First day of class

I’m sitting here in my office right now, with about 15 minutes to go before I head on down to meet my first class of the term.  For the first time in….well, ever….I actually feel pretty comfortable about my classes.  I feel a bit nervous (which is always a good thing), but not panicked or terrified as I usually do.

Part of this, I’m sure, is because I’m teaching two classes that I (a) love to teach and (b) have taught 3-4 times apiece.  Sure, I’m changing things up with assignments (both classes) and the order in which I’m covering the material (one class), but there is a certain level of comfort that comes with really knowing the material inside and out.  Or, at least, having a strong sense of what you know cold and what you need to brush up on before the fact.  There is also a certain amount of comfort that comes from knowing where the problematic areas for students will likely be, and planning in advance on addressing those issues.

But the other part is that, for the first time ever, I’m not under a microscope.  No one is observing my teaching.  These students will not be evaluating my teaching at some later date.  I’ve handed in my tenure materials, and so in a sense I’m finally free to do exactly what I want to do in the classroom.  And that is a feeling I’ve never had before.  For the first time, I truly feel fully in control of my classroom, and free to be totally authentic in my teaching.

I’m not sure yet how I’ll use this freedom, but I do know that I am very, very excited for this term to begin!

(Academic) New Years Resolutions

I’ve always thought of September as the start of the new year, probably because I’ve spent the better part of my life in school and thus my life flows more with the academic calendar than the actual calendar.  Which means that when it comes to resolutions, I tend to make them in September rather than in January.  Now that the summer is officially over (sob), it’s time to make some resolutions for the year.

I’m going up for tenure this year, which means I’m in a weird state of limbo.  After Friday, there will be nothing, absolutely nothing, I can do to influence my fate anymore:  it will be totally out of my hands until the decision comes down in December.  And it’s hard to be definitive about anything from a state of limbo.  Plus, I’m in a place where I actually feel comfortable with where I am professionally:  my research and teaching are pretty self-sustaining right now, and there’s nothing specific I want to or need to accomplish, so I’m happy to sort of let those proceed along without interference and let them take me where they will.

Which frees me up to think more holistically about how I work.  Not only “what do I do”, but “how much time and energy do I devote to work as opposed to other parts of my life” and “how effectively do I spend my work time” and “am I working in a way that allows me to enjoy and spend time on the other aspects of my life too”.  Given that I end every school year stressed out and burned out, and that I’ve let my job literally make me sick, I’d have to say that I’m probably not working effectively or sustainably.  Admittedly, it’s hard at a place like Carleton, where there are so many demands on our limited time and where everything is jammed into intense 10 week periods.  But what I’m doing now is clearly not working.

So this year I have one resolution:  To find the sweet spot in my own life that allows me to work productively and sustainably.  To figure out how to work effectively and efficiently and to make the time for my family and for taking care of myself.  To not end the term, or the school year, in a frenzied and frazzled state, but rather to work calmly, consistently and productively.  To find a balance that makes me happy and fulfilled, but still allows me to get my job done to my satisfaction.

It’s not going to be easy, and will require a lot of self-reflection and probably some serious examination of priorities.  But I know that for the sake of my sanity, I need to do this, and do it now.  So I’m committing to taking the time to put in the necessary work, even if it means letting a few other things slide.

What are your resolutions for the new school year?

Sunk costs

I go up for tenure this year (as in, right NOW), and as part of the hazing process, I have to write a prospectus.  A prospectus is kind of like a mongo personal statement/teaching philosophy/research statement/where do I see myself in ten years sort of thing, all in 10 pages or less.  Good times.  Anyway, as part of the writing of the prospectus, I’m reflecting on my past six years at Carleton, and particularly the last three or so since the third-year review.  Since I had a rather lengthy pre-tenure sabbatical, one of the things I have to discuss in my prospectus is how I spent this sabbatical time and how it helped my research.

The thing is, on paper, my sabbatical looks kind of like a failure.  I had a long list of things I meant to accomplish, that I really wanted and thought I needed to get done….and I did approximately none of those.  In fact, the one thing I spent the most time on during my sabbatical was working on a journal article that ultimately I never submitted.  F-A-I-L-U-R-E.

This got me thinking about “sunk costs”—time we spend on things that never see the light of day.  On paper, this journal article is a sunk cost, time and research energy I will never get back that didn’t ultimately pan out.  My research notebook is full of sunk costs:  things we tried that didn’t work, analyses we performed that didn’t yield conclusive results, sketches for systems never realized or implemented. Wastes of valuable research time which is all too precious of a commodity at a liberal arts college.

Except that my sunk costs, my failures, have a funny way of reinventing themselves as successes.  While I was writing that doomed journal article, I kept having to rerun analyses and rework some results, which ended up yielding some insights that got me unstuck from a totally different aspect of the project that I had given up as a dead end….and is now a conference paper.  The act of redoing the analyses also helped me refine some of my analysis methods and some of the ways I was looking at the data….which led to yet another conference paper.  And part of that doomed conference paper helped me with an invited paper I had to submit last week on very short notice….which, most likely, will be published this fall.

So now, I’m less likely to think of research failures as sunk costs, but as opportunities.  The failures, after all, are often way more interesting and fruitful than the successes.