Tag Archives: perception of academia

Faculty Interrupted

2017-01-12-06-54-47

Hi there! Long time no write….I wish I had a better set of excuses but sadly, I don’t. I guess the quote is true, “life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans.” I made plans and then life happened.

Let’s see…since four months ago…..

  • another semester
  • a few more grants
  • promotion (yay!)
  • development trip to West Africa
  • holiday (that I spent in West Africa)
  • new semester
  • new class
  • new opportunities
  • adapt and change

Opportunity has been knocking and I’ve been answering. Probably more than I should but I’ve been answering nonetheless. Some great things have happened, the highlight is the promotion. After a semester of negotiating and working with my department head, it finally happened right before the end of the semester. I was and am elated. Being promoted from a contingent research faculty to a more permanent faculty member has been a goal for two years. The biggest difference to me is that I don’t worry every day about being a contingent faculty member. The stability alone was worth every ounce of effort the past few years. While it was always part of the ‘master plan,’ it was certainly not a guarantee and I find myself with more time to worry about doing my job instead of if I’ll have a job. Big difference.

I said “yes” to another development trip and left the day after Christmas for West Africa, returning the day the new semester began. Nothing like the last minute. The work was similar and very different to my trip to Nepal last year. I was teaching agribusiness curriculum and capacity building to college faculty to expand their programming to a masters level program. The country was painfully beautiful in so many ways and the work was hard and easy all at the same time. These are not vacations, these are hard work. The conditions alone sometimes seem impossible to many westerners and adapting to the situations is key. I have to hand it to my squad stateside and abroad for this one. I said “yes” on a shorter time frame, was asked to produce more curriculum before I left, and cut the holiday short with my family and friends at home. They always have my back and take good care of me. I even had a “why didn’t you pay us to live in your house?” moment while gone and a friend took the wheel and helped me manage my business after an online payment fail. It takes a village to keep me on the straight and narrow for sure.

Returning the day the semester began was really great and really terrible all at the same time. Besides exhaustion, I felt behind the game for almost two weeks. I did everything I could before I left and while in country, but if there’s no current, no internet, and no water-you don’t get much else done in a day in the US (maybe the water isn’t a big deal to class prep, but the other two are more important).

So, here we are. Halfway through the spring term. I’m teaching a new course, developing another, working on my scholarship, my pubs, and it’s grant season for me. As my position evolves, so does my place of work. A new funding model, new classifications of faculty, and other changes keep us all on our toes and adapting.

“It is not necessary to change. Survival is not mandatory.”

I’ll ry not to go four more months between posts. But I make zero promises ;~)

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What If We Quit Trying to Create Screensaver Moments?

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(that’s my desk, it’s not screen saver worthy)

The academy is fraught with misconceptions about old men with white hair who sit around all day smoking their pipe while wearing sweater vests and discussing philosophical questions in a cloud of smoke.

Sadly, about 90% of that is untrue. The sweater vests and the discussions are about the only two things in that statement that remain intact at all here in the academy. And maybe some old guys ;~)

Academia, like many professions, is built on notions and stereotypes that simply do not hold up anymore. As someone who sits in two worlds, I can say that these stereotypes are about as far from true as possible. I sit in the agriculture world too and trust me, it ain’t all stereotypes there either.

Instead of perpetuating these notions, it’s time to get real and quit trying to create screen saver moments for others.

  • We’re hustlers.
  • We’re entrepreneurs.
  • We’re teaching.
  • We’re advising.
  • We’re researching.
  • We’re publishing.
  • And we’re running.

Toward the next thing, toward the next grant, toward recruiting the next set of students, toward the next research project that’s unpaid but we hope will lead to something paid.

We are not sitting around chatting for long. The academy isn’t going to remain this stone thing in an ivory tower. It’s crumbling around us. Funding continues to be cut, pressure to increase enrollment is up, pressure to recruit, pressure to submit grants, pressure….Insert the song by Queen now.

Sometimes, it helps to have some real talk. I call it “come to jesus” talk and it means no disrespect to anyone but the tone is set. I had this talk with a grad student recently. He had failed. Failed miserably and instead of owning it, he tried to flee the scene of his ‘crime,’ doing no work. I let him think he was running for a week and then he had to face his own music.

And he got tears in his eyes.

I didn’t yell. I didn’t have to.

Continually creating a screen saver moment for him wasn’t going to work. He wasn’t going to learn. And if someone had taken a picture of our meeting, it would hardly be worthy of an instagram post.

But it was real.

Vivid, living, and in color. There were no rose colored glasses.

This semester, I encourage all of us to quit trying to create screen saver moments. For ourselves, for our students, for everyone. While there are accomplishments and victories to be celebrated, when we try and glamorize our hustle, we’re feeding into the stereotype I outlined in the first sentence of this post and academia is the polar opposite now.

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Reality vs. Perception in Academia

I put up this picture on facebook last week.  It made me laugh for a few reasons, hence putting up a photo.  It made me first think of elementary school and when you were bad, sometimes you had to sit in the hallway in a ‘naughty chair’ of just sit on the floor.  In truth, the office staff put it out because my office neighbor and I see a good number of students and sometimes we run late and they show up extra early, so she put out a chair so at least one could sit while waiting. I also realize that I have no nameplate as of yet and it’s my own fault.  I have not ordered one. Printing out my name on a piece of paper and taping it just seemed so much easier and cheaper.  I also just unpacked the last boxes about two weeks ago and considering I moved into this office in December of 2011, it was a long overdue task.  Again, my own fault for doing other things besides unpacking boxes, ordering a name plate or business cards (which I believe are antiquated but that’s for another day). Even my immediate boss noticed the unpacking had finished at our next meeting and he made a comment about it.  It takes me a while to get to this stuff.

Anyway, back to the chair.  So, I posted this photo.  A facebook friend commented on it and it got me thinking.  His comment was:

“I thought you worked at _____ not an online university. They should be able to get you a better waiting chair and at least a bigger piece of paper to put your name on.”

My comment back to him:

“While I don’t disagree w you, perhaps the publics perception of the state of academia is skewed.”

Perception of academics revolves around pipe smoking men in cardigan sweaters who wax on about philosophy while wearing loafers with tassels.  When I see one of these men, I will be sure to stop him and ask to take his photo.  I don’t know where this ideal began or who is still fostering it as reality but as I sit and stand to write this post I assure you I’m not male, I’m not wearing a cardigan sweater, and quite frankly: I can’t afford the loafers with the tassels. They’re probably not that comfortable anyway.

No folks, academia is NOT Ron Burgandy, we do not have many leather bound books and no office I’ve ever been in smells of rich mahogany and rarely do I see anyone laughing on the way out the door. It’s mostly of blood, sweat, and tears while on deadline and trying to make it home in time for a real meal with your family before bedtime. I would also argue that most online unversities (AKA: for profit) probably have nicer furniture than my university because they are in the business of turning a profit.  We could argue all day long and night about profit in R1’s like mine, but so far, I haven’t seen anyone ‘retire early’ or ‘hit the jackpot’ in academia.  Most of the faculty who I interact with all drive sensible cars, albeit the family ‘beater’ to get to campus and back. Their kids all go to public school because private school isn’t an option financially, and in most cases, consulting within the university rules is done to earn holiday money and vacation money and not to pad the 401K. I have yet to hear of any extravagant purchases, European holidays but instead I hear chatter of people who are saving to put a new roof on their house, pay off some tuition of their own from 20 years ago, and perhaps, throw a few bucks into a ‘just in case’ fund.  The undergraduate students are the ones who drive around campus in their BMW’s, Mercedes, and Land Rovers, and eat out regularly. The faculty can be spotted from a mile away with their lunch bags.

Public perception is skewed on what academia really is.  Some of it is our fault (academia). When your child visits our universities, we show them the best, we feed them the best, we give them shiny things along with the promise of a top notch education for a price.  We show them the nicest, newest dorms, let them eat all-you-can-eat buffet, and then show off our outstanding athletic facilities.  One could argue that good food and a great living space are important to an education.  I have yet to see a tour of students go through my office building, get marched through a dorm that is ‘older’ and is on slate to get remodeled, or anything of the sort.  The 70,000 seat football stadium and brand new, state of the art facilities trump academics.  They usually come third or fourth in the conversation.  So, what are we selling?  Lifestyle? Perceived wealth?  Convenience?  A meal plan where you can buy lobster?

The public thinks that academia has all of this ‘money.’ I put money in ” because it’s also smoke and mirrors.  The field of higher education (and education as a whole) took heart breaking cuts due to the poor recession.  Before you go screaming about politics, stop.  That’s not what this is turning into.  Whether you want to cry republican or democrat, it’s too late for that.  The damage is done.  It began a long time ago when standardized testing took off (mid 80’s) and then really catapulted into the spotlight with NCLB (mid 90’s) so all parties are to blame on this one.  Standardized tests drive education in the pre k-12 and now in higher education.  No one is left behind for sure when it comes to accountability. The public cries that academia has all of this money and let me be the first to tell you: no, it doesn’t.  Any time a faculty member is awarded a grant, the university takes anywhere from about 25%-65% of it and calls it ‘overhead.’ I have no idea where it goes, I can speculate, but I’m pretty sure my office furniture is particle board and the only thing made in the last decade is my computer.  The university distributes it to various outlets to cover costs that most faculty cannot even fathom.

So, let’s agree to disagree on any point that you didn’t like.  But, as a new faculty I would like it if you learned only one thing from this post:

Take the notion you have of academia in your head and erase it.  With the changing economy, changing population, and changing state of education, it will not look like the picture in your head ever again.  That’s not a bad thing either.  We are busy teaching your children for jobs we don’t know exist and we arm them with technical knowledge and foster them as human beings while they feel through their own identity.  It’s an exciting time to be in education, even if we don’t have nice furniture, name plates, or business cards.  I didn’t get into this field to get rich, be famous, or wear loafers.  I did get into this business to help students uncover their potential, help them become productive members of society, discover how students learn through research and scholarship, and make sure I can keep driving my trusty Toyota’s for a while. I may even pay off my student loans in the next 20 years but odds are I’ll still be paying them when my own kid(s) go to college.

As a new faculty, how do you handle questions or statements when people have a varied perception that your job is one thing, but is really another?

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