Advice on Surviving the Competing Demands of Academia

July 26, 2011
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This May I found myself in a quandary. I was in the final weeks of sabbatical, analyzing surveys and pitching myself to high schools for book survey research through 2012. Then I got the email about graduation—an event all of you know means giving up an entire day. Then I got the facebook messages about graduation…from students who have been in my classrooms for years, working their butts off, wanting to see me there. I had every right to say “sorry, no, sabbatical”—but when you operate from within a teaching–oriented college, that’s a difficult phrase to spit out, no matter how overworked or exhausted or “in the research zone” you might be.

I suspect it might be the same for all of us, as increasingly colleges—even the research 1s—are being “brought to accountability” for improving the overall student “experience” as economic forces beyond our control place pressure on every level of academia. How do we as maintain professional productivity while also committing fully to pedagogical aims (truly the latter being what drove most of us through graduate school)? I offer here a few tips, admittedly from someone at a teaching-oriented college, but one that has been emphasizing more traditional research goals as well. (I also speak as someone tenured, realizing that the pressures are significantly different pre- and post-.)

1) Find someone in your department with whom to build a trusting relationship…and be that person for someone else. Both before and after tenure, there will be times when you feel overwhelmed…Sometimes by the sheer amount of hours needed in a semester to plan classes and conference presentations and write papers and develop that book….Sometimes by the curveballs that life can throw you with health, family, and golden opportunities that you can’t pass up. You need one person you can spill your guts to, no questions asked and no judgment proffered, who can a) make you feel better and b) intercede on your behalf when necessary. I recently witnessed a stellar teacher killing herself to finish a documentary, teach a new multi-departmental class, write a report for a new administrator, and all while dealing with (no exaggeration) a brain tumor that needed to be removed. I stressed to her that one semester of a lackluster class wouldn’t kill her—but not removing a brain tumor might. Sounds logical, but you all know you’ve been paralyzed similarly (if not as extremely) by the pressures to actually teach meaningful classes, deliver professional productivity, and have a literal or symbolic “life.” Have a sounding board and a mediator—it will mean all the difference. By the same token, think of your department humanistically: be there for someone else when you are able and it will come back to you.

2) Know yourself as an academic, in the most glorious sense of this position—and then know your limits (and those of your institution). We know there are certain things we must do to achieve tenure and maintain our employment. But we often become so obsessed with this—or the next step up after—that we forget to consider our reasons for going into the field to begin with. What are your priorities in terms of your career? Are you more driven by research? More by teaching? Equally so? Do you aspire to periodic forays into administration?  Is it important to you to be connected with the local community in which you work? Figure this out—in short, figure out what makes you happy as an academic, and then foreground that in your choices. A caveat: your priorities might shift—as might those of your institution (the latter clearly more nerve-wracking). Allow this to happen; Freud be damned, we keep developing way past 4 years old. Changing with the times, your personality, your environment, and your life circumstances doesn’t make you fickle—it is what makes you better at what you do. Students know if you don’t care; your family and friends know if you don’t care…in the end, you need to know what matters at any given moment and choose your activities accordingly.

3) Lay claim to your rights and needs as a human being…but realize you’re not an island. This is admittedly easier after tenure, but see #1! There are only so many hours in a day. Your health matters, your relationships matter. And no matter what your priorities (see #2), your happiness as a scholar matters as well. We sacrifice a lot to go into academia—better pay elsewhere, deferment of other activities, buying a house instead of a student loan :D…And most of us do this with noble intentions. Take pride in this—and remind others to respect your choices. And quite frankly, minimize your exposure to those who don’t respect your choices. This means at times saying “no”—to the committee invitation, to the request to serve administratively, to the pleas to review a book or article, to the student demands for a new class…You get the drift. A second caveat, however: Your choices impact others—your colleagues, your students, your family. Take heed of the fact that you are in academia—in other words, you work in conjunction with a complex of people who are human beings trying to do the best they can. Respect them—but make sure they respect you, no mater where you are on that ladder.

So, much is vague here, yes? 😀 How do I survive wanting to teach—loving to teach—but also yenning for time to research and write (and yes, even administrate)? I don’t have all the answers yet…but what lets me breathe is accepting that not having all the answers and making the occasional mistake is ok. This fall I’ll figure out what to embrace letting go of; I may sleep a little less, but in the end I’ll also sleep better knowing that I’m not trying to do it all.


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One Response to “ Advice on Surviving the Competing Demands of Academia ”

  1. Jonathan Gray on July 26, 2011 at 6:11 PM

    Great points, Sharon. I’d add from my own experience that it can often be good to be open to adapting one’s teaching style to accommodate one’s current needs and duties. So, for instance, there have been times in my career when I’ve needed to teach a new class, and I haven’t gotten as much prep done on it as I’d prefer; in such situations, I’ve usually been upfront about this being the first time I’ve taught the class, and I’ve shifted from “let me tell you stuff” mode to “here’s a problem, let’s try to solve it together” mode. As much as some students really want to come in and get a whole bunch of notes from a class, just as many usually want to feel empowered in the process, and thus sometimes being honest with oneself and one’s students that one doesn’t know everything is the first step towards a great learning experience for the students. And thus I’ve taught “the same class” in very different ways at different times, yet with little discernible difference in evaluations. As one’s research and service requirements ebb and flow, one’s teaching style can too and it doesn’t need to be a bad thing.