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.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Screen Time

When I walk down the long hallway on the second floor that leads from my office to the other side of the building, I tend to glance casually in my colleagues' offices. Nothing intrusive. Just a brief acknowledgement that the myths are true: There are other lifeforms in academia. A person can forget that sometimes, plugging away in the confines of one's own office and one's own cluttered mind.

Over the course of a few months, a realization began to dawn on me. Or perhaps less a realization and more a synthesis of observations made on a daily basis. Either way, I reached a conclusion that both stunned me and didn't surprise me at all.

We spend a lot of time looking at screens.

  • Here's an average Monday for me: I arrive around 8:15 and open my computer. I check email, glance at Oncourse (our learning management site), guiltily flip to Facebook, speed read two or three news articles. Then I finish prepping for class and head off for my 9:30.
  • When I get back seventy-five minutes later, I open my computer, check email, glance at Oncourse, guiltily flip to Facebook, speed read two or three news articles. I comment on a student draft or two, which I do using Track Changes in Microsoft Word.
  • And hey, look, it's time for lunch! I've been working hard, so to take a break while I'm mindlessly consuming my salad, I check email, glance at Oncourse, guiltily flip to Facebook, read another article or two.
  • Then it's time to get back to work. Maybe comment on another draft or two, maybe read some scholarly articles, maybe beat my head against an article draft for a little while. Then the day is done. Phew. That was hard. Better check my email before I go home.
  • I'd better pack my laptop and take it with me so I can spend some more time working later in the day. (In fairness, I rarely work at home, so carrying the laptop back and forth across the Ohio River is more a sacred tradition than anything else.)

This isn't a post about time management, although there are some clear issues with that. This is about how the life of the mind seems to have become the life of the screen.

When I was an undergraduate, I would occasionally see one of my favorite professors walking around campus with a book in his face. This guy really took a stroll while reading. I would probably fall and break my face, but I recall being impressed by this engagement. When I stopped by his office, his computer was sitting in a corner, sadly neglected, while he was sitting at a table reading a book or writing on student drafts. It looked great.

In my strolls down the hall, it is extremely rare to see a colleague reading a book. I mean, it is an odd sight. Do we read less? Of course not. Well maybe, but I don't have any data to support a claim like that. Instead, I will go so far as to say: We read in different environments.

Above, I broke down what a typical Monday looks like. Here are the tasks that absorb my time on a typical day:

  • Email
  • Reading and commenting on student drafts
  • Searching for and reading scholarship for my research
  • Putting together plans and documents for classes
  • Conversing with colleagues dispersed all across these United States
  • Writing
One of the most amazing things about technology is how it enables us to stay in contact with one another in multiple ways. A writing group I participate in meets exclusively online, since we have members in Georgia, Texas, North Dakota, and California. We use Facebook as our meeting space for exchanging drafts and feedback, posing questions, setting goals, and updating one another on our failures and successes.

But of course, the biggest problem with being available through multiple avenues is...we are all available through multiple avenues. We receive student emails at all hours of the day, and we feel some compulsion to answer them quickly, even if it's the next morning. Faculty members email one another from thirty feet away to conduct business that would probably be wrapped up faster face to face.

We are no longer absorbed by screens: They absorb us and we become in important ways indistinguishable from screens. They become what we are because most of our work is there. Just imagine if you teach online courses. For now, I do get out of my chair on Mondays and walk down two flights of stairs to teach my course.

When I was writing my thesis, way back in the before time, I drafted whole chapters by hand, but I imagine that has more to do with the relative expense of laptops at that time. But I remember those drafting sessions with fondness. I had spent hours with sources that I knew I would be using, condensing notes and quotations onto cramped notebook pages, so that they would be portable. Then I would go to libraries, coffee shops, wherever to escape that damned screen. And I would draft.

This past week, I have been revising a presentation that I will give at a conference in a couple of weeks. It's writing, so it's screen work. I used to draft by hand, but that stopped years ago. I wrote my entire dissertation on my laptop, most of it sitting at a tiny little desk in a TA office cubicle. But when I'm revising, I try to disconnect. I turn off the screen and mark up a printed copy. I have to get away from the screen. The screen becomes a distraction.

 It's freeing to scribble new phrasings on the margins, or to mark out entire paragraphs that I know no longer have a purpose, or to draw arrows to suggest reorganization schemes. I can be bolder when I'm scribbling on paper. After all, I'm not really "rewriting" it yet. That's screen work.


I am feeling a desire to get away from the screen more often than I do. Computers, tablets, smart phones, the Internet--all of these technologies have enabled me to accomplish lots of things. This blog is the product of those technologies. But maybe it's time to remember what I can do with other writing technologies. Maybe it's time to find out if I was a better writer when I wrote entire chapters by hand. Maybe I want to be that odd guy on that long hall of offices who is filling up notebooks rather than writing one email after another.

You know, I think I'm going to leave my laptop on this side of the Ohio this weekend.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Working Through Rejection






Okay, so isn't that one of the coolest photos ever? Well, maybe not for that homeowner.

That huge boulder rolled through and demolished a big section of a house in Italy in January. Another boulder, even bigger than the one pictured above, rolled toward another house and stopped just shy of ramming its way through. Here's the story if you want to read about it. When I saw that image, I knew it was going to make its way over to the old blog, and I knew the context.

I've been thinking a lot about rejection lately. Don't worry: This isn't going to be a whiny post about how difficult it is to get research published or anything like that. Don't get me wrong, though. Wanting to take some time to complain to friends and close colleagues about such rejections is a perfectly legitimate activity. It's healthy, even.

Instead, this post is about what can/could/should (?) happen after rejection. Last year, I went through and managed to survive the most catastrophic activity any academic can experience. I went on the job market for a tenure-track position. I am fortunate that the market in my field, as opposed to most academic areas of specialization, is quite robust. Here's a very cool visual representation maintained by Jim Ridolfo from the University of Cincinnati to strengthen my point. That's a lot of little arrows, people.

Anyone who has ever been on the academic job market, whether successful in securing a tenure-track position or not, knows the barrage of rejection that comes with that particular activity. Here I am, a year later, and I still occasionally get a Human Resources auto-generated rejection email from jobs I applied for sixteen months ago. Just a little reminder, the email seems to say, we still don't want you. That's more a quirk of software than an actual rejection, but as Geoffrey Pullam recently noted, these automated systems are sending communications to actual human beings. In fairness, some of the rejections I received were heartfelt notes from department and search committee chairs that reminded me that human beings were deeply involved in this process.

So, yeah. You get rejected a lot on the job market. Some of those rejections hurt more than others. And when you're sending out work for publication, you get rejected. Journals are complex ecological systems that answer to different groups, that have different budgetary needs, etc etc, all of which to say: just because a journal rejects your article doesn't mean your work doesn't have merit.

So I tell myself. After all, this post is about working through rejection. And I just had an article I've been working on for a long time rejected by a big journal in my field. I was not surprised by the rejection, but who wouldn't feel discouraged? To that end, here's a little timeline I've been thinking through for working through rejections of this sort.

Day 1: Sulk. Feel sorry for yourself. Question whether you should quit and go get a job at Blockbuster Video (if those even still exist). Complain to a close group of friends, colleagues, mentors, spouses, whoever. In other words, let yourself actually feel the sting.

A point on professional etiquette: Respond to the rejection to thank the editor/search committee chair/any non-automated-email-sending-entity for his or her time. And really mean it. These people don't like rejecting you any more than you like rejecting them. I like to do this on Day 1 because it prepares me to remember what I need to on Day 2. Speaking of which...

Day 2: Remember that you are a professional and an adult who has learned how to handle rejection. If you didn't read through the reviewers' comments (if it's an article) or you just scanned that initial email for the "we regret to inform you" language and then cast your eyes to the sky and bellowed "Why me?" over and over again (for a refresher, see Day 1 of this schedule), then Day 2 is an excellent time to read through that material more carefully. Just read it. Don't work on it. Just read it.

Day 3: Get back to work. If it's a manuscript, start making plans for revising and targeting a new publishing venue. (Better yet, have a back-up plan in place to begin with. I've already gotten that rejected article to another journal because I had that plan ready to go.) If it's a grant, remember that there isn't just one fiscal year ever and start making plans to try again. If it's a job, well...Maybe go back to Day 1 and work through this again. That's a tough one.

The principle is simple, and I know I am far from the only person to say it, but it bears repeating. When you get rejected, you "feel the feels," as the current vernacular seems to go, and then you get back to work. That house ain't rebuilding itself. And really, how often can your house get plowed down by a freak geological incident? (Don't answer that question.)

Because as professionals, we are not defined by rejections. We are defined by what we do.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Wash, Rinse, Repeat

The beginning of the semester is one of my favorite moments of a course. I walk into a classroom full of students who are curious and occasionally slightly frightened or intimidated. What they don't know--one of the greater open secrets of teaching--is I am usually experiencing those exact same feelings. Just this morning, I stepped into a tiered classroom. Now I have to confess: it's quite small. It can fit 25 people comfortably, but certainly no more.

But this is what it looked like to me:


Huge. Cavernous. Impersonal.

I've never taught in such a room before, so the strangeness of the environment only intensified my nervousness. And that's a good thing.

That sense of being overwhelmed is a useful experience, because it reminds me of how my students are feeling. This particular course is a sophomore-level writing in the disciplines course, so I am dealing mostly with students who are fairly comfortable with being in a college classroom. But I can look at their faces and know which ones are feeling anxious about being in yet another writing class and the ones who are irritated that they are in yet another writing class and the ones who are somewhat excited because they are in yet another writing class. Anyone who has taught, no matter their field, has seen all of these expressions and more.

The academic calendar and its divisions, whether into semesters, trimesters, quarters, or any other conceivable ways of dividing time, provide instructors with the chance to start over, to try again, to test new ideas. That's what is most exciting to me about the beginning of the semester: Everything is still possible. I could be walking into what I will, in years to come, think of as one of the best courses I ever taught. More likely, I'm walking into a class that I will look back on and think, well I could've done worse. But that forward gaze, that burst of pedagogical optimism, is potent.

Instructors are always experiencing new challenges, big and small. A classroom with a different layout is merely a physically felt challenge, so it's easier to notice. This is also, for instance, the first time I am ever teaching a class quite like this. (You'd think I'd be more nervous about that.) I am incorporating technology in ways I haven't tried before. I am putting more trust in my students to work with one another than my control freak nature typically allows. I designed a lighter schedule so I have room to adjust to the rhythm of the course without feeling like I'm behind. I am working with a textbook that I've used before and rejected, practically out of hand. Newness, newness, newness!

And that sheen of newness--a phrase I just used when introducing myself to my students to explain why I couldn't answer a reasonably simple institutional question without looking for an answer--spills over into all my endeavors.

Suddenly, I can see my research agenda anew. I am in the process of rethinking how to best use my time and where to focus my energies. I have dreams, big dreams, but some of them are less attainable as a brand new scholar. So while I work toward those bigger projects, I can work on smaller projects that help me to establish my presence in the field and in my university.

Likewise, I see departmental situations somewhat differently than I did in the heat of my very first semester as a TT faculty member. Things feel less pressing, because if there is one truth about human organizations, they are slow to change. I ain't just going to fix the world in a semester. And I shouldn't want to. Since I am a historian of higher education, I should in fact know better than most that what I see as "problems," others see as traditions and best practices. Tread a little lighter, new guy. More institutional knowledge means a more informed perspective. Imagine that!

(Don't get my wrong: My fundamentally quiet nature means that most of the struggles were going on in my head anyway. I wasn't exactly shaking the foundations around here. But even my head could benefit from a little more quiet, thank you very much.)

So while the rest of the world in January talks about resolutions, I am thinking: I get to try it again. It isn't so different, except that I get to experience this feeling of renewal more often. I'm embracing this feeling of optimism as I start my twentieth semester as a teacher. After all, if things don't work out the way I want them to, there's always next semester.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

One Semester on the Tenure-Track

About a month ago, my daughter and I decided to take a hike in a nearby park. As a ten-year resident of western North Carolina, I may be using the word "hike" very loosely here, but for a nearly three year old, a little walk on a mixed use trail qualifies as a hike. We encountered the little hill in the photo, and I found myself thinking about that hill for days and days. We went back later, at least in part because I wanted to take a picture of the hill.

I don't think my metaphor is that complex or hard to guess. As I drove past this area on my way to work for the next several days, I thought about the slow and steady rise of the tenure track, and this hill somehow became the perfect image for the tenure clock.

Over the next several years, I need to build a solid record in the three basic areas of TT academic life: research, teaching, and service. So in this post, I want to take a look at the slow climb in those three areas.

Research: Prior to the beginning of the semester, I finished both a co-authored chapter for an edited collection and an article revision for a major journal in my field. Over the first couple of weeks, I spent time setting up priorities for the semester, and rather predictably, I seriously overestimated what I could produce in four months. I started another co-authored project that has languished in limbo, mostly because I took on more than I could manage at once. I also started two other article drafts drawn from small slices of my dissertation. Finally, I needed to write two grant proposals. I did in fact write those proposals, and I secured the grants that will enable me to start research for my first monograph next semester. I also made significant headway on one of the articles. From a certain perspective, I suppose this is a reasonable amount of work to complete in the first semester. So I'll cap off this category with this observation: I'm glad to have continued many of the productive habits I developed to complete my PhD, and I'm glad to have gotten some work done in the first semester, but I wanted to get more done. Imposter syndrome? Maybe. Unrealistic expectations? Probably.

Teaching: I teach three courses per semester, and I chose to plan for two preps for each semester for my first year--a pattern I would like to continue for the foreseeable future. Two preps reduces the amount of work required for each course. Of course, since I teach writing, this means I spend a remarkable number of hours responding to student drafts. Coming out of grad school, where I taught at most two courses, I've needed to adjust back to a heavier teaching load. In some ways, this has been a real source of pleasure. As a grad student, my first obligation was to my coursework and my dissertation. Now, teaching is a much higher priority, and since I got a PhD in writing because I love teaching, this is great. I am looking forward to developing new syllabi for existing courses and, even more exciting, proposing new courses for the writing concentration in the English major.

Service: I am something of a rare academic: I like service. This, of course, gets me in trouble. Halfway through my grad program, I adopted this mantra: protect your time. I adopted it. I was never actually good at it. I have learned so much from my time on committees and working in writing program administration, things I would not have had the chance to learn if I was better at saying no. I am fortunate to be in a department where tenured faculty members will whisper, "Be careful," when I agree to another service obligation. I also serve at the national level, which is a tremendous privilege and pleasure. All told, I took on several service obligations, and I am learning to be careful not to take on more. This will be especially important starting next July, when I become a WPA.

At the end of my first semester, I'm struck by my deeply felt sense that I have done absolutely nothing this semester. I've learned a great deal about my new institution, I've managed to give a healthy amount of attention to my research, and I've maintained a healthy distinction between work life and home life. I suppose as far as the first semester on the tenure track goes, that really is just about the best I could ask for. After all, working toward tenure is a gradual upward hike. The marathon pace of the PhD is behind me, so while the tenure clock keeps ticking (tick tock tick tock tick tock tick tock), it's crucial to discover acceptable rhythms and, most important of all, to forgive myself when I don't meet every goal I set for myself.

When I lived in the mountains, I hiked some pretty tough, steep trails. But I only hiked for four or five hours at a time. This hill isn't that steep, but I'm going to be climbing it for years.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Sometimes, Trying Has to Be Enough




Electronic forms of communication simplify many of the tasks we face in academia. It's easy to confirm the details of meetings; it's easy to get quick feedback on a possible policy change; it's useful for corresponding with colleagues at other institutions. But probably most importantly, it makes reaching students easier and increases students' access to professors. Does a student have a quick question? An email is probably the fastest way to get that question answered. Does a professor want to remind students of a particular aspect of an assignment they may otherwise forget? A brief reminder email can help students to complete the assignment.

I've been thinking about email for a couple of months now. I spend most of my working day in front of my computer, and I usually keep my university email open in a tab. It's open right now. Here's what it looks like:







Nice, right? I like to keep my inbox empty or as near as possible. I file emails as I answer them. Life feels more efficient and less messy to me, and that's important to me. It isn't to everyone, and that's fine, but this is what I like my writing space to look like, and my email space. I thrive in a tidy environment.

But this is why I've been thinking about email this semester. For the most part, students at my institution don't check it.

There have been recent articles about using other forms of electronic communication to reach students, such as Facebook or texting. I will do neither because I prefer to protect certain boundaries between work and personal. Additionally, it is possible that professors are becoming too dependent on email to reach students on a regular basis. I try very hard not to email students too regularly. As a faculty member and as a recipient of several listservs, I understand quite well that our lives are saturated with emails.  It becomes easier to ignore email than to sift through all of the reply-all threads and the auto generated emails from university offices and the announcement emails. My working life is a veritable ocean of emails, and I have no doubt that students receive far more emails than they want as well.

As a professor, I try to email my students only as a result of the following situations:

1. In response to a question: If a student emails me, it's my responsibility to respond. I don't hold myself accountable to respond instantaneously--see my above comment about boundaries between work life and personal life--but responding to students is important. They need to know that I hear them when they ask a question or let me know that they are missing class.

2. A gentle reminder: If a class has shown a habit of forgetting to submit assignments on time or failing to be as prepared as they can be by completing readings, I'll send a little nudge to remind them to get the job done.

3. "Are you out there?": If students start missing class and fails to submit assignments, I email them. Since I can't speak to them if they aren't showing up, I reach it via email in hopes of preventing them from failing the course. I'm not their counselor, and I don't ever want to be, but I can reach out in the interests of their performance in my course.

4. "Oops": I mess things up sometimes. I'm human. Sometimes I put the wrong page numbers for a reading on the syllabus or--as I did yesterday--I manage to completely and totally screw up our learning management system's page. So I send out a slightly embarrassing email to correct my mistake.

Now here's why I've been frustrated this semester. I've been following these rules for ten years, and they tend to do me right. This semester, not so much. Students don't check their email, so they don't see my gentle nudges, my slight corrections, or sometimes even my answer to the questions they sent me. And there is nothing I can do about it.

If you haven't picked up on this, dear blog reader, I like having control over my work environment. So acknowledging my powerlessness in this circumstance is endlessly irritating.

What can I do to make a change to my approach to communicating with my students? When I posed this problem to an administrator recently, he answered thoughtfully and carefully that I should ask for students' non-university email addresses. That is, as he freely acknowledged, not a very helpful answer.

For the moment, I am pondering this, not as a solution, but as a means of comforting myself: Just let go. Contact students and hope I can help them. If they do not respond, then I have done what I can.

Sometimes, and this is hard for teachers to admit, trying has to be enough.