Monday, June 13, 2016

A Jarring Juxtaposition

Yesterday, two tragedies--one fictional and one very real, one small and one devastatingly huge--aligned in a jarring way.

For the past few months, my wife and I have been reading the Harry Potter books aloud to our five-year-old daughter. We read a chapter a night, and it is a part of the day that all of us look forward to. Or at least, we all looked forward to it until last night. Last night, both my wife and I dreaded it.

We dreaded it because we've read the series before, and we knew what happens in that chapter. We read "Flesh, Blood, and Bone," one of the last chapters of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. While earlier parts of the books have introduced death, brutality, and violence, this is arguably the first time in the series death comes for a character that readers have had the chance to get to know.

It was my turn to read, and as my daughter sat there, excited to re-enter a magical world that she has come to know very well, I tried to prepare her for what was going to happen. I told her that it was a scary chapter and that it would be okay if she asked me to stop reading if she needed a break. She nodded, confident that she was fully prepared for what would happen.

So I read. And soon, when the character died, she crawled into my wife's lab and began to sob. Which made my wife sob. I stopped reading to give my daughter a little while to absorb what we had just read. When I asked if she was ready for me to keep reading, she said she was, because she wanted to find out how the character would come back to life. But as Albus Dumbledore notes in the very first novel, not even magic can bring people back to life--an important moment of world building to prepare readers for chapters just like this one.

In November 2015, as news of shootings in Paris began popping up in our social media newsfeeds, my wife and I turned on the television to get more information about what was happening. It was mid- to late-afternoon, so our children were still up. We could only watch a few minutes before our daughter started asking us to explain what the reporters were talking about. We did our best, but words rarely capture the pain and the sense of powerlessness most of us feel when terrible things like this happen.

And then yesterday, as reports of the mass shooting in a gay club in Orlando once more revived that pain and that powerlessness, we shared a little--just a very little--of what was going on in the world with our daughter. We truncated it to the extent that she didn't really understand why her parents were so devastated by the news.

Just a few hours later, we read that chapter in Goblet of Fire, and our daughter felt very keenly the pain of sudden loss and the agony of being able to do absolutely nothing to stop it from happening. She tried to come up with ways to explain that maybe the character hadn't died, or maybe somebody would be able to bring him back to life. She resisted the reality that the character was in fact dead. I understand. We all want to resist reality at moments like this.

If we exposed our daughter to just a little more information about the shooting in Orlando, or earlier massacres in other nations, or the death tolls associated with horrific natural disasters, I have no doubt that my sensitive little girl would mourn for those people. She knows what death is, and she very naturally feels for others. But we try to find the nearly imperceptible line--so imperceptible that it is probably not actually possible--between protecting our very young child from the sheer brutality of the world and exposing her to enough that, as she grows older, she will be as prepared as any of us can be for the astonishing inhumanity exercised by so many people in this world.

In many ways, fiction offers a way to expose children to the terrible things people can do to one another. As soon as I finished reading the chapter, as my daughter sat in shock at what had just happened to a character that she had grown to like and to feel like she knew to some extent, my wife and I were quick to remind her that this was just a story--that none of these characters were real, that none of these things had ever happened.

That reminder seemed to make an important difference. In the past, my daughter has bemoaned the fact that the characters and world she has come to love are not real. But now, she visibly took solace in that same fact. Fiction became a shield against the horror of what she had just heard.

The night before we read the chapter, before we woke up to horrifying stories of 50 people dying in a senseless massacre because one guy didn't like seeing a same-sex couple kiss, I told my wife that I didn't look forward to reading that chapter with our daughter. There was no turning back afterward. The world that she had come to know and love would forever be changed by those very few pages. It was one loss of innocence that foreshadowed many more, moving inevitably nearer.

As painful as it is for me as a father to see my daughter devastated by a story, it's vital for her to learn how to deal with the kind of crushing pain that so many of us felt yesterday in the aftermath of yet one more mass slaughter. She will experience pain associated with the deaths of many people as she grows older, as will my son, who is too young to understand any of this yet. And they will need to learn to wrestle and live with that pain--pain that feels insurmountable when we first encounter it.

I don't know if there is anything new or profound to be discovered in this micro/macro juxtaposition. I have written elsewhere that we need to work harder to act with empathy toward others, but that's hardly original. And certainly there's nothing new to the idea that literature can inspire sublime feeling in us. Sadly, I've already written about the pain, anger, and helplessness parents can feel in light of senseless murder.

This is an incomplete thought. Because honestly, I don't know how to complete thoughts at moments like this. There is something to be learned here about teaching responsible citizens, but I am not ready to articulate that just yet.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Remembering How to Write a Lot

Until four or five months ago, I was a lifelong nail biter. The habit formed years ago and, although I wasn't particularly proud of the habit, I didn't really do anything to break it. Until one day when I was driving to work, crossing the Sherman Minton Bridge over the Ohio River, I decided that I just wasn't going to do that any more. Just like that. And I haven't bitten my nails since then.
I wish habit breaking/forming/maintaining was always that easy.

Here's something of an odd confession for a writing professor, although I think my fellow scholar-teachers in rhetoric and composition will agree to one degree or another: I am constantly forgetting and relearning how to write. It's a habit that needs constant attention to keep it functional.

The two most intense writing periods of my professional life thus far have been my thesis and dissertation, with the latter taking the prize. I feel like I wrote my thesis in some kind of feverish frenzy, utilizing unsustainable binge writing techniques to complete the project. (He's too kind to say it--maybe?--but I'm sure my thesis advisor would agree with that assessment.) But when I wrote my dissertation, I was disciplined and systematic. So where did that discipline go?

As I write this blog post, which will be a relatively brief one, I have several projects due to editors in the uncomfortably near future. So first question: If I have so much writing to do, why am I writing this post? Good question.

When I was writing my dissertation, I spent ten or fifteen minutes at the beginning of each writing session to write about writing. It helped me to clear my head and get into a productive space. So for today, this post is providing me with that opportunity. I'm reviving a practice that served me well when I was producing 5,000 to 7,000 words per week.

Sherman Minton Bridge. Photo by Michael Clevenger.

The other practice that served me well was keeping a spreadsheet to track my progress on projects. Some readers will recognize this as a practice from Paul Silvia's How to Write a Lot, a book that had a profound impact on my scholarly productivity in graduate school. And I have to say, since becoming a WPA, I love a good spreadsheet. Practice revived.

The final practice that I am not able to revive quite so effectively is setting aside two or three hours in the morning to write. The mornings are productive hours for me. By 4 or 5 in the afternoon, I'm done. But parenting and professing make sticking to an exactly identical morning schedule difficult for me. But as most productive writers know, blocking out small chunks of hours is crucial to complete projects. This morning, I'm not on campus, so I'm writing from 10 to 12 in my favorite coffee shop for working and then grabbing another block from 1 to 3 at a local public library that has also proven to be conducive to writing.

One bonus practice: forgiveness. There will be days when I don't have the chance to write. I don't beat myself up about that, especially since I do lots of other kinds of writing on those days--commenting on student work, producing reports and grant applications, and the like.

There's nothing profound here. (Is there ever?) This is mostly a reminder for myself that there are tried and true techniques that help me produce lots of quality academic writing. Now I guess I'd better open that Word document.

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