Dear Mentors: Summer Sucked. Now What?

Feeling guilty and bummed that you weren't more productive over the summer? Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Anthony Ocampo provide advice for moving ahead successfully in the new academic year.

August 15, 2018
 
Istockphoto.com/erhui1979
 

Dear Mentors,

It happened again. The summer is over, and I didn’t meet any of my writing goals. I’ve done this every summer since graduate school, but now that I’m starting my second year on the tenure track, I feel like I’m digging a hole for myself. I could give lots of reasons why I didn’t write more, but right now I’m dreading my return to the campus next week, especially people asking me how my summer writing went. How can I not self-destruct again this semester?

Sincerely,

Summer Sucked. Now What?

Dear Summer Sucked,

First off, thanks for your honesty. Although it may feel like you are the only academic writer who didn’t meet their writing goals this summer, please know you are not alone. We hear from lots of faculty members this time of year who are feeling disappointed about their summer productivity. Disappointment is normal, but instead of focusing on how epically you’ve fallen, we would love to see you develop a healthy practice of getting back on the horse.

Faculty members feel disappointed in their summer writing for many reasons, including: setting unrealistically high goals, underestimating the time involved in high-quality academic writing, trying to do an entire year’s worth of writing in 12 weeks, excessive perfectionism, unresolved resistance to writing and/or the lack of structure in the summer months.

Now that you’re stepping into the new academic year, it’s important to shift focus: you should acknowledge and work with the rhythm of your fall term. (We can figure out how to manage a summer successfully next year.) For now, it’s important to note that you’re going to move quickly from unstructured days to highly structured days and from zero accountability to daily accountability for your teaching and service. What’s more, the demands on your time will increase exponentially. None of that will make writing easier, so you should make choices now that will change the outcomes for your fall term. We recommend taking the following steps.

Let go of guilt and shame. Because this isn’t your first time walking into August with unmet writing goals, you may experience strong feelings of guilt and shame. We want to encourage you to objectively assess what went wrong and then let go of any negative or debilitating emotions.

Maybe that means confiding in a trusted colleague about your feelings. Or maybe you need to go on a social media fast so you can stop comparing yourself to your colleagues (who, let’s be real, are probably only posting the good news, not the rejections). Holding on to such negative emotions won’t help you move forward and may keep you from experimenting with new skills this fall.

We’ve collectively supported over 4,000 faculty members (many of whom have been in your exact shoes) in becoming more productive as part of our Faculty Success Program. So we know that with the right tools you can make changes that will improve your writing productivity.

Sit down and make a plan. We say this repeatedly: every semester needs a plan. You already have a plan for your teaching (your syllabus), so why wouldn’t you make a strategic plan for your research, writing and personal heath? Unlike teaching and service, your writing and health have no daily accountability structures and are up to you to define, create and implement. And if you’re prone to making unrealistically high goals for your writing, the process of creating a semester plan will help you to develop realistic and time-bound expectations, as well as models and achievable goals. Whether that plan is on your Google Calendar or your office bulletin board, make sure you have one. Be the architect of your success!

Put writing support in place before the term begins. You’ve tried the go-it-alone strategy for your writing, and that didn’t help you meet your goals for the summer. So let’s not keep repeating what didn’t work and instead focus on experimenting with new strategies that may be more effective. We’ve observed that many tenure-track faculty members fall into the teaching trap or they overfunction on service. In other words, because teaching and service have high built-in accountability, they become daily priorities -- even if they are not the most important factor in tenure decisions.

Regrettably, writing doesn’t have built-in daily accountability (like classes, grading, meetings and committees). So we encourage you to choose an accountability structure for your writing that will make it feel as important as class prep and meetings. Approach your writing sessions with the same importance as a meeting with the dean. (You’d never just skip a meeting with your dean, right?) There are many different ways to create accountability structures, so choose one that is the best fit for your needs.

And don’t forget to build in accountability for your health and wellness, as they are inextricably related to your productivity, important to your long-term success and have no accountability unless you create it. That can be as simple as finding a walking or running buddy, presetting all of your annual health checkups for the semester now (before it begins), or scheduling a monthly massage.

Write every day. Ample evidence suggests that academics who write every day are more productive than those who wait for big blocks of time (that never seem to materialize). It does not sound like you are a daily writer, so why not commit to this experiment for one semester? You don’t need to read more about productive writing, visit forums on getting things done, overanalyze what “counts” as writing or do anything else that will serve as a sophisticated and time-consuming procrastination mechanism. Just block out at least 30 minutes in your day -- as early in the day as possible -- set a timer, sit still and write. (Pro tip: Stick to it for at least two weeks, and we promise you, the resistance will subside substantially!)

If possible, we encourage you to write in the morning. One of us -- Anthony -- makes sure to get in at least half an hour of writing during the morning on busy teaching days, even if it’s free writing or outlining a few thoughts for a paper. Doing that allows him to keep engaging with his writing ideas during the day, in his classroom discussions and in his hallway conversations with colleagues -- all of which allow him to hit the ground running the next day.

Create double dips. Many early-career faculty members fail to think creatively about how to maximize their time. We both love “double dips” that allow one activity to fulfill multiple requirements and create a win for us, a win for students and a win for our writing. Consider your teaching, research and service as three circles on a Venn diagram and start considering where the overlaps are that will allow you to double (or even triple) dip.

Here are a few double dips Anthony has used in the past year to integrate, for example, research and teaching or service and teaching:

  • Consider having your class read a draft of your work for one day of class. Students get involved in the process, you can test the material with a sample audience (which will make your editor happy) and you cut down on your teaching preparation time. Students love getting involved with the knowledge-production process.
  • Ask your class to attend the talks of your department’s job candidates. That gets your students engaged in the search, and they can provide feedback and learn about cutting-edge research in your field.
  • Invite the undergraduates or graduate students you are mentoring to present their research in your class. Whether they are preparing for a conference or a job talk, you are helping them develop their professional skills in a low-stakes environment, which will help boost their confidence. The bonus to you: one less lecture to prepare.

While these specific examples may or may not be appropriate to your discipline or institutional culture, they are intended to help get your creativity flowing. The real question is: How can you be innovative this year in creating double dips? We’re sure readers will have suggestions and ideas, and we encourage you to post them below in the comments section or add to our Facebook thread on this topic.

The bottom line is that you need to shift your mind-set if you are going to have a different semester than you’ve had before. Instead of buying in to the academic ethos of being overworked, overcommitted and exhausted all the time, consider adopting a framework of efficiency. That will allow you to be more present and effective. And it will make you feel fundamentally different in December than you do today.

Peace and productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, founder, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

Anthony Ocampo, associate professor, California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, director of campus workshops, National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity

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