#alt-ac · #post-ac · administration · balance · commute · day in the life · transition

The Non-Academic Day-to-Day Debunked

From what people tell me, life as a tenure-track professor isn’t all that different from life as a PhD student, especially with the increasing expectations that grad students will be presenting at conferences, publishing, and doing service activities. Sure, you teach more. The pressures to publish increase. You add supervision and more service to the mix. But the job is fundamentally still flexible (in terms of focus, hours, and location), self-directed, and performed in the same environment with the same types of people. Transitioning from the day-to-day of a PhD student to the day-to-day of a faculty member sounds pretty easy.

One of the consequences of the way that grad students are indoctrinated into the conventions and customs of academe is that the day-to-day realities of working life outside of the academy seem a bit strange, a bit scary, even a bit unsavory. I know lots of us have had these thoughts: Working in an office from 9-5 sounds like a prison sentence. Non-academic work and co-workers can’t possibly be intellectually stimulating enough. No boss is going to tell me what to do. I’m nearly three month into my new administrative position, the amount of time conventional wisdom suggests it takes to settle into a new job, and I’ve been reflecting on what life is like in the #alt-ac compared to my initial fears and expectations. So, what’s it like, you ask, and what did I think it would be like?

Belief: There’s no way I can spend two hours a day commuting.
Reality: Yes, commuting kinda’ sucks. I spent twenty very cold minutes in an extraordinarily long line for the bus this afternoon. But most of the time, it’s actually very pleasant. Sometimes I write, or crochet. Mostly I read. The commute is so automatic now that I’m mostly unaware that I’m doing it at all, and I’ve read more books in the last month than I probably did all of last year.

Belief: I like sleeping in and starting my day when I choose.
Reality: Most mornings, I get up a 5:15 and go to the gym before work. I leave the house at precisely the same time every day, and I have no choice about when I start my day–everyone in my office works the same hours. I don’t mind in the least. It’s actually easier for me to get up at 5:15 than it is to get up later, probably because I’m in a lighter part of the sleep cycle.

Belief: I’ve spent five years working from home, mostly alone, and I’m a total introvert. There’s no way I can be productive and sane working in an office full of people every day.
Reality: I love working around people. I love my cat, but spending my days only with him were making me a little crazy. When I need to focus, I put on my headphones and/or shut my office door. I love office gossip, and that when something isn’t going well (or when it is), there’s always someone to vent to or celebrate with. And you can’t beat co-workers who buy pizza for everyone when their back-pay from a contract negotiation comes in.

Belief: I’m too independent and self-directed to report to someone on a regular basis.
Reality: Probably because my job is pseudo-managerial (I’m staff, but my position used to be management level and mostly still resembles a management role), I have oodles of autonomy. But I like reporting to someone. The PhD is a whole lot of delayed gratification and feedback, whereas office life provides tons of both. It also helps that my boss is straightforward, reasonable, and practical, as well as someone I actually like talking to. 

Belief: I treasure my flexible schedule too much to work a 9-5 with only two weeks of vacation a year.
Reality: Yes, I miss weekday lunches with friends and Friday afternoon movies. But it turns out that a flexible schedule and I are a major mismatch. Anxiety about how to structure my time and about the sense that all the time was work time was the bane of my academic life. Now, 4:30 comes and work is over. I work some evenings, but I work on things I want to–these blog posts, my dissertation, on a friend’s book, with my grade 5 student–and they each have their time in my week. I feel no guilt about taking time for myself, my friends, my partner, my family. My brain positively adores the structure. Yes, I’d love to take off for thee weeks this summer, but I’ll get there eventually.

Belief: No one is as smart and interesting as academics, and any non-academic workplace is going to be soul-crushing and mind-numbing. (Yes, I’m exaggerating, but you know people feel like this, at least a little.)
Reality: My co-workers are awesome. Most of them are not academics. We all love to cook and eat, to trade office gossip, to bemoan whatever drama is going on with the students and faculty we work with, and to talk about our pets and families. No, we don’t debate about theory or David Gilmour. But is my working life lacking in intellectual stimulation? Not remotely, especially not the week that I had to read upward of 50 scholarship proposals in science and math. I can pretty convincingly explain massive gravity now, which is not bad for an English major.

Belief: I work in my yoga pants every day. I’d hate having to get dressed for work every morning.
Reality: Putting together a fun outfit + accessories is just that–fun. It’s nice to feel put together every day, instead of like someone who forewent a shower to squeeze in a few more paragraphs and only remembers at dinner time that she forgot to brush her teeth that morning.

Belief: All I do all day is read and write. What if I never get to write in a non-academic job? Or read?
Reality: I got lucky with my job, sure, but I spend most of my days reading, writing, and editing–nomination letters, instruction manuals, briefing notes, government reports, emails (so many emails), student research profiles, workshop descriptions, presentations, and on and on. With my headphones on and my favourite wordprocessor open, I sometimes forget that I’m not at home dissertating–except that my office chair is way better.

If my transition posts have a central theme, it’s this: the contemplation of transition, of not being an academic any longer, can be terrifying, but the reality is not remotely as terrifying, or as different, as our imaginings. Many of us are so conditioned to think of an academic life as the best kind of life that no other seems like it can possibly compare. Imagine my shock when I realized that the structure, the community, the wardrobe of the non-professorial life would, in combination, make me far happier, less anxious, and more productive than I’ve probably been since I started my PhD. Turns out the day-to-day of life in the alt-academy isn’t all that different, and is just different enough, from the academic day-to-day I once aimed for. Colour me suprised–and pleased.

#alt-ac · administration · best laid plans · change · transition

My "I Quit" Letter

Sarah Kendzior and Rebecca Schuman, two of my favourite pundits on the post-academic problem, have recently agreed that the “I Quit Academia” letter has become an official THING. It’s been a thing for a long while–Kenneth Mostern‘s “What it Means to be Post-Academic” was written in 2001, and I’m sure people penned send-offs long before that–but the genre is proliferating, with Zachary Ernst‘s “Why I Jumped Off the Ivory Tower,” Kendzior‘s “The Closing of American Academia,” Alexandra Lord‘s “Location, Location, Location” (which I’ve written about before here), Schuman‘s classic “Thesis Hatement,” and Lee Skallerup Bessette‘s brand-new “Moving Forward.”

For every person who has transitioned into the world of #alt-ac and #post-ac, there’s an “I Quit” story to be told. And it seems like more and more people are willing to tell their stories, to throw up their hands and say, openly, that they’re through. It’s partially a vent, a cry to a world that still believes that professors have it oh-so-easy, that we’ve all got cushy tenured jobs with summers off and tweed jackets. And it’s partially a service: a moment to let others–people like me, people like some of you–see themselves reflected in the words of others, a chance to impart some hard-won wisdom to those who are thinking of academia with stars still in their eyes. Despite being very happily ensconced in a role I would not likely have gotten without having pursued a PhD, I wish someone had told me their story before I started. Like Lee, I’d rather have heard that, and been able to make a clear-eyed choice to still do a PhD, than been given the platitudes and untruths I was. 

So then. I quit. And here’s my story.


I started my PhD in Canadian Literature in 2008. After a year working in publishing after my M.A., I started coursework feeling like a bit of a dunce, like I’d forgotten how to speak academese. It took awhile to catch up, but I loved it all the same. And then we went on strike. For nearly three months, I did precisely six things. I walked in a circle in the blistering cold, I took the bus, I showered, I ate, I read, I slept. I was exhausted and depressed, and when the strike ended, so did my marriage. I finished coursework, and writing about poetry was my salvation. I started comps, and they were great–because who doesn’t love getting paid to hang out with their friends reading and talking about books all day? I mulled over my dissertation proposal for awhile, and then wrote it in a weekend. I started working on my dissertation. I published articles and reviews and encyclopedia entries. I gave conference papers. I won grants. I started a peer-reviewed academic journal, helped to run my department’s graduate students’ association, got great reviews as a teacher. From the outside, I looked like the model of a successful academic-to-be on the rise.

It’s hard to tell when exactly it was that the disillusionment crept in. It might have been realizing that the adjunct issues we fought so hard for in the strike would soon be, if I kept on this path, my issues. It might have been realizing that in a given year, there were usually about two jobs in my field. It might have been realizing that my partner’s mother, despite being a brilliant scholar, struggled to get tenure and then have her excellence recognized by her institution. It might have been recognizing that some of the professors I looked up to most were somewhere between a little and profoundly unhappy on the tenure-track. It definitely had something to do with sensing a fundamental disconnect between my desire to exercise control over where I lived and the academy’s refusal to admit that as a legitimate desire. It certainly also had something to do with the emotional maelstrom induced by my mother-in-law’s death, my partner’s grief, a major renovation, and my realization that the project I really wanted to do was impossible because of major archival restrictions. Whatever it was, it made me profoundly unhappy. Most of all, I felt very much like every word I wrote of my dissertation was a step closer to the edge of a cliff. Off the end of the cliff was a misty void, a vast nothingness–because if I finished my PhD and didn’t become a professor, as I was pretty certain I would not get to become, I would be nothing. My identity was so tied up with being an academic that contemplating not being one was something like contemplating my own death. It was terrifying and paralyzing and profoundly awful. It made me miserable and scared and edgy and sad and eventually, because of all the therapist bills, kinda broke.

That all changed on a sunny afternoon in Winnipeg. I was at the University of Manitoba on an archive trip, and I finished going through all of the boxes I needed a few hours early. One of my earliest #post-ac mentors had recommended that I read So What Are You Going to Do With That?, and I decided that I was going to park myself on a bench in the quad in the sunshine and actually take the time to read it. It was, in a word, transformational. Here was a book that was telling me that off the end of the cliff wasn’t nothingness. There was a whole world of things that I could do–things that I’d want to do, things that I’d love to do–that weren’t being an academic. They were jobs that would let me have everything I fundamentally wanted–intellectual stimulation, colleagues I liked, financial security, job stability, the ability to have a family on my own timetable, the choice of where I lived–on my own terms. I flew home feeling as though I were the one with wings.

Inevitably, all was not totally peachy thereafter. My desperate desire to stay in academe turned into fury at the system that had taught me that my self-worth lay in conforming to its standards, that those PhDs who didn’t become academics were second-class citizens, lesser, unworthy. Realizing that I was aiming beyond the tenure-track certainly removed a lot of the motivation to work on my dissertation, and I spent a lot of time figuring out why I was writing this book, a book that few would read, if not to get a job. Going was very (read painfully) slow until the archival restrictions that had stopped me from pursuing the project closest to my heart were lifted, and I started writing the book I had long wanted to, one that had (and has) intrinsic merit beyond its value on the academic job market.

And then I got lucky. At just the moment when my desire to change what was clearly a broken system was seeking an outlet, an outlet came my way. I got hired as a special research assistant in the faculty of graduate studies, researching and developing policy around graduate student professional and transferable skills development. I got to see how administration worked from the inside, talk to every single program, read the latest research on transferable skills, and find out from students what support they wanted the university to provide for preparing for #alt- and #post-ac careers as well as academic ones. In getting that job, I got luckier than I knew–because I wasn’t just researching transferable skills, I was developing them. More accurately, I was recognizing them, recognizing how all of the things that I did as an academic–writing, researching, speaking, analyzing, synthesizing, coordinating, project planning and managing–could be translated into terms that made sense in the working world.

And then I got even luckier–up came a job that required time spent in grad school (but not a PhD), a well-rounded familiarity with my university and its workings, a successful grant-writing record, experience with graduate student professional development, and all of those skills I just listed. I almost missed it. I wasn’t even looking for a job. I was planning to spend the year writing, defend, and then look for a job. But this one came up on my Facebook feed, posted by a friend, and–well, you’ve heard this part of the story. Eh, what the hell, I thought. I scrambled to put together a resume and a cover letter, sent in my application, and waited. When I got an interview, I went into overdrive and prepared like nobody’s business. I met with people who had been in this role, with others at the university with the same job title, with my old boss in the faculty who had worked closely with the person who had just vacated the job. I Googled everyone on the search committee, memorized Vanier guidelines, went shopping for the perfect interview outfit, studied power poses. I agonized over the memories of the interview for my old publishing job, in which my boss basically had to ask me to calm the hell down. But all that prep did just what I wanted it to do. It did calm me the hell down. And without desperate nerves to get in my way, I showed them who I was, and I tried to convince them of two important things: one, that I wasn’t biding my time until a tenure-track job came up, and two, that a PhD could be of real value outside of the tenure-track.

They bought it, and they gave me the job. And so, I quit. Not as completely as some–I’m still enrolled in the PhD part time, I’m finishing my dissertation because it’s a story I’m committed to telling, and I work at the same university as the one I’ve been doing my doctorate at–but I’ll never go on the tenure-track. I’ll eventually have a PhD, but I’ll never be an academic. At one time, if you had told me that, it would have broken my heart. Now, it’s just my reality. It took me a long time to believe this, but being an academic is just a job–and I have one of those, one that I love. Working in graduate administration has not gotten rid of my resentment for the way academia indoctrinates its graduate students to believe that those who go the #post-ac and #alt-ac route are second class citizens, or the way it fails to show grad students the ways in which their skills set them apart in the working world, or the way it glosses over the terrible realities of the academic job market in an effort to put on a happy face and keep enrollments up, or the way that it frames precarious labour as a necessary apprenticeship rather than as exploitation. But I’m in a far better position to actually do something about some of that where I am, than I could have where I was headed.

“I quit” isn’t the story I thought I’d be telling, back when I started my PhD. But it’s one I’m happy to be the main character of all the same.

administration · physics · scholarships · slow academy

Women in Physics: the 13%

One of the best parts of my job is helping students prepare their applications for major scholarships: the Fulbright, the Rhodes, the Vanier, the Trudeau. I’ve spent the last seven years in grad school learning how to identify and write to generic expectations, and it’s very rewarding to help students see that research proposals are a genre, with very specific expectations, and then help them master that genre. And as someone who often daydreams about what life would be like if I had decided to study in a wildly different field, it’s a ball getting to read brilliant and exciting research proposals from students in mathematics, or visual art, or architecture, or chemistry, or theoretical physics.

It was a moment when working through a proposal from that last field that recently gave me pause. The application was written by perhaps the smartest student I’ve yet encountered, one who has gotten an A+ in every single graduate course she has ever taken, and yet has managed to find time to also be a gifted athlete and a committed volunteer. She also happens to be a woman, and a woman in the field with perhaps the worst track record for gender equity; as the American Institute of Physics notes, “women make up about 13% of faculty members in all degree-granting physics departments, and there are physics departments with no women faculty members at all.” This is in stark contrast to my discipline–according to a 2009 report by the MLA, women make up 43.3% of faculty at the rank of professor in the modern languages, and 67.4% of the faculty at the rank of associate professor. In a meeting with a number of people involved in putting together her scholarship application, we were discussing the goals this outstanding student wanted to set out for the tenure of her award. As part of her leadership statement, which asked students to set out goals quite distinct from their research project, one of the students’ goals was to institute a mentorship program for female students in her department, providing them with additional support and guidance in order to improve the chances that they would stay and succeed in the field. When someone suggested that the student might want to consider emphasizing her plans for this seemingly very necessary work, or expand the scope of what she might accomplish in regards to promoting gender equality in physics, a female senior physics scholar called a stop. “I don’t,” she said, “want this student to emphasize that she is a woman in physics.” 

And my question was–why not? 

I’ve been trying to figure out the motivation behind that statement, and what it says about the state of gender equality in physics, or in the hard sciences more generally. Was the senior scholar concerned that the student would face discrimination as a woman in physics during the judgement of her scholarship application, and so wanted to downplay her gender? Did she feel like the student’s interest in promoting equality and in nurturing younger students was unscholarly? Did she feel that working toward gender equality in her field was unnecessary, or futile? Why not write an application that forced readers, some of whom might carry the biases that have led women to be so outnumbered in physics, to acknowledge that women are of the best and brightest in the field? And that proposed real ways to start challenging those biases and inequities? 

I’m pretty much of the belief that whatever we can do to promote gender equality, wherever we can do it, however we can do it, we should do it. But–sure, I come from the same field as David Gilmour, but that’s also a field where the vast majority of undergraduate students are women, and the majority of faculty are too. It must be a very different world, being part of the 13%. 

What say you, dear readers? Where have you met resistance to challenging gender inequality from the women in your field? Any ideas where that resistance comes from, or what we can do to combat it?  

#alt-ac · administration · transition

An Alternate Universe: On Administration and #Alt-Ac

It’s one thing to know that you don’t intend to go on the tenure-track, to spend months (nay, years) mourning that imagined life and reimagining a new one. It’s quite another to step onto that other track and begin to take the first steps along it that will lead to somewhere just out of sight. It’s proving to be quite the interesting walk, in ways that I only half expected.

I’m in the fourth week of my administrative #alt-ac position, which I can scarcely believe. Time is flying, which has a lot to do with the wholly different pace of life beyond the PhD. I used to have long stretches of time during the day in which I could sit and think and write. I had a few priorities to juggle–dissertation writing, editing projects, teaching, other academic writing–but not over many. I’m lucky now if I have ten minutes at my desk at a time, and to my still-overwhelmed brain, my priorities seem to number in the thousands. There are endless meetings–so many meetings–and score upon score of emails. And there are people. That’s less of a challenge than I thought it might be, even for this confirmed introvert. I missed working with other people during the writing phase of my PhD, sometimes desperately, and I’m making up for it now. To my pleasure and surprise, it’s largely women who fill the chairs–the Dean, one of two Associate Deans, both senior administrators, most of the mid-level administrators, and nearly all of the student services staff are women.

There’s quite a lot about being in university administration that I prize, and didn’t realize that I would. Instead of being one of many PhD students, frustrated and feeling impotent in the face of the seeming unwillingness of the academy to recognize that we have legitimate and far-reaching concerns, I’m one of many fewer who provide resources to those PhDs. I’m lucky that the people I can voice my concerns to, the lovely folks I work with, are people who have the power to do something about it. They’re people who want to do something about it, and to help me develop into someone who can advocate for grad students at the highest levels. I’m far from the top of the ladder now, but I have enough autonomy and power of my own that I can effect some change where I see the need for it. I still have to watch the oncoming tide of change and cuts–I’m not deluding myself that Ontario isn’t looking to Alberta as a model–but it feels less dire from here, somehow.

I’m still a bit bewildered and overwhelmed, naturally. Working 9-5 still feels both blessedly structured and terribly restraining. There are SO MANY acronyms to learn. I miss working in my pajamas, having my only interruption be the cat, and having lunch with office-bound friends. I feel guilty for not prioritizing my academic research even as I’m thrilled to get to put my policy-related research into action. The house is rather a little dustier than it was, the kitchen less well-used, and the cat a little needier. Students still come to argue grades, except now it’s their whole GPA instead of one assignment.

Whatever the challenges of moving on from the tenure-track dream of academe, I can’t complain.  I get to live where I want, do work I think is valuable, enjoy my co-workers, use my PhD constantly, effect real change, and learn the university from the inside. I wish I could have shown this post–this life–to Melissa-that-was, the Melissa that fretted and panicked about what to do if not be a professor. If you’re a Melissa-that-was: it gets better. Indeed, it gets pretty great.

#alt-ac · administration · best laid plans · transition

Welp, So Much for a Gradual Transition!

The last time I started this post, on Monday, it went something like this:

Today is my last first day of teaching–in the university, at least. Both my funding and my dissertation will wrap up this year, and next September will see me goodness-knows-where. Not in front of a university classroom, though. You see, I’ve decided to go on the alt-ac/non-ac track. To hang out my shingle as something other than an adjunct or a seeker of a tenure-track job. The professoriate and I are parting ways.

What I didn’t know then was quite how quickly that parting of ways would happen. My thought was that I’d keep my eye out for suitable positions in the spring, once my classes were winding down, and that I’d start my new life as a “real person” (as the lingo goes in my graduate program for people who move out of the academy) in the summer or fall. It would be gradual. I’d have lots of time to wrap my head around the fact that things were changing, and I’d finish one thing before I started another. But life happens, and when a friend (who you really should read) posted a job that sounded positively dreamy–research focused, helping grad students, in my city–I decided to give it a shot. Couldn’t hurt, I thought. Good practice at turning the ol’ CV into a resume and talking about myself to other people, I thought. I’ll never get it, I thought.

I start on Monday.

So, there you have it. You were going to get, among other things, my thoughts on transitioning out of academia, or into non-professoriate parts of academia, from the perspective of a late-stage graduate student–one who was gradually entering the job market and trying to figure out where she, with an English PhD, could fit. Instead, you’re going to get posts on transitioning into the alt-academy (for I’m remaining at the university, my university, just in a different–but in many ways not so different–role) from someone who has just effected that shift. I’ll be writing as someone who is learning a new job, who is figuring how to be a “real person” and a PhD student (because I’m staying that too). Oh, and who has between now and Monday make that transition make sense in her head. Hang on for the ride!

And for those of you who might be considering a hop onto the alt-ac/non-ac track, here are some resources to get you started, or to add to those you’ve already got:

academic work · administration · bad academics · failure · ideas for change

The 11th hour of the 11th hour …

In the humanities, especially, it’s pretty easy to consider the academic life as an essentially solo act, punctuated by meetings we often don’t want to go to, and classes we fuss over as our main chance to interact with human beings. But we’re actually pretty deeply intertwingled with one another, and the fiction we tell ourselves otherwise can generate some pretty rotten effects.

Recently, I did a pretty rotten thing. I was on a committee of three people who’d portioned out a fraction of a load of work to each member, to be collated into the One Thing before the meeting. Well, the meeting was in the afternoon of the day chosen to consider the One Thing, and I did my part in the late morning. This was the 11th hour, if you will. But what I was thinking was: “I’ve still got 90 minutes before the meeting starts, and I’m done!”

Except I had to send my part to someone else to collate before the meeting, and he had asked to have it the day before. So what happened was my 11th hour () became the 11th hour of the 11th hour for the committee member who had to integrate my work into the whole. The third member of our group had got his work done in plenty of time, so at least it was just me who was pushing the edge, but still: while I was happily eating lunch congratulating myself on my timely completion of an onerous task, I had dropped a big last-minute job on someone else, who hadn’t been expecting to use that 90 minutes to add my work into the group project.

By seeing myself as a solo agent, I conveniently forgot that nearly everything I do requires someone else, at some point, to help me out.

Consider these cases.

Have you ever been in the photocopier room on the first day of class? If your department is like any of those I’ve ever been a member of, there will be a steady parade of increasingly frazzled teachers photocopying enough copies of their syllabus to hand out in … 30 minutes, two hours, tonight, 10 minutes. There will be a lineup. Tempers will fray. Paper will jam. People will be running their hands through their hair fairly violently while passive-aggressively harrumphing. But you see, the photocopier is a shared resource and even if my syllabus is technically done “in time” for the first class, it’s hardly fair to expect sole use of the photocopier!

What about filling in those forms that your department might send, about naming which courses you want to teach, and roughly when and where? If I hand that back at the 11th hour, or, as is sometimes the case, beyond it, it probably means that scheduling officer, either a faculty member or staff, is going to have to stay at the office very very late, or work a weekend–because you can be sure I’m not the only one that left it until the very last possible moment. And what if I’ve inadvertently double-booked myself, or too many people have tried to get the same room at the same time? Is the deadline now impossible to make, unless someone exerts a heroic effort on my behalf?

Or those copy-edits I was meant to turn my attention to? Maybe I’ll only be one day late on handing those in, but have I considered that the collection editors have their own deadline with the press that I’ve just made it harder for them to meet without panic or overtime? I know when I was working on the handbook I edit, once it left me it went to an editor, then back to me, then to a copy editor, then back to me, then to a proofreader, then back to me, then into production. It really became clear to me that there were a lot of people each counting on all of the others to get each part done in a timely way, or everyone else would have their own time compressed, then compressing further the time of the next person in the process, and so on.

There’s a lot more of this going on in the academy than we realize.

The grant application has to be signed by your chair, and your dean, and the research office before it gets submitted. The administrative assistant has to check to completeness and the documentation of the yearly expense claims before forwarding them by a university-imposed deadline. A collaborator had booked a specific day our of her week to incorporate her material into your shared bibliography. The committee can’t deliberate until every member has done their prep work.

I am, and you are, probably, a pretty serious procrastinator. I procrastinate on getting my syllabus finalized because I want the class to remain in the ideal state it can only occupy in my mind. I procrastinate on my writing because I find it terrifying. I procrastinate writing letters or peer reviews and answering complicated emails because they are a lot of work. I used to think the only person who was made to suffer under my last-minute regime was me. But that’s not true at all: the admin staff get frazzled, my students are left confused, academic authors are made to wait for decisions on their manuscripts, my colleagues have their time wasted waiting for me.

I used to think, that is, that my not-optimal time management was my own problem, and if I could live with it, then, there’s no problem. That’s just not true. Not true at all.

I’m going to be thinking a lot harder about this problem of the 11th hour of the 11th hour, and change my own practices accordingly. Do you have any strategies? Do you have any more examples of the way the 11th hour problem can create a cascade of stress and panic?

academy · administration · change · equity

Taking care of business

Process is key to issues of equity in the academy. It should be obvious, but I nevertheless feel compelled to state the point because it is remarkable how, time and again, since I have been a graduate student and now a faculty member, process (or the lack thereof) has been a recurrent problem.

And it’s not simply process that is key to equity, but clear, well-communicated, effective, and readily adaptable processes. They are tools for change.

One example: a couple years ago, my department chair, who was new to the position and to our institution, asked if we, as a department, could draft a document that laid out some of the governance structures within the department. I piped up that I thought this was a great idea because I too was relatively new and I figured that making such a document available would help new faculty understand how things worked and how to get things done. To my surprise, a number of my senior colleagues then expressed strong opposition to this suggestion on the grounds that such a document would ossify procedures that were at that time relatively flexible and only create unnecessary bureaucracy.

This point about unnecessary bureaucracy was one that I had heard more than once before, and it twigged that there was something more at play here than keeping our work lives “simple.” I had previously been accused of trying to create unnecessary bureaucracy by seeking clearly laid out governance rules when part of an initiative that was required, as part of its larger responsibilities, to do just that, establish a governance structure. (Funny that!)

Now I get that a governance structure can essentially be a non-governing structure. That for governance you can say, for example, that everything will be at the director’s/chair’s’/board’s discretion. That is to me essentially a non-governing governance structure, or perhaps more simply a non-democratic governance structure, and therefore one that I don’t want to participate in creating or then have to be involved with after the fact.

The argument against process on the grounds that it creates “unnecessary bureaucracy” is remarkably effective in academia. Many of us, not in administrative positions, struggle to keep our service responsibilities at an appropriate level (i.e. at 20% of our work time, in the typical 40:40:20 model). Referring to process as “unnecessary bureaucracy” communicates the notion that not only are you wasting your time in constructing or setting out procedures, but that in doing so you are further burdening your colleagues with new responsibilities they neither want or need. A pretty heavy charge.

Plus, we all hate bureaucracy, don’t we? Two things I don’t like: (1) filling out long, detailed paperwork and (2) being told that something is not possible because it goes against a policy that was not obvious or clearly articulated to me.

But that said, I’m also fine with rules. Part of it is a personality thing. My dad is very much a rule person. When my sister and I were teenagers, she found out that you could use a UK 10 pence piece in parking metres and it would mistake it for a loonie. We were going out to dinner, and when my dad parked the car, she dropped the 10 pence piece into the metre, crowing how about we were saving money. My dad then got back in the car and drove to the next available metre because what my sister had done was wrong. Now, were I to find myself in that situation, I would most definitely not move the car. In fact, if that trick still worked, I would save up 10 pence pieces for parking. But, I will say that his outlook has influenced my own, and I am not averse to rules, especially thoughtful ones.

And I would argue that most of the people who I have heard under whatever circumstances express generalized opposition to rules or procedures are people who are also operating with a certain amount of privilege in these same circumstances – whether that privilege is bestowed by gender, race, class, or seniority. This is different from finding a particular process or rule arbitrary, ineffective, or otherwise problematic. This is about being opposed to creating or formalizing a process in the first place.

This is, I think, a key equity issue. Without process, getting things done becomes about who you know. If you are in a position of privilege, for instance, or have people in power who are mentoring you, then you can effectively navigate the byzantine structures in place at all stages of university careers, from entering graduate school, to promotion to full professor.

There is a lot in academia that is never explicit, that isn’t obvious, but that is really important to succeeding. And if you don’t have someone to whom you can put these questions in a casual setting, or who will advise you about things you wouldn’t have even known to ask about in the first place, your path is a lot harder.

Too often, when someone says, “bah, rules just get in the way,” what they mean is that rules only get in the way of working the system to their own advantage. Business as usual.

Clear, well-communicated, effective, and readily adaptable processes make the inner workings of academia more transparent, flexible for everyone (not just those in the know), and responsive. With such processes in play, if you see inequity, or unfairness, or ineffectiveness, you have the tools to respond and by contributing to building such processes, you can help to likewise build better universities.
administration · first-name managerialism · ideas for change

Meeting minutes

I am on an unceasing quest to pare the inefficiencies from my work day. I’ve been thinking about what 30 minutes means in concrete terms. I’ve been cursing the chaos email brings into my life. I’ve been thinking about how the discipline and sheer word count required for blogging makes me a leaner, meaner writing machine.

Now I’m thinking about meetings, and minutes.

Last week, I turned to the cursed email to spend five minutes crafting a meeting call sent to a representative from every department on campus. That five minutes, I began to marvel, was generating a minimum of 75 potential hours of work. If you consider that I was asking 50 people to give me 90 minutes of their time? If they all come, that’s nearly two full weeks of full time work. It’s happening concurrently, but it’s still 75 hours of faculty member labour. Never mind the time spent by any of those people dealing with the email, and the calendaring, or whatever. And never mind the administrative support I get to book the room, get some coffee and donuts, manage the RSVP list, send out reminder emails.

This gave me pause. I’ve been to a lot of giant meetings, many quite poorly run and diffuse, and thought, “Oh well, that’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back.” But multiply that hour by all the attendees and it’s a pretty significant work-time investment! And yet, the biggest meetings are the ones that usually seem the least useful, right?

I’m heading a different committee–this one has three of us on it, and we recently met for an hour and a half. Holy smokes we got a lot covered! But one thing we did settle on was that between us we would conduct individual interviews with every faculty member in the department. Again, without really factoring in all the emails and cat herding this involves, for a twenty minute interview with about twenty people, with two faculty members per meeting, that’s … 800 minutes, or about 13 hours of people time. I’ve done five interviews already, and they’ve all been really useful. So my second observation is that smaller meetings tend to get more done.

In general, then, the big meetings use up acres and acres of faculty time, and generally don’t get much done (in my experience) while the smaller meetings, even if labour intensive, are far less so, and often much more useful.

So when I’m requesting meetings, in future, I’m going to do two things. First, I’m going remember the above law. Let’s call it Morrison’s Law of Meetings. Second, I’m going to calculate the actual number of hours of work my meeting generates for others, and to try to be mindful of making good use of that time.

There are other ways to calculate the value of a meeting: like, if I’m thinking about my time, I might prefer to meet with 50 people at once to get across what I want to convey. But that’s more a lecture, actually than a meeting. If I think about meetings as interactive activities where each participant has something valuable to contribute, this particular calculus is less compelling than the one I describe above.

I don’t really like meetings. Who does? But I think we can make them more useful and less wasteful by really thinking hard about what we’re trying to accomplish, and what the real cost is. Now that I’m in a position that puts me in charge of creating meetings that others are supposed to attend, I need to really keep that in mind.

academy · administration · best laid plans · day in the life · failure

Keeping track

How do you keep track of all your obligations?

My fall rhythm is out of whack this year, as I’m not teaching my complement of courses on campus (I have a release from my two classes in order to develop an online version of one of our core courses …). Normally, the times and places that I teach and hold office hours anchor my week and fill my calendar with repeating, regular obligations. “Lather, rinse, grade, repeat,” as it were. Uprooted from that regularity, I find I’m having some trouble remembering everything I have to do, and being in the right place at the right time.

Here’s some of what I’m trying to stay on top of:

  • Executive position on national scholarly organization
  • Executive position on faculty association
  • Subcommittee membership related to same
  • Helping rewrite the university’s copyright documents
  • Chairing a PhD area exam committee (co-create exam, meet with students)
  • Department meetings related to urgent, irregular matters
  • Hiring activities, and visiting speakers
  • Supervising 3 PhD students, 2 MA students, and 1 undergrad, and reading their writing and meeting with them about funding and proposal and dissertation/thesis deadlines
  • Peer review for two publications
  • Meetings with the team helping me produce the online course
  • Blogging at Hook & Eye
  • Applying for conferences and workshops
I keep forgetting things, missing appointments or writing them down for the wrong time or forgetting to follow up on things I’m meant to take a lead on or filling out an email survey or offering feedback on something or answering an urgent question or whatever.
Not teaching, I realize, doesn’t mean I have more free time. I don’t. I do have, though, a lot more unstructured time. My obligations are scatter-shot through the week, every week looking different from every other.
I’m pretty sure if I could figure out a better system, I could stay on top of all of this. None of the work is impossible. But I seem to spend a lot of my time trying to manage my time and figure out what I’m supposed to be doing, and waking up in the middle of the night having forgotten something important, and racing to catch up.
I try really hard to use my iCal, which syncs across all my devices (two computers, a phone, an iPad, the cloud). But I forget to check it. And I am trying to use Things, a great organizer and to-do list for iOS, but again, I often forget to check it. My paper lists are really good, but not if I leave the notebook at school and I have a day at home.
I guess everyone is right: the post-tenure years really are super jam packed with … the drip drip drip of professional obligation. I’ve never ever been trying to do so very many different things where I have so much responsibility, all at the same time. I’m not sure how to do this right. I’m used to big responsibility in a limited number of things that I already know how to do well, and that fit large and regular chunks of time (like teaching, or my research). All the professional work, and all these graduate students, and administration work? This is new. I’d like to be proactive in all my new roles: I have lots of ideas and lots of energy. But I seem to be getting really frazzled just trying to make sure I am in the right placea t the right time, and minimally prepared. I want to do more than that. And I gotta figure it out.
administration · change · openness · politics · slow academy

Veep: or, can you be a netizen and move up the ladder at the same time?

We’ve lost Heather. You haven’t seen her blogging here since last year, when she took up her post as Vice Dean, and worried about how to be in administration and on the Internet at the same time. And it turns out that that is a dance that no one has yet really mapped the steps to, Heather included. I miss her in direct proportion to the pride I feel for her in her new role.

We’re recruiting new bloggers, and the response has been really wonderful, but from the field in view in front of us, Heather noted: “Aimee, you are the old lady blogger now!”

Well, shit. This old lady blogger just took on an administrative post, too.

July 1st, I became Vice President of our Faculty Association here at UW. How this happened I’m not quite sure. I remember putting my name in to be on the Board, after a friend and colleague whose service to this organization I have greatly admired and appreciated asked me to, but this veep thing snuck up on me.

I mean, I did say last year that I’m in the sweet spot to be cranky, by which I meant, having secured tenure without completely burning out or embittering myself on either academic inquiry or collegial governance, I ought to use my (however limited) powers for good. These are weird times. Exciting and full of possibilities, but also worries and scarcity. It’s hard to know where universities are headed. We have a systemic, continent-wide jobs and employment crisis. We are all being asked to do more with less: more research with less granting agency funding, more teaching with fewer professors, more graduate training with fewer academic jobs, more knowledge mobilization with no less academic publishing, more enrolments with less infrastructure renewal, etc.

But here’s the main challenge I’m feeling: a lot of this work is confidential. Confidentially, Internet, just between us, I’ve never been very good at “confidential.” I’ve always considered “confidential” with its cousins “unsayable,” “private,” and “taboo” and the repercussions of decorous silence and discretion, I feel, have not been particularly empowering to lots of people. Sunlight is the best disinfectant, I say. However, I’m now receiving memos headed “confidential” and reports labelled “draft — not for circulation” and I’m bound by those rules. And in some ways I really do understand the value of closed-door work on some issue. On other issues? I think this “discretion” is misplaced and old-fashioned.

In any case, I’m not sure what to say about issues where I know more than I’m supposed to let on. Should I preface all of my writing here by saying, “I have no real knowledge about any of this, from an administrative point of view, which means I’m allowed to write about it”? Because that seems like a good dodge, but also maybe counterproductive, in the long run. I’m pretty sure that this new role is meant to capitalize on my passions, my talents, and my mouthiness, rather than to lock them up in small committee rooms away from the people I care to talk with, but I’m not sure how to manage that. I don’t think the idea now is that I should restrict myself to blog posts about academic haircuts and other such institutionally inconsequential topics.

And perhaps I’ve already said too much.

So where I’m sitting now, I’m feel a little bit pinched between getting what feels like a good deal more institutional agency and the feeling I might be expected to shut up a bit more on the inter tubes, to manifest the discretion and compartmentalization that’s been blasted to bits by services like Twitter, for example.

This is a generational issue. Probably Heather and I are at the vanguard of a generation of academics who are either digital natives or skilled early immigrants to Weblandia, moving up the ladder, where the sorts of cultural change we’re expected to deal with in our undergraduate teaching hasn’t really penetrated.

The mismatch extends beyond administration and into the ranks, of course. Five years from now, how is anyone going to find a tenure referee who is both in the candidate’s field, and completely arm’s length? Aren’t we already beginning to see the kinds of networking and interconnection that social media offer us as normative? Won’t it actually mark you as an outsider if everyone who’s anyone isn’t on your Twitter feed? And there’s the question of knowledge mobilization as well: to what extent should academics be for seeking out opportunities to break their research results out of the academy and into the bigger world, or at least out from behind the Elsevier paywall and into open access repositories. What about when a social media upstart collates retraction data to ferret out and publicize academic chicanery, in full view of the public, but the institution’s processes (often for very good reason) take place over longer duration and behind closed doors?

I like blogging and tweeting and posting photos and asking hard questions and making embarrassing disclosures, all in the name of working continually to improve this great big academy we all love so much (well, sometimes … and in some ways …). Can I still do that? How hard should I push? When should I back off? If I am a change agent, what things am I actually trying to change as I go to more and more meetings where attendees are accompanied by their assistants?

I have no idea. But I’m going to try to work it all out here, in public, with you.