Thoughts on starting over on the first day of school.

Last week my two kids started the school year in a new state, in a new town, in new schools. Today, it’s my turn.

Well, for the most part. There have been a number of preliminary moves up to this point: acquiring the new office and the new e-mail address, meeting with my new department chair, attending start-of-the-year orientation meetings and barbecues for faculty. But today brings Zero Hour. After spending fourteen years at my previous small liberal arts college, departing as a tenured full professor with a slate of class preps in the can and administrative experience, today I begin the next stage of my career as a non-tenure-track teaching faculty member at an R1 flagship state university. I’m doubling my teaching load from last year, with courses I haven’t taught in over a decade. Even the calendar of the academic year is different. And I’m shaking in my boots.

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Listen to Ringo! Turn to your friends.

One of the truly irritating things about a career in academia is that it is invariably performed by human beings. Well, perhaps nearly  invariably — we all know that certain bionic colleague who seems to be able to do it all effortlessly, leaving the rest of us breathless and in awe.

No, that’s bunk — even the Six Million Dollar Faculty experience the same occasional crisis moments and more common feelings of fatigue, overwhelm, and panic. The job demands much, sometimes too much, and we’re just regular people with limits and limitations. And these moments of — what? inevitable humanity? — happen at every stage of the academic career, and never at an opportune moment. Usually at the worst moments, right? The days after midterms and finals with a stack of work to assess and students expecting grades. The looming deadline for a manuscript submission. The weeks of preparing for a tenure or promotion review. And then there’s the all-too-mundane yet all-too-human inevitabilities: illness, family concerns, conflicting obligations… you know, life stuff.

Where can we turn for the answer? Of course, you reply: Ringo Starr, and his friends.

Sometimes, the answer to the most complex personal problems can be as simple (and yet as profound) as the simplest pop song lyrics:

What do I do when my love is away
Does it worry you to be alone?
How do I feel by the end of the day
Are you sad because you’re on your own?

No, I get by with a little help from my friends…

Of course, in academia, this approach assumes that the friends are there — that you’ve taken the time and effort to cultivate collegial connections with the folks in your department and elsewhere. When you’re a new faculty member, of course, this requires reaching out for help making these connections: to department chairs, a faculty mentor, other senior faculty, more-senior junior faculty, the faculty development staff at your institution.

Even with the groundwork laid by a network of familiar and dependable colleagues, though, it still takes a certain strength to admit the need to reach out. The life of an academic can feel like a solitary one so much of the time; it can seem presumptuous, even inappropriate, to ask someone to cover your classes, shoulder some of your work, or even just take time from their own frenetic schedule to listen to you vent. But Nate Kreuter from Western Carolina University reminds us in Inside Higher Ed that we need to give ourselves permission to channel our inner Ringo, and seek the help we need.

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October 1, 2014

Sometimes we are overwhelmed. The forces of life converge, place us in a bind, and restrict our ability to do our jobs. We’ve all watched it happen to a friend or colleague. Perhaps many of us have experienced it for ourselves. In these moments, our work life can become secondary, and probably should become secondary in many cases.

We need, during these moments, to ask for help.

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