When Things Fall Apart

Rob Weir discusses what to do when life intervenes in a major way in plans for your semester.

December 1, 2010

Those who don’t work in higher education often assume that professors only work a few hours per week and spend their non-classroom time doing whatever they want. Don’t we all wish that were true? Academics are jugglers, our arms wheeling circles of Indian clubs marked “Teaching,” “Advising,” “Scholarship,” “Planning,” “Service,” “Meetings,” “Intellectual Enrichment,” and “Personal Lives.” We don’t dig coal for a living, but most of us do work more hours than miners. Even when things go well, most of us are exhausted by the end of a semester and need down time to re-energize. But what do we do when things don’t go at all well? How do we set job priorities when things fall apart?

These are questions I had to ask myself this semester. As I write this column it is week 12 of a 15-week semester, and it’s the first time I can even pretend that I’m on top of things. This past summer I contracted pneumonia. It wasn’t life-threatening, and when I objectively place it on a list of the world’s great injustices, it barely registers. When I recovered — about two weeks before the opening of fall semester — I tried to shrug it off by making ironic remarks such as, “What kind of an idiot gets pneumonia in the summer?” My lame attempt at levity did little to mask the reality that my illness took a two-month chunk out of my normal planning routine. When September rolled around, I felt like the 12-year-old who had to go to summer school and never got to have any fun. Even worse, all the “work” I thought I had done during recuperation was worthless; it had the earmarks of having been completed by a mind that was as sharp as an anvil. How to proceed?

First of all, we must acknowledge that things will go wrong at some point(s) in our careers. If you are a person who has an ironclad blueprint of where you and your career need to be by a certain time, toss it immediately. Chances are good that your targets will be roughly as successful as the Five-Year Plans the former Soviet Union used to issue. My entry into teaching (1978) got delayed by four years because the stagflation of the U.S. economy meant that jobs were being severely trimmed. If you want to be in academia for the long haul, the first thing you need to be is enormously flexible. An acquaintance had a far more heart-wrenching dilemma than I. She chose to stay at a community college rather than take a job several time zones west because she needed to be nearby to deal with her mother’s slow demise from Alzheimer’s disease. That wasn’t in the plan; it was just the reality.

Family … illness … quality of life…. Those are long-term decisions we must all consider, but what do we do if we’re staring at short-term challenges? The first thing is to learn a word that academics are notoriously loath to utter: “No.” We academics love to complain about our workloads, but in truth many of us are jugglers as much by choice as necessity. We live in our minds; consequently we are total suckers for projects that strike us as “interesting.” When things fall apart the very first thing we must do is say no to future projects and, if possible, beg off those we have no realistic chance of completing. Have you agreed to do a book review by December 1? As a journal editor I’d much rather you tell me on November 1 that you can’t do it than force me to track you down December 20 and ask why I don’t have the review. Have you been contacted for a project you’d really like to take on? Don’t.

There are tons of things to which we can and should say no if circumstances beyond our control dictate. By this time of the semester I have usually attended a dozen talks and seminars; this fall I’ve been to just a handful. By November 1, I’ve usually gone to three conferences; this year I only went to one and I wouldn’t have gone to it except that I’m the executive secretary of the organization sponsoring it. I’ve usually updated the organization’s website by now, but it won’t happen until January this time around. Such decisions were not easy; they were necessary. I could say no to writing for Inside Higher Ed this fall and did so — not because I wanted to, but because I literally had no spare time.

Setting priorities is essential. Those who are seeking tenure or who are devoted to research university careers may disagree, but in my mind the first club we should grab from the air is the one labeled “Teaching.” If you have limited time and energy, make sure your classes get the bulk of it. In most places it’s easier to get a one-time tenure review extension than it is to recover from horrible teaching reviews. (Teaching reviews, at last, are starting to weigh just as heavily as scholarship at research universities, and they always were number one at most non-research institutions.) Take a hard look at all the things you do and only do the things you must. Can you be removed from a committee or two? Make it so. Must you go to every meeting? Skip those you can. Are you part of informal groups? Explain your absence, but be absent. Do you have a freelance career outside the university? Put it on hold.

Another useful shift during difficult times is learning the difference between good and good enough. This is hard for academics. We are, simultaneously, perfectionists who don’t believe in perfection. If pressed to describe what academics do, I say that we bring to bear our critical training to frame, research, revise, and reframe. I like to prepare lessons and articles early and tinker with them constantly until the very moment I deliver them. I’ve been known to rewrite most of a sixty-minute lecture on the twenty-minute bus ride to campus. Not this semester! Last week I attained what will be my semester’s biggest achievement — I finished the last lesson plan for the fall semester. I’ve done way more backpedaling than tinkering, and I simply must accept that my lessons are as good as they can be given the circumstances, not as good as I’d like them to be.

The latter point leads to another suggestion: tap into your confidence reserves. One thing I’ve re-learned this fall is that I’m plenty good enough to handle my teaching demands. When one is pressed for time, it’s simply foolish to waste any of it being paranoid. We need to go into each class confident that we are — with very rare exceptions — the smartest person in the room. If you find, as I have, that you are merely one lesson ahead of your students, you need to trust that this is okay and that you will still impart considerable knowledge. Maybe it won’t be as extensive or as clear as it might be, but it will be still be much more than it would be if students were left to their own devices.

My final slice of advice is this: Don’t tell me you can’t cut back anywhere. The reality is that you must, even if your choices are Hobbesian. I learned another hard lesson this summer: one can either make hard choices or life will make them for you. I am a doctor’s nightmare — a bad patient because I lack the essential qualification for being a good one: patience. In July I unilaterally decided that three weeks was plenty of recovery time. I even scheduled a small vacation. Need I tell you that this did not turn out well? By refusing to scale back and take all the time I needed, I ended up requiring greater more time. And therein lies the most bitter lesson of all. Misfortune is a harsh mistress who does not care what’s on our calendars, how many duties we have, or how irreplaceable we deem ourselves to be. She is to be obeyed, not resisted.


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