• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Great Pieces of Advice I've Heard

Some useful nuggets picked up over the years.

September 12, 2019

The folks at the University of Venus blog on Inside Higher Ed did a piece a week or two ago on the best pieces of advice they had received. In the spirit of imitation as the sincerest form of flattery, I'll offer a few nuggets I've found useful over the years. Wise and worldly readers are invited to contribute their own.

"Turn it in. Make them tell you what's wrong with it." This was my grad school roommate, when I was angsting over the dissertation. He asked how many chapters I had; I said five. He asked how many I wanted to have; I said "well, five." He responded with "Turn it in. Make them tell you what's wrong with it." I did, and my advisor called to schedule the defense.

In retrospect, it was a kind and empowering version of "get over yourself." Perfectionism can be paralyzing; there's always some tweak you could make somewhere. As another professor once put it, "There are two kinds of dissertations in the world: done, and not done." A pretty good, but finished, dissertation beats a potentially great unfinished one every single time. I've since crafted this insight into a sort of blogger's ethos: if I post enough pieces, they don't all have to be good. The occasional clunker comes out in the wash. Perfectionism is for people with infinite time.

"You don't have to swing." This was from an exasperated coach watching my tragicomic attempts at batting, but it's relevant beyond baseball. If you watch major league games, sometimes you'll see excellent hitters decide not to swing at certain pitches even though they're in the strike zone. It's because they know their own capabilities well enough to know that nothing good will come of swinging at that particular pitch. They have enough faith in their own abilities to wait for a better pitch to hit. Sometimes you're better off waiting for the right pitch. Substitute "job" or "date" or "idea" for "pitch," and it still works.

"Don't respond until you've slept on it." This applies to nastygram emails received at night. For some reason, nighttime emails tend to be more vitriolic than daytime ones. (That's not meant as a challenge …) Sometimes you'll get one that, in the moment, seems to deserve a really aggressive response.

Don't do it. Get a good night's sleep, then face it when you're ready. That's especially true if you're in a position of authority. Usually, by the next day, I'm able to craft something that wouldn't be quite so mortifying if quoted in a deposition. At the very least, it can help distinguish an adrenaline-driven response from the actual substance of what needs to be said.

"Emails can be subpoenaed." Never forget this one. I've seen good people suffer career consequences for forgetting this one. Several years ago, at another college, a strange case came up that lent itself soooooooo temptingly to bad jokes that it took serious willpower not to write any of them. Within a week, lawyers on that case were poring through emails, looking for anything they could use. Sitting on the jokes -- and honestly, they were pretty good -- was one of my better career decisions. Everything on the record was squeaky clean. Mindreading tech isn't quite there yet, so my potential wisecracks stayed safely in my head. Relatedly …

"Just because you think it doesn't mean you have to say it." I'm always surprised when otherwise-bright people can't figure this one out.

"It's not about you." Anyone who doesn't grasp this intuitively should not be allowed in a position of authority. And that's all I'll say about that.

Wise and worldly readers, what would you add?



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