Dealing with a professional slump

"Fail" stampIf academic years had themes, then the theme for this academic year would be The Year of Failure.

Coming off of sabbatical, my plan for the year was get things out of the pipeline and into submission. I am working on three different projects currently: two research, and one curricular. The research projects I described last year in this post. The curricular project is a major undertaking related to continuing civic engagement projects beyond the lifetime of courses that I’m hoping to pilot next academic year. One of the research projects and the curricular project reached the point where it made sense to send them out into the world for review. So that’s what I did. The curricular project went out for review first for a fellowship, and then for a regional grant. I submitted the research project to a workshop where I thought it had decent odds for acceptance.

Everything has been summarily rejected. And in the case of the workshop paper, unnecessarily meanly rejected.

Rejection is hard. I have a fairly thick skin when it comes to criticism about my work. But the timing of these rejections, one after the other, and the spirit of the rejections (the mean reviews, not even making the waitlist for the fellowship), has hit me hard. Additionally, the curricular project is something that I feel very strongly about and invested in personally, that fills a definite need and hole, so the fact that I can’t convince funders of this fact is extra frustrating to me.

I half-jokingly asked my friends, “are ALL of my ideas REALLY that bad?” But that pretty much described my mental state late last week, when the workshop paper rejection came in. Usually, if something in one area of my professional life is not going well, I can fall back on a different project that is going better. It’s difficult to deal with the situation where everything is failing, all at once.

I’ve been through professional slumps many times before, so I know that these things are cyclical. I know this means I have not yet found the right way to tell the story of my work to outside critics, that I have not made them care about the importance of solving these problems, or the validity of my proposed solutions. I know that eventually, I will figure out a way to frame these stories in more compelling ways. And I know that negative feedback makes my work stronger. Usually. (But still, there is no reason to make hurtful comments in a review. You can disagree with someone’s premise or approach or results and do so politely and kindly, without name-calling and insults.)

I also have the privilege of tenure, and of being a full professor. If I go through a publishing slump that lasts a few years, nothing bad is going to happen to me. If this curricular project doesn’t get funded, I likely have the professional capital to identify resources at my institution to help me launch the project anyway.

And yet. Part of me still feels, maybe not panicked, but something close. Because there is a schedule that I think I should be publishing on, and I’ve fallen behind that pace. And part of me feels impatient, because I am so excited about these projects that I want to shout my results and plans from the rooftops. I want to share these things with others, now now now! (Patience is not my strong suit. Can you tell?)

So, after a weekend of wallowing in self-pity, I’m returning to action. I’m going to sit on the workshop paper for a few weeks until I figure out what my next move is. In the meantime, after submitting the workshop paper I went back to research project #2 and am making steady progress there, so I will try to move that closer to publication. And today, a day completely free of meetings and classes where I get to work at home, I will spend strategically planning out the steps for the curricular project, to move it forward sans funding.

(And maybe I’ll update my CV of Failures, too.)

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Residential colleges and the politics of snow days

Snowy backyard view

My view as I’m writing this post. It’s hard to tell in this picture, but the snow is still coming down heavily.

As is wont to happen occasionally at this time of year, we are currently in the midst of a pretty significant snowstorm. As I’m writing this, my city’s blanketed under 9+ inches of snow, while the city where I work, a half hour south of where I live, has over a foot of snow. All of which has fallen since about 7am.

Smartly, last night the city where I work called a snow day. Forecasts were calling for a foot of snow, and kids are bussed in from the outlying rural areas, so calling school off was a no-brainer. The city where I live had a scheduled no-school day today anyway, but called a snow day last night (calling off the no-school day programs and all after-school and evening activities) because of the weather forecast. Better to be safe than put kids and parents and staff in peril.

road conditions map

Road conditions right before I left campus this afternoon to head home. Light purple = bad news. Plus, by the time I hit the road, there were more purple “!” diamonds indicating accidents and spin-outs.

My institution is a residential campus. The president of the college lives,
literally, next door to my building. Conventional wisdom is that faculty and staff live within walking distance to campus. The majority of students live on campus, and those that don’t live nearby.

Close for snow? Why would we do that?

Oh sure, I received an email this morning around 7am indicating that “it’s up to faculty members as to whether they want to cancel class”. And letting me know that hey, there’s a way I can conduct class remotely! But, uh, I probably should have tested it out first, and oh yeah, we don’t have enough licenses to support the number of students in my class.

But the culture is that we’re here for our students, always and no matter what. And 10 weeks is an awfully short time anyway, so can we really afford to cancel class? Oh, and faculty really shouldn’t miss too many classes during the term. Well, I’m headed home for a funeral later this week, I’ll be at a conference for almost a week in February, and I’m missing another class day in March due to travel, so that’s 4 class days already I’m missing.

Snow on car

This is what greeted me when I left my office. This much snow fell in just over 4 hours.

So yeah, I drove down to campus this morning, and drove back pretty much right after my class this afternoon. Against my better judgment.

It took me about 45 minutes to drive to school this morning and just under an hour and a half to get home. It usually takes me 25 minutes door to door.

This afternoon, it was White Knuckle Driving the entire way. Zero visibility. Heavy falling snow. Roads that clearly had been plowed at some point, but where the snow drifted back over the road. At times, I wasn’t even sure I was on the road anymore. There was what looked like a really big accident on an interstate off-ramp near my house. A tow truck in the ditch somewhere else. And once I reached my neighborhood, streets that haven’t yet been plowed at all.

Close for snow? Why would we do that?

Whiteout conditions

Where’s the road?

While faculty received some, um, “guidance” on alternatives to holding class, it’s not clear what, if any, guidance staff were given. How many, and which, staff members were told it was ok to not come in? I imagine that the “don’t cancel class” culture that exists for faculty has a counterpart for staff, so I can imagine that the unstated pressure to come in exists on the staff side too. And I imagine that some staff, perhaps hourly staff, may not have had a choice. Or, if a choice exists, it entails burning a sick day or a vacation day, or not getting paid at all. And if you need, or want, to keep those for other reasons, or rely on that paycheck because your financial situation is precarious, maybe that choice is not a choice at all.

And let’s talk about child care. Many school districts were closed today. Are we supposed to bring our kids to campus in this storm? Isn’t that unsafe? And again, what about staff that can’t bring kids in to work (as I heard today) and don’t have an alternative? I have a spouse that could stay home, but I doubt my situation is the norm. Aren’t we putting faculty and staff, again, in a precarious position?

Feet in deep snow.

Glad I chose not to wear my usual teaching outfit of a dress and tights today, so that I could wade through the 12+ inches of snow surrounding my car.

Oh, and the conventional wisdom that faculty and staff live within walking distance of campus? Plenty of faculty and staff do not. We choose not to for many reasons. And even faculty and staff who technically do live within walking distance may choose not to walk in, or perhaps can’t because of physical limitations or other reasons. The city where I work closed down this afternoon. They halted mail delivery and all non-essential operations. Road and sidewalk conditions were plenty precarious in town. My guest speakers for today’s class had difficulties going 2 blocks from their previous meeting to the building where my class is held. So proximity to campus, for our students, staff, and faculty, also in this case does not provide any additional safety.

Close for snow? Why would we do that?

Today’s decision by my institution to remain open during a significant storm was foolish and dangerous. It reflects a view of college personnel’s life circumstances (local, child care at the ready, a degree of financial security) that is outdated and out of touch. And providing choices that for many are false choices, is not really a choice at all. I would love to see us rethink such decisions in the future, and be a bit wiser about faculty, staff, and student safety.

Grateful

It’s the day before the Thanksgiving holiday here in the US, and like most people today I’m pretending to work.

Whoops! I meant to say: I’m thinking about all the things I’m grateful for.

I could use this post to talk about all the obvious things I’m grateful for: wonderful friends, supportive colleagues, loving family, etc. But I thought it might be fun to write a post about some less-obvious things on my gratitude list.

So, here, a random list of three less-obvious things for which I am grateful:

  1. Meditation. I mentioned in my last post that I started meditating this summer, and how much it has changed my life, both work-wise and in my personal life. I never imagined that I was the meditating “type”, but now my day does not feel complete until and unless I meditate. 10 minutes each morning is enough to center me for the day, and I honestly think it makes me a better version of myself.
  2. Slack. Slack is a team communication platform. (Kind of like instant messaging on steroids, for those of you old enough to remember IM.) Our students have been using Slack for a bit, but I didn’t really use it until I went on sabbatical. Then, I used it as a way to keep in touch with my superhero lady gang/support group/close friends. This year, I’m using it extensively to keep up with my Comps groups. We’re also using it as a department to replace our normal “hallway conversations”, as a way to keep those of us with offices outside the building and everyone on leave in the loop. It’s easy to feel like an outsider when your office is literally all the way across campus from your colleagues, but Slack has pretty much eliminated that for me. (It’s also changed how we communicate as a department, but I’ll save that for another post.)
  3. Online communities. Some people find it weird to consider people you’ve never met in person as friends. To me, it seems like the most natural thing in the world, thanks to the online communities in which I take part. A group of amazing and powerful women and I trained virtually together for marathons in Fall 2016, and most of us still keep in touch. Turns out, we have much more in common than our love for running crazy long distances, and I’ve found these women to be invaluable sources of inspiration, non-judgmental listeners, and providers of well-timed comic relief. Dealing with my layoff from running has been easier thanks to the injured runners Facebook group I joined — the group provides a safe space to vent and whine and share those small victories and setbacks that happen when you’re coming back from injury. And this year I ponied up for an individual membership to NCFDD, which gives me access to faculty development resources and, best of all, a community of faculty who support and hold each other accountable for writing and generally making forward progress in research.

To all of you celebrating this weekend, have a wonderful Thanksgiving holiday, and hope you take some time to focus on the less-obvious things that make you grateful, too.

 

 

Reflecting on the transition back

As fall term comes to a close (our last day of classes was yesterday), I’ve been reflecting on my experience coming back from a year-long sabbatical.

Overall, the transition has been easier and less painful than I anticipated.

One of the big concerns I had was the loss of my “free” nights and weekends. While on sabbatical, I took weekends off (except for my Sunday night meeting), and only worked on weeknights occasionally. I worried that the sheer volume of work I’d be facing would translate into squeezing work in every night after the kids went to bed (thus skimping on sleep) and trying to squeeze work in on already-packed weekends.

Luckily, I’ve been able to mostly avoid working on the weekends, save for an hour or two on Sunday evenings, and my weekday evening workloads have been manageable. Yet I seem to get more done!

I credit a couple of things for this:

  • More deliberate scheduling of tasks. I’ve done the “put your writing/research time on your calendar” trick forever, and that helps me prioritize writing and research even during the craziest times of the term. I’ve started doing that with other things — blocking off time for class prep, or administrative tasks, for instance. In addition to providing more structure to my workday, it eliminates the worry over when certain things will get done.
  • Meditation. I started meditating this summer, at the suggestion of my therapist, as a way to manage my anxiety and depression. I know it is not for everyone, but it has worked wonders for me. In addition to helping with my anxiety and depression, I’ve found it easier to focus on one thing at a time — so when I’m working on something, I’m thinking only about that and not the million other things that I could also be doing at this particular time. Not surprisingly, this increased focus means I complete things more quickly, and my work is of higher quality.

The one thing I did not expect? My lack of stamina, mentally and physically.

Before sabbatical, most days I’d be able to power through mentally until the end of the day, before my energy started to wane. Now? By 3pm I’m EXHAUSTED, mentally and physically. And it feels like it takes me longer to recover from that exhaustion; taking a short break doesn’t help as much as it used to.

Perhaps this is partially due to our family’s schedule this fall, where I’m often picking up one or both kids after work and going straight to one or more sports practices or other evening activities. There’s no real downtime for me until later in the evening, so perhaps anticipating that, my mind shuts down early as a means of self-preservation?

Perhaps it’s because I got used to a different, more deliberate pace of working while on sabbatical, with some down time built in between tasks. Now, I often move right from one task to the next out of necessity — which means fewer mental and physical breaks over the course of a day.

Whatever the reason, it’s a pattern that’s persisted over the course of the term. I know that winter term will be even more hectic than fall term: we’re hiring (we’re hiring! come work with us!); I’ll be selecting a new cohort of Summer Science Fellows (and faculty research mentors) and helping our current cohort find summer positions; there’s lots of Comps stuff that happens winter term and I’ll be doubly hit with that as advisor to 3 groups and our department’s Comps organizer. And my family’s schedule is not going to get any less hectic this winter — in fact, my daughter is moving up an age group on her swim team, which means we’ll have to figure out how to get her to one additional practice per week, on top of everything else going on.

For me, the solution probably lies in finding ways to work downtime into my workday so that I don’t exhaust my cognitive resources early. And that’s something I’ll reflect on during our long break between fall term and winter term.

#AcWriMo 2017: Slaying my research demons

It’s November 1, which long time readers of this blog know means that it’s time once again for #AcWriMo! Academic Writing Month is the academic’s version of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Academics commit to 30 days of research progress of all types — getting articles/book chapters/book proposals/dissertations completed and/or out for review, starting a new project, completing a literature review, writing simulation code, etc.

I’ve been a long term participant in AcWriMo (2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016). Every year I think “maybe this is the year I skip it”, but every year I come back. There is something about the public accountability, the thrill of keeping research momentum going during a crazy busy time of the academic year, and the community that keeps me coming back. Even this year, when I have a daily writing practice that’s going rather well and projects that I’m making clear progress on.

This year, I’m using AcWriMo to not only make research progress, but also to confront some of my own research demons. You see, there’s this research project that I started on sabbatical — an interview project — that’s stalled. Yeah, part of it is because I’m busy, but a bigger part of it is because I have completely psyched myself out about it. I’m at the stage where I should be interviewing subjects that I’ve recruited, and I’ve stalled out on the recruiting stage. Because recruiting participants is Scary and it means I might have to Talk To People I Don’t Know or, worse, Ask People I Know And Like To Give Up Some Of Their Precious Free Time To Help Me. (And I hate asking people for help.)

But stalling out means that I probably missed out on an opportunity to submit this project to a Late Breaking Work track at CHI. And I am kicking myself because that would have been a primo opportunity to present this work, or at least get some early feedback.

So while I have some other projects I’m working on — a fellowship application due mid-month, a conference paper with a January deadline — I’m only going to specify one goal for this year’s AcWriMo. And that is to get back on track with this interview project. With one goal, I won’t be as tempted to work on my other projects as a means of avoidance, and prioritize them over the interview project. The interview project becomes the priority.

Here is what I plan to do this month:

  • Revamp the project timeline. Given I probably can’t make this late breaking work deadline, where is the next logical place to send this work? Preferably something with an early spring deadline. And then work backwards from there to figure out what to do each week.
  • Rethink my recruiting strategy. The way I’ve positioned this study is not working. I need to rethink how and where I’m recruiting subjects, and redo my “advertising campaign”.
  • Schedule and conduct some damn interviews already! I do have a few people who expressed interest in participating….er, months ago. I plan on following up and hopefully scheduling at least one interview by the end of the month.
  • Complete some of the writing on the eventual conference/workshop paper. There are sections I can draft — the intro, the methods, the lit review — that will save me lots of time later when deadlines loom.

As always, you can follow my progress (and others’ progress too) on Twitter, using #AcWriMo. And as always, I’ll have an update here at the end of the month on how I did.

Good luck to all of those participating! May the writing gods smile upon you.

Dealing with the circumstances you have, not the circumstances you want

Fall is my favorite time of year to run. The colors of the trees and grasses, and the angle of the sunlight, along with warm but comfortable temperatures, make running outside in September and early October a joy and a sensory delight. As the leaves fall and the temperatures drop, as we move from October to November, I enjoy the crisp air and the cooler temps — and the changing landscape too. I tend to do a lot of trail running in the fall, and my favorite marathon is also in the fall. Running in the fall is just a happy experience for me all around.

I thought about this all as I walked back across campus yesterday on an impossibly warm, beautifully sunny day. A perfect day for a run, especially a marathon training run. Which, according to my plan, was exactly how I’d be spending my September.

Instead, my thoughts centered on how happy I was to stand and teach for 70 minutes without foot pain. And when I’d be able to squeeze in my physical therapy exercises that night.

Yep, I’m injured.

I did 2 marathons within 8 months, the last one being in June. My body, surprisingly, handled the back-to-back training cycles like a champ. I optimistically registered for the Twin Cities Marathon in October — which would have been marathon #3 in the span of a year. I thought I was in good shape. I felt pretty good after the June marathon.

Then I went on vacation, right after that marathon. And walked around Disney World for 5 days.

For those of you who are not runners: this is probably the Worst Marathon Recovery Plan in the History of Humankind.

So, yeah, my body finally rebelled, and to make a long story short, I haven’t run since the end of July. Plantar fasciitis. My original plan to stop running for 2 weeks and “let my foot heal” morphed into “I need to drop out of the marathon” when my foot did not improve. Cue a doctor’s visit, a (thankfully) negative X-ray (no stress fracture!), and a round of PT that just got extended.

The good news is that I’m healing. The bad news is that I am the slowest healer in history. OK, not really. The bad news is that this seems to be a really, really stubborn bout of plantar fasciitis, and that it really does not want to leave my body.

Instead of running down sun-dappled trails, I’m swimming laps like a boss and riding my bike a lot more, including taking up a new pursuit: mountain biking. (At least that gets me out on the trails!) Doing PT exercises like it’s my job. Taping my foot for taekwondo and cursing the fact that the kicks I currently have to master for my next belt are jump side kicks, which involve both a heel strike to the bag (or board) and a heel strike to the ground when I land the jump. Ouch.

And exercising patience like I’ve never had to before, because this injury has no set in stone recovery timeline.

Patience has never been my strong suit, so this has been an especially difficult experience for me. And the stages of being injured resemble the 5 stages of grief. Right now I’ve mostly reached the acceptance stage, with occasional forays into the depression stage.

What’s helped is reminding myself that this is temporary. That the layoff from running allows me time to pursue other things that I haven’t had time to do. I love swimming, but that fell largely by the wayside when I started taekwondo because I couldn’t do the amount of running marathon training requires AND taekwondo several times a week AND swimming. I may now be slightly addicted to mountain biking, and can’t wait to spend the fall exploring new trails and honing my skills (and running into fewer trees). I wouldn’t have had time to develop these passions if I were still training for a marathon. And yeah, it’s not running, but…it’s still fun, and it still restores me.

Dealing with the reality I have, and not the reality I wanted or expected or planned for, is sometimes frustrating. But it’s also helping me accept myself better, and be more forgiving of myself. It’s reminding me that I can’t control everything, and that I’m much happier and better adjusted when I work with my circumstances and not against them. And that, perhaps, is the best lesson I can take away from this experience.

Now, about those PT exercises …..

Random thoughts, Friday before first day of classes edition

The week before classes is traditionally very busy. Lots of meetings, faculty retreat, Academic Fair, advising especially if you have first year advisees — not to mention, the rush to get everything ready for the first day of classes. And the busy-ness and franticness, I’m finding, is amped up to 11 (on a scale of 1-10) when you’re coming off sabbatical.

I’m finding a few things more challenging than usual:

  • Interacting with people. Oh, so many people! Comparatively at least, since I’m used to working by myself at home with only my cats for company. I’ve found I need a lot more alone time to recover after these encounters, more time than usual. Tuesday and yesterday afternoon were especially brutal — Tuesday because of faculty retreat (a half day filled with people! ack!), and yesterday due to a combination of meetings + Academic Fair (where first years can go and learn about the academic departments and services) without a break. Last night I could barely function or think. Good times.
  • Emails. Emails emails emails. I’m realizing I was spoiled on sabbatical: not only was I getting way fewer emails, but also I could ignore about 90% of the ones I did get. Not so anymore. I’ve fallen way behind on email processing this week, so in addition to the 1000 other tasks I have to do today to get ready for next week, I have to pencil in time to tackle at least the more pressing ones. And let’s not mention the Slack channels I’m on, where conversations have ramped up quite a bit in the last week.
  • Getting all the logistics in place for the term. This includes things like coordinating meetings with community and campus partners for our capstone projects, which affects the times and days of the week I meet with my capstone groups. And reserving lab space for in-class labs. And finding a meeting time and place for the science fellows seminar. Which, you guessed it, means lots of emails. Oh yeah, and figuring out office hours and blocking off time for research and class prep and and and …. ok, deep breaths.

I know that This Too Shall Pass and Everything Will Somehow Get Done By Monday. Deep breaths. Deep breaths. ….

* * *

I’m really enjoying my new office and my new building. My hallway consists of me, the director of our learning and teaching center, and the new writing program director. Lots of potential for great conversations and maybe projects with both. The Cinema and Media Studies/Music admin offices are across the hall, as well as CAMS and Music faculty offices and the Learning and Teaching Center. Being in such an interdisciplinary spot is going to be really interesting!

Our department has a Slack channel now, since we’re spread out (2 of us are in my building, and the rest are spread between 3 floors of another building), as a way of communicating small things and having small discussions/getting questions answered. I’m also getting used to the fact that my colleagues now call me on the phone to have once were quick hallway conversations. I’m used to ignoring my phone — I guess I can’t do that any longer.

I do hope the construction noise outside my window ends when classes start.

My building is 2 blocks from downtown, which means 2 blocks from coffee shops and the bagel place and restaurants and such. Plus there is a coffee shop in my building. I foresee a lot of coffee and bagels in my future this year. Perhaps I won’t be losing the Sabbatical 5 Pounds I gained last year. But, on the other hand, this means more interesting places to walk when I am feeling stir-crazy and need to clear my head.

* * *

And on that note, it’s back to class prep and email taming and all of the other Friday before classes start tasks. To all the Carls new and returning: see you on Monday, and have a fabulous fall term!