New Year’s Resolutions for Academics

It’s mid-August, the time at which every academic has to quit hitting the snooze button on their internal clock. That’s right; another academic year is looming, and with it comes the excitement of new classes, new colleagues, and–especially–new students. And it also comes with the faux excitement (“aren’t you just excited about all this? *chuckle*) of opening faculty meetings, committee workloads being divvied up, and the latest exciting-yet-unfunded “initiative” emanating from on high. I tend to do a lot of reflecting around mid-August. What went well last year? Where were the dumpster fires? Why didn’t I flee to Micronesia this summer? And, since my current position allows me to help lead new faculty orientations and work with my colleagues on reflecting about our practice, I have lots of conversations that extend that reflection beyond my own space and into the larger space of academe which we all share. Every year, I try to set goals and create habits that will help me balance my various commitments while remaining at least somewhat sane and pleasant to be around; my results vary, but I at least survive until June every year. Some years, that alone is a victory.

This year, I decided to procrastinate take a bit of time away from figuring out what the hell I’m going to do in my courses putting the final touches on my syllabi, draw upon my experiences and those of my colleagues and students, and offer a set of resolutions aimed at making the quality of our academic life better. I propose this list in the spirit of collegiality, and with the intent to point out some of the things we (myself included) might be more mindful of in the coming year. I think you’ll find them useful, whether your are a new faculty member, or a crusty old veteran. They are offered freely, without pretense or ulterior motive. What can I say–I’M A GIVER. So join me in committing to a better academe, and consider the following Resolutions for the New Academic Year:

Know your colleagues: If you’re tenured, or tenure-track, faculty-congratulations. You won the academic lottery. But there are a hell of a lot of our colleagues who are just as good (if not more so), just as qualified (if not more so), and just as experienced (if not more so) as we are whose tickets haven’t turned up winning numbers yet. Tenured colleagues, we can’t let the inequalities plaguing academia cause us to forget that we are allies and not adversaries, partners not elites. Our part-time and contingent faculty are the ones on the front lines of student success. They teach the survey courses, they encounter the newbies, they see more students on average than we do. And they deserve better–far better–than they’ve gotten from US higher education and those of us occupying places of privilege within it. I wish it wasn’t necessary to write these words, but, sadly, it is: all faculty are colleagues. We should treat others as such and be treated as such ourselves. This is both a moral and professional imperative. Work to create a culture–in your hallway, your department, your institution–where all faculty are respected and in community. If your department or institution already does this, great! Keep getting better. If not, we have important work to do.

Climb over your silo walls: One of the most counterproductive and frustrating conditions we have in colleges and universities is the faculty-staff divide. All too often, our relationships become adversarial; we get in each other’s way mostly out of ignorance, willful or otherwise. It doesn’t have to be like that. Get to know your support staff. Do they know your name in the Registrar’s Office? (And if they do, is it for the right reasons?) We have deadlines to submit information and paperwork and reports, not because administrators hate us, but because people literally need that stuff to do their jobs. Don’t be the one preventing them from doing so.

We know the caricature of the distant and aloof professor cloistered in the ivory tower is a myth–but let’s not assume everyone else does. And let’s also not be that “grain of truth” that underlays such stereotypes. Get out of your hole. Sometimes, it’s good to be where students and colleagues are. Eat lunch in the dining hall. Got a campus coffeeshop? Hold some of your office hours there. Learn the names of the maintenance staff who work in your building, and greet them personally. Thank them for the work they do. Quit complaining about IT and realize what a crap-tastic job they have, running all over campus to help Tenured Star Professor solve his computer problem RIGHT NOW. (“Pressing the power button will improve the picture on your monitor, Dr. Smith….”). Spread a little goodwill around. People deserve it. And you might feel some of it come around your way, too.

Reply All: Don’t. Seriously…Just don’t. EVER.

Know what it is you love to do, and make time to do it: I’m doing scholarly work that I LOVE. I’m fortunate to have a couple book projects in the works, and to be involved in my field’s many conversations. But I am also teaching and hold a half-time administrative post. I love these things, too. I have to make time for my many loves. We’re all in the same boat–we have a lot of commitments, and we need to do all of them well. This takes work–regular, predictable, consistently applied labor. So, for example, if you’re writing, do it every day. I’ve tried about every other method, and I can tell you that a productive writing practice boils down to three words. ASS. IN. CHAIR. Schedule your writing time daily, and hold it sacred. You wouldn’t let someone schedule you into a meeting while you’re teaching class; your writing time should be equally inviolable.

It’s more than just writing, though; there’s professional development. Teaching and prep. Grading. Meetings. Personal time. Perhaps you should reintroduce yourself to your family and loved ones. I don’t claim to have any easy answers about work-life balance, and much of my experience in this regard is failing to do it well. But we all know how important it is. Even if we allow our immediate tasks to subsume it in the short term, we have to reckon with the need for balance at some point. The consequences of not doing so can be awful. We have to commit to taking care of ourselves, or we’re useless to everyone else.

Keep things in perspective: There will be an issue, or many issues, on our campuses this year that are URGENT. They must be ADDRESSED IMMEDIATELY. We need to INNOVATE or BE PROACTIVE or AGILE or FLEXIBLE and we must do these things NOW. Or, there are issues that we personally hold dear, and cannot for the life of us imagine how everyone else can be so blind to their importance. ARE YOU PEOPLE IDIOTS? HOW CAN YOU NOT SEE THE NEED TO FIX THIS? Maybe there’s an important vote at the faculty meeting next month, and if things go wrong, it’s very likely Western Civilization may finally collapse. Stop. Take a breath. My wife–who holds a high-stress administrative job at my institution–has been known to ask of an issue, “Will any babies die?” That bluntness is necessary for her, surrounded by other administrators and faculty working themselves into a tizzy over whatever crisis has bloomed that particular day. It’s a stark, but useful, reminder that the stakes are rarely as high as we imagine they are. We may not like the way our new Core Curriculum course distribution looks, but it’s not killing anybody. The point is not to go total Pollyanna and blithely ignore important concerns, but rather to keep those concerns in perspective. Don’t over-function. We do important and good work. But there are other people, and other places, where the stakes are higher and the consequences graver. We’ll figure out how to reconfigure the Development Committee. It’s not a hostage negotiation. So CHILL.

Reply All: Weren’t you listening before? DON’T.

Check your privilege: I’m a large white male tenured academic with a loud voice. It is very easy for me to dominate a conversation and crowd out other voices. I know this because I’ve done it; I cringe to think how often I’ve done so, to be honest. I am mindful that privilege works for me in some powerful ways. I don’t need to have been complicit in the creation of privilege to have benefited from it–privilege is the product of dominant historical cultures. My life experiences do not include very many instances of being on the wrong end of the power dynamic. We all need to reflect–and more importantly, act–with an awareness of how privilege and power work in academe. Because they are strong, and they are influential, and their structures will persist unless enough of us dismantle them. Women’s voices–particularly in STEM fields–are often ignored or muted. Indeed, higher ed is rife with absolutely awful behavior toward, and treatment of, women. People of Color are underrepresented in academe, and often not afforded the respect or collegiality automatically granted to white academics. Ask yourself: who chairs our committees? Who speaks the most in faculty meetings? Do we enable academic bullies? Contingent faculty have an array of macro-institutional dynamics stacked against them. And this is just on the faculty-staff side–our students also experience the effects of power and privilege. What’s our role been in that? Who do we call on in discussions? What assumptions do we make about students’ levels of preparation or suitability for different programs of study based upon their backgrounds? What are we implicitly doing with and among our students? What are the “hidden transcripts” embedded in our interactions with our classes? Have we abetted the operation of privilege? Or have we called privilege out–named it–and let our students examine it critically, to discern its operation and effects? We would do well to reflect on these questions.

And, finally:

Be like Daisy: My Pittie-Boxer mix Daisy is a true wonder dog, who lives by the mantra “Wag More, Bark Less” (except if you’re a squirrel, but we all have our exceptions). If nothing else, that ethos alone could make academe a far better place.

Also--nap powerfully.
“Also: nap powerfully.”


Have a great year! Go forth and kick ass!

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