I’m big on reflection, for my students when I was still teaching, for the faculty I work with now and for myself post-burnout.
But we often just reflect on how things went last year or last semester, what was (un)successful, and where we need to make changes to aspects of our work in the coming year. Certainly useful retrospection, but are we going far enough? Are we giving ourselves the opportunity to move past the practical and tactical to really think about how we are aligning our work to our values and are meeting goals that go beyond productivity? To dig more deeply into what makes us present, engaged and alive in our work and life?
Brandy Simula has written about flourishing, both in terms of what flourishing in the academy means and how to protect that well-being, previously in this blog. She says, “The concept of flourishing doesn’t mean that we are happy every moment of every day, or that everything or even most things in our lives are going well. Flourishing instead means that we are able to connect to a sense of purpose, to experience self-acceptance and personal growth, and to cultivate our strengths and resilience on an ongoing basis, even in challenging circumstances.” But how do we know if we are, in fact, flourishing, especially in the face of so much upheaval in the world around us? One simple way is to take the extremely brief Flourishing Scale survey. But that only gives you a numeric score, not self-knowledge.
Since writing Agile Faculty: Practical Strategies for Managing Research, Service, and Teaching (2017, University of Chicago Press) and then experiencing significant, life-changing burnout, I’ve come to think about introspection and deep reflection as crucial to my career but also my self-knowledge and mental health. Not because I need to plan the next book or faculty development workshop, which are fun in and of themselves, but because I benefit, in my work, my life, my health, from this time to align values, actions and self.
How do you do this reflection?
One common tool that has been repurposed for reflection is the ubiquitous SWOT analysis created in the 1960s management culture. The acronym stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. While a useful tool in some cases, having weakness and threat called out so prominently can feed into the competition culture of higher ed in ways that can exacerbate stress, impostor syndrome and perfectionism. Not especially helpful outside the culture of academic capitalism, even when adapted as personal reflection.
Instead of SWOT, I offer the SOAR analysis. Like SWOT, the SOAR framework is also a two-by-two grid that shares two categories: strengths and opportunities. Rather than focusing then on weaknesses and threats, SOAR looks to aspirations and results, though in my version, I prefer thinking about resources instead of results.
When applying these categories in your reflective activity, they can pair into two areas of focus: strengths and resources are about the now and the existing, while aspirations and opportunities are about the possible, the goals, the desires, creating a well-rounded reflection to build on.
Consider these questions when using SOAR as a tool of introspection and reflection:
- Strengths—What are your greatest strengths? What are things you do easily that others find impressive? Where do you excel? When are you most engaged or likely to find a flow state? What are the accomplishments you are most proud of?
- Opportunities—What do you know or care about that you could expand on? What gaps exist where your unique perspective might add to knowledge? What chances for fruitful partnerships might exist? What threats might be out there that could be turned into opportunities?
- Aspirations—What are your most meaningful goals? What would success look like in the future? In what ways do you want to make a difference? What are you most motivated to do or know?
- Resources—What tools, knowledge and strategies do you already have that you can use in pursuit of your opportunities and aspirations? What additional resources can you call upon? Who might be able to support you in your efforts?
As you complete your reflective SOAR analysis, think about yourself holistically; the exercise doesn’t have to be all about work and career. What are your SOARs for your life, family, well-being, service to the community?
In my next post, we’ll build on the practice of reflection by thinking about values, featuring insights from my interviews with Drs. Katie Linder, Lindsay Masland and Cait Denial on my podcast, the agile academic.
Rebecca Pope-Ruark is the director of the Office of Faculty Professional Development at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. She is the host of the agile academic podcast for women in higher ed, and her forthcoming book, Unraveling Faculty Burnout: Pathways to Reckoning and Renewal, will be released by the Johns Hopkins University Press in September 2022.