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Time Sinks and Black Holes

by Leo Reynolds on Flickr: http://bit.ly/sqeoBV

About a week ago my husband pointed out to me, “Hey, you’re not coughing any more.” I hadn’t noticed, but yeah — he was right. After a three-week battle with bronchitis and terrible sleep, my cough had apparently subsided, finally. I’m still not back to 100% operating capacity, but I’m on the mend.

During those early weeks of the semester, while I hoped my sickness-induced exhaustion wasn’t as apparent to my students as it was to me (and while I wondered why I had gotten sick yet again), I was thinking a lot about “burnout” — about whether there is such a condition, what its symptoms might be, what causes it, and how one might treat it. I ask because I’m pretty sure I’ve got it. Or at least I had it, and I’m finally getting a second wind.

As I’ve written about before, I did some pretty intensive administrative work during the first five years of my academic career. I still felt compelled to try to keep on top of my work as a scholar, too, since these were the years I was supposed to be establishing myself in my field. I managed to publish — not as much as I would’ve liked, but enough, I hope. My service load today — both official appointments and unofficial, ad hoc “we’d really value your input!” situations (I was sucked into a few of these even while on sabbatical in Spring 2010) — is nothing like when I was our program director, but it’s still kind of weighty. I keep hoping that maybe someday I’ll get a break. But then, my colleagues kindly remind me, if I get tenure this year, I’ll be expected to serve on even more committees — reappointment and review committees, in particular — starting next year.

There’s a lot I wish I’d done differently during the first seven years on the tenure track. I realize how fortunate I am to have even had a chance to traverse the tenure track; that route is open to fewer and fewer folks these days. But I think a lot of what I’ve learned would apply just as much, if not more, to contingent faculty — of which we have a huge corps at my institution.

So here are some new rules I’m trying to train myself to live by:

Is your office a black hole of productivity? Via thebadastronomer on Flickr: http://bit.ly/xko1Hj

If you don’t have an ideal on-campus work space, watch out for all those in-between-appointment time sinks. I’ve had six different desks, in five different offices, in eight years. I’ve never had much in the way of on-campus storage space (and I was never eager to schlep all my crap from office to office as I moved each year), so I’ve always kept all my books and teaching notebooks at home. Except for those years when I was a program director, I shared my office with at least one other faculty member. And up until last year, our IT department was all PC (Mac exceptions were made only for faculty who taught design) — which meant that much of the software I used for my research wasn’t available for my work computer.

Long story short: the only work I’ve been able to do in my on-campus office is (1) meet with students, (2) review admissions folders or attend to other administrative work that doesn’t require intense concentration, and (3) socialize or (and for this I am grateful) have lovely, productive discussions with faculty colleagues. Most of the important work — prepping for class, responding to complicated student emails, reviewing student coursework, reviewing theses, doing research for committee work, writing committee reports, or, last and often least of all, doing my own research — happens elsewhere.

I’m often on campus for meetings scattered throughout the day. And because ours is a graduate program with classes in the late afternoons and evenings, I often head home between 8 and 10:30 pm — home, finally, to do the hard work. I try to find things I can do in my campus office, or in a coffee shop, during those awkward two-hour breaks between meetings or classes or office-hour appointments — but it’s hard to write a book review when your office-mate’s holding office hours…or when the media you need to prep for tomorrow’s class are at home, a 40-minute train ride away.

It depresses me to think of how much time I’ve lost in these between-meeting time sinks over the years. Which is why I must accept this:

You can’t feel guilty about missing meetings that are scheduled at times that totally totally screw up your day. I had a great conversation with a senior colleague today; we were on a bus with a bunch of students, heading upstate for a class field trip (which was awesome, by the way). “I’m often on campus until 10:30 at night,” he said. “For my daytime-teaching colleagues to ask me to do a 10am meeting is like me asking them to meet at 4am.” Damn straight.

[Update: the day after I wrote this post, I agreed to co-chair a regular meeting on Mondays at 10am — the only time that worked for every other member of the committee. Except me. I teach until 10pm on Mondays and get home after 11. I am such a pushover!]

When I’m invited to join a committee (and especially when I’m chairing one), I feel obligated to pull my weight. And while I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I always like university service, I do derive some satisfaction by being involved in a meaningful way. But when doing so means that I compromise on my productivity in other areas of responsibility — or, more likely in my case, that I simply go to bed even later than I normally do (3am-ish) so I can still get everything done — my desire to be accommodating proves deleterious in so many ways. Not least of all to my health.

This raises a related issue:

Yes, it’s an honor to be invited to contribute to important initiatives and hold big-deal leadership positions. But sometimes you have to gracefully decline such “honors.” I haven’t lived by this rule at all. The price I’ve paid has been in hours of sleep, peace of mind, and ability to concentrate on the myriad responsibilities that all seem equally important to me.

These invitations put junior faculty in sticky positions. Senior faculty need to talk to their junior colleagues about how to consider such offers and invitations, and how to decline them gracefully when necessary.

You can say no to students and still serve them well. I’ve had students who claim not to be able to visit during my regularly scheduled office hours — despite the fact that I’m happy to chat on the phone, Skype, etc (I also do lots of advising via email). So on a few occasions I’ve agreed to come to campus at a time I wouldn’t normally be there. That’s a 40-minute subway ride each way for a half-hour- to hour-long meeting.

Sometimes they forget to show up — or, on a few insanely frustrating occasions, they’ll text me at our scheduled meeting time to say, So sorry — stuck at work! When this sh** happens, I so want to bill them for my time 🙂

Yes, it’s nice to be accommodating, to not be unreasonably inflexible, to recognize that students, too, have unpredictable lives — and that their occasional mistakes are a result of those inevitable snafus, not a sign of their reprehensible irresponsibility. Yet all those alternative office-hour arrangements, those assignment extensions, the students who neeeeed you to write last-minute letters of recommendation for them because they forgot about an impending application deadline, the other students who need you to get them out of a financial aid jam because they misread a form, the students who come to you in a panic because their other advisors never wrote back and the proposal’s due tomorrow!, etc. — as well as the colleagues who need your input on reports for committees to which you have no official obligation — if you accommodated all this stuff (as I’ve done on far too many occasions) you lose your own time. You miss out on the weekend and Spring Break research-and-writing sessions you promised yourself. You fail to respond to that CFP in time. You’re too tense to always enjoy teaching and meeting with students — which should be among the most enjoyable activities of the week.

*     *     *     *     *

Long story short: don’t be like me. Set boundaries. Say no. Those who know me well know that I’ll never shirk my responsibilities, and I’ll never be anything less than a fully engaged teacher and university citizen. But in order to balance these commitments and a commitment to my life and health outside of school, I have to start taking my own advice. I had to make a few years’ worth of bad decisions to learn how important boundaries are.

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How May I Help You?

via Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest on Flickr: http://bit.ly/fsjUvA

My first book was to have been published in 2005. In early 2003, about six months after finishing my dissertation, I signed a contract with Smithsonian Books, and later that spring I won a nice grant from the Graham Foundation that enabled me to travel and complete the book research. I was fortunate to have a postdoctoral fellowship that afforded me sufficient time to finish the manuscript by Spring 2004.

That fall, after I’d reviewed a second set of proofs for the book, the Smithsonian announced that it was reorganizing its press. The result was that most of its academic authors, including me, were released from their contracts. I was, needless to say, devastated — but the Smithsonian’s wonderful executive editor, and my editor, Caroline Newman, effectively became my agent. Within three or four months I had found a new home for the book at the University of Minnesota Press. Even though the manuscript had gone out for external review and passed through rounds of edits and proofs with the Smithsonian, I had to go through it all over again at Minnesota. The book finally came out in Spring 2007 — two years later than initially planned.

I should have another book out by now. That’s what I keep telling myself. The voices of self-criticism have been particularly loud lately, as I look ahead to the August 1 deadline for my tenure dossier. When I scan through the c.v.’s for other junior scholars who are going up for, or who’ve recently gone up for, tenure, I often see a much longer lists of publications…and editorial boards…and keynote addresses.

There are certain areas in which I blow those others out of the water, though. While others might have three or four committees listed under “Service,” I’ve got pages and pages of appointments and chaired committees and other service activities. It’s just too bad that those areas don’t count for much in the tenure review process. Service, sadly, is something that junior scholars aren’t supposed to do.

Yet I’ve done it. A lot of it (Many have commented on the politically sensitive nature of inviting junior faculty to serve on senior-level committees, and on how hard it is to say no). When I organize all those “non-scholarly” activities on my c.v. in chronological order, I get a better sense of what I’ve been doing with my time these past few years. It becomes apparent just how hard it is to get your footing, to establish yourself as a “serious scholar,” when you’re busy serving.

*   *   *   *

What follows are my long-term appointments. I haven’t included any short-term or one-time contributions — or course prep for the 13 new classes I’ve developed over the past seven years, or work involved with handling 30 or 40 advisees and four or five thesis advisees every semester:

2004-2005

  • Graduate Admissions Coordinator: reviewed ~400 admissions folders, organized faculty interviews of candidates, determined scholarship awards, contacted top-ranked candidates
  • Thesis Coordinator and Advisor: developed thesis committee, proposal, and submission policies and created Thesis Handbook; hosted Thesis Information Session each semester and oversaw thesis committee organization; collected and vetted all thesis proposals and completed theses; in 2004-5, served as outside reader on 44 thesis proposals and 20 completed theses

2005-2006

  • Thesis Coordinator and Advisor: hosted Thesis Information Session each semester and oversaw thesis committee organization; collected and vetted all thesis proposals and completed theses
  • Co-Director, Project Media Space | Public Space, with Dr. Elizabeth Ellsworth, Department of Media Studies and Film, The New School
  • Chair, Curriculum and Advising Committee
  • Chair, Admissions Committee
  • Member, Media Research Methods Curriculum Review Committee, 2005
  • Member, History, Theory & Criticism Curriculum Review Committee, 2005

2006-2007

  • Director of Graduate Studies: oversaw curriculum and faculty development for a graduate program with over 500 students and 80+ principal and adjunct faculty; organized, with Executive Secretary’s assistance, each semester’s course schedule, with 60 to 70 classes per semester, and course guide; recruited and trained new part-time faculty and co-organized and oversaw system by which all part-time union faculty are observed and evaluated every year; led all information sessions and recruitment events for prospective and accepted students (8-10 per year); with Department Chair, conducted final review of all prospective student applications (roughly 500 per year), determined final scholarship awards, contacted all top-ranked candidates; developed and coordinated student travel grant program
  • In absence of Student Services Coordinator in Fall 2006: I coordinated all independent studies and 30+ internships; handled all course waivers, registration complications, financial aid queries and appeals, graduation petitions, and international student paperwork; coordinated fall 2006 and spring 2007 registration; and organized Spring 2007 New Student Orientation
  • Thesis Coordinator and Advisor: hosted Thesis Information Session each semester and oversaw thesis committee organization; collected and vetted all thesis proposals and completed theses
  • Chair, Curriculum and Advising Committee
  • Member, Advising Committee
  • Chair, Department Graduate Advising Coordinator Search Committee
  • Member, Department Executive Secretary Search Committee
  • Member, Divisional Appeals Committee
  • Member, Chairs and Directors Group
  • Participant, IDEO Space Planning Research
  • Member, Design and Social Science Curriculum Committee, Provost’s Office
  • Member, Search Committee, Assistant/Associate Professor in Interactive Game Design, Department of Communication Design and Technology, Parsons The New School for Design
  • Member, Search Committee, Department Chair, Department of Media Studies and Film
  • Member, Faculty Development Grant Program Advisory Committee, Provost’s Office

2007-2008

  • Director of Graduate Studies: oversaw curriculum and faculty development for a graduate program with over 500 students and 80+ principal and adjunct faculty; organized, with Executive Secretary’s assistance, each semester’s course schedule, with 60 to 70 classes per semester, and course guide; collaborated on major revision of methodology curricula: developed new, specialized variable-credit methods courses; developed Media and Urban Environments area of study, and co-developed, with Barry Salmon, Sound Studies area of study; recruited and trained new part-time faculty and co-organized and oversaw system by which all part-time union faculty are observed and evaluated every year; represented program at all University Teaching Assistant recruitment events; reviewed TA applications; interviewed candidates; selected and trained TA’s; led all information sessions and recruitment events for prospective and accepted students (8-10 per year); with Department Chair, conducted final review of all prospective student applications (roughly 500 per year), determined final scholarship awards, contacted all top-ranked candidates
  • Thesis Coordinator and Advisor: hosted Thesis Information Session each semester and oversaw thesis committee organization; collected and vetted all thesis proposals and completed theses
  • Chair, Curriculum and Advising Committee
  • Member, Strategic Planning Committee
  • Member, Chairs and Directors Group
  • Member, Executive Committee
  • Juror, Interdisciplinary Memory Conference Exhibition
  • Member, Media Curricular Committee, Provost’s Office
  • Member, WNSR Radio Advisory Board
  • Member, Search Committee, Department Chair, Department of Media Studies and Film
  • Member, Faculty Development Grant Program Advisory Committee, Provost’s Office

2008-2009

  • Director of Graduate Studies: oversaw curriculum and faculty development for a graduate program with over 500 students and 80+ principal and adjunct faculty; organized, with Executive Secretary’s assistance, each semester’s course schedule, with 60 to 70 classes per semester, and course guide; taught first iteration of new required, introductory graduate lecture course, which involved the recording of weekly lectures and oversight of discussion sections; recruited and trained new part-time faculty and co-organized and oversaw system by which all part-time union faculty are observed and evaluated every year; represented program at all University Teaching Assistant recruitment events; reviewed TA applications; interviewed candidates; selected and trained TA’s; led all information sessions and recruitment events for prospective and accepted students (8-10 per year); with Department Chair, conducted final review of all prospective student applications (roughly 500 per year), determined final scholarship awards, contacted all top-ranked candidates; developed content for online Orientation site and much content for revised department website
  • Chair, Required Courses Committee
  • Member, Chairs and Directors Group
  • Member, Executive Committee
  • Member, Assistant Professor in International Affairs and Media Search Committee
  • Member, Search Committee, Deans of Parsons’ College of Art, Media & Technology
  • Member, Faculty Development Grant Program Advisory Committee, Provost’s Office
  • Co-Organizer, Catastrophe Slam, with Dr. Robert Kirkbride (Project Director); Cross-divisional New School design project

2009-2010

  • Member, “Mission/Vision” Committee for Merger of New School for General Studies and Milano The New School for Urban Policy
  • Member, New School Provost’s Office’s Applied Think Tank
  • Invited Participant, Online Learning Charrette, Provost’s Office
  • Member, Search Committee, Dean, Online Learning

2010-2011

  • Member, Assistant Professor in Media Pedagogy Search Committee
  • Member, Senior Civic Engagement Faculty Search Committee
  • Chair, Ph.D. Program Proposal Committee
  • Member, Program Self-Study Committee
  • Member, Space Planning Committee
  • Member, Fellowship Jury, Vera List Center for Art and Politics
  • Member, Innovations in Education Fund Review Committee, Provost’s Office
  • Member, Undergraduate Media Studies Committee, Provost’s Office

Just reading that list exhausts me.