One of the most discomfiting moments of last semester came in my lab meeting in late November. I’d just submitted a big grant and we had gotten past a conference where my students presented preliminary results and research plans. I felt like celebrating. But we were also in the throes of the end of semester craziness. I asked the students to go around the table and tell the group what they’d accomplished during the semester and what they still wanted to get done. The first student quickly listed off about 5 things she wanted to accomplish before the end of the term. There was a long pause and then she managed to articulate one thing she’d accomplish already. I gently reminded her about the poster she’d presented only the week before. There was an “Oh yeah, there was that.” And what about the fellowship application she’d submitted a week before that? “Right, that too.” We moved on to the next student. She listed close to 10 things she wanted to get done before the term ended in 3 weeks. And then she tried to pass off to the next student. “But what did you accomplish?”, I queried. She said that she’d made a poster, but had to be prompted before she’d include instrumenting a field site and beginning data collection (a massive undertaking) in her list of things she’d achieved during the semester. We moved onto the third student…and the same thing happened. Even having watched me prompt her colleagues for their achievements, she still focused on the to-do list. And so it went.
Those few minutes have stuck with me, because I’m tremendously proud of what my students have gotten done in the few short months they’ve been in graduate school, but I’m also worried that I’m setting the wrong tone for them. Last semester was a one tough one for me; I was constantly rushing from one deadline to another. There were a lot of reasons why the semester got ugly and some of them were unique to that time period, but it’s not unique for me to be caught up in a whirl of “busyness.” I’m already feeling that way about this semester – and we haven’t even started classes yet. But I’m increasingly recognizing that feeling frantic all the time isn’t good for me and it’s not good for my family. What that moment in lab meeting showed me is that it doesn’t seem to be good for my students either.
I don’t think it’s just me – I think our whole academic culture is to blame. We are a culture of checking things off to-do lists. (I endorse a Remember the Milk pro subscription.) We are a culture that rewards productivity (MOAR grants, MOAR papers), regardless of how that productivity is achieved. We are a culture where boasting contests about who’s busier and who’s getting less sleep are not uncommon. We are a culture that rushes from one thing to the next, while multi-tasking, and never stops to celebrate what we’ve accomplished. I think that’s why my students found my prompt so hard.
Even if I miraculously achieve an entirely different ethos this semester and forever more, I won’t make much of a difference in the academic culture. But I will make a difference in my own life, in the life of my family, and maybe I’ll be a more reasonable role model for my students.
I don’t think I can really “un-busy” myself, but this year my goal is to be more purposeful in the endeavors I take on. If I’m going to be busy, I want it to be busy with things that are really important to me personally and to my career – which is a smaller number of things than I’ve been running around doing in past years. For me, this means focusing grant proposals on more core disciplinary funding opportunities, rather than stretching myself so much for interdisciplinary targets. It means focusing on tending the student and publications parts of my research conveyor belt. It means saying “NO.” And it means regularly taking a little bit of time to reflect on what I’ve gotten done and what it means to me. And to celebrate.
I don’t know how I’ll do with my plan… as I said, I’m already feeling a bit crazy before the term even officially starts… but I know two of the ways I’ll be measuring my success. At the end of this semester, what have my students and I accomplished? And, can we each articulate and celebrate our accomplishments without the shadow of the never-ending to-do list entering the conversation? And then I’ll take my students out for a celebration of all the amazing things we’ve done. Because we will…we are… doing amazing things. We all are. And I think we all deserve a moment to savor that thought.