues; tasks assigned by chair; peer committees; attend departmental events
  • Community: must be related to expertise

So that list gives a pretty good, concrete idea of what service is. Here is another from an R2 research school:

University service includes participating in departmental, college or school, and University governance and committee work, assisting in the recruitment of new faculty, and developing and assisting in the implementation of new academic programs. Faculty should note particularly distinctive contributions to University life on the part of the candidate, including service to the candidate’s profession, such as offices held and committee assignments performed for professional associations and learned societies; and editorships and the refereeing of manuscripts.

While not as specific as the previous example, it does give some indication of what “counts” for service. (And this document has a separate section for outreach, which would be the equivalent to the “community” in the first example.)

In short, almost universally, service is typically divided into four categories

  • Departmental
  • Institutional
  • Community
  • National/Professional


I includ Professor Snarky’s unflattering tweet about service because I think many of us see service in these terms, as being meaningless and the implied, time wasters. It is true that not every meeting is productive. It is true that we have too many meetings that are too long. It is true that some of the documents we are asked to write are somewhat meaningless and few people will read them. But, that’s true in any organization.

Service can be meaningful and can result in direct changes that can improve your program or a program on campus or make a national impact. While I have few definitive answers and still struggle at times with this myself, I have figured a few things out.

You cannot let it consume your life. If you’re looking at your week and the majority of what’s blocked off are committee meetings and work time for those meetings, then it may be time to look at your commitments to figure out if you need to be doing all of them.

You cannot let it become a immediate gratification fix—something’s checked off the list, you can see the result, often brings satisfaction, others are thankful and tell you so. These are all good things, but if you are not tenured these are dangerous habits. If you are tenured, I encourage to examine what your priorities are and if an over abundance of service is where you want to spend your time. You may answer yes. (or you may answer no.)

You have to do service in your department. This is key to collegiality and key to a successful program (if you have one). But I would encourage you to limit your service tasks within the department to the essentials and to also find a service task at the university level.

You need to find a compelling university level service. This is a great way to build up connections for your courses or program and can give you the opportunity to meet lots of different folks from across campus. I have served on the advisory board for our successful service-learning component for almost the whole time I have been at UC. We’ve done lots of important work, highly visible work, AND it intersects with my own commitment to community-engaged scholarship and teaching.

You need to find discrete, national level opportunities. Having been fortunate enough to serve in some capacity in most of the field’s national organizations, I can tell you that they all need good volunteers. And most have a variety of things to choose from and/or will let you create your path. All you have to do is reach out. Heck, email me, I’ll find you the person you need to talk to and help you think through what you want to do and it can relate to the point in your career.

Be thoughtful when choosing community projects. We all have causes that are dear to us and that we are impassioned about. But, community service (all shapes and sizes) is usually time intensive to do right and to be fair to those in the community. Remember that opportunities will come around again so it’s not always necessary to jump at the first ones that pop up. Truly. Opportunities do come back around. So always be thoughtful about the time commitment to the project versus the time available in your life.

Professor Snarky is right and wrong about service. Start with your internal documents and how those things define service. Talk to trusted mentors. Think through the ramifications of decision in terms of politics (I wish I didn’t have to write that!). Then say, yes, to opportunities that match something that you want to do. Finally, be patient on those days when Professor Snarky is right and it all seems so meaningless. That’ll pass (and then come back and pass again,….)

I can tell you that I’ve been enormously thankful for many of the opportunities that I’ve had locally and nationally. Yes, some of them take up a whole lot of time—sometimes more than they need to or more than I want them to. But, I can honestly say I don’t regret any of the decisions I’ve made. And that is a total win.

For those going to ATTW/CCCCs, I wish you safe and uneventful travels.

I look forward to catching up with y’all!


There is no such thing as caught up

11 March 2016 by Lisa Meloncon

As we embark on spring break sometime this month, our Mentor Monday topic asked what y’all would be doing on your break. Many of the responses had the theme of using the time to get caught up.

all_this_work_imageWith much affection and respect, I have to say that I laughed out loud. Caught up, indeed!?!

Years ago, probably in my second-year on the tenure-track, my academic yoda gave the best advice. He said, “There is no such thing as caught up. When you recognize that and stop trying to achieve it, life gets a lot better.”

You know what? He was right. While there are many things in our academic work lives that have set timetables (like semesters begin and end), a big part of our life is driven by our own agenda. Even with the tenure or promotion clock, we’re still setting up our schedules and agreeing to what we want to do. This flexibility in scheduling and choosing projects and deciding where to spend our time often leads to an increase in stress where we feel we are always behind.

We constantly feel as thought with just a little more time, a little more space that we can get to all of those things. But the secret is that it will never happen.

First, there are almost always consistent demands on our time that are mostly inescapable such as
• pop-up meetings
• paperwork/reports regarding curriculum or committees
• last minute requests by administrators
• requests from colleagues to give a “quick read”
• picking up a task because someone slacked off on it
• request for a recommendation letter for that really great student who waited until two days before a deadline

The list here could go on and on and on. All of these things add to our stress because these sorts of things push our own work—some of those things we want to do whatever they are–further down the to-do list, and we feel even further behind.

Thus, we feel we need to catch up.

Second, we often put so much pressure on ourselves about how “our own work,” which usually means research, is languishing as it is unattended as we deal with all these other things. We feel stress because we started the project because we wanted to do it, but find we have so little time to get it done.

Thus, we feel the need to catch up on research (as if you could be behind) or to clear all the other things so there is space to research.
Just writing this I felt the unhealthy and unhelpful circle that it puts us on.

So here’s what I want to throw out to you. It’s a series of questions for you to think about that seem to intersect with this ongoing feeling of being behind and needing to catch up.

Am I over preparing and over working in one aspect of my job?

For example, are you spending way to much time preparing for classes? If so, why is that? Are you taking on too many service commitments? If so, is it because you like the work or the pay-off of feeling like you’re doing something.

Have I over committed?
Does it seem like that no matter how hard you work you never check anything off the to-do list or never move any project (teaching, research, or service) substantially forward? Have you over committed? Talk with a trusted mentor to see if you need to try and get out a few things.

Am I suffering from feelings of insecurity (aka imposter syndrome), inadequacy, or fear?
Consider taking some time to seriously reflect on what may be the root of these feelings. It could be these underlying issues that lead to over commitment and over preparing. (It can be a vicious cycle so it’s important to try and find out the core causes.) These feelings too can get in the way of productivity for fear of not measuring up. It’s important to try and figure out what may be driving these.

Do I have a network of people who can help with specific questions?
All faculty need a network to help them in different aspects of their jobs. Most importantly, this network can you prioritize what is really most important for your own goals. In other words, are you spending your time in the right place. This network can also help you figure out when to say yes and no.

Closing thoughts

You don’t have to be caught up to be successful. You have to simply be ahead of the curve on the important tasks. And let me remind you that important tasks are the ones you’ve decided are important and that follow the guidelines on how you will be judged for tenure and promotion and merit and annual reviews. (Thanks, Max, for this perspective.)

I can assure you that as of this minute I am not caught up. Not at all. I have stacks of things I could be doing. I have a project that is near and dear to my heart that I won’t be able to get to until early next year. (Yup, next year. You read that right.) I am desperately trying to finish this longitudinal project about programs in the field so y’all can see the data. But in the meantime, I’ve had to prioritize and shift things around to accommodate local service requests that are important and re-adjust my schedule because of delays and such with an edited collection.

In other words, the only thing that comes with experience is being able to recognize that you’re never really caught up and figuring out ways to do the academic work shuffle. (It’s a special kind of dance 🙂

For the sake of playing along, go ahead and say it with me: There is no such thing as caught up.There is no such thing as caught up.

It’s a freeing…once you start believing it.

Now go out there and do something fun and relaxing. Just for you. Because we all need to put the break in spring break because the work will be there when we get back.