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Dear Kerry Ann,

The recent political events in Ferguson (and beyond) have me consumed with injustice in the world. I'm located in an isolated location (there are no actual protests in my area) so I'm spending enormous amounts of time on Facebook and Twitter re-posting news, fighting with "friends" I've only recently learned hold racist views, and watching all things protest on TV. I have no energy for my work and fighting for justice feels like an immediate need (or at least way more important than the boring article I'm writing). But I'm not meeting the expectations my department has for publishing my research and I have a third-year review looming. Spending time on my writing feels privileged, careerist and positively decadent when other people are protesting in the streets. 

What should I do?

Passionate (But Not Productive) Assistant Professor

Dear Passionate,

I've been inundated the past two weeks with similar messages from tenure-track faculty members who are feeling the pain of recent events but unsure how to respond in ways that are effective and don't derail their productivity. In fact, the above email is a composite of several emails, which I combined to avoid identifying the individuals. Like most difficult situations there is no universally right (or wrong) answer, so let me suggest a few guiding questions for you to use as you make the right decision for you.

Take Stock of Your Current Productivity

Because you’re on the tenure track, I recommend first conducting a sober assessment of your current productivity. What are the publication expectations in your department for tenure and where do you currently stand relative to those expectations? If you’re on track or ahead of the game, move on to the next set of questions. If you’re behind then you need to seriously consider the consequences of any activity that will take you further off-track. Your time is finite, so taking additional time to engage in any resistance activities is time that will no longer be available for your research and writing. That means it’s time to get real with yourself about whether it makes sense to put yourself further in the hole or whether it’s time to reframe your writing. In other words, maybe it’s time to let your success be your resistance.

If you’re not meeting research expectations, ask yourself about the efficacy of your existing writing habits and time management strategies. Moments like these (when life puts unexpected opportunities in front of us) are when your productivity habits matter the most. Planning your semester, planning your week, and writing every day lead to the kind of steady productivity that provides for a wider range of choices and lower stress during upheaval (be it personal or societal). If you’re behind, then it’s time to recognize that the habits that got you through graduate school may not be the habits that lead to success on the tenure track and make some changes. In other words, if you’re still a binge-and-bust, deadline-driven writer, it may be time to sign off Twitter and Facebook and start investing that time in daily writing.

Do What Matters

Taking stock of your productivity clarifies how much time you have for engaging in protest activity. So the next question is, how do you choose what activity matters? I can’t help but observe a number of cognitive errors at work in conversations I’ve had over the past two weeks. I keep hearing repeatedly that: 1) Protesting in the streets is the only legitimate form of resistance, 2) Spending hours on social media preaching to those who already agree with you produces change, 3) Arguing with people who will never agree with you is an effective use of time and/or 4) If you’re not in the streets engaging in civil disobedience, nothing else matters. It’s as if there are only two choices in people’s minds: abandon your writing or sit behind your computer and compulsively engage social media.

Black-and-white thinking rarely leads us to the best decisions, so I want to encourage you to consider that there is a wide continuum of protest activities. What is meaningful and effective for you may be very different than it is for someone else. The good news is that movements are composed of a broad range of activity. I like to ask three questions when determining what activity matters: 1) What can I do that other people cannot do? 2) What can I do that will have the most impact? 3) How can I use my unique skills/talents/training in the time I have available?

Answering these questions can lead to a wide range of actions. For example, last week these questions led faculty I work with to the following activities:

  • Contributing money for bail for those engaging in direct action.
  • Drafting op-eds.
  • Writing blog posts.
  • Adjusting lessons plans to analyze the current events.
  • Supporting students in making thoughtful choices about their activity.
  • Organizing difficult conversations on campus.
  • Participating in campus protests.
  • Engaging in civil disobedience.
  • Reconceptualizing a current academic writing project.
  • Signing petitions.
  • Supporting other scholars who are impacted through conversation.

As you can see, answering these questions honestly led to a wide variety of activity. And all of the activities came from conscious and intentional choices by individuals as a reflection of their own gifts and talents and as a way of doing what matters. All of these examples are WORK (i.e., they take time and energy) in addition to your regular workload and will not be rewarded in your formal reviews. This is why it is critically important to be focused, strategic and intentional in how you invest your time.

Stay Healthy

Let’s be honest, the news of the past few weeks has triggered lots of powerful feelings: anger, fear, disappointment, sadness, grief, despair, and rage. These are all normal and healthy responses to injustice. And because of that, the final question I encourage you to consider is: What do you need to stay healthy during these times? Often, engaging in resistance activities is a productive direction for our emotions and can be a powerful means of processing and pushing back. That said, even when we choose meaningful action, there can still be residual emotion left over to deal with. It’s okay to scream, cry, and punch inanimate objects, as long as you don’t do so at work. You may also find that times like these require more sleep, exercise, loving physical contact and supportive conversation than other times. Ultimately, this is a collective stressor, so just be sure your coping mechanisms are healthy ones.

I hope the idea of asking yourself a series of questions is a helpful approach to determining how you can both remain productive and protest during this season. I welcome your questions, comments and concerns on my Facebook page.

In Peace and Productivity,

Kerry Ann Rockquemore, PhD


National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity



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