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.)