Welcome back to the blog, new readers and true believers. Lately it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it’s been.
Some of you might have little tickles in the back of your brain, vague memories of my last post on August 24, 2015. I was preparing to begin the next career adventure: a new faculty position in the University of Missouri’s Department of Communication. For the new fellow traveler, or for those needing a reminder, click here for the post. The first day of school is often a time of verdant optimism — it always has been for me. And so there I was, anticipating with enthusiasm my regular blog updates, chronicling this pivotal year of transition, reflecting on the challenges, rewards and discoveries of the sea change from tenured full professor and part-time administrator at a small liberal arts college to non-tenure-track teaching faculty at a flagship public research university.
And then life happened.
Doesn’t it always?
(Find out what happened after the jump!)
I anticipated that the switch from my previous workload — from four familiar classes per year and running a faculty development center to eight courses per year in basic areas I had not taught in over twelve years — would require some adjustments. What I only sort-of-but-not-realistically anticipated in the transition was the gestalt experience, comprised of the accumulated professional, social, cultural and personal variables associated with this transition. Of course, I usually did not reflect on these variables in this way as part of my day-to-day work life. I usually just came home exhausted — flopping down to eat the wrong things, rationalize away another workout, battling the kids over homework and decompressing with my video or card game of choice before finally going to bed way too late to be healthy.
(The current obsession, in case you’re interested, is Magic: The Gathering — a fun trading card game that feeds my inner geek and actually got me interacting with other people besides work colleagues and family. If you’re ever in Columbia and want to larn how to play, I’ll have the starter decks ready.)
Part of that routine did, in fact, involve some regular guilt that my involvement in Teaching Prof in Progress dwindled down to sharing interesting and useful online articles and resources via Facebook TPP and Twitter @TeachProfProg… which I will continue to do, by the way, in case you have found this curation service useful.
But now that first year is over, and it’s early summer, another time of verdant optimism. It helps that my academic year was followed up by a wonderful week at the Wakonse Conference for College Teaching, located in Shelby, Wisconsin in Camp Miniwanca on Lake Michigan — an amazing experience I highly recommend, and will blog about later this summer.
And here I am: back in WordPress, some quiet flexible time on my hands, as I enjoy the view from my deck and try to make sense of the year that was. That task is likely too large to achieve in one chunk, so I won’t try. I’ll start. And one of my two primary goals for this summer is to reestablish a writing routine for TPP as a way to continue my reflection on and unpacking of how I have grown — and not — as a teacher in the past year.
My other TPP goal for the summer: jumpstarting my motivation to read more in the areas of college teaching and faculty development with the establishment of the Teaching Prof in Progress Book Club on Goodreads, kicking off with a July discussion of Berg and Seeber’s The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. — but more on that in another post. [suspense point….!]
For now, I offer three insights I’ve gleaned from my first year at Mizzou after 14 years at Augustana College. This is by no means an exhaustive accounting of my year: I will likely work up more on each of these insights in the coming weeks, so that each post provides some focused reflection and useful related resources. More useful to you than one extended, long-winded bout of verbal diarrhea, I’m confident.
1. In faculty work in higher education, as in life, rhythms of time matter. We all know that the academic year has its typical periods of professional ebb and flow: the harried weeks of wrapping up summer projects and preparing for the teaching year in August; the energy and optimism at the starts of semesters; the crunch surrounding midterms and finals; the burnout in the final weeks of a semester; the enthusiastic professional and personal recalibration after spring commencement. I knew this as I made my transition, and also anticipated some serious need to adjust as I switched from a calendar of 10-week trimesters to 15-week semesters. But one can run into real trouble by counting solely on the academic calendar to explain the rhythms of work time — the “professional chronotype,” if you will.
I found that the new rhythms of the calendar mashed up with other important time shifts: the amount of time spent in the classroom (and in outside of class prep and grading) when one’s teaching load changes significantly; the times at which classes are held, and how they may differ from one year (or semester) to the next; the time it takes to get from home to work in back (related closely to my second point below); the time it takes to evaluate student work and provide meaningful feedback when the nature of courses and assignments change; changes in the scheduling of regular (and irregular) meetings.
Of course, as I will discuss on my third point below, changes in the rhythms of family time are inextricably implicated in changes in the rhythms of professional time. And since our work is done in this sack of meat and electricity we call a physical body (yes, even the work of the mind is physiological work, and teaching can be a draining physical performance), rhythms of time have a big impact in our physical, mental and emotional wellness. I’m not calling this a professional chronotype for nothing. So when the rhythms of professional (and personal) time change profoundly after fourteen years of a more-or-less predictable equilibrium? How does none months of jet lag sound?
2. In faculty work in higher education, as in life, social and cultural geographies matter. Just as our rhythms of professional time are important, so too our geographies of professional space. Part of this was easy for me to grasp: the differences in culture and social life on a campus of 115 acres to one that spans 1,262 acres seem obvious, and were somewhat familiar for one who transitioned from a small undergraduate college to an R1 for graduate school back during the Bush 41 administration (yikes!). It seemed as if the transition would be much easier — my department is, as it was, completely housed within one building on campus, where all my courses are taught save one section that is right across the street. No sweat, right?
But it’s the smaller scale changes of space can literally make a world of difference. Predictably, the layout and decor of new classrooms (the projector screen covers the whiteboard? the rows of tables are fixed in place, making small group work awkward? aw, man……) can force a teacher to adjust how they teach and interact with students… no small matter. Driving to work in 20 minutes of traffic feels very different than 5 minutes from door to door. Parking in a six (seven?) level parking garage feels different than parking in a small lot surrounded by the same familiar cars. A 15-20 minute hike to the library or the campus bookstore, as opposed to a two-minute stroll, means that I don’t frequent these resources nearly as often as I might.
And having an (admittedly sweet, with a corner view) office an entire floor above the offices of where the rest of your faculty colleagues are clustered feels profoundly different than having an office within a 5-10 second set of steps (or a healthy shout) from your colleagues. Don’t get me wrong — I enjoyed getting to know the few grad student TAs, adjunct professor and post-doc instructor in the offices surrounding mine. But for all the convenient building proximity, I really only saw the tenured and tenure-track faculty at department meetings and colloquia. I treasured the few times I was invited to lunch by some of these folks, as otherwise I would miss out getting to know them by the friendly chat that happens inevitably when you’re close by on the daily. Nine months later, I still don’t feel as if I really know most of them — and they don’t really know me — because one flight of steps can functionally feel like a world away.
3. In faculty work in higher education, as in life, life outside the job absolutely matters. Let me get this caveat out of the way: precious few of us capture that mysterious, elusive beast called “work – life balance.” At my previous institution it was a constant struggle, particularly as I got more involved in administrative work. My wife would worry — and occasionally be justifiably perturbed — that the long hours I spent in meetings, faculty review hearings, faculty workshops, evening and weekend events, were taking their toll on me. She and my mom were both relieved to realize that my new position would involve far less of an administrative and campus service commitment than my former one. (Alas, ’tis not to be for long, as I will become the Basic Course Director for my department’s Public Speaking class, supervising a couple dozen instructors serving about 2,500 students in just shy of 4 dozen sections per year. Oh well.) In any event, she and I both know that the academic’s work life is both more time-flexible and time-stressing than many other professions… and I kinda like the administrative stuff.
But when familiar rhythms and patterns at home change, adjustments can be tricky. My wife has discovered the realities of the faculty life in a very personal way, now that she has just completed her own first year on the tenure track at Mizzou. Her position is more traditional for an R1 institution than mine, involving lots of focus on research and writing, as well as the occasional late-day teaching of graduate students. Now it’s not just her adjusting to my variable schedule; I need to adjust to hers. And our kids need to adjust to both. The inevitable fact that this schedule changes every semester, and yet again during the summer, makes family relational dynamics interesting indeed. When does who supervise homework? When do we have dinner as a family? Do we have dinner as a family? Movie night? Date night? Weekend day trips?
Layer on to this my daughter’s start at a new middle school last August — a 7:20 AM start time means catching the bus at 6:45… meaning this dad is up at 6:00 each morning to start getting kids off to school. Before this year I had a decent routine of rising at 6:00 or 6:30 to grab a run or a gym workout with some colleagues and poker buddies before having to get the kids off to school. Not anymore. And do I have the energy to get up at 5:00 to work out before rousing the girl child one hour later? Or to do that workout in the afternoon, after work, instead? My quasi-jet-lagged body has said “No!” for about nine months now, which has been a bit awful for my waistline and energy level. And with two middle schoolers in the house (the boy child starts this fall), plus the allure of personal mobile media, a strange and troubling condition has evolved in which each member of our little clan holes up in our own zone, playing games or YouTubing or FaceTiming (and occasionally an adult will read). My wife and I have decided to try harder to engage our kids as a family more intentionally, because we all need it. A better life outside the job helps lower the stress of the job… and is presumably why we do any job in the first place.
Have I cracked the code or solved the puzzle on any of these three areas of realization? Nope. Far from it. But I’m working on it. And I know that many (most?) of my colleagues and friends out there are working on it, too. It’s my hope that this blog — and the associated social media and book club — will provide some perspectives and ideas for making all of this work. And not just for you, my faithful readers. For me as well.
How will we get there? I guess we’ll keep on truckin’…