Blog

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.

Balance Revisited

20 May 2018 by Lisa Meloncon

It’s been a busy, busy two months since I last posted, but that seems like that statement alone is the perfect way to start a post about balance 🙂

One of the things that #womeninTC advocates for is to try and find balance in our lives. As part of my role within #womeninTC and as part of my own personal beliefs and passions, I have been a vocal advocate for not working so much and taking care of ourselves (e.g., here and here). And the topic of balance is one I’ve written about before.

But, I get that this idea of balance is a whole lot easier said than done. It’s also made trickier cause it is something of a double bind. We’re having to do balance within balance—balancing the different parts of the job with then trying to balance the job with the rest of our lives.

It’s been no secret that this year has been hard for me, and while I struggled to figure out how to deal with several personal struggles and learn a new institutional culture, I thought a lot about this idea of balance. Going back to the love of words, the dictionary tells us that balance has two complementary definitions:

  1. an even distribution of weight enabling someone or something to remain upright and steady.
  2. a condition in which different elements are equal or in the correct proportions.

These two definitions get at the two aspects of balance I mention above: balance within the job and then balance of the job with other things. To be reminded that there needs to a distribution for steadiness AND that distribution can lead to finding a life with the correct proportions. The dual balancing acts are not easy, however, and complicating matters even more is that the need to balance and shift is constantly changing.

But it’s not all bleak and impossible. It really isn’t. The first step in performing a good balancing act is to recognize and embrace that it is how and why and what you balance is gonna change and more importantly that some days you may just fall down. Once you have this idea as your foundation then it becomes a little easier to develop strategies for the ways you can actually begin to perform your own balancing acts.

Understand the requirements

I cannot say it enough that you need to start with the requirements of the job you have. Graduate school teaches us a lot of really great things, but it does not do a good job of preparing folks to actually do a job. A big reason for that is our graduate programs are at research universities while the majority of jobs are at teaching universities. That’s a big disconnect. So the first step, and an ongoing step, is to look to the requirements of job and build out from there.

Right now folks are moving or preparing to move to new jobs or they are beginning the process of reflection as summer begins. This is the perfect moment to visit or revisit your institutional documents and policies that will govern your work. These usually take the form of reappointment, promotion, and tenure documents; workload policies; and/or university, college, and department level faculty handbooks. These are one of the first places to go to figure out what is required of you to be judged “successful” at your job. Starting here and then matching those with your own goals and values leads to less stress and more balance than other approaches.

Absolutely, there are often unwritten rules or expectations, but you definitely need to understand what the official ones are first and then work your way out from there. Some are not nearly as explicit and simply talk in vague terms about participating in all three. Your goal is learn what they are, ask explicitly what is expected if they are spelled out, and then chart a path to ensure you meet those requirements.

Match requirements to your own goals and values

At the ATTW luncheon this year , we focused on trying to develop strategies that helped us align institutional priorities or job requirements with our own values. This is a key component of ensuring balance within the job and more so for balance within our lives. Without taking the step to determine your own goals and values and where they overlap (or not) with the institutional requirements, it’s more likely that you’ll just end up overworked and stressed out.

For those of us that like visual things, this is a great reflective exercise to do visually by using lists, charts, venn diagrams, and lots of colored pens. But having recently done this as I’m trying to figure out both my summer and changes I would like to make for the next academic year, the exercise was extremely eye opening in seeing where things do overlap and in coming up with plans on how to make more of my goals and institutional requirements overlap going forward.

Think through possibilities on how to merge teaching, research, and service

I recently sent my tenure narrative to someone who wanted some models as they start to write their own. When I found that document, I was reminded that the last section of it was all about how I merged together teaching, research, and service. I demonstrated that by talking about a series of courses I taught, an ongoing service learning project, and finally the article that came out of it.

Thinking through ways that you can do this with your teaching, research, and service can be beneficial because if you can find ways to merge them or have them overlap in meaningful ways, you can find additional balance within your job and your life. Many people in the field have projects or goals that intersect with communities and publics and activism. With some strategic forethought and planning, many of those projects can be integrated into all aspects of work lives to the benefit of those work lives, but also to the benefit of our own care of the self. Sometimes the biggest differences we can make are the small and local changes in our own communities.

Making the time to think about how this is possible or talking to those who have done it successfully may be the key to your own balancing act. (If you want help in this process, let me know and I’m sure I can find someone that can match your interests, your job type, or has similar goals.)

Start with your life and family

So once you sort of have your job balanced you gotta figure out how to balance that with the rest of your life. In talking to a lot of people lately, the ones that seem to have the balance thing down the best are the ones that start with their lives and then add their jobs. Someone told me just this week how they adjust their work schedule to match the schedule of their partner. That way guilt doesn’t set in and the partner remains happy because that time is for them.

In other words, if you’re planning your week or your term or your summer, they start with putting in all the family and fun things that they are doing. That way family, fun, and/or life time is not squeezed out by the job.

Pick your work strategy

Some folks like to work everyday and to ensure a better balance they simply do not work as much most days. So for example, M-F may be a 5-6 hour work days and then to maintain momentum they work a couple of hours on each weekend day. Others do slight modifications where they do six days and take one totally off a week.

Yet others still do the more traditional approach of working during the week and taking the weekends completely off.

No matter the strategy, it’s good to build up habits and routines to pick one and stick with it. At least stick with the same one through an academic term and shift to another if it’s not working or if you see something on the horizon that may require a different approach.

Have hobbies that are not related to work

In a recent faculty office hours, we talked about self care and one of the biggest takeaways from that discussion was that a big part of self care was to have hobbies and interests and things (however or whatever you define it as) that are not connected to work.

We all understand that there are parts of this job—particularly parts of the research process—where the work is exciting and fun and it doesn’t at all feel like a job. But, it’s still a job. The life of the mind can sometimes trick us into thinking that that is all there is. It’s not. And the faculty on that call that day all agreed that having outside interests was a key to their self care, which is the biggest key to having a more balanced life.

Understand give and take

In a recent discussion with a group of women in my department, it became clear that the balance between work and the rest of lives is a huge priority but a constant struggle. A number of suggestions were made about how to get the balance better.

We all agreed that achieving a good balance means that you have to understand the give and take of academic life. That is, our jobs shift and change from term to term and from year to year and from big project to big project. Sometimes there is a necessity to work more to achieve some of your goals. That’s just part of the job. But to really work toward a balance that means that more rest and relaxation needs to be inserted at some point.

The give and take of work and the rest your life needs attention and being aware that that sometimes the scales tip more to work or more to life is the first step in gaining more control over the balance. Where you drive the decisions rather than feeling as if all control rests with your job.

Balance is not easy, not within the job itself and not with merging work and life. But as you move into summer, I would encourage you to think through what balance means for you and then how to better achieve it. Because balance means we’re upright and steady and things are in good proportion, and that sounds like a pretty good way to live. We have the power to create that balance and so go out and create it!

Wishing you health, peace, joy, and maybe a little more balance.