It’s hard to believe that it’s already the second week of March! I’m not sure why, but there's something particularly frantic about the middle of the spring semester. When I look around, I see frazzled and exhausted new faculty running from one meeting, event, and/or job talk to the next. Every conversation includes lengthy descriptions about how tired they are, how far behind they feel, and how they don't know when (or how) they will ever catch up. And, of course, there’s lots of fantasizing about spring break and even more about the imagined bliss of the summer.
In the midst of particularly intense times of the academic year, it's easy to get caught up in the whirlwind of everyday departmental chaos and lose sight of the big picture. The problem with operating this way is that we can easily fall into old unproductive behavior patterns and short-term ways of thinking. If you’re living each day in crisis-management mode, it’s easy to forget to ask yourself if things have to be so chaotic, to seek advice from others, or to work toward creating solutions that will help you work smarter. In other words, Common Mistake New Faculty Make #8 is failing to create feedback loops you can rely on in tough times.
We all need consistent feedback (from ourselves and others) and the reality of academic life is that if you don’t proactively create feedback loops, you’re unlikely to get the type of information you need to take control of your work life, teach efficiently and well, and enjoy the job you’ve worked so long and hard to obtain. Sometimes this is referred to as a 360-degree feedback because you place yourself in the center and seek information about your performance and advice from those around you. That includes people who are above you (senior faculty) and below you (students) in your college’s organizational hierarchy. In other words, the middle of the semester is a great time to ask yourself and others:
- Am I on track?
- What's holding me back? and
- How can I make a positive change?
ARE YOU ON TRACK?
To answer this question, start by taking a look at your Spring Semester Goals. That’s right, go ahead and pull out that scrap of paper, post-it-note, napkin, memo pad, or whatever it was you wrote them on. The purpose of documenting your goals each semester is to give you a convenient tool to evaluate your progress. Once you have them in front of you, honestly assess your productivity. If you are ahead of schedule or right on track: congratulations! If you are behind schedule, that's fine. If you haven't made any progress whatsoever, that's OK too. This is not intended to be an exercise in scholarly self-flagellation. It's simply an opportunity to honestly assess your progress without any excessive criticism, judgment, or shame.
WHAT'S HOLDING YOU BACK?
If you are not satisfied with your progress, then identify what's holding you back. Personally, I'm slightly behind schedule, so I need to determine what exactly are my problems. Without identifying the problems, it's impossible to design effective solutions. I use this quick and easy format to identify what’s holding me back (it’s Julie Morgenstern’s  framework that I’ve adapted for academics):
The following types of errors occur when you are missing some relevant skill or technique such as:
- You haven't set aside a specific time for your research and writing
- You've set aside the wrong time to complete your work
- You have no idea how much time a particular research, writing, teaching, or service task takes and/or you consistently underestimate the time required to complete tasks
- You're the wrong person for the job (you think you have to do it all and that asking for help is a sign of weakness)
- The tasks you have set out are too complex (items like "finish my book" are on your to-do list)
- You can't remember what you have to do because you don't believe in lists or calendars
- Your space is disorganized so you can never find what you need when you need it
These are situations or environmental factors that are beyond your control. For example:
- You have an externally-imposed unrealistic workload
- A health problem limits your energy
- You are in a physical transition (moving offices)
- You are in a life transition (new baby, divorce, unexpected elder care)
- You are externally forced to work in an interruption-rich environment
- You have a disorganized person in your life who negatively impacts you (such as a chaotically driven spouse, boss, co-author, colleague, research team, client/patient/research participant, etc.)
- You work in a hostile environment (and end up spending a lot of time and energy dealing with excessive conflict)
These are the deeper issues that burst forth and keep you from moving forward every time you sit down to write:
- Feeling disempowered around research, writing, and/or your intellectual abilities
- Fear of downtime (during which you may have to deal with difficult issues like what you really want to do with your life and/or your relational problems)
- Needing to be a caretaker at the expense of your own needs (your helping others is out of balance so you feel resentful, unappreciated and overwhelmed)
- Fear of failure
- Fear of success
- Fear of disrupting the status quo and/or speaking truth to power
- Fear of completion
- Unrealistically high expectations
- A hyperactive inner critic, and/or
- Unclear goals and priorities
HOW CAN I MAKE A POSITIVE CHANGE?
Once you have identified what's holding you back, think of the most direct way to address these issues. You don't have to solve everything at once, but pick the greatest problem area and create a solution. For example, if you haven't written anything at all this semester, it may be because you haven't set aside a specific time each day for writing or you’re leaving writing until the end of the day. That's easy to fix! Just block out 30 – 60 minutes in your calendar every morning for writing, get your butt in a chair each day at the appointed time, and start writing. Maybe you’ve discovered that you’re way behind in your classes. Figure out if the problem is that you set unrealistic goals, you’re over-preparing and then have too much content for each class period, or maybe you’re spending too much time grading. If it's the goals, then revise them. If it's over-preparation, then reduce your lecture time and increase the students' engagement. And if it’s grading, either decrease the time you’re spending or the number of assignments. Better yet, ask your students for feedback and then use some of their suggestions! They will be happier and so will you.
Or maybe you’ve discovered you really want to be a __________ (insert community organizer, documentary filmmaker, wedding planner, journalist, or whatever...) and you're miserable as an academic. Well, that's important information to acknowledge and work with as well. It may be time to stop running yourself ragged and start creating an escape plan.
THIS WEEK'S CHALLENGE
This week, I challenge you to create a series of feedback loops by conducting several quick mid-semester evaluations:
- Find and review your Semester Goals
- Without criticism or judgment, honestly assess your progress and the likelihood you will meet your goals
- If you are on track, arrange a special treat for yourself this week -- you deserve it!
- If you are unhappy with your progress, take the time to identify what's holding you back. Based on your analysis, find at least one concrete way to move forward. Even if your problems are due mostly to external constraints, there are still many different strategies and techniques you can use to mitigate their negative impact.
- Give a quick and easy mid-semester evaluation in your classes by asking your students: 1) what do you like best about this class? 2) what do you like least about this class? and 3) what suggestions do you have for the rest of the semester? Report back in the following class and announce that you intend to implement suggestions X, Y and Z (choose the ones that reduce your preparation time).
- Take one of your mentors out for coffee and discuss your progress, problems, and concerns about your research productivity and teaching this semester. Ask for his/her advice about how to resolve the problems you are facing. Don’t forget to thank them for taking the time to meet with you and provide you with such valuable advice (they will be more likely to assist you in the future).
- If you find yourself reactive to the idea of mid-semester evaluations, gently and lovingly ask yourself WHY?
- Commit (or re-commit) yourself to writing 30-60 minutes every day.
- Express gratitude for the opportunity and privilege to do the work you do at this moment in time (even if you don't want to do it much longer).
I hope that this week brings each of you the strength to move through this difficult time of the semester, a spirit of gentleness as you evaluate your progress and identify your problems, and the creativity to create brilliant solutions that work for YOU.
Peace & Productivity,
Kerry Ann Rockquemore