Sunday, August 07, 2005

Forging Ahead

I have been checking back here for a couple of weeks hoping for a new post, something to jumpstart the discussion, with not much luck. So I'll take a bit of a leap here, and just launch a new line of thought:

With summer plans wrapping up, syllabus design furiously underway, and Hall's book under our proverbial belts, what plans are you making for the new school year? What do you hope to change about your own academic self?

Because I am starting my first tenure-track job but not my first full-time job, I've got that uncommon opportunity to begin crafting an identity with a close-to-blank slate, but without many of the anxieties of the first job. But as a social animal in a new town, I feel like one of my first priorities is not Rersearch (which I'll have time for) or teaching (which I believe I'm already pretty good at), but collegiality. as the new face in the dept. (but not the new face of the dept, I'd imagine), I will be learning the culture and engaging with it in a variety of new ways--so my first representations of that new self will be the people with whom I physically share my academic building--the poepl who read my syllabi, my writing or my cv will probably come a little later.

Other plans? How has this summer, this book, and this discussion group helped hone your outlook on AY 2005-2006?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

timing -- and questions for discussion?

I've been thinking about time lately -- both in the practical sense, as I'm trying to maximize what's left of my summer, but also about the larger rhythms of academic life, and how those might relate to our discussion (or lack of discussion) here. There are points in an academic career that foster certain kinds of reflection, and certain kinds of questions: going on the job market, getting a job, going up for tenure review, changing career paths, etc. Milestones that we all recognize as significant and potentially life-changing. But there are also certain times in the semester that are better or worse for reflection. At the beginning of a semester, I'm full of good energy, am able to align my core values with my to-do list, and generally feel hopeful about the fresh start afforded me every 4 months. Towards semester's end, I'm glad about the upcoming change of students and courses, but it's not a time when I can clearly or deeply think about who I am beyond the deluge of obligations.

I had thought that the beginning of summer would be a good time for discussing some of these big-picture questions, since in April when they were pressing upon me I didn't feel up to the challenge of trying to organize anything. And then two major changes occured in my plans for June: I got a summer course to teach, and we moved house. And so I kind of flaked out on this discussion blog, although I've found it incredibly useful to learn of other people's experiences and ideas. But it seems to me that there's lots of people I still haven't heard from, and that maybe summer wasn't a good choice for many of us.

So... What are the topics you wish that Hall had touched on -- and that we could talk about? what are the questions or problems that brought you to this group in the first place? Should we continue or not?

Sunday, July 10, 2005

The emotional/psychological component of our professional lives

I found Hall’s six “Talking Points on Textualizing Process” (on pp. 47-53) very helpful, although the example of his particular working style made me a little crazy to even contemplate. But I thought that the six points were generalizable enough so that they would apply to all kinds of working styles and strategies. I’ve typed up this list to post above my desk in my office as a source of ongoing strategizing for scholarly productivity.

But the thing I liked most in Hall’s book was his emphasis on the emotional and psychological component of our professional lives. As he says, “No vita, however impressive, is worth the personal and communal misery that comes with such a narrow life” (59). One statement that was a truism, but the kind of truism that I need to be reminded of frequently: “While we will often find ourselves in less than ideal circumstances, our responses to those circumstances—often far more than the circumstances themselves—will determine our degree of contentment and the future course of our departments and universities” (78).

In particular, I was interested in his emphasis on relationships, on “the web that connects us to our departments, to our colleagues across the nation, and to the many strands of national/international political and social life” (92). For example, the last two items in his list of “Small Steps in the Process of Professional Invigoration” (in Ch. 3) are both about relationships:
“9. Withdraw gracefully and responsibly from unproductive professional relationships” (63).
“10. Establish micro-support networks that both nurture and challenge you professionally” (64).

This connection between professional success and personal relationships is the theme running throughout the end of the book. Two quotations I marked for future rereading:
“ ‘Success’ is almost always individually defined, as we compete for awards, recognition, and, of course, scarce jobs. Yet when we actually begin our jobs, much of our happiness and sense of fulfillment will come from whether or not we are members of a healthy community, one that we must contribute to supplely, responsibly, at times even humbly.” (67)

“Comparison as the primary determinant of ‘success’ will always threaten our relationships with colleagues and the functionality of our communities. … [We] must shift our definition of professional success from one that is solely comparison-based to one emphasizing self-generated and collective goal achievement.” (75)

I’ve been struggling over the past several years to reshape my definition of success. This is clearly going to be an ongoing area of personal and professional growth for me, but I found Hall’s final chapter and postscript, in particular, a helpful source in this long-term “textualizing” project.

Tuesday, July 05, 2005

Life on the Margin

I am sorry to have dropped out of the conversation -- a combination of personal & the professional BS has taken my mind off Hall for the last several days. I did want to mark one idea that struck me reading chapter 2, though. Hall rightly takes the profession to task for failing to recognize the value to the profession of those academics in "marginal" jobs, but there is a strange sort of power at the margin, if you seize it. My own case may not be entirely typical, since my marginal job has offered very reasonable teaching loads & support for travel, etc. Still, as the only creative artist with a full-time appointment at my university, I have carried something of an aura of the outsider. Outsiders are powerful mythic figures within many institutions & professions. The problem then becomes, how to leverage outsider status into professional respectability. Not an easy task when one is teaching a 4-4 load & trying to publish. The anthropologist James C. Scott speaks of "the weapons of the weak" when he describes the ways in which peasants & pastoralists & factory workers respond in small ways to their exploitation, not through simple sabotage but by creating alternative systems of meaning that exist beside or even below the dominant institutional system in force in a particular situation.

My own revenge is to have become an "excellent" (by whatever metric), but subversive teacher. That is, whatever I'm teaching, I encourage my students to examine the ground upon which we stand & the processes in which we are engaged. Sometimes I'm successful, sometimes not, but I generally have the sense that I am engaged in real & authentic work in the classroom, which goes a long way toward easing the pain of not teaching in a graduate program as I was "supposed" to. That sense of authenticity has fed my own writing & scholarship over the years & given me the energy to keep going even out here on the margins of the academic solar system.

Friday, July 01, 2005

work process (chapter 3)

Although I mostly agree with Hall's main points, at times I find his language frustrating. For instance, his claim that planning out his writing goals by using his calculation of his average speed is a way of "textualizing" his work. I mean, yes, I agree, making explicit plans or contracts with yourself is incredibly useful, perhaps even necessary for most of us. But I dislike his use of that term. It seems to be making something more out of this chapter than what I think it is -- which perhaps goes back to our conversation about his Introduction, and his need to address the anxiety or disdain with which many intellectuals view self-help or time management books. I see that tension in this chapter particularly, since he wants to recommend some concrete steps yet distance himself from the typical advice handbook.

Me, I'm a big believer in time management strategies and have used different ones at different stages in my work life. I'm well aware of areas in my process that could use improvement, so I'm always interested to learn of new methods. Some of what Hall has to say about subdividing the writing task and combining that with a realistic time estimate in order to map out goals reminds me of The Clockwork Muse, which I recommend if such a system appeals to you. I'm not quite there yet -- though I'd like to be someday.

Mostly, I have to confess, because I have a very inaccurate idea of how long it takes me to write a page, revise a page, or even to read different kinds of texts. Although I'm pretty good at managing my day-to-day and weekly commitments, much of my writing has been performed under the pressure of deadlines. So now, in a new post-tenure world with fewer deadlines (and less scary ones) I can envision trying to figure out what my slow & steady pace might be. But I'm still trying to break the power of the deadline as a motivation.

So, my question to everyone: name one strategy, habit, trick, that you do that has really helped your productivity -- whether it's time management, writing habits, or some other area.

For me, I felt a real shift during my 2nd or 3rd year in my job, when I started defining clear blocks of time when I would be on campus & available for meetings, and other clear blocks when I would not be available. It's so often difficult for junior faculty in particular to say no to a meeting -- especially since many of us have a fairly high degree of autonomy over our time. But once my weekly landscape could be partitioned off, it really helped me not get so scattered among service obligations and the like. Sometimes you have to be flexible, of course, for really high priority things. But it was incredibly freeing to simply tell the Chair's secretary "I'm available to meet on Mondays or Thursdays" and let her work with that in scheduling committee meetings. (Because you know that the senior divas in your department, whoever they are, simply say "I can meet at X time" and assume others will work around them.)

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Personal, professional ... and industrial!

Hello again; I've spent part of this evening catching up on the posts and comments of the last few days. As I read Hall I find myself--as other posters also have done--reacting to different facets of his argument and storing (or trying to store) ideas to comment on later. Now's as good a time as any to note down some of my thoughts, some of which relate to ideas we've already discussed.

One thing that struck me right away is that a number of the anxieties Hall rehearses--in particular related to the status of one's employer in relation to other universities--are perhaps not felt quite so acutely here in New Zealand. The main reason for this is that all universities here are state-owned and partly state-funded. Although there are strong moves on behalf of the different campuses to distinguish themselves from each other in a hierarchical model, these are recent.

Having said that, many of the status anxieties described by Hall could be reframed as applying here between the local and the international. Certainly in my darker moments I question my decision to stay here, wondering what it says about the "quality" of my work, or maybe my courage about shopping myself out to the open market.

More generally, there are things in Hall's discussion of self in chapter one that make me feel uneasy. I think principally this comes from ways in which his argument is framed. Universities in New Zealand are highly unionised (I am active in the union) and relations between staff and employers testy nationally. At the same time, there is to my mind a certain amount of solidarity between and within the universities, so that, for me, discussions of the university as intellectual community necessarily evoke the university as employer, as industrial community. (This is something to which, it seems to me, shadows was pointing in this comment.)

So, to Hall's second maxim, that "All our careers are also subject to certain forces beyond our control", I would add that a big part, for me, of being in academia, is being mindful of just for whom I am working, performing (in the sense that the professional self is performed) and reflecting. I work in a hierarchically-managed section of the university, in a programme whose interface with the open international student market is considerable. One thing that this has made me aware of is that it's useful (both personally and professionally) to keep a rein on the extent to which my reflection informs my collegiality and my professional behaviour, since the vagaries of our programme's structure mean that our labour can easily be absorbed and then become surplus to requirements (in the very bald equation by which a drop in student numbers means a drop in staff numbers.)

I can see a benefit in this in working in a low-status part of the university community (although I'm aware that even as I write "low-status" I'm committing the kind of fallacy Hall urges us all not to), in that it has enabled me to separate the personal and professional far more effectively (and at times brutally) than I did as a research student, and to look critically at the systems that, until I began working, I assumed were sustaining me. I suppose if I were to add a further maxim to Hall's five on pp.11-17, it would be something like this: having regarded our academic selves with the same critical, reflective eye as we do our texts or subject areas more generally, we should be judicious in which conclusions we then decide will inform our professional interactions and which we will let seep, silently, into our writing and classroom work.

More than anything else, I'm aware while reading Hall of how much my thinking about the university, and my field within the university (both as an area of specialisation and the programmes in which I teach) has changed since I was a student. My academic ideals were once embodied by the university--this was the place in which it would all happen--whereas now, I tend to see the university as an site of industrial relations which, equally with the professional and personal contexts and constraints of which Hall writes, must be daily negotiated in order even to begin the business of academic praxis.

(This is all sounding very Platonist, no? Curiouser and curiouser.)

Sunday, June 26, 2005

One of those learning moments.

As I read through this book (more slowly than I would like due to a million other things on my plate) a lot of it doesn't fit well for me and my experience. It may be my field -- smaller than most, fairly specialized, not all that focused on the R1 job (other schools are fine, so is corporate/non-profit work), the "good" schools to be at are not necessarily the ones you might hail as the good schools in general, etc.

But one sentence stood out and reminded me of an important moment in my professional development. On page 13, Hall says:

What can it hurt (except our ego, of course) for us to reveal to students and young colleagues that we seasoned and experienced academics fail at times in processes by which we are judged.
I instantly remembered a conversation with my major professor and mentor at a conference about 2 years after I graduated. He's a big name in my field, and is well-established through a series of books he edited. Lately he's been reinventing himself, pursuing a new line of research about which he is rather passionate. The problem is that he's not recognized in that part of the field and that the part in which he is well-known is looking to him to continue producing some of the same old. He told me that he was having a very difficult time getting his manuscripts accepted and had just had two rejected -- one with a plea to start writing about his old topic again. When he told me that I realized that his success and reputation didn't mean he would never fail any more. He's still working hard, accepting failure and trying to find his way down a new path. It was a very important moment for me, to see how human he is and how he must struggle with his work just like I do.

A response to What Now?'s post 06.25.05

I started responding to What Now's post on Chapter Two, but ended up going on and on (and being fairly self-absorbed!), so I thought I'd make this a post of its own. I think some of this responds a little bit to Mel's post, too.

In the comments to WN's post, mshoff asks how to rattle the institutional hierarchy, once we've figured out that it's a construct like race, class, or gender. This is a good question, and I don't have an answer, just a reaction... While reading Hall's book I've been sort of patting myself on the back for already recognizing the artificiality of these hierarchies as constructs; in parts of the book my reaction has been a little bit of, "ho-hum, doesn't everyone know this already?" But I just realized that my idea of "rattling" the hierarchies is to work at a teaching school and to (try to) be a "legitimate" or "respectable" researcher as well - kind of like the supermom myth, I want to try to do it all. Which is not to say that those of us at teaching schools shouldn't/don't do research, but to recognize that I'm not really challenging the primacy of research as the measure of academic worth or legitimacy. Yes, I do believe that it's possible to be an active researcher outside the context of a R1 university, which is a step in the right direction, but I'm still privileging research, despite the fact that I think in general that I am a better teacher than I am researcher.

I do believe that graduate departments bear the brunt of trying to change these hierarchies (although Mel's post cogently points out the kinds of institutional constraints within which departments operate). I say this because it was my experience in my graduate program that made me aware of any of the arguments that Hall makes.

To explain the background to my grad school experience: I grew up in a suburb that placed a LOT of emphasis on going to a name-brand college or university - ideally, an Ivy or baby Ivy. And I went off to a very elite, small, private liberal arts college. When I was applying to graduate schools, however, I was well advised, and while I did apply to a number of Ivies (couldn't resist the opportunity to get rejected AGAIN by Harvard), the schools that best suited my interests happened to be large state schools (the kind of schools I would NEVER have attended as an undergrad. What can I say? I was a total snob and completely bought into the hierarchies that Hall lays out, or at least the undergrads' version thereof). Actually, thinking about it, I suspect it didn't hurt that the grad school advisor in my undergraduate department was one of the few faculty there who hadn't gone to an Ivy (and in fact, he was an alumnus of the grad school I ultimately attended). Many of my classmates didn't quite understand why I would attend a non-Ivy grad school; most of my friends joked about not knowing where grad school state was (somewhere in the generic middle of the country), and when I told one classmate where I was going for grad school, he said bluntly, "Why?!?" (He also went to grad school in history. He went to a name school. He never finished. Heh. WN, I got schadenfreude too!)

In any case, I went off to grad school in Large State School (where the history department was on the 6th floor of a 14-story building; just taking an elevator to my department was slightly mind-blowing, as I'd never even seen an elevator at Small College). The first thing that helped me to disassemble some of the hierarchies I'd grown up with was my graduate cohort: although I believe this has changed a little, at the time that I started there, the department had very few students who had attended Ivies or baby Ivies and few who had come to grad school straight out of college. Most of them had gone to large state schools for undergrad as well as graduate school. This is really embarrassing to admit, but I remember being surprised that there were all these really smart people who hadn't gone to swanky name-brand schools. (At least I was able to get over my shock, however; I started with a fellow who had gone to Carleton, who was just incensed that he didn't get a graduate fellowship, whereas a friend of mine, who'd gone to U of Midwest State, did, and never quite realized how offensive this attitude was. He only lasted a year, though.)

Most of the funding at Large State School was through teaching assistantships, and since I was in grad school for a long time (!) I got to teach quite a lot. This was another step in dismantling some of my assumptions, because the students at Large State School were extremely non-traditional - when I started TAing, the majority of students in any given class were probably my age or older. Again, I'm embarrassed to say this, but these were people that, if I'd gone to high school with them, I would have considered failures (it was just unheard of in my social circle, growing up, that someone could not go to college right out of high school and become a respectable, upstanding citizen). And of course, these students were anything but failures. A lot were working adults, others were single parents, and most who took full courseloads worked an average of 30 hours a week. And some of them were spectacular students. Plenty weren't, but teaching them cured me of the idea that there was some natural correlation between where one went to school and one's intellectual abilities.

So, my experience as a student and a teacher at Large State School was incredibly valuable. Perhaps because my ideas of intellectual success and value were so rigid and unrealistic, there was no way that they could survive the actual experience of intellectual life in such a completely different context, and this helped me be willing to question many of the assumptions I'd grown up with.

Finally, I've said this in a comment over at Prof. Synecdoche's blog, but I'll repeat it here: My grad program was extremely good at drilling it into our heads that were very unlikely to get a job at a school that looked like Large State School. Instead, they emphasized that R1 institutions make up a very small proportion of the total number of schools out there, and that if we wanted to get jobs, we needed to be able to sell ourselves to a wide range of schools - R1, small liberal arts, comprehensive MA-granting institutions, rural, urban, elite, non-traditional, whatever (I think there was a slight neglect of community colleges, partly because I don't think our faculty had much experience with them). Partly, this was convenient for the graduate program because it provided a rationale for getting the students to teach a lot - wide and varied teaching experience is a prerequisite for getting a job at any teaching-focused institution, and grad students teaching a lot allows faculty in the graduate program to focus on their own research. But this approach was part of the program's principle that students should be able to talk about their research to a wide range of people, not just experts in their own field (the department was very big on comparative history and on interdisciplinary/comparative workshops).

So, what were the actual practical things my grad program did?
  • admitted graduate students from a very wide range of backgrounds
  • provided graduate students with experience teaching students from a wide range of backgrounds
  • fostered an atmosphere that encouraged sharing ideas across narrowly-defined fields, by organizing comparative and interdisciplinary workshops in which graduate students participated fully
  • encouraged students to present at conferences and to submit papers for publication
  • held a placement meeting each year, to which all graduate students were invited, which explained the process of applying for jobs and what the typical materials you needed to prepare were
  • had panel presentations/roundtables with recently hired junior faculty, who shared their experiences with grad students
  • held mock interview sessions, asking the kinds of questions that might be asked by a wide range of institutions
  • worked hard to place students in jobs of any kind, especially jobs that matched the students' interests, whether those jobs were at R1 universities or not
Now, I'm not going to claim that the program didn't value research over teaching, etc.; if one of our students got an on-campus with an Ivy, the faculty were just thrilled and the news raced round the department. And one of the things that I know grad students found frustrating was that when our program held searches, they paid no attention to all the teaching skills and experience that they told us we had to have, and hired entirely based on research pedigree (people from big name schools with big name advisors). Obviously, this isn't surprising, but we found it frustrating just the same.

I offer all this up, partly because it helps me to think through some of these issues, and partly to throw out ideas about rattling the hierarchies. But I suppose the pessimistic coda to these comments is that one of the consequences of the conditions of my program was a fairly high average time-to-completion. Since I was there, the program has worked hard to get students through quickly - eliminating some of the opportunities for socialization into the profession and broad discussion along the way. The department has also been accepting fewer students, and more and more of them are more traditional, closer to having just graduated from college, and from more "name" schools than previously. I doubt that this has absolutely transformed the departmental atmosphere, but I do wonder how easily the kinds of things that helped question traditional hierarchies can be reversed.