My blog has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 6 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks. Thank you for your support!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Churn at the top

Warning- non-cheery post ahead.

I've been at my U now for 16 years. I've been an Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, Faculty Senate Chair, Department Chair, and Associate Dean. I've been here through 5 Presidents, 6 Chancellors, 5 Deans, and 6 Department Chairs, and somehow, the day-to-day of my academic life has moved steadily forward despite the turbidity in the leadership I work for. I'm beginning to feel a bit like those old tortoises that plod around, nonplussed, chomping on grass that hangs out of the sides of their mouths; junior faculty look up to me and seem to think I know something they don't.

So far, what I've learned is to roll with the punches and not get upset with the churn in leadership at my U. The last few years have been crazy, but I think they emphasize one of the primary problems in academia- lack of an effective system of accountability and rewards for folks in positions of leadership. Unlike the corporate world, where leaders who lose large amounts of money, demoralize or under-support the workers to the point of striking, make stupid decisions with allocation of scarce resources, or fail to bring sufficient funds in to support the activities of the organization would be removed in favor of new blood, in Academia, folks making poor decisions seem to fade into the woodwork or, remarkably, get recruited away to other institutions, leaving a swath of poorly-designed, unfunded mandates in their wake.

On the other hand, the good ones (and there *are* plenty of them), the folks who try hard, take it for the team, make changes with the input of the people affected, and make honest efforts to invest in initiatives that the faculty, staff and students support, work tirelessly, usually for no more than 5 years, and then are either removed as the layer above them changes, burn out from the 8-days-a-week schedule they keep, or end up, despite doing good things, ticking off *the wrong* regent, legislator, or upper level administrator such that they can no longer be effective. Sometimes these folks, too, fade away, and sometimes, some other institution is lucky enough to attract them and get the benefit of their entrepreneurial spirit and integrity, and hopefully, not repeat the pattern.

The churn at the top generated by these patterns results in periods of feast and famine at many institutions, at least for those of us in mid-level managerial positions. Our job, and it's actually a pretty gratifying one most of the time, is to, despite all that churn, bust our tails to develop, maintain, and invest our energy into creating an environment for faculty and students in which they can do the work of the University- research, teaching, inquiry, discussion, and accumulation of knowledge- insulated from the stormy weather above them. I've benefited (and still do at some level) from folks up the chain making it possible for me to do my job, and I hope I can keep doing that for my colleagues- at least until I tick off the wrong person...

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Myth of Balance

I am convinced that it is a myth that there will always be balance between our personal and professional lives. Getting used to this idea is a watershed moment in the lives of working moms, and once accepted, the idea is liberating. For example, as a professor mom, a large part of my job is grant writing and lab research, essentially all of which is driven by deadlines. I spent years beating myself up about the fact that when I have a grant deadline looming I end up working on the weekends in the lab or at my office to make sure I hit the deadline. My husband and kids take it in stride, waving goodbye to me on Saturday morning and heading out to see a movie or play in the park. I return home in the evening, strung-out but successful in my work tasks, and constantly apologizing for being gone during family time. Finally, one night my husband asked me what I was apologizing for. “It’s not like you do this all the time, you know- once in a while you have to put in a little extra time at work, and that’s okay.” You know, he was right, and as soon as he said it out loud, I realized that it was true- working slavishly on weekends and during family time was, and is, a rarity, made more conspicuous in my own mind by its infrequency. I remember the smells in the kitchen, the music on the iPod, and what shirt he was wearing when he said it that night- it was that powerful for me, and I am grateful to him for having said it.

I’ve had the pleasure of telling many colleagues and clients that same thing since that night, with similar effect. Interestingly, this concept of accepting that it’s really okay if sometimes we let work come first to meet a deadline, and equally, that sometimes (often?) it’s necessary to put the brakes on at work to make a baseball game, dance recital, or parent-teacher conference can be uncomfortable at first for working moms, as we’re supposed to have all the balls in the air at the same time. Accepting that sometimes one thing has to get a bit more attention that another is yet another way that working moms can nourish and support themselves; it reduces “supermom” syndrome instantly.

Of course, it’s not always easy to remember that it’s okay to be out of balance from time to time, but keeping a few primary things in the front of your mind can help:

1. Remember to appreciate the forest rather than concentrating on single trees: As long as on the whole the feedback you get from your family and co-workers is that things are going well and moving forward, it’s okay to pay a bit more attention to work or home from time to time at the short-term expense of the other.
2. Be kind to yourself: As a working mom, you already know how important it is to support yourself. One way to do this is to push away feelings of guilt or inadequacy you might conjure up when you temporarily favor work over family, for example.
3. Help is a good thing: It’s okay and important to ask for help when you are in crunch mode at work or at home. Ideally, you have a spouse of family nearby that can help, but another great resource is other working moms. Creating arrangements to trade child care, transportation and weekend care with other working moms can not only help you all get what you need to do take care of, but it provides additional social opportunities for your kids.

The take-home message here is that it’s okay to favor work over family from time to time, and to put family squarely ahead of your professional life at other times. When times like this happen occasionally within the context of a generally balanced and boundary-driven life, there’s nothing to worry about- we all know that from time to time we have to make hard choices to accomplish all the things we need to do. By taking care of yourself personally and professionally, you assure that your family and career both flourish in the long run.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Thursday, June 26, 2008

20 minutes

It's been a long, hot summer so far. Lots of 90+ degree days, cranky colleagues, poor climate control in old University buildings, and sunburned children. Everyone seems overheated, a little too sweaty, and ready for a vacation, even if they just came back from one.

Last night, however, the sky opened and it rained here- long and hard. The kind of rain that leaves everything smelling new and green when moments before there was dust and radiating heat. Everyone's mood in my house improved significantly, and this morning we all awoke a bit earlier, ready to enjoy the morning.

For me, the early cool mornings are always my best time; I get caught up on overnight emails, work on a paper or part of a proposal, grade papers, or get caught up on journals. This morning, however, I spent a good 20 minutes in my office, drinking a cup of coffee and breathing in the damp, dewy air coming in through my open window from the morning darkness. I don;t make time like that very often, and I realized that spending time like that every day, ideally, would do a lot to ward off the heat of the summer, the heat of unhappy students and faculty, the heat of pending deadlines, and the heat of oppressive committee meetings.

Adding that moment of solitude into my day is a goal I've had for a long time. Whether it's quite time in the car, sitting on a bench in the park with the dog, or inhaling the morning's promise, today I made a commitment to myself that I will make the time to do this small thing. Not for the hippy-trippy reasons of renewing my soul or getting in touch with the earth or some such things (happy side effects, for me, anyway), but for me, this snippet of quiet seems to fill my "patience tank" for the day. Many therapists will advise clients to visualize a "safe place" or a "happy place" for themselves that they can mentally go to when they are stressed or angry. Although I have that place in my head (laying in the tall grass near a trout stream, listening to the water working its way downstream and watching the white, mountain-sky clouds crossing the sky), it's gotten a little dusty and dry, like the Colorado landscape before yesterday's storm.

Making space for silence and cognitive quiet this morning seemed to wash off that image for me, and when the day took hold of me, starting off with an angry, ALL CAPITAL LETTER email from a student, I dipped a cup of this morning's 20 minutes up and sipped it for a minute before responding. The response would have been metered and even regardless, but using a bit of that 20 minutes made sure that after I hit "send", I was really done with the exchange, instead of stewing or spreading the dust of the email into other parts of my day.

I'm looking forward to tomorrow morning.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Faculty Behaving Badly a.k.a. So much for Collegiality

There are so many wonderful things about being in academia- the intellectual stimulation, the summers off (ha ha), working with great students, and spending your days around intelligent, like-minded faculty colleagues. I'd say 95% of the people I deal with are truly excellent people, but the other 5%....

As a faculty member, I dealt with some of the misbehavior that's, frankly, cultivated in the academy, but as an administrator, most of my time is spent dealing with folks who are not behaving well. The misbehavior can range from actionable offenses such as violence and harassment to more pervasive issues such as incivility, email and verbal abuse, political power plays, and frank backstabbing. As a mentor and coach, these latter, more insidious behaviors are far more damaging to the folks I work with and take a greater toll on me personally. The last 2 days have been doozies. First, my usual careful email composition process failed to prevent a colleague from totally going off on me about a meaning he read into an email that simply wasn't there; my taking responsibility and apologizing for my lack of clarity did nothing to quiet his verbal abuse- sigh. Second, I found myself telling a program director whose usual MO is to complain about her people being woefully under-resourced relative to the rest of the college (a factual error) that in fact, there were plenty of folks who did make lemonade out of lemons, and that her view of the injustices suffered by her own relatively unproductive unit were not shared by others. My offer to work with her and her unit to develop time and resource management strategies based on what others have found useful was met with shouting and admonition that I simply do not understand- sigh.

Don't get me wrong- there is *plenty* I do not understand and there are *plenty* of times I make mistakes and end up eating crow (a taste you get used to), but I do know that despite my view or your view or his or her view, we all have the personal responsibility to treat one another with respect and civility. This is not an easy thing to do, but I have developed a few tricks that continuously serve me well in tense discussions, whether with faculty behaving badly or with my spouse or kids. I still plow it sometimes, but much less that I used to.

1. Shut up an listen.

I speak very little in confrontations with angry people these days. There are a few reasons for this- first, the psychologist in me knows that talking through what makes you mad can often help reduce anger. Second, listening longer helps me hear what the real reason behind the anger is- it usually is not obvious at first, but is masked in a bunch of emotional yuck. Finally, this strategy reduces the likelihood that I will say something stupid that I'll regret.

2. Allow silence.

Again, when someone is yelling at me and stops, it seems best for everyone involved when there's some silence between bouts of ick. First, again, it helps me keep from ejecting the venom that I might want to spew at someone who is totally out of line (ALWAYS a bad idea), and second, it can defuse the anger of the person who's yelling at me.

3. Ask for a solution.

When people are angry, they often are about what is wrong wrong wrong, not about how to fix it. Once people are done yelling and telling me how I (or their Chair, or the Dean, or the Provost, or the student, or Professor X) have wronged them, asking "Okay, so what would you like to have happen now?" puts the ball back in their court. Responses to this range from stunned silence to some options (giving you a place to start to help toward a resolution) or, often a response of "Oh, nothing- I just needed to vent/tell you how I was feeling/talk to someone about this."

4. Sing a little song in your head.

My favorite is "Bossa Nova Baby" by Elvis. Playing a little tune in my head while someone else is going off at me helps me keep things in perspective. Thinking about the music and lyrics distracts me from getting angry and potentially losing control of my words. I have yet to encounter a situation when reacting in kind to someone's outburst, whether justified or not, is the right decision for me.

5. Decide what hill you're going to die on.

Is whatever is going on really worth going to the mat about? Despite the ire and indignation of others, it may, in fact, be that that the crisis du jour is not THE BIG ONE. Not that there is not a big one- for me, I decided a while ago that academic and professional ethics are non-negotiable issues for me, and I will not turn a blind eye toward students or colleagues who act unethically. On the other hand, many perceived injustices do not rise to that level for me. For example, "My Chair always makes me teach in Friday afternoon and that's not fair. The Dean's office must do something about this"- well no, you and your Chair need to have a discussion about this- I will not become involved. Spending a little time deciding what your core values are can be an invaluable exercise.

6. Always remember your Mom/Dad.

Okay, this may be trite, but when you're in a situation where you or someone else is really angry, stop and think "Am I proud of how I'm acting right now, and would my Mom/Dad/other hero be proud of how I'm behaving right now?". If the answer is no, take some deep breaths, apologize if necessary, and make it right.

Wow- this is all so simple!!! Ha.

Of course, the only way I developed this list is by having some majorly embarrassing gaffes involving, in various combinations, mild swearing, weeping, nose-blowing, and storming out of meetings (not many gaffes, admittedly, but biggies). It's impossible not to have feelings in these jobs and interactions, but it's imperative to keep those feelings out of professional interactions. I've managed to hold my tongue in meeting after meeting and on many phone calls, only to go for a walk with a trusted colleague afterward to vent, to go to the gym and kickbox, or to blog away my frustration (case in point :)).

Remember- taking the high road would make your Mom/Dad/hero proud of you. Hang in there are remember to play nice even when others do not.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Summer's when I get caught up!!!

Well, here we are ostensibly in the middle of summer- June 22- the day after the Summer Solstice. My goals for this point in the summer (End of June) were to clean out my offices (at the U. and at at home), spend some quality time with my husband, kids, and parents, get back online with my exercise program and finish 2 manuscripts. So far, I've managed to do all but the last one. What are my sticking points around getting these papers done??? This seems to happen every summer, so it's time to figure out where the clog is on this one. I've developed 2 hypotheses- let's see which one holds up to the evidence:

1. Writing papers in the summer is harder than other things because I spend all my time during the academic year writing lectures, reports, grants, and other "scholarly" items,.

Evidence: Lacking. Frankly, if this hypothesis were true, one would anticipate that the cessation of these duties at the end of the Spring Semester would leave me with enough time to get the papers written and find that gratifying. That clearly is not the case. Moreover, the evolution of the University is such that there really is no end to the paperwork, grants, and reports I and my colleagues have to write. Next hypothesis?

2. Getting papers done during the summer is harder than other things because those "other things" feed parts of my psyche that tend to suffer from neglect during the academic year.

Evidence: Well, I spend the whole academic year shuffling appointments, school events, laboratory time, committee meetings, personal time, teaching, family time, and "me" time to the point that the stress of cramming all that stuff into every day, week , and month gets a bit discouraging. Admittedly, over the years my boundaries have become pretty clear; I simply take time for my husband, family, and self, and am breaking the night, weekend and holiday insidious email habit, but it ain't easy. When summer comes and the kids get out of school, the freedom of losing a few standing meetings until the Fall, combined with enjoying hugs and breakfast with my kids before getting moving to work (at home or the office) is renewing and wonderful.

Reflecting on the past several summers (since having kids 9 years ago), I realize that I *do* get the papers done, only it's by the end of the summer, not the middle. I also end up getting some unexpected things done as well- for example, although those papers are not gone, I have a new collaboration formed over a conversation I had with a colleague at a professional meeting, that's blossomed into a new, funded project. Equally importantly, I've made the time to hang out with my parents more and help my daughter learn to ride her bike without training wheels. All this, and June isn't even over yet!

So there appears to be support for hypothesis #2. Breaks in the academic year are not only times of catch-up and enrichment professionally, but they have to be personally as well.

The big caveat here is not to put off personal or professional goals during the academic year in favor of summer; this is a recipe for disaster. First, it provides a nearly insurmountable morass of work for you to do during the summer. As parents, we know that a big part of parenting is providing environments in which our kids can succeed if they put their minds to it- we have do to the same things for ourselves. Secondly, putting of personal goals until the summer can backfire as well- neglecting relationships, correspondence, or physical or mental health issues can create holes too large to be filled during the 3 month summer. I had the tragic experience of delaying a letter I owed to an old friend for several months as I was "too busy at work"; he died unexpectedly in May. I will never make that mistake again.

What's the take-home message for me in this analysis?

1. I need to take the time to refill my tank after the academic year ends.
2. Getting the papers done by the end, rather than the middle, of the summer may be just fine.
3. I must make space for professional and personal creativity and joy.
4. Living in the present is critical- putting off things is of no benefit, and I have to remind myself, that as my PhD advisor says, "You'll never be on your deathbed saying 'I should have spent more time in the lab.'"

This last quote used to seem so trite, but wow, he's right. The older I get, the smarter he gets. I'll have to let him know that- right now.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

Saturday, June 7, 2008

It's supposed to get easier, right?????

Welcome to my Blog- I hope you're here because you're looking for other folks who are competent, thoughtful, smart people struggling to do the seemingly impossible: have a fulfilling career as a professional or professor and have a harmonious, balanced, personal life. I'm writing this because although I have learned a few things in my 16 years as a PhD, wife, mom, and professor, I still pretty much feel like I'm making it up as a I go along, but now it bothers me a whole lot less. Stuff I'd never expect always seems to happen and undo the "best laid plans". Before you stop reading saying, "Wow, she doesn't have any more clue on how to do all this than I do!", let me invite you to stick around. The biggest thing I've learned that is really, fundamentally different than where I was 16 years ago (or 6-8 years ago, for that matter) is that I know know, with complete certainty, that no matter what happens, I will be able to figure out a solution that is true to my goals, my core values, and can meet the challenge I face. For me, this was a big deal, having gone through my graduate and postdoctoral training with some pretty dysfunctional folks (I'm sure I'm the only one who's had that experience) and having felt, when I picked a University that valued teaching ("Well, Mary, its' up to you, but you'll kill your research career") like I'd sold out. Turns out that I've made some pretty good choices for me (not necessarily the best choices for anyone else), and have the pleasure of a solid academic career and a functional family. Having said all that, I'm still rolling with the punches and simply expect now that things will not go as planned. Someone will lose a job, get sick, a grant will not get scored, or some other unanticipated thing that years ago would have sent me into a panic. Now, I work to get out my juicer and make lemonade out of lemons, and I am a much happier person. I hope that you will share your struggles and experiences too- I'm really curious about how other folks deal with letting go of the ideal of "perfection in all things" in favor of "wow- all the plates are still spinning, although some faster than others.". Thanks for being here, and I hope you'll come back.

Stumble Upon Toolbar