Monday, October 20, 2008

Conference season

Well, I have enjoyed reading posts from academic (blog)friends facebooking and blogging about their fun in the New Mexico sun at the American Studies Association, whose conference ended Sunday. I might ordinarily be jealous, and I am sad that I missed out on drinks with Tenured Radical and Gay Prof, but I have plenty of conferences planned for the academic year.

I have disciplinary conferences, where I will interview candidates and be interviewed, as well as presenting papers and helping facilitate pre-conference sessions. I will also be presenting at research subject-specific conferences as well, sharing findings from a research project and recruiting participants in the next phase of study. All in all, I have (at last count) 5 conferences this year, with the potential for 2 more. (Damn, even writing that is freakin' horrible.)

I always tell younger faculty that professional conferences are (a) important to attend and (b) energy-sucking voids that should be chosen selectively and often avoided. How are these propositions simultaneously true? Well, here is my explanation...

Conferences are a great way to get to know your field. You need to learn the outlines of your discipline, the arguments and developments in your field, and the latest research related to your topic. You will need colleagues with whom you can do research and write in the future. Conferences are where you find out more about the discipline and meet prospective colleagues and mentors. If you go to or participate in sessions on your topics of interest, you can meet people who are more senior than you, learn about their research, and get them to know about your research. These senior colleagues are the people who will eventually read your tenure portfolios.

You can also cruise book tables of publishers in your field (and buy books cheap on the last day), do some amazing people-watching, get some free food and booze at receptions, visit with previous instructors and old friends, and perhaps even sight-see a little in fun, new places. A little time away from the old grind can be a very good thing; it is even better when there is room service. And with your part of the trip paid for by the school, you can bring the partner or family and make it a vacation.

That said, conferences can be a little too seductive. I know, you get to present, and that adds a line to your vitae! Of course, it isn't a line that counts much when compared to a publication. And parties are fun, but they often have lots of free-flowing booze, which can lead to lots of unfortunate interpersonal behaviors and comments made a little too loudly. I have had a colleague burst into tears in public because she was so drunk (nothing about the conversation warranted it), another get sexually harassed by a former mentor who was very drunk, another who drunkenly insulted someone at a reception for a school where she wanted a job, and I have heard tell of more inappropriate sexual liaisons at conferences than I could recount in one blog entry.

Yeah, alcohol has some major side effects. Seriously, if you plan to get really drunk at a professional conference, leave the damn hotel or only spend time with your oldest and best friends somewhere private!! Of course, I am the model of sobriety and propriety at these events...but I cannot tell you if that is because I don't like getting too drunk, I have plans for higher administration, I generally avoid embarrassing situations, or I just don't find that kind of behavior attractive in myself or others.

It is also important to note that going to conferences takes money, time, and energy. I have been lucky to be at schools that pay for most of my travel for conferences, especially if you are on the search committee, but many of my friends have very limited travel funds. Conferences can cost $1,500 or more, once you add in hotel rooms, airfare, registrations, and meals (even if you do Chinese takeout, Subway, and McDonalds). If you get $500 per conference, you are still sucking up $1,000 yourself. And even if you get a roommate and keep your meals to those provided by the conference (and you pack tupperware to steal food for later), it still costs a lot.

Conferences usually last 3-5 days, as well, and they won't tell you when you are presenting until after you have had to buy a plane ticket, so you usually wind up there most of the time. The days you spend at the conference are rarely days you get a lot of work done. Sure, you can grade on the plane, as long as you can keep your materials together and not lose a paper or two. And if you can put up with the inquiring looks from your seatmates, who often interrupt with questions about your discipline, jokes about how hard you grade, and so on. Imagine how much more work (writing and grading) you would get done with 3-5 days without interruptions by email or phone, staying in your own place with all of your writing resources available. Perhaps we should just tell people that we are going to a conference and just stay home!

Lastly, conferences are like vacations--fun to go on, but they require recovery time. You get home from a 4-day conference, and your family needs attention, your laundry is dirty, your work is still waiting for you, and you have TONS of unanswered emails and phone calls. And that is assuming that you actually get home! So many people have sat in airport terminals when their planes were delayed or cancelled, that almost none of them go home on the official "last day" anymore. They all want a day leeway, in case there is a snowstorm/ice-storm/tornado/hurricane/some other act of God. Nothing in worse than leaving your Monday class prep for your return on Sunday afternoon, only to find out that you will not be arriving until Monday at 8am wearing your old clothes. (Sigh.)

So, before you write the proposal for yet another conference, consider the following questions:

1. What benefits will you get from attending the conference?

2. Can you afford the expenses of money, time, and energy?

3. What is your agenda for the trip (contacts, experience presenting, relaxation) and how will you achieve it?

4. What is the best way to maximize the benefits for you while minimizing the costs?

Hopefully, by answering those questions, you might make better conference-going decisions. I wish you good luck in this conference season. My first conference is coming up soon, and, nonwithstanding all of the warnings listed above, I am happy and excited. I have plans with friends, get-togethers with family who live near the conference site, tons of interviews with potential candidates, a presentation or two, meetings, and an interview with a school who might hire me. Lots on my plate. We'll see how happy I am when I am coming home from the 5th conference of the year.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Fall break for administrators

Yes, it is that time again. The leaves are changing, the weather is beautiful, and the university has set aside several days for Fall Break.

Just so you know... fall break is for pussies weenies regular faculty. Those of us who are faculty-administrators have to come to campus and attend meetings on these days. (Not that I am bitter, or anything...)

So, here is what I suggest for administrators who have to go to the office over fall break...

Enjoy the hours of email-free, phone-free silence as the students and faculty are off vacationing.

Between responding to emails and writing some administrative documents, read some blogs and write a couple comments.

Plan a required meeting at a VERY nice restaurant. Make it a long, fun meeting with people you actually like.

End your day with a massage.

Bring in a surprise for the staff...a spread of bagels and cream cheese, some brownies, or a pizza party. Or spring for a massage therapist to come and do chair massages! (Share the massage wealth!)

Sneak out early and see a movie matinee. If you are in a college town like me, the theater will be pretty empty.

Even if you do not get as much work done as you could, you will still feel like an idiot superior virtuous for going to campus and doing some work.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

little bitty updates

Just a few small bullets on a sleepy Sunday evening:

  • The writing day seems to be working. Thank goodness! Data analysis progresses and writing is on track again. All hail the beloved mentor/friend and her sage and timely advice.

  • Stanley Fish makes me tired. Seriously. He should venture out of the humanities and join those of us in professional disciplines and social sciences once in a while. I am so glad he isn't my boss. And all props to Rachel Toor, who is clever and thoughtful and got herself a great gig with the Chronicle, but couldn't she find a woman to look up to? Stanley Fish, Stanley Crouch, and Stanley Hauerwas... testosterone-laden ego on a platter times three. I understand why they are attractive to her; after all, I was into Continental philosophy for years as an undergrad and grad student, and that is nothing but a tour of male ego. But perhaps she could stop looking to be a Stanley and model herself along the lines of an Eleanor or an Ella or even a Katha. Or maybe her essay just reinforces that Rachel isn't a lesbian feminist and I am.

  • The gf and I am so much wanting to meet a friend's young child that we may actually travel over the Thanksgiving holiday to their house. That is a BIG DEAL, because no less than 7 years ago, I pledged that I would never again travel for Thanksgiving. It is a terrible thing for an academic to do... it comes at the worst time in the semester (full of grading and end of semester minutiae), the flights and drives to and from the airport are subject to the whims of the worst weather, and EVERYONE IS FLYING!!! I hate that kind of rushed and busy travel, but the gf and I have so much going on that our visiting options are severely limited.

  • The annual job search/recruitment process is upon us, and I am playing the game on all sides once more. If nothing else, it is a major time drain... writing letters for doc students, researching schools for myself, reading CVs and cover letters, googling everything... Honestly, I am pleased that I get anything else accomplished.

  • Can I just say that, even though Dean Dad thinks that there may be an upside to the budget crunches we are facing, I think that academic administrative life is gonna suck bigtime for a very long time! More saying "No" to requests, more cutting, and less building and creating. And it won't be a short-term problem, limited to one area of the country with a specific economic profile. Nope, it is going to affect all of us in many ways for years to come. And it will be worse for those of us at public schools, facing cuts from our state legislators without a big endowment cushion to fall back on. I have been keeping my head down and hoping that all of these issues sort themselves out quickly, but I know that that perspective is delusional.

  • And, finally, I think the country is figuring out what I have known all along. Obama is gonna win, and he is gonna win big. He will remake the electoral map, upset the common wisdom of the last 20 years regarding the South and the Midwest, and perhaps help us get back to protecting civil rights and civil liberties, a fairer distribution of wealth, and actually working in tandem with other countries. Our next president will have a very difficult job, but I feel confident that Obama and the team he assembles will be able to make some positive changes.

Well, that's all from me. Hope you had a great weekend.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Learning from students

Here is a tip from the New York Times to you... You want to know about the culture and climate of the campus where you are applying to work? Check out

Unigo is a website collection of students' reviews of different colleges. Students submit written reviews of their campuses, outlining problems (parking and food are the common complaints) and strengths (e.g., attractive campus, school spirit, diverse campus). There are also pictures from campuses and video interviews with students.

Developed for students trying to decide where to go to college, the Unigo website is a good resource for academics. Administrators can find out about issues on our own campuses that we might want to address, and prospective applicants for positions can learn about schools before we apply to work there.

After a quick review of comments from my current and former schools, I would say that many of the comments are on the mark. And you can actually search for specific kinds of students (by major, race, gender, political leaning, and whether the student was a transfer student), if you want to know more. Further, you get a sense of some of the students you will be teaching.

My interest in this website may reflect my own predilections. I also like reading "rate my professors" entries for schools where I have worked, and those I am considering, as well. While I know that students who have gripes are more likely to write on RMP, I have found that there seem to be themes that tend to reflect accurately on the faculty. These student videos and blog entries on Unigo offer some real insights into student life, beyond the marketing brochures and catalogs offered by the school and the rosy pictures offered by current faculty who want you to take the job. If you can overlook some errors in grammar and spelling, you ought to add this tool to your job search process. All information is useful, right?

Check it out!

Thursday, October 02, 2008

In search of the promised land

It is that time again...the time where I look at job ads and consider whether or not to apply for a job elsewhere. It makes me have to ask some of the harder questions... What do I want? And what can I reasonably hope for in an academic administrative/faculty job? I mean, what is the best you can expect?

Counselors would tell me to think about the best possible situation. What would the perfect job look like? After some consideration, here is my list for dream job:
  • Offers opportunities for learning and advancement in administration

  • Affable and collaborative colleagues who neither spend much time arguing nor slough off administrative and service duties
  • Researchers in my area of research who are interested in collaboration (and preferably have their own funding)

  • Racially, ethnically, economically, and culturally diverse population (faculty, staff, and students)

  • Comfortable office with appropriate furnishings and electronics

  • Friendly and helpful support staff

  • Attractive and well-maintained campus

  • Excellent pay and a full array of benefits, including domestic partner benefits

  • A steady supply of supports and resources for professional development

  • An administration that values shared governance and the appropriate balance of research, teaching, and service in public education

  • Located in a town with good options for restaurants, healthcare, shopping, and cultural venues

  • Located in a setting close to family and friends--or with enough (new) close friends and a nearby airport to get to see (old) friends and family

  • A position in a large public university with a high level of research production and a reputation for positive relationships to the surrounding community and the larger state

Obviously, I can't probably have all of these elements. But which ones should be the source of compromise? Which can I give up and be okay, and which are the deal-breakers? Should I be more attentive to professional opportunities or personal quality of life issues?

Beyond just myself, I wonder: Do our professional and personal needs and expectations stay the same or change as we get older and more accomplished? And how do the needs of our partners and family fit in?

I have one friend who left a tenured position for a post-doc, just to be closer to family. I have another friend who decided that the depression associated with living in a cold location was worth getting out and starting all over on the tenure clock again. Other friends have refused to move, regardless of situation... the devil you know, and all that.

I have moved up several times--from a small program to a big program to an administrative job at bigger, better program. Each of my moves have been made for a variety of reasons, both personal and professional, but it had the benefit of looking professionally logical. As with my doctoral coursework, I followed a path that met my interests and took advantage of opportunities, but it wasn't exactly planned in advance. I sometimes worry about making a move that looks strange on paper, that doesn't make sense professionally but instead meets my personal (quality of life) needs.

At this stage, I feel more planful. I am in a great setting with fantastic colleagues and a good standard of living. I am well known and (I think) well respected here, if requests for university committee service is any indication.There is potential for growth opportunities here eventually, though not right now. My partner and I are comfortable here, if not deliriously happy. I do not have to move.

Yet, I am ready to move into a higher administrative role, and there is nothing here right now or in the near future. I want to look at positions--wherever they may be--that could benefit my professional development as an academic administrator, especially as I am the person in our family who makes significantly more money. I also am tired of being so far from family and friends, away from the culture my gf and I both love, so I constantly look for positions in that region of the country, even ones that are far from meeting my professional needs.

As I weigh these competing factors (staying put and hoping to move up from within, moving closer to home at a less than perfect job, looking for the best opportunity wherever it is), I am somewhat at a loss about this conundrum about balancing professional opportunity with quality of life. Do I stay put and try to wait for opportunities here, because the school is good, even if it is far from our friends and family? Do I consider good jobs in less than ideal settings that may even move us further away? Do I focus on quality of life and move into a less exciting job in a preferred setting, because if I don't, my partner and I will merely survive instead of thriving?

Will the Chronicle list my perfect job, please?

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Publishing and administration

It is becoming increasingly clear to me that those of us in "lower/middle administration," if you will, can lose our way as relates to progress on academic research and writing. It's not that I don't write; I write all the time. I just don't write enough for publication.

In the last 3 months, I have written the following:
  • newsletters
  • annual reports
  • meeting minutes
  • reports for faculty meetings
  • training materials for advisors
  • student handbook
  • program evaluation documents
  • marketing materials
  • letters to prospective and current students
  • reference letters for doctoral students on the market
  • Powerpoint presentations about our programs

After all of that writing, and many more projects that I can't think of off of the top of my head, I am tired. Sitting down to think through conceptual frameworks, data analysis, and thoughtful discussion sections seems hard to imagine.

I spoke to a Senior Administrator Mentor the other day about this dilemma and got the riot act:

Mentor: How is your publishing going?

Me: Well... (crickets)...

Mentor: Do you have a writing day?

Me: (meekly) No. I keep scheduling all these meetings everyday, so I don't have a specific writing day.

Mentor: Well, girl, get to it! Block off a day--or most of a day--just for writing. And no writing administrative stuff on those days! Only publishable writing on writing days. And you know you will get the other stuff done, because you always do.

Me: Yeah, that's true.

I used to have writing days back when I was a faculty member. I recommend it to all the junior faculty. "Put it on your calendar and consider it sacrosanct," I tell them sagely. It was a lot easier then, especially because I like to write in endless blocks of time... 7-10 hours in a row. My current schedule just doesn't allow for this. I have more meetings than non-admin faculty members can possibly imagine, and then there are the complications and emergencies that consistently arise. I wonder at those senior administrators who continue to publish. I only have a part-time administrative job, and it takes far more time and energy than I had expected.

So, following Mentor's advice, I have set aside one day a week, or two half-days a week, off limits for meetings or anything else. I am planning to spend that writing day out of the office, in hopes of avoiding the student issues and administrative minutia that can eat up my time. I have learned that I also cannot read blogs on that day, or check email more than once an hour, if I want to be productive. We'll see how I fare.

Any other suggestions for productivity?