Steamrolling Into Summer

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source: I took this, that’s Henry!

I feel like I’ve barrel rolled right into summer. In case you’re wondering, it was a very clean barrel roll with no big rocks on the path. I don’t know how it happened but I thought I just got back from overseas…. A quick trip home helped my mental state but it added up and the driving alone was a pain in my ass (really, my lower back was screaming). A quick trip to the chiropractor straightened me right out (pun totally intended)!

Alas, graduation and the pomp and circumstance (pun intended again) that goes with it is in full force. Taking advantage of the time to not be on campus, I started to pretend an adult lives at my house who cleans things. The the ritualistic nature of stripping the covers off of the couch cushions, the shame and pride of vacuuming a semesters worth of crumbs out of the couch, and the nice smell that the febreze has when I deodorize the couch and love seat is my internal trigger that the seasons have changed and so has the semester.

There’s other things that trigger the changing of my academic seasons. Move out will and has taken full force, summer happy hour emails have been sent for standing invites with friends, and conference season kicks off in just over 48 hours. Why enjoy that first week of summer when you can get on a plane and hit up your first conference? Relaxing is for quitters…..

We don’t realize what a frenetic rush we put on ourselves as young faculty members. I had not been sleeping well since coming back from overseas and while I could only use the excuse of jet lag for so long, there were so many things to take care of. This coupled with taking a month off to go abroad, on top of whatever else I’ve been up to made sound sleep this elusive thing I chased. I even hung some Tibetan prayer flags over the bed hoping it would catch some good prayers and they’d turn into good dreams or good sleep. It took the internal ‘click’ of the semester for me to sleep like a log for the first time in weeks for a solid 8.5 hours before I stirred and heard Henry moving in his crate to let me know it was time to get up and play.

USDA grant season has slowed, I’ve got a NSF due next week, a NIH in June, and another one (can’t remember the acronym) in early August. I feel like I have one more but honestly, I can’t remember…My pubs for the calendar year are published-looking shiny and real and I am already scheming of what to push out for 2017. I have plans to push out two more this summer for hopeful publication next year. Gotta keep the wheels turning right?

I have blocked out my summer calendar now that summer projects have been decided on and blocked out travel. Two conferences, a week in CO, and then home to the farm. In between, I have plans to read, write, evaluate, work on grants that are currently funded, work with undergrad and grad students that have been hired, and heck-NOT work weekends, evenings, or before a normal time of day (normal is defined as “when the sun gets out of bed”).

All the pre-planning is letting me do one very important thing: it’s giving me permission to slow down. Blocking out the time gives me space to think, write, and read. I ordered 14 books the other day so I better have some time to read (and yes, they’re all for work). Slowing down in summer doesn’t mean productivity lags, it means I actually have time and give myself permission to do the things I can’t afford to do when there’s a room full of students, a pile of things to read, and researchers all staring at me for answers. The grant work alone I’ve neglected is enough to fill several weeks.

August will be here soon enough, but today, May whatever it is, I’m going to slow down. Downshift my internal engine, sleep through the night without interruption, and work through the massive pile of books that will be delivered when I get back from my conference. Now that the couch is clean and my house looks like a living, breathing human who doesn’t hoard a pile of shoes somewhere near the door lives here, I can steam roll right into summer.

 

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I’d Like to Give You Feedback Too

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It’s been a good semester. Now that it’s almost in the rear view mirror, I can spend a little time reflecting on the wins, the challenges, and map out the summer.

I love teaching and taught a one credit seminar this spring. I agreed to teach it approximately 48 hours before the semester began, so it wasn’t something I had a lot of time to plan out beforehand. Never one to back down from a challenge, I said yes and was honest with the students of the short time line. It’s the way the world works sometimes and a good lesson for them.

The seminar went fine and as a one credit seminar, the stakes were pretty low for everyone. Some good things to make note of if I want to turn it into a three credit course, some things to make note of to do again, some to not do again, but the biggest feedback for myself is to prepare the readings more thoughtfully throughout. Seminars are a great way to share ideas, have some great exchanges in a friendly environment, and produce a practical deliverable. I asked the students to take an existing program, critique it, infuse theory, and give policy recommendations for it. As the professor leading, it’s a great time to see if a “proof of concept” will work.

 

During the final presentations, one student grew very defensive when a colleague and I disagreed with their work, throwing their hands in the air and then saying they felt “attacked bc there were two faculty” in the room. That’s what grad school is. Exchanging ideas that aren’t always agreeing with you. This same student struggled with me all semester, being disrespectful and then noting that there is no faculty survey for the seminar (it’s one credit folks) and that they “had feedback i wanted to give” which reads to me like “i want to be a real jerk in a passive aggressive fashion in an anonymous environment so you won’t know it’s me.”

Here’s where my inner critique came in. I know it wasn’t perfect. Far from it. I do know that I presented good material and that my disagreement with students isn’t to pester them, but to have them “consider the other.” I said that phrase multiple times over the semester, sometimes multiple times during one class and instead of listening, this student would wave their hand in the air and stammer. Having not been disagreed with is perhaps something new or a coping mechanism. Part of graduate school is learning about how a wider gamut of people think, their experiences, and it’s a lot of hard work. If a student wants to come get that easy phd, our program is not the place for it. Like the military, students need to be broken down a bit in order to cognitively process all of the information, their experiences, and where it all goes next.

I’d like to give that student some anonymous, passive aggressive feedback too: to quit being such a condescending, rude, disrespectful human. But I can’t because there is no survey for how a student behaved, their classroom civility, or anything else. The system is designed to put the instructor completely at fault and never put any responsibility on the student for their actions, just the work they produce. I surmise the student wanted to tell me how little they thought I knew instead of answering the questions that are addressed on evaluations, which is often times what a faculty evaluation really is. We know content but does our personality jive with our students? Does our teaching style fit their style? Does our organization fit their preferred mode? With so many students, it’s impossible, thus making faculty evaluations a flawed instrument at best.

Yes, I made mistakes. I’m human. It’s my job to mess it up here and there. I’m in the business of teaching, researching, and doing scholarly things for a living while remaining respectful of my colleagues, mentoring our students, and forcing them cognitively to grow the gray matter in between their ears. I expect my students to be respectful in return but you get one every now and again who will force a new gray hair out of your head.

 

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How I Know it’s the End of the Semester…

I put face moisturizer in my hair one day and the hair product on my face and then walked around thinking, “why is my hair so damn greasy? why is the smell so strong near my nose?”

It’s the end of another semester folks…and I for one could not be more pleased. Or tired. Or burned out. I get this way every semester and everyone I know starts walking around like zombie’s with glazed eyes, stress eating their feeling to fill the void, and barely functioning.

A friend on fb posted:

“I just put deodorant on over my shirt.”

Hence, the replies followed….

“I once spit a mouthful of water into a towel rather than the sink.”

“I notice that my breath is minty, my teeth feel clean, and say to myself–aloud–“Oh. I must have brushed my teeth” without irony and with enormous satisfaction.”

“Stood in front of my office door for much, much longer than warranted while trying to unlock it with my truck key… the electronic, “press button to unlock” part.”

Cheers to the last push to the imaginary finish line or very obvious one: commencement.

May your grades be easy, your students follow directions, and you reclaim your inbox, your life, and your laundry pile!

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Delegating for the Win

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I’ve been gone for about two weeks now and I have to say, life has been good work-wise. Not because I’m not there, but because before I left, I worked like a dog and delegated.

It wasn’t easy letting go of all that perceived control. I like knowing what’s going on w my project work, grant work, and students, but I had no choice. With less than great Internet (ok, less than great electricity in general) for the majority of the trip, I knew I would have no choice but to adapt quickly and delegate everything I could. So I did.

I have to admit, it was pretty nice not having to worry about as many things. I would see emails when the electricity was on, but for the most part, my part was done or the people knew I was gone and they didn’t necessarily expect me to respond right away.

I have a great team behind me and I know how lucky I am to have them in my life. They’re all capable, bright, and more than intelligent enough to live for three weeks without me. There’s a few days left of this trip before I begin the journey home and while I’m glad to have come and done this work, I’m also very excited to go home. I cannot stress how important delegating was to the success of this trip in order for it to go smoothly. The list for what to do when I get home is getting longer every day, but I have taken a great deal of comfort knowing things were done while I was gone and it allowed me to enjoy this stretch of travel a little bit more. I worried less when there was no electricity and it enabled me to engage more with the world sitting right in front of me instead of what was happening some 7800 miles away.

It Takes a Village, Spring Break Edition

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Greetings from Spring Break!

I’d like to say I was posting this from a beach, a couch, or an otherwise sunny location but here I am, in my favorite coffee shop where I got a big table since the students are all gone. Winning!

I’m grinding on my to-do list hard this week-why? Leaving for three weeks in a few days for work. This plan has not come together with a wave of a magic wand, nor was it an easy process. Traveling internationally to an under-developed country has been a process. Relying on others with more experience than I have and relinquishing control over the details was annoying at first, but is kind of nice now. A magic folder was FedEx’ed to me last week that contained everything I would need and more.

The logistics on a trip of this size and scope have been a team effort. From my department head, my colleagues, grad students on assistantship, to my current grant projects, to the students I’m teaching, to the ten undergrad researchers who look to me each week for guidance, to my friends taking care of my house and life, it’s not been an easy trip to put together. With so many moving parts, I have been forced to ask for lots of help from various people, groups, and the trickle down effect of my absence will affect more than I think.

Am I that important? NO. (check myself before i wreck myself moment)

It’s also USDA grant season and all of the due dates fall while I’m gone. Oops. Getting asked to collaborate on several grants has forced me to get organized and turn all of my materials in early.

There’s also the long list of supplies I was tasked with obtaining before I leave. Enough toiletries for three weeks,  surge protectors/converters, and one magical Amazon list after another have kept me in line. Borrowing a large suitcase and larger backpack for a 24 hour layover in Asia have had me on my toes.

I have to say: I’m lucky that I have a village willing to support me. From my mom sending me links, to my friends coming to water my plants, to my departments support, I would not have been able to do this without my team, my squad, my village. People forget what a gigantic effort this is and the 22 year olds I teach think it’s this glamorous thing we get to do. I have to remind them that it’s anything but glamorous at points and the work pace I’ve been keeping the last month has run me ragged. It’s one consequence I accepted when I said “yes” to the trip and I knew it would be hard to get it all together but I’m glad I’m doing it. I was so over tired the other night I put myself to bed early, turned down dinner plans most of the weekend, and kept myself in hiding knowing I would be terrible company. I couldn’t even muster the energy to hike a few miles, feeling sloppy due to lack of sleep, poor diet, and just general “blah” lately. I know, I know, “woe is me” but you have to know: getting on that plane to Hong Kong will be a sigh of relief because I’ll know that everything is done and if it’s not, it’s too late.

We cannot drop it all and get on the plane. As a young faculty member, we’ve got too many balls in the air to do that. I need to make sure my pubs are getting published while I’m gone, my grants are getting turned in, and my students and researchers are all on point. This takes a crap load of pre-planning, communicating, and a boat load of work on my end.  Yes, international travel is pretty awesome and I’m pretty fortunate for this opportunity, but this has not been one of those easy, breezy things to pull off. Hell, there’s still a few days until I leave and it could all come crashing down. I hope it won’t and it shouldn’t, but shit happens folks.

The number one thing I’ve had going for me: I’ve known about this for a few months and I’ve done nothing but COMMUNICATE that I was leaving. I’ve made no bones about it to anyone I’ve worked with. From our grant officer in the college to the students to the faculty I’m writing grants with, everyone knows I’m leaving and I won’t be available often while I’m gone. Not going to a first world country means I’m not going to have first world Internet access.

The sky will not fall chicken little, not at all. But my bat brain will be so much happier once I get the last few items checked off my list, shove a bunch of crap and three weeks of shampoo into a bag and settle in for the long leg of my flights: 16 hours…yeah, 16 hours. I’m pumped for that too!

 

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Revisiting Plan B

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It’s been a while since I thought about plan b at all. Quite frankly, I haven’t had the time.

A conversation with a graduate student last week caused me to hit my own pause button.

The student had come in to see me about working up a manuscript. We chatted about the work and then I asked him how his job search was going. He had been very transparent with everyone about his job hunt; seeking advice, getting feedback, and asking good questions.

Upon asking, he slumped down a bit and said, “it’s not going so well.”

Like any good advisor(y) type person, I said, “what’s your plan b?”

“There is no plan b.”

Uhhh…..

The student had assumed too much because we had given him too much hope. I hate to say it, but it’s true. We assume that our students will all finish and there will be mountains of opportunity for them. While there should be, there’s not. At all. The numbers on tenure track positions decline and continue to do so and the number of other types of positions rise to save universities money. It’s happening where I work too. I’m not in a TT line either so I’m having the same struggle.

I have thought about all of my options though. Many, many times….and I’ve tested the waters too. Applying, interviewing, etc…

But this student had not done anything outside of academic job applications.

And I hope he does now.

As many of you get to take a pause for a deserved break, I hope that if you’re thinking about finishing anytime in the next six months, you’ve got your “unicorn” but you’ve also thought a little bit about plan b. I don’t want to rain on your parade, but someone has to let you know or remind you that there has to be a backup. There would be nothing worse than wrapping up and not having anything to move toward. Sometimes plan b pops up when we lease expect it, so don’t be afraid to go towards opportunities that you may not have considered.

Plan b’s often turn into plan a’s and that’s how the job market works at times. Don’t count out your plan b. Keep working toward plan a, but in the meantime, don’t forget there’s other letters in the alphabet too.

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Things I’m Working On: Long Meetings

 

'Almost finished.'

‘Almost finished.’

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My love/hate relationship with meetings persists, but I started doing something in the new semester that’s really helping me feel better. I stop at the time the meeting was SUPPOSED to last for and exit. I say I have to go and I do. Whether it’s physically leaving the room or hanging up the conference call, I have to go. Even if I didn’t necessarily have something else after, I still leave.

Why?

My time is valuable too and your inability to manage your time is not my problem.

Sound harsh?

Yes. It is. It’s honest. If a monthly check in meeting is scheduled for one hour, then I give it one hour. If I say class starts at 1 and ends at 3:50, we’re done at 3:50. I don’t expect people to stay late for me, so why would others expect me to stay late for them?

Meetings have always stirred an emotional response for me. I know we need them, but they get so long, drawn out, and are often useless after the first 30 minutes. People are verbose in academia and a meeting is a great way to highlight that. Unless someone schedules extra time, there’s a crisis, or it’s a topic that is deemed as “incredibly important,” I’ve started seeing myself to the door and leaving. My time is equally valuable as yours, so don’t get upset when you try to run your meeting late and I have to leave. Just like I wouldn’t be upset if you left my meeting if it was running late.

I know we all have big decisions and important things we’re doing. I know we all get excited and passionate about our work, but there’s a limit on how much time we can give to everything and take time for ourselves. I’m learning that lesson over again this semester. Planning for work, a big trip, and scheduling swim times has proven to be a pain this semester. I’m getting them in, but I’m learning to keep the swim and move the rest because if I’m not moving, then I’m not interested in sitting through anything else.

I don’t view this as selfish and I’m sure you might disagree. I view this as necessary to survival. If I’m not writing, I’m not publishing. If I’m not reading, I’m not writing. If I’m in your meeting that’s running late, I’m not getting to my data analysis for writing. As an untenured faculty member, I have no choice but to continue to be selfish with my time. If that means stealing away from your long meeting on time so I have time to do my work, then I’ll keep doing it. I’m working on stopping the guilty feelings I harbor myself with in the name of keeping everyone else happy because then I end up unhappy as a result.

See how this works?

Check Yourself Before You Wreck Yourself: Thinking Before Speaking

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Facilitating a class this semester has been really fun for me. Yes, FUN. It’s a seminar style class with a lot of interaction, discussion, and boiler plate type idea exchange going on each week. I have really enjoyed it thus far and would hope to offer a full three credit class off of it someday. It was an idea I’d been kicking around for a while so this was prime pickings for me to try it out with a group of students.

Overall, the students are outstanding. They have great thoughts, they are able to think critically and reflect, synthesize readings and pair them with other content. Really a stand up group. I could not be more pleased. Grad school is also a place to grow, to expand, and to broaden our horizons. Making sweeping comments, being judgmental, intolerant, and downright racist are not things I’m a big fan of. In class or in life. Some of my students forget where they sit at the table with me and a few have needed a gentle reminder (ok, so not so gentle).

After making some vast generalizations that were largely false, making a racist comment that I squashed, and continuing to be inappropriate, I told the student to ‘stop talking, you’re making it worse’ and kept class moving. The student thought I was joking. After calling all farmers “hipsters” and then making several statements that really, REALLY highlighted their privilege, I couldn’t take it anymore. The student then had the audacity to say “good morning sunshine” to me in the hallway one morning. WHAT? A few days later this same student sent me an email with a smiley face emoji in it. What’s going on? I’m not your pet, don’t call me a pet name. I’m not your BFF, don’t send me an emoji. I’m your professor, treat me with the same kernel of respect you want to be treated with.

Anyone who says that everyone is equal or there’s no issues with women in the academy has never been called ‘sunshine’ instead of “my name,” “dr.” or any other salutation or had an email with an emoji sent to them. Would this student have called my male colleagues “sunshine?” Me thinks not. EVER.

I’d like to conclude this post with a gentle, “check yourself before you wreck yourself” to all the grad students out there. My undergrads behave more respectfully than this person has been and I’m pretty tired of it. Making it known helped but not enough apparently. Here’s to a new week and if I have to glare, sneer, or put my foot down–you’d better get out of the way…..

Who Can You Depend on? Being Self-Reliant

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Something happened a few years ago. Ok, about 25 give or take a decade, but the thing was that my mom raised us to be independent. Cue Destiny’s Child here….

After 30+ years on the planet, I wake up and know less than I did the day before and I have even more questions that I could spend the rest of my life working on. But of all the life I have lived, I know a few things and this is one: I’m pretty self-reliant. Independent. Don’t “need” a man to take out my garbage. I’m not talking about the arrogant “I got this far all by myself” talk because that is NOT the case at all, but the case that I do what I want, I have figured out how to function as an individual, independent unit. In the best way possible.

Every once in a while I am reminded that while I don’t have a person, it is nice to have folks in my life I can count on. A friend in real life moved to my town recently to start grad school (I recruited him) and he really is a “real life friend,” and not merely a “person I know” in the ether. I’m fortunate to have good people in my life and eternally grateful for them, but not everyone can be counted on for all things. Some of the people on my squad are for professional purposes, others personal, many are multi-purpose. This friend is multi-purpose and very reliable.

I sent myself home from campus last week after getting sick twice in my office. I had excused myself from the department meeting after feeling nauseous, dizzy, and then realized I was going to be sick. After laying on the couch and moving to my bedroom, and getting sick several more times I realized I was not going back to work. And I needed ginger ale. I texted my friend for some back-up and requested some of the good stuff. While he was in class until early evening, it was ok with me because I was still getting sick and couldn’t keep anything down anyway.

Like the moon rising, he showed up about 30 minutes after class with two giant bottles of ginger ale, checked to see if I needed anything else, and went about his evening. I appreciated him on so many levels that day. Not only for caring, but for acknowledging that while he was busy, he could certainly make time to swing through the grocery store for some ginger ale and bring it by my house. While I was in no shape to verbalize it that evening, we got together later in the week when I was feeling better and I shared my gratitude with him.

It forced me to reflect on why I had become and how I had become so self-reliant in the first place. A long time ago, someone who was in my life used to throw me “under the bus” every chance he got and I didn’t realize it for a long time. I know it strained my relationship with others because they had false information and a poor opinion of me without my knowledge and I learned the hard way that I needed to represent myself. Fast forward to today and while I still consider myself independent and self-reliant, I make sure I’m aware when someone does give me a little boost.

How does this translate to the academy? In many ways both obvious and subtle. Self-preservation is important to me and letting my guard down doesn’t come easy. Being vulnerable, sick, and asking for mercy and ginger ale was a good reminder that I need to do the same at work. Sometimes I feel like a research robot, going through the motions to push out the work and I need to remind myself that I’m not doing it just to get it over with, but there’s always vulnerability involved. I work on this with my undergraduate researchers in particular to not only teach the methods but instill the qualities of being vulnerable to ask questions but independent enough to think critically. I need to remember that I can and should ask for help. My students ask me for help all of the time, but I rarely ask others in return. I burden myself with extra work in the name of perfection instead of delegating and being happy with what comes in.

Being self-reliant is not a bad trait to posess by any stretch of the word, in fact it’s usually something I’m quite proud of, but the stomach bug reminded me that no matter how bad ass I think I am, a virus can bring me to my knees and force me to ask for help and I shouldn’t be afraid to do the same at work either.

 

 

Snow Storm? Snow-Problem

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If you’re like me, you’ve finally dug out from the storm on the east coast. It was a big one for our area–over a foot fell by the time it was done and that’s a lot for the south! My attitude on snow is one of “meh” due to the fact that I grew up standing in a snow bank in upstate New York. A foot of snow is more like an inconvenience to me, but I do understand how it can shut a town down. This town is great, but lacks the infrastructure, equipment, and man power to take care of this kind of precipitation. I get it. Trust me. The grocery store was bare two days before and my hat goes off to the hard working employees there, in public works, and folks like farmers who still had to work no matter the outside conditions.

Having plenty of warning and time to prepare, the university shut down on Friday, the public transit shut down for two days, announcing it 24 hours in advance, and most local schools, businesses, and organizations also announced their closure. It was the perfect opportunity to also do the same. Shut down, reboot, and enjoy the solitude.

The power stayed on so all first world conveniences were at hand: a warm house, plenty to eat, a steady stream of internet and netflix, and time to not even feel obligated to leave the house. The solitude was almost deafening. Not a single person outside, not a single vehicle moving by, no noise. Only white noise from the snow.

The weather offered great pause for everyone I know to laze about without consequence or any feelings of guilt. Many of my friends and colleagues took work home but there’s something about that psychological freedom, that pure joy of having no where to be, no where to go, and knowing you can stand (or sit) still for a while. The greatest luxury of our pack of academics is to unplug and reboot. With the attachment we have to devices, work, and the lack of any kind of balance, a two day sno-cation was just what we all needed.

I baked, I cooked, I bought fancy charcuterie (also known as amazing salami) and ate it with some amazing NY cheddar I brought back with me, and didn’t shower for several days. Guilt free. I love snow so when it began to come down, I took the opportunity to trudge and shuffle up empty streets for about three miles each day and check out the world around me. It was wonderfully silent and still.

As I draft this, I’m back at my favorite coffee shop getting ready for another week but the two day break was delightful. Instead of worrying about what I had no control over, I took full advantage of the break. Town is back to the bustling place I know, more folks have dug themselves out and are pouring into the building, and I hope each of you were able to enjoy the snow as much as I did. It will be gone in a week, the weather forecast is very mild. Cheers to the next snow storm!

 

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