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.

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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 williameduffy@gmail.com.

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.)

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

One Year Down



In December, I wrote a brief reflection on the end of my first semester on the tenure track. And now here we are in early June, and I haven't written anything about my first year on the tenure track? That just seems wrong. But don't worry, dear sporadic readers of this sporadic blog, I've been thinking about it. Here are a few thoughts on what I've learned after my first year.

(Don't worry. That picture will make sense later. I'm just giving you incentive to keep reading.)

1. Not all problems have solutions
The bright-eyed, bushy-tailed assistant professor wants to do all the things from the first minute he or she walks in the door. Or at least, that's what I wanted.

"You have a problem? Let me solve it through my unique and winning combination of naivete and bewilderment! What could go wrong?"

Any program, department, or institution is going to have more problems than could ever be counted. And there are some that you will sense immediately that just can't be solved. Try to figure out what those problems are so you don't waste valuable time and energy (and good will among your initially amused colleagues) trying to change the world when you can't.

Hey, I'm not saying just throw up your hands and walk away from problems. Okay, so actually that's exactly what I'm saying. But remember, you have years ahead of you to deal with problems. (Spoiler: That least sentence will be featured in this list in just a few minutes. Stay tuned.) And you aren't the only force on Earth who wants to bring about change. So calm down, little guy. Take a deep breath. Then get back to your research.

2. Lots of problems do have solutions...but you might not be that solution
In fact, you could make things worse because you don't know what the hell is going on to begin with. These first two things on the list really add up to one important maxim: Sit down, shut up, and listen. You'll learn so much by observing as much as you can, whether in department meetings, university committees, administrative searches--the list goes on. Be a sponge. Soak in all that messy bureaucratic goodness and hush.

3. You can help out, you know.
Does that seem contradictory? Yeah.

You didn't get hired just to sit in your office and write the next great monograph on Emerson and death. Well, maybe some of you did. But even if you did, you're expected to do other stuff too. So while you're sitting there being quiet and being a sponge and such, understand that occasionally you're going to have to speak. People will want to hear what you think. Sometimes.

Good luck figuring out when you're supposed to speak up. I didn't say I mastered all these things.

4. Look for balance.
If you're being a good sponge and you're also locking yourself in your office to write that article or monograph and, somehow, you're still remembering to show up to teach your classes, you're doing great! You're also going to find that you're tired. That may be because all of this takes up a significant amount of time. So you need to look for balance.

First, you need to try to set boundaries to separate one part of your job from the other. Will these boundaries hold? Of course not! But unproductive blah will overflow your entire existence if you don't at least try to fight back the forces of chaos. Things I've started doing? Oh, you still think I'm telling you how to do this. Well, shut your office door. It's astonishing, but an academic's closed door is sort of like a cloaking device. "Huh. His door is closed. He must be on vacation in Bermuda, which is what I assume all professors do with the majority of their time." And the other, infinitely more important thing you can do: turn off the damn email. Just turn it off. Walk away. Email is the biggest time suck in your entire job unless you try to keep it under control. There's a little burst of happiness that comes with answering an email. Ignore the addiction. Get help. Remember back in grad school when you used to read books? Try doing that again. Maybe take up blogging.


Second, decide how you plan to distinguish the boundary between work and home. For me, those boundaries are strong. There's literally a state line between me and my office. When I cross that state line, I am off the clock. This is, of course, not entirely true. I will check email at home, despite what I just said in the last effing paragraph. I can also grade at home. But my home is inhabited that these small creatures whom I suspect I had some part in generating, and they tend to demand my time. And I want to give it to them. For many academics, this strong divide between work and home simply doesn't exist. So I would never urge someone else to adopt my model. Instead, think about how to strike a healthy balance between work and whatever not-work you have.

5. You've literally got the rest of your life.
I promised above that I was coming back to this one. The first year felt like it went by in a blur. I got some scholarly things done. A couple of publications, some serious drafting of articles after having to start over on them, a book review, a great conference presentation, and more conference presentation proposals accepted. I wish I had gotten more done, but I was productive. I did a pretty decent job teaching my classes if I do say so myself. I got involved with a number of ongoing projects in my department. In short, I did bunches. And I was generally good-natured about it, as were my colleagues. Not bad for a first year. Now I'm looking toward a summer that's dedicated to research and writing and a new year during which I will teach new classes (and a couple of repeats) and face new challenges. And I feel good about it because this is what I want to do. It's a lot of work, but it's work that I enjoy. Besides, I'm moving into an office with a window! A freaking window! All challenges are now surmountable! (Note to self: Reread 1 and 2.)

Now, this list could go on and on forever. I wanted to hit just some of the highlights that ultimately point toward a mentality about academic work. Yes, the tenure clock is going tick tock tick tock tick tock. Believe me, I hear it. But I'm making good progress toward that goal: I'm developing interesting projects and learning how to be a better, more efficient researcher. I'm accruing important teaching experience with accompanying strong evaluations. I'm building relationships throughout the university with cool people who have cool ideas. The way I see it, as long as I avoid developing a messiah complex and keep on working while remember occasionally that I have a family I like to hang out with, I'm doing okay.

That being said, I posted a little query to my writing group several weeks ago--see, I told you I've been thinking about this post for a while--also, 6. Get a writing group.--stop interrupted yourself, Jacob!--asking some colleagues at other institutions what they learned during their first year. Here, with apologies to my colleagues for not including everything and for inserting editorial comments at will, are some of their thoughts:

--Get used to being an "expert on X." This ain't grad school anymore, folks. That PhD behind your name means people expect you to know something.

--Say no to things. (HOW DID THIS NOT MAKE MY OWN LIST?)

--Write daily, even if that means you're just setting aside time to think about your writing.

--Make friends with colleagues, in and out of your department. Not only is this important because we are social creatures and we benefit from human interaction, but also because you learn more about your institution by talking with those who necessarily see it from different perspectives.

--Think of your research in terms of agendas, not in terms of single projects. Who do you want to be as a scholar? When people in your field say your name, what kind of work should they associate with it? (Personally, I'm hoping to launch an important research agenda based on the rhetoric of doughnuts. The research is going to be delicious.)

Finally, the most important thing I learned in my first year on the tenure track. I have so much more to learn. About my institution, my colleagues, my students, my research, my own scholarly habits, and so on. I finish my first year feeling mostly like I'm pretty sure I can probably drive to campus without possibly getting lost. I probably picked up a few more things too, but what can I say, I'm modest.

Hey readers, see that box down there below the text? Turns out, you can leave comments! Give it a shot. If you have something you'd add to this list, or if you want to tell me I'm dead wrong, go for it! I'd love to hear what y'all think about this. I'm especially interested in your thoughts on developing the Journal of Doughnuts. Or--and this is a crucial distinction--the Journal of Donuts.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

A Research Oasis

The end of March marks the beginning of the end of the academic year. When we meet for the first time after break, I always tell my students that the final weeks are going to feel like an adrenaline-hyped haze. And this is made even more extreme by my institution's academic calendar, because our spring break was last week, leaving four weeks of class after the break is over. And with the end of the semester comes a rush of papers to comment on, department and committee business to conclude, administrative business to continue (forever), and so on. T. S. Eliot briefly brushed the soul of we the academics when he declared April to be the cruellest month.

We're busy, in other words.

So when spring break arrived, I treated it as an opportunity to get ahead (catch up? stay on top of? I don't know) on research. I received a research fellowship for the summer, and I certainly plan to dedicate a significant amount of time escaping heat and humidity by poring over this keyboard to produce scholarship. But I wanted to make spring break count as a productive week, separate from the other obligations I must satisfy. I wanted it to be a research oasis.

What a "research oasis" looks like for me:

So I came into the office last week on days that I would have preferred to stay home and enjoy the brief respite from my half-hour commute and my windowless workspace. And I did research that I had been planning for a couple of months.

Not so long ago, I posted about the realities of rejection in every writer's life. I've gotten rejected often enough lately. One article that I was particularly excited about was sent back to me from a journal with, shall we say, less than helpful feedback. ("Umm...yeah. Of course I read this. Sure, I did." This is how I translated the editor's notes, probably quite unfairly.) I brooded a little and set it aside. Then an idea for how to approach the project from a new and probably much more productive direction came to me one day, with the aid of some of my colleagues from afar with whom I discuss ideas. But I didn't have time to do it.

Fortunately, Jacob from December knew what Jacob in March would want. A spring break uninterrupted by other demands. So I planned my classes accordingly. I had no student writing to respond to for more than a week. (That statement deserves italics, as any writing teacher would agree.) I counted on the faculty tendency to take advantage of breaks to disappear for just a little while, and sure enough, the influx of emails slowed to a tiny trickle. It was my kairotic moment. I had created an oasis.

Last week was my oasis. I thought about research methodologies. I set aside my conclusions from my previous approach and jumped in, letting my new method lead me toward new conclusions. I made pages and pages and pages of notes. I coded information. I read article after article. I examined multiple kinds of artifacts, letting my methodology guide me to what would help me to explore my question.

And it felt good. I don't know what this research will yield yet. I am on the tenure-track, so I certainly hope it leads to publication. But I tried to enjoy that brief window of uninterrupted research for the joy research provides. Tenure is never far from my mind, but I want to find joy in conducting research and producing scholarship. I don't want the pressures of tenure to be my only motivation. And last week was enjoyable.

Today provided me with a brief extension of my little oasis from last week. I pushed aside tasks that probably should have gotten my attention. I have another writing project that needs to be finished by the end of the week. I am working on an exciting conference proposal with colleagues from across the country. There's another writing project I'm sure my co-author would love for me to pay even a little attention to. I need to think more about a book project. Always more. Always more.

I used the term oasis because the word blurs the lines between reality and fantasy. An oasis is generally always just out of reach. And as this summer gets ever closer, that time I have marked off for research and writing, I have to remember the realities that will keep pushing that oasis a little further away. A new baby. New administrative responsibilities. New class preps for the fall. But getting even just a couple of days back to back can prove to be incredibly productive.