Friday, October 2, 2015

Sorting Through

Last night, several hours after the shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon, my wife and I discussed the fact that when I decided to build a career in higher education, neither of us expected it to be a decision that would routinely put me in danger. In the grand scheme of things, being a college professor is not a particularly eventful life, characterized by teaching, meetings, reading, meetings, writing, and meetings.

Graffiti in my neighborhood in Louisville, KY
But because of the frequency of shootings on college campuses and in K-12 schools, this was not the first time we had had this discussion. Since I've been at my current institution, there have been two occasions when I've had to send my wife texts assuring her that I'm fine. My campus has gone through two active shooter lock downs, one in December 2013 (which my friend and colleague Sharyn Emery wrote about) and another in September 2014. I have to stress this one crucial point: both ended up being false alarms.

Both times, it turned out to be a misunderstanding and everything and everyone was fine. Things got back to normal fairly quickly. We were collectively relieved that our little commuter campus in southern Indiana hadn't become another name on a long list of schools where innocent people were shot to death because they happened to go to school the same day someone else decided they had to die.

I drop my daughter off a pre-kindergarten two or three days a week. The cars line up and wait for the door to open, and while we sit in line, my daughter sits in the front seat, sometimes leaning out the passenger window to yell greetings to her friends in the car ahead or behind, sometimes just being goofy with me. And when we get to the front of the line, I get out of the car so she can clamber over the driver's seat and run into school after a quick hug. Dropping her off is one of my favorite things in the world. But it's always tinged by the small voice in my head that warns me that school shootings can happen at any school, even a little Lutheran preschool. I hate having that thought so often.

Since we will continue sending our two children to school, and since our country is not prepared to do anything to stop these shootings, I asked my wife how old our children should be when we talk to them, to tell them that there are people out there who may want to hurt them and may come to their school to do it. Do we tell them that there's almost nothing we can do to keep them safe in these public spaces?

As a parent, how am I supposed to talk to my children about this?

As a husband, how do I reassure my wife that I will be fine when I am doing my job?

As a teacher, how do I make students feel safe in our classrooms?

Like so many of you, yesterday's shooting left me in rage, sorrow, and despair. Just as the shooting before and the shooting before that. "Shit Academics Say," a social media account that so accurately satirizes academics under different circumstances, posted this last night:

As it so often does, SAS put it just right.

Now about a day after the shooting, I am still working through the complex emotions I'm experiencing and shifting through the same political responses that always follow these events. As I sit here, thinking of the people in Oregon who were killed while they were trying to make their lives better, I want answers to the questions above. Not canned political responses, not savage ideologically-oriented retorts.

When I introduce my upper-level undergraduates to stasis theory--short, simple explanation of stasis theory: people on different sides of arguments need to talk about the same issue to have an argument that might result in change--I usually use abortion as the ultimate example of an argument that we just can't seem to find a way to put into stasis, to talk about in a way that might resolve the problem. But now I think gun violence has become a strong contender for the problem our country can't (or won't) solve.

I want to believe that we can be safe in the public spaces that so often become the sites of these horrific shootings. I desperately want to believe. But I don't.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Building Your Niche

Stairs in Knobview Hall, IU Southeast
This is a work in progress.

Not the post. You're reading the post, so that's finished.

Over the past year, I have been trying to find my niche on my campus. Actually, that's inaccurate. Finding implies that it already exists and that I either stumble upon it or I just discover something that is already there. I've been trying to build my niche. (That metaphor probably doesn't hold up, but it's an important distinction to me, so I'll do what I want.)

In March 2014, I started working as a writing program coordinator on my campus. This position, commonly known among colleagues in my field as a WPA (writing program administrator) position, focuses on maintaining, supporting, and developing IU Southeast's undergraduate writing courses, specifically those that are associated with our general education program. I have spent many years training for this kind of position, and I am thrilled to be doing the work. It's a significant component of my professional identity.

But being a WPA is not the niche I am trying to build on campus. Since I first arrived on campus, unpacking books, working on writing for publication, and planning new courses that I had never taught and was excited to design, I noted that there wasn't much support for faculty writers.

In a way, that isn't surprising. IU Southeast is primarily a teaching institution; we are supposed to dedicate more of our time to teaching classes and working with our undergraduates (and a few graduates) closely. We have a strong culture of professional development for teaching on campus, and it is clear that the faculty take their roles as teachers very seriously. But we are also academics, and many of us--especially the early tenure-track folks like myself, but certainly many others as well--want and need to conduct research and produce scholarship. Because we are a regional campus of Indiana University, we have access to lots of advantageous resources--internal grant opportunities, financial support for summer research, a culture of support among colleagues from multiple campuses, and so forth. But what was missing was a significant amount of local and active support for those of us who were actually sitting down to write.

Some time in my first year, a colleague in the Institute for Learning and Teaching Excellence (ILTE) asked me if I would be interested in facilitating a faculty learning community (FLC), the focus of which would be building a writing group for faculty members. Perfect.

Maria Accardi, an associate librarian and participant in that inaugural FLC, wrote about her experience on this blog last month, so I won't go into that experience much more than to say this was one of the most rewarding experiences I have had as a faculty member so far. With the generous financial support of ILTE and administration, we extended the FLC's timeline an additional three months, with participants who wanted to continue with the group meeting during the summer to talk about their writing goals, their achievements, and their challenges. There are already plans to run a new FLC in Spring 2016. (IU Southeast faculty: When you see the invitation, apply!) And I have already talked with administrators who are favorably inclined to support a week-long Writers' Retreat next summer. This is very, very exciting.

Okay, so that's the niche building. I want to help my campus build a culture of support for faculty writers, and I am lucky both to have people on campus who are willing to support this endeavor and faculty who are willing to participate.

But the purpose of this blog isn't to toot horns or to act as a booster for what I am clearly stating is my agenda. It's a reflective tool. It's a space to consider the possibilities and ramifications of what I choose to take on as a new faculty member. So here are some reflections:

  • This kind of work allows me to tap back into what I have done in the past, whether as a writing center consultant, an assistant director of a writing center, or a facilitator for groups of graduate students who were working to produce their theses and dissertations. I have always found this kind of work with writers immensely rewarding.
  • I had a brief conversation with my dean recently about leadership. She remarked that leadership isn't about telling people what to do or trying to control people. It's about encouraging others to follow you because they think it is the right thing to do. I want to lead the effort to enlarge this aspect of faculty development, but I can't just make it happen by fiat. Others have to buy into the concept. Such an initiative as this requires multiple leaders among faculty and administration--or, in terms my literacy friends will identify with, sponsors--who foster the growth of faculty writing. Such leaders/sponsors already existed before I arrived, and others will come. This is good.
  • When I say I want to lead, I don't mean I want to be "the face" of faculty writing on campus. Nothing so bold or vain as that. It is my hope that those faculty members who participate in the FLC and perhaps the retreat (assuming it happens--fingers crossed) would go back to their schools and departments to build their own writing groups, or to build interdisciplinary writing groups across campus. The goal over time would be to have lots of faculty members talking about their writing with other faculty, with other faculty members leading workshops and giving presentations.
  • Although this effort focuses on faculty writers, I hope this will ultimately be beneficial for our students. Faculty in other disciplines, as they will often freely admit, don't feel comfortable talking about writing with their students. Talking with other faculty members--seeing the struggles most writers face, considering the challenges that slow us down or sometimes stop us in our tracks, discovering solutions to those struggles and challenges, seeing the benefits of collaboration--may make teachers feel more comfortable talking with their students about writing.
These are lofty goals, but as I said in the beginning, this niche is a work in progress. It'll require a significant amount of time, energy, and resources. Other faculty members will have to participate, to dedicate their already strained time to yet another commitment. Administrators will have to continue to see value in cultivating faculty writing and allotting resources to supporting such endeavors. I will need allies across the university, some of whom I think I have already found.

And here's the last reflection for the moment: More than anything, this kind of effort requires the one thing I know I need to work on the most as a scholar, a teacher, and a WPA: Patience. Change comes incrementally.

What are you trying to build for yourself on your campus? How does it connect with the rest of your professional goals? 

If you're interested in reading more about faculty writing, take a look at Paul Silva's How to Write a Lot, which provides a road map and philosophy for building writing groups (or agraphia groups, as he calls them) and Anne Ellen Geller and Michelle Eodice's Working with Faculty Writers, a collection of essays from scholars who already have much more experience in this work than me. ("Inventing the Professor" guest blogger Will Duffy, with co-author John Pell, contributed an excellent chapter on collaboration to that collection.)

To keep up with the latest posts, like "Inventing the Professor" on Facebook or follow @JacobSBabb on Twitter. Posts appear monthly during the academic year.

Friday, August 7, 2015

How I Learned to Get Things Done (Again)

The following post was contributed by guest blogger Maria Accardi, a member of the inaugural faculty writing group that I facilitated at IU Southeast this past Spring and Summer. I invited Maria to write this post because so many participants in our writing group found her appointment-based approach to writing attractive as a flexible option for meeting our writing goals. Watch out for monthly posts during the new academic year, either from yours truly or other brilliant guest bloggers. For updates, like my Facebook page, "Inventing the Professor," or follow me on Twitter @JacobSBabb. -- JB

 Maria T. Accardi is Associate Librarian and Coordinator of Instruction and Reference at Indiana University Southeast. She is the author of Feminist Pedagogy for Library Instruction, for which she received the Association of College and Research Libraries Women and Gender Studies Section Award for Significant Achievement in 2014. She blogs about burnout at Academic Library Instruction Burnout and tweets @mariataccardi.


Cherokee Park, Louisville, KY
In the fall of 2014, I enjoyed a semester-long sabbatical. A paid semester off to think and write about stuff I cared about seemed like an unimaginable luxury while I was toiling away on the road to tenure, and when the time rolled around to lock my office door and leave campus for months and months, I was pretty sure that someone was going to halt my hasty retreat and inform me that a grave error had been made and the promised sabbatical was a figment of my exhausted imagination.

This, of course, did not happen. But what did happen is that I suddenly had days and weeks and months unfolding before me, with no structure, no rules, no meetings, no anything.

On my first official day at home, I had that anticlimactic, day-after-Christmas-ish “now what?” kind of feeling. The logical thing to do was to make a schedule to organize my time, lest I fritter away my time off on frivolous matters. And while I did manage to go to a bunch of movies during the day, and compulsively read Anna Karenina in three days, and plan my day around watching General Hospital, and sleep in when I felt like it, I also had a basic structure to order my day. I relaxed, I rejuvenated, but I still got things done.

When I returned to work in January of this year, I was immediately overwhelmed by everything I had missed and needed to catch up on and accomplish. I usually ended up immobilized by indecision and did nothing and subsequently felt terrible about it, which was not a particularly useful or productive way of managing my stress and time. The guilt over not getting stuff done only cultivated more guilt and more indecision. It’s not a very nice place to be. So when I saw the announcement that Jacob was organizing a faculty writing group designed to enhance writing productivity, I jumped on the opportunity to join. I needed help. And I also needed community. While my sabbatical was restful, it was also unexpectedly isolating and lonely.

I don’t know why it was such a surprise to me to learn, though the writing group discussions and reading How to Write a Lot, that the key to getting writing done is to simply make time to do it, to carve out that time and protect it and show up for it, and not to just sit around and wait for time to magically materialize. Since developing a schedule was essentially how I accomplished stuff on my sabbatical leave, one would think that I could transfer that same knowledge to returning to my work life and professional writing projects. But no, it still was a revelation that it turned out that this was still the answer. My days were not going to organize themselves, and there were always going to be multiple competing interests that were only too happy to take and take and take time and mental energy and intellectual labor from me.

The motivation and accountability made possible by our regular meetings inspired me to experiment with devising a writing schedule that blocked off protected time to write, but also allowed for flexibility in case something urgent did arise, or if I honestly just wasn’t feeling it that day. I examined my calendar each week and then scheduled multiple 30-60 minute writing appointments in my calendar, and then my goal would be to meet a certain number of them. I might schedule seven blocks for the week and then make a goal to hit four of them, for example. If I met more of them, then great! If I only accomplished the minimum, that was great, too.

And you know what? I got stuff done. I had a bunch of goals and projects and deadlines, and I powered through them and had the satisfaction of checking off boxes on my to-do list. I also had the satisfaction of finding a system that worked for me, a system that built structure, but was also forgiving and generous if needed. I already have a harsh and cruel inner critic, and I certainly didn’t need any additional self-flagellation if I didn’t meet my goals. By giving myself structure while also giving myself a break if I needed it, I could enjoy the pleasure of accomplishment and productivity without any guilt if I chose not to keep a particular writing appointment as long as I met my minimum. 

This particular method may not work for everyone, but it is worth trying. And it is worth remembering that writing, and writing productively, requires continually recommitting to the task. For me, it’s like my exercise regimen, or my efforts to eat in a mostly healthy manner. It’s an agreement I have with myself that I have to constantly revisit and renew. It’s like a lifestyle change. It’s a mindset change. Like with any habit, there will be lapses of productivity or energy or accomplishment. You’ll get off track by whatever seems more pressing or urgent or worth your time. But all you have to do is come back and recommit, and you, too, can get things done.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Choosing Doors

Oh, hi there, 2015. You got here quicker than I might have expected.

Last semester, I attended a meeting in a room of my institution's university center that had this door that fascinated me far more than it should have, considering I was in a meeting. (Don't worry: I paid attention and stared foolishly at a door. Then I felt even more foolish as I took a picture of the door when the meeting was over.)

The door has two room numbers. That means somewhere in my institution's records, this single door corresponds to two numbers that probably have multiple purposes. I tried to imagine what could be so important behind this door--it's a closet, I think--that it needed this double designation.

The decisions we make about how we spend our time have multiple consequences. When I started serving as writing program coordinator last July (or, if we're being realistic, last March or April), I opened a door with multiple designations. When I applied to be a book review editor for a journal, I opened a door with multiple designations. When I agree to serve on different committees, I open such doors again. Each contributes to the shape of my career, sometimes profoundly and sometimes in more mundane ways.

I think about nearly every work-related decision through a particular screen: How is this shaping my career and my professional persona?

There's a little clock always hovering over my head. When I started my first day at my current institution, it started counting down. "Welcome! You now have 5 years, 364 days, 23 hours, and 59 minutes to earn tenure. Good luck!" It didn't add sucker, but I assume that was implied.

I don't really know the precise moment that letter will come from on high that finally grants me tenure--presumably accompanied by a stock note from my chancellor that says "Now get back to work, chump." I just assume that's what getting tenure looks like--so my clock isn't that precise. But I am a year and a half in, so tenure is roughly four and a half years away. That sure does seem like a lot of time/no time at all!

Over six years, pretenured faculty members have to demonstrate excellence (or at least competence) in multiple areas, including research and publication, teaching, and service to one's department, institution, profession, and basically the universe. So every decision actually does have an impact on what a person's tenure and promotion profile will look like. And even if we remove my own immediate context of the tenure clock, our careers are still inevitably impacted by what committees we serve on, what conferences we attend, what journals we review for, what programs we run, and so forth.

A commonplace in academia is that junior faculty need to learn how to say no. It's an interesting phenomenon, really. Junior faculty, who have to work to build relationships on their campuses and in their fields, are encouraged to learn how to say no.

The most typical reason offered for saying no is to guard one's time. In graduate school, I used to threaten to get "Protect Your Time" tattooed on my chest because it was the main piece of advice I offered to newer graduate students. But I don't really like needles, and I don't really like exposing my chest to people all the time--it's just not my thing. It's actually just easier to say the words.

And yes, there is no doubt that junior faculty must decide carefully how to allocate what time they have for their work. For instance, every time I write one of these posts, I am consciously choosing not to use my writing time for another project. My posts have become sporadic over the past few months because I've been dedicating my writing time to other projects that quite frankly matter a great deal more than this project does.

But saying no isn't just about protecting your time. Deciding what obligations to take on direct the persona a faculty member constructs. So while I understand the necessity and value of saying no, I like to think of it a little differently. Choose your doors carefully. Any door metaphor inevitably leads us to the point that we don't always know where doorways lead, and that's true. But making careful, conscious decisions about what obligations we accept contribute to the shapes of our careers.

But maybe there are better uses for your time than taking photos of weird doors in conference rooms.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Small Collaborations

Note from your steadfast author: The following is a guest post from Dr. Will Duffy, an assistant professor of English and Director of the Center for Writing and Communication at the University of Memphis. His most recent work has appeared or is forthcoming in College English, Composition Studies, and Ethos: A Digital Review of Arts, Humanities, and Public Ethics. He can be reached at

I invited Will, a graduate school colleague of mine, to compose this guest post after a roundtable that he mentions in the first paragraph. Please note that the image in this post is taken from the infographic provided through a link near the end of the post. I have a copy of this infographic on the wall of my office--I think it's an excellent way to visualize the collaborative process of publishing scholarship. Please enjoy this guest post, because soon you'll have to read my dull, lifeless prose again. -- JB

Monday, September 8, 2014

So Busy

Here we are, three weeks deep into the new academic year. Of course, several weeks' of meetings, class planning, and other such business came before the actual start of the semester. I'm sorry, blog. I would've called. I've just been so busy.

Here's the thing about being busy: If you're an academic, you're busy. The job of the academic is divided in such ways that when you turn your attention to one part of it, you're neglecting another part that will then need your attention, all the while neglecting another part that will soon collapse and trap you as you dig your way out and oh God the horrors and the suffering. Well, it's not really that bad. But psychologically, that's typically how it feels.

This morning, I remarked to my wife that I don't know how people find the time to read newspapers. She replied that I used to read the New York Times routinely. And I retorted, "Well, yeah, but then I was just writing a dissertation and working on articles and applying to jobs and teaching and...Oh, yeah. I see your point."

These days, I am a WPA (writing program administrator for those very few readers who have no idea what that means), which brings with it a fair number of obligations on my time. I teach two classes per semester. I'm doing an independent study with a student because I'm a sucker, but also because she's a good student who wants to go to grad school for rhetoric and composition and how could I say no? Again, sucker. I'm chairing a search committee for a new tenure-track hire; that hasn't been too much work yet, but oh it will be. I recently became a book review editor for a scholarly journal. I'm part of a writing group of fairly active scholars. I'm working on a few scholarly projects, some collaborative and some solo. I'm sure I'm forgetting stuff. The point is: I'm a busy guy. But so what?

When I think about it, I feel like I can't be all that much busier than I was during my job market year, when I spent hours each day drafting my dissertation, preparing and submitting job application materials, and teaching a class my university had never offered before. My current daily tasks are oriented more toward maintaining and running a writing program, but I still spend time each day working on my own scholarship (never enough, it feels like) and thinking about my teaching. And if I am busier now than I was as a grad student, it's worth remembering that I am actually getting paid a decent salary for my work. There's something to be said for that.

With some exceptions, memory tends to scrub away the rougher edges of past experiences. My first year on the tenure track offered vast stretches of unstructured hours. My second year, maybe not quite as often, but I still control most of my own schedule--I still have time to reflect and write and just chat with colleagues. I am busy, but I'm supposed to be.

So why am I writing about this?

I don't want to glorify being busy. I don't want to make my lot in life sound worse than others, especially since I'm mindful of the fact that for a junior faculty member, my workload isn't all that much above average.

The notion of being busy allows me to let things slip through the cracks. Like reading recent scholarship, or working on a draft-in-progress, or maintaining this blog. Saying I'm busy justifies delays. I'm writing this to remind myself that having lots of tasks to occupy my time is not something that will change with time.

I'm reminding myself to prioritize those tasks and not to fret if one waits a little longer than I would prefer. I'm reminding myself to get away from my desk and take a walk around campus in the middle of the day. It's a pretty campus after all, and the days are beginning to cool: Perfect weather for midday walks. So I'm busy. I'm not planning to let it overwhelm me.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Importance of Networking

A fellow rhet/comp professor nudged me recently and reminded me that I do in fact have readers who want me to pay attention to this blog every once in a while. So I thought I'd check in. And since I'm currently sitting in a hotel lobby during my favorite conference, what better concept to think about than a term that gives me some trouble: networking.

When I hear that term, as I imagine is true for many of you, I get this image of desperate people in suits--I guess many of us who have gone on the job market can picture precisely such a conference--trying to climb up the ladder by meeting the right person at the right time. Academia is certainly not immune to the potent mixture of anxiety and ambition that leads people to think of networking in this way. Academics have ambition, and there are probably few careers that generate as much anxiety as this one, with its constant search for the next goal (completion of a PhD, publishing, securing of a job, publishing, working toward tenure if you're on the tenure track, promotion through our very limited number of ranks, publishing, etc.). Networking has always struck me as a distinctly negative, self-serving social activity, and I just can't shake that terminological association. As one of the leaders of a three-day workshop I just attended said several times, a belief our field holds dear, words gain their meaning from other words.

If I think networking has these sleazy, uncomfortable, awkward, selfish associations, why use it? Okay, fine. It's not really the term I have in mind. When I go to conferences, I go to meet new people and see old friends and colleagues. I go to be a participant in my professional community. There is a term that resonates with me: community.

In the grand scheme of things, I have only been going to conferences for a few years now. I was in the second year of my PhD program before I attended a national conference. But in that short time, I have made numerous acquaintances in my field, acquaintances that I find a lot of value in. I don't value them because I think they helped me get a job (although I'm sure they did) or because they are the biggest, most famousest names in my field (although I do know some of them). When I talk with someone I have met at a conference, either five years or five seconds ago, I feel the privilege of talking with someone who has read much of the same scholarship I have read, who has gone through similar kinds of education, who has faced similar challenges that I face as a scholar, teacher, and administrator. And the reward of networking (ugh, that term) is not some future material gain or points scored in some intangible, invisible game of prestige building. The reward is feeling that sense of community.

A small example: When I began composing those post, as I said above, I was sitting in the hotel lobby all on my lonesome. I was engaging in a little bit of people watching and saying hi to people I knew when they walked past, but I was really just working. A paragraph into this post about the importance of networking, a colleague I met at this conference five years ago put her own work down, crossed the lobby, and asked me to join her and another colleague because, even though we are all working quietly, we can at least work together.

I never feel more connected to my community than when I'm at this conference. What we do is absolutely networking. You meet a person who introduces you to another person. Or, as happened to me this morning, you meet a person you realize you sort of know because of another person--an accidental form of networking. Or you just sit beside a person and talk about coffee. Networking can be an organic process: a putting down of roots, a rhizomatic experience. So those of you who don't like conferences because you don't like networking, just remember that you're talking with people who share so many of your values. You're talking to your people.

Okay, that's enough positivity. Blame it on my being on the road at my favorite conference. It gives me "all the feels," as the kids say. Next time, I promise to find some darkness to speak to so you know it's still me. Better yet: Maybe I'll invite my mysterious colleague Doctor Pretentious to be a guest blogger. Now that's darkness.

(The first photo, Suzie's Bridge, was taken at Ephiphany Farm in Bloomington, Illinois. The second photo was taken at the Falls of the Ohio State Park in Clarksville, Indiana.)