New Semester Blues

As a student – through most of graduate school – I loved the beginning of the new school year. New notebooks, new textbooks, I wasn’t behind on anything yet, and I’d get to see my friends every day again! Better still, the schedule was pretty light so it was still a few weeks before reality of schoolwork kicked in again.

These days, my feelings are more complex. At the beginning of a new semester, I don’t start with a blank slate. I have already done hours of preparation on classes, and a lot the work – grants, papers, research, conference submissions – doesn’t coincide with the school year. At the beginning of the new year, my schedule changes dramatically. No more rolling with a slower morning, things in my schedule that are written in stone: teaching is the big one. Seminars. Administrative roles kick in again, with their meetings for various committees. Graduate students have other commitments too, so expectations of them needs to be readjusted. Email traffic through my inbox will increase exponentially. And lot of the intensity is there from the outset – lectures need to be prepared, there is no up-ramp for committee work, and the rolling deadlines of grants, papers, conference submissions continues without a not to the academic year.

To be honest, right now I am finding the idea of the semester starting feels like an insurmountable mountain. I have new responsibilities, new opportunities, and new pressures piling on top of the ones from last year. Right now I can’t see the path I’m going to use. I know there is a path -I’ve climbed other mountains, and I have instructions. I even know that once I start climbing, I’ll focus on one step, one segment at a time and it will feel manageable again, most of the time. But now, with classes starting in less than a week, that’s not how it feels.

So how to deal with this? I don’t have a good answer. Or rather, I’m working on it. My strategy this year is to figure out exactly what needs to be done and wrangle it all onto a calendar. This is a much more detailed process than I’ve used in the past. One thing that helps is that I’m starting (slowly) to get better at knowing how long things take (lecture planning, for example) and knowing where I can skimp to make more time if necessary. So right now I am mapping out projects and deadlines, how they fit in with teaching and conferences already in my calendar. I’m trying to break some of these bigger projects down into smaller chunks to set my own deadlines to stay on track, just like I ask my students to do.

When I have done that what I have on my calendar scares me, and I know that there are things not yet scheduled in – like most of the meetings for a committee I am sitting on. There are things that are going to pop up – illness, a grad student in crisis, crucial pilot experiments not working. I know the flow of There are things that will take a heavier emotional toll than actual time – like submitting the packet for my third year review. I also know that where second year on the TT was orders of magnitude busier than first year, and third year is going to ramp it up again.

I also know that this year will be easier than the last two years in some fundamental ways. I know where to turn for help when issues do come up. I have taught the course I’m doing several times now, and the materials, pace, the kind of students that will be in the class are familiar to me. I’ve adjusted the assessments to make it more manageable for me, and I no longer feel even slightly bad about saying no to scheduling meetings in blocks of times that I have set aside for uninterrupted writing or research time. When I look at my calendar again (after some sleep, perhaps), I can see it in a different light – I can see all the things that are going to happen this year. Every individual thing on there is completely doable, and some of them are really very cool. Seeing my semester in that light makes it start to seem exciting.

On Tuesday, the semester officially starts. At that point, when I start actually climbing the mountain rather than staring at it and worrying, the energy and excitement will kick in. And until then, I will remind myself that I’ve GOT this. That it’s not the middle of a polar vortex like last semester, and that this time, this time I know what I’m doing.

I’d also love to hear everyone’s thoughts on, and strategies for, dealing with the new semester. Favorite resources for organizing the semester? Send them my way!

Guest Post: Overcoming “young upstart” status

Today’s post was contributed by Rachel Leventhal-Weiner, a Visiting Assistant Professor. Find her online @rglweiner and at her blog

As a sociologist, I might teach about inequality of various forms, yet I had not bumped up against any -isms recently.

Until a few weeks ago, I ran head on into some –isms in the workplace.

I was attending a faculty workshop on teaching and technology with several colleagues. There were two women (myself included) and two men in attendance. I enjoy the chance to be a student (that sense of enjoyment is what carried me through much of graduate school) and the opportunity to meet other folks at my institution, to hear about college business, and to think about new teaching strategies for my upcoming courses. I was pleased that the organizers allowed me to jump in at various points in our discussion to demonstrate my use of an application or to provide additional examples of a particular program because I love to teach. After my first contribution, a quick Evernote demo, two male colleagues remarked that I was “intense.”

Intense is one way to describe a cutthroat colleague. Intensity implies strength and perhaps rigidity or control, a person who is all business. I was unsure what I had said or done where I would represent myself as “intense.”

I shrugged off their evaluation and forged ahead.

Later that first day, one of those male colleagues asked me how I was finding the college. I replied that I valued the teaching experience and that I was finishing my second of three years. His response: a look of surprise followed by an equally surprised reply, “Oh, and you seem so invested in your students.”

Yes, sir. Yes, I am.

What other choice do I have but to be invested in my work? This work is, after all, the work that pays me every month. Shall I venture on to campus and disinvest in their education? Though I know this institution will not create an opportunity for me to continue to invest in my students beyond this year (the fate of the visiting professor), what else is there to do but dig in?

Another day, in another exchange about my work, the other male colleague remarked that my energy was “endearing.” And while I was eavesdropping on his conversation about me, I was also described as a “firecracker.”

Endearing is how I would describe a puppy, wiggly and slobbering. I would certainly not use “endearing” to describe an adult’s dedication to her work, to her students, and to her institution. And a firecracker? A firecracker is a young upstart, peppy and explosive.

These words rang in my ears all week. I wanted to be flattered, but I felt insulted. I even felt demeaned. For once, I wish I was considered to be serious, critical, or thoughtful.

It seems, though, that as a woman still navigating the early days of my career, I have few choices but to embody all of these qualities. I must be intense and invested while also endearing myself to my colleagues. I began to wonder if these colleagues would use the same lexicon for a male colleague or if men faced the same professional double standards.

If you had asked me to describe my professional identity ten years ago, I would have blushed at a description that included intense and endearing. After forgoing time and lost earnings on this new career, I cringe thinking that others perceive of me as just another hungry upstart.

Yet, I know that compartmentalizing my work persona and my home persona is something I struggle with, and allowing the messiness of my personal and professional lives to exist together interferes with my own professional success at times. To meet me in person, my own self-assessment is that I am often not taken seriously, that my bubbly nature and that my friendly affect are antithetical to the true nature of a serious scholar.

At my core, though, I am a teacher and a writer—those are my personal and professional identities. Put them together and I am a writer deeply committed to teaching my students to embrace their own identities through writing. Yet, I do not seek tenure because I would do what is expected of a tenured professor regardless of my status. So I understand how confusing I must seem to colleagues like these, to men who have walked the narrowly defined paths in higher education where tenured or longer-term appointments to the faculty were more easily attainable. The current arrangement of the faculty does not allow for someone like me, who walks the edges of the neatly defined paths, to move freely.

And so this year begins the year where I will teach like no one is watching. I have no choice but to embody this messy professional identity that fits me best, the one that is so confusing to my colleagues. To take risks, to push myself as an educator, and to plan for what I’ll do when this institution casts me out, because they will. And when they do, I simply hope that my colleagues will use powerful and creative words to describe my work.

Guest Post: Research, Teaching, Service…and Depression

I thought about blogging about having depression as an assistant professor for a long time. I had a sort of vague idea that since being depressed is something that is usually dealt with in silence, maybe sharing some of my own experiences would be helpful. But then I got scared; somehow it was a little too personal and low self-esteem would start to creep in: “What could I possibly have to say about depression that others haven’t said?” Then this semester happened and I witnessed first hand a post-doc and a brilliant undergraduate student have to take a semester of medical leave because of depression. This was when it hit me – we all have to start talking in a more open, honest and caring way about depression, mental illness, grief and similar conditions that most of us deal with at some point in our life. Continue reading

Location, Location, Location

My field has very few job openings each year, which means that if I hope to get a faculty position there is a high likelihood that it’s going to involve moving. This is hard enough for any academic, but being a queer person I have a number of extra considerations to take into account before accepting a position.

Continue reading

Have PhD, Will Travel?

I recently received feedback from multiple colleagues that frustrates me: they said I should be traveling more, particularly to give seminars at other universities. The idea is that, since I am coming up for tenure in three years, I should present my work to as wide an audience as I can in case any future tenure letter writers are in the audience. When I heard this from multiple sources, part of me thought, “Makes sense.” And part of me panicked: How can I possibly travel more than I already do?

In the last year, my husband (also an academic, but not in a travel-heavy field) has been away for 15 nights due to work-related travel, and I have been away for 49 nights for work-related travel. Continue reading

Developing curricula to accommodate reality

As I gear up for my second year of teaching I’m thinking about all the little logistical things that I can change about my classes to better accommodate the unique needs of my students and advisees. At my regional comprehensive college many of the students are non-traditional, first generation, and/or holding down multiple jobs. Over half of my students commute to campus, either from their parents’ houses in the outlying rural communities or from the nearest city. Some of them are in my age range and have children, and many are working 20-40 hours a week to support themselves and/or their families while keeping a full course load.

These students have more taking up their time, money, and energy than my college peers or those I taught in graduate school and during my postdocs. This means that many of my students didn’t have the time or money I expected students to have as I assigned books, readings, and group activities in my first year, which directly affected their ability to learn. One of my low points Fall semester was when a student came to meet with me after failing the midterm and admitted, in tears, that they hadn’t been able to afford the textbook so they were floundering. This experience and others has led me to a few realizations that will change the way I prepare my curricula and advise students: Continue reading

Professional Isolation

One of the reasons I work as adjunct faculty is that it is part-time, enabling me to spend more time at home with my kids and enjoy a more relaxed lifestyle than a full-time schedule would allow.  My average week involves two days of prep-work, which I do at home, and two mornings of in-class teaching.  On a good day, I have time for a run or hike, and some household errands before picking up my kids at 3:00.

There are upsides to working mostly from home:  no commute, I don’t panic if a sick child needs to stay home from school, and I can get some household chores done during breaks.  The downside about spending so little time on campus?  It can lead to severe professional isolation, a problem for many adjunct faculty, and something that is especially hard after living in the highly social world of graduate school. Continue reading